Rating: ★★★★☆

There aren’t many games that require a specific set of environmental parameters be met in order to fully engross yourself in their effect. It’s unlikely you’re able (or willing) to put yourself in the middle of a live fire zone just to experience the intensity of a military shooter; or—perhaps a more practical example—you probably wouldn’t bring a sports sim to your favorite team’s home game, right? Doubtful. (Though, the Seattle Mariners do invite and encourage you to truck a DS to Safeco Field.)

Yet, then there are suspense and horror games. It’s relatively easy to access that kind of creeping fear they aspire to invoke by simply flipping a switch, so it’s no wonder, between unexpected hazards and unsettling imagery, a series like Resident Evil or Silent Hill is able to resonate so well. With their 2008 success, Dead Space, Visceral Games justifiably became a noteworthy studio able to frighten any with a wandering imagination. Now three years into both the real-world and in-game future, under the right circumstances, their sequel, unsurprisingly entitled Dead Space 2, somewhat improves upon—if only barely—but doesn’t outdo Isaac Clarke’s debut.

As the above is meant to illustrate, it should be extremely clear that, like most environmentally focused adventures, Dead Space 2 draws its most evocative strengths from its atmospheric design. Though I’m sure not everyone has a dark, 5.1-infused setup accessible on a whim, know that the game is utterly, completely, without-a-doubt best enjoyed under optimal physical settings. Toy with the in-game menus all you want, but realize that scares are least likely to creep into your gut without anything short of a pitch black room and an enriched, enveloping soundstage.

It may look like I’m overplaying the importance of your living or gaming room’s ambiance, but like Clarke’s first encounter with the Marker and its necromorph plague, Dead Space 2 relies on inherently cheap surprises to curdle your blood. That’s not belittling the insidious animations with which new classes of enemies like the “Pack” or “Crawler” have frighteningly been imbued, but the more unaware of your actual surrounds you are, the more foreboding the Sprawl becomes. Playing late into the night deceives you into believing Isaac is somehow an extension of yourself, and any threat to his glowing RIG will have catastrophic impacts on your physical well-being. Putting him to rest in the middle of the night at any of the graciously numerous Save points, placed throughout seamlessly cut-together chapters, turns the virtual yaws, creaks, and flurries of necromorph screams into conjured nightmares.

Simply put, with superb art direction, graphical fidelity and sound engineering, Dead Space 2 is a treat for any who want to immerse themselves in a digital world. The linear story may have you double back through places you’ve already survived, and this corridor may look exactly the same as that one, but the overarching staging is more varied and better put together than before, thanks, in part, to reworked zero-gravity sections. Space plays like space this time around, freely navigated via stabilization thrusters on newly designed, sleeker armored suits.

Though once completed or played in the light of day, there is a distinct shift in emotive quality. Unsuspected lurches from hunting enemies and horrifically empty rooms keep you tip-toeing forward in a game where you can sprint—at first. A second playthrough with a New Game-plus, however, shows off how Visceral is able to hide a fairly typical action romp beneath a vale of dimly lit corridors. Lurking necromorphs follow their prescribed queues; the few puzzle elements there are require little planning; and there aren’t any memorably challenging encounters (i.e. bosses). There is an incentive to play on harder difficulties to buy and power up new armor and weaponry, or horde PSN Trophies and XBL Achievements; but without that element of the unknown or ominous adversary, the strategic dismemberment action doesn’t carry itself as successfully.

Most of this struggle might find itself removed from the equation if Isaac’s characterization was effectively brought to the forefront. While the trend of muting lead roles in games to let the player feel like they are their avatar is often a misguided attempt at immersion, it worked in Dead Space. Isaac Clarke was thrust into a paranormal situation where escape and survival were the goals while a mystery unraveled through the journey. His wife was a casualty aboard the USG Ishimura, but the player wasn’t bogged down with sap or happy endings.

The same doesn’t ring true once Isaac finds a voice in 2. Manifestations of his dead wife plague him…scary images of Nicole…three years after the incident on Aegis VII Isaac is picked up by EarthGov…there’s some experiment on one of Saturn’s moons…

Honestly, keeping track of what’s going in the game is a bit of nightmare in itself. Clarke’s interactions with other characters don’t amount to any kind of appreciable pathos from short, exclamatory throes, and what’s meant to be a sympathetic internal struggle with Nicole’s death is lost in nigh unintelligible dialogue mixes from her possessed apparition (disregard the above praise of the audio engineering for just a moment). Furthermore, companions appear and die off with little exposition or tact. Without the rich supplementing artifacts or moments, the story side of the sequel doesn’t piece together as well as the events on Aegis VII.

You don’t have to look far to figure out why this might be, however. An EA subsidiary, Visceral is following the giant’s push to supply multiplayer content. In Dead Space 2, this takes form as a humans-versus-necromorphs competitive element. It’s not like the execution of the objective-based competition is bad, with the mutated spawn trying to prevent humans from activating various checkpoints in a handful of maps—it’s just unnecessary, and not exciting when compared to something like Brotherhood‘s relatively ingenious triumph. The novelty of controlling a wall-crawling necromorph fades all too quickly. There are levels to gain, upgrades to unlock, and customizations to be done in a setup that necessitates teamwork. Making people work together and communicate is a nice thought, but not when most cobbled-together lobbies are full of lone wolves without microphones and expletive-obsessed, everything-phobic team killers.

It’s unfortunate more attention and resources couldn’t have been dedicated to the core package, the single-player experience. Lights OFF, volume UP: Dead Space 2 is a thrilling scripted affair that lasts a fair 8 hours or so, the right amount of time given the various directions in which it departs. As a sequel, it’s missing some of things which made the first game so balanced, but even then Visceral are able to keep you surprised.

Undoubtedly, PS3 players get the best deal at purchase: A visually upgraded Dead Space: Extraction comes packed in on the single Blu-ray disc (albeit as a hefty 3GB-plus install); while 360 owners are left with only the lukewarm multiplayer and two DVDs to flip-flop between. Both can be purchased through Amazon for $54.96 (reviewed). All platforms have the option of upgrading to a Collector’s Edition, complete with mock Plasma Cutter for $79.54.

There are also Standard ($56.99) and Collector ($69.82) PC versions.

Chris Matel