Isaac Clarke, the central character from 2008’s Dead Space, is sadistically forced to relive the nightmare he survived in the first game, the same way Ripley does in James Cameron’s Aliens. His oh-no-not-again goal: to cautiously explore yet another haunted house in space all by his lonesome.
Over the course of Dead Space 2, Clarke is ostensibly unraveling the mystery behind The Marker—that gargantuan alien knickknack that causes sane people to write grammatically correct messages in blood on all nearby surfaces (stage one) before turning into Necromorphs, flesh-craving zombies with long, skinny appendages (stage two). But Clarke spends most of this sequel going on semi-pointless fetch-quests while getting into the occasional scrape with those zombies.
It’s heartbreaking how predictable the Necromorphs have become. In the original, they felt original. They were primal, savage entities whose sudden appearance generated large amounts of palm sweat. In Dead Space 2, it feels as if they’ve all read a manual titled How To Be Good Necromorphs. (1. Loiter in vents. 2. Wait until Clarke is nearby. 3. Burst from vents while hooting/screaming. 4. Run directly at Clarke while waving arms. 5. Eat him if possible.) Their shock value is largely gone, and encounters with them in Dead Space 2 are pedestrian and annoying.
There’s one marvelous exception. Near the game’s midpoint, Isaac encounters a new type of Necromorph that hides in the shadows, observing and emitting bird-like cooing sounds, then charging headlong. Palm-sweat production rates triple during these encounters.
Making Isaac the hunted instead of the hunter, and not simply pitting him against some oversized brute with shoot-me-here yellow sacks on its shoulders, makes for a thrilling role-reversal. Unfortunately, after this encounter, the game returns to its predictable rhythms. Dead Space 2 isn’t bad, it simply isn’t the evolution it should or could have been. By the time the closing credits roll, don’t be surprised if the only dead space you’re feeling is the one in the middle of your chest.