Some games elicit fear in their player through ambience: the hollow grumble of a cello, a mortal cry for help daubed in blood on a wall, a rocking horse swaying in an unfamiliar breeze as an unseen child sings a nursery rhyme.
Other games engender fear through brute shocks: sudden power failures that rob you of a sense, floorboards which give way in showers of splinters, monsters who burst through walls you had ticked off as safe in your subconscious.
Then there are those games which unsettle the player by restraining their reach into the world. There's a limit to the amount of ammunition or health packs which can be carried at any given time. Save points are spread out between long tightropes of danger. Walls close in, creating a sense of claustrophobia and panic when trying to line up a headshot in a confined space.
Dead Space 2 does all of this.
If you fear the unknown, you can approach the sequel to Visceral Games' galactic survival horror with some confidence. We may be three years from the hellish events experienced on board the USG Ishimura but in most meaningful ways, Dead Space 2 picks up at the moment its predecessor ended. Taking its cues from Event Horizon, Resident Evil 4 and Doom 3, it's a rollercoaster ride.
Once again you step into the shoes of engineer hero Isaac Clarke. Having chased the promise of his lost girlfriend in the first game, he is now chased by her ghost. She invades your consciousness, eyes swapped out for white beams of light, ghoulish hands as cloying as her melancholy dialogue.
Her presence in the game not only enables the game's designers to shock you with quiet-quiet-LOUD interruptions every 15 minutes or so. It also serves to indicate the decaying state of Isaac's mind.
The game opens in a psychiatric ward on space station The Sprawl. As you break free from the leather straps of your bed, struggling against the restraints of your strait jacket and your own sense of imbalance, you find that yours is an avatar robbed of most ability.
Like a drunk driver you manoeuvre Isaac through dark corridors, ducking explosions and sidestepping the lunges of the long-limbed Necromorph monsters that tear at your clothes. For the first 15 minutes of the game there is no way to fight back, creating a sense of helplessness backed up by a steely desire for revenge.
But by the end of the first half-hour you have full access to those abilities with which Isaac finished the fight in the first game: the plasma cutter, used to shoot the limbs from the Necromorphs, and the power of telekinesis, used to suspend those limbs in air and fire them back through their torsos.
The decision not to drip feed weapons and abilities from early on in the game is a wise one. An extensive range of tactical combat options is open from the start, teaching you the importance of conserving ammo by using telekinesis to turn objects lying around the environment into projectile weapons. You also learn the value of using statis shots to slow-motion enemies mid air, inches from your face, giving you a moment to breathe before you squeeze the trigger.
Once again Visceral shifts the focus of gunplay away from headshots, asking that you incapacitate enemies by precision-shooting their limbs. Blast the legs off a Necromorph and it'll pull its grotesque body along the ground towards you, a nightmare reanimated. On anything other than the easiest difficulty, you'll need to stomp on what remains with a heavy boot to ensure it doesn't crawl back to life minutes later.
While the horror ambience building routinely lacks subtlety and nuance ("I don't want to die" scrawled on the wall in blood is such a cliché it has the opposite of the intended effect), the AI design of Dead Space 2's enemies is nothing short of frightful.
The stalkers stand out as particularly fearsome creatures. These jaundiced quadrupeds dart from pillar to post, peering at you around a corner with one feral eye before leaping at breakneck speed to break your neck. In these moments Isaac's non-weapon based abilities become keys to survival, lending combat a distinguished, thoughtful edge.
Once again Dead Space 2's style benefits from a HUD integrated into the world. Isaac's health bar is rendered in lights on the back of his suit. Guns display their ammo total in blue holograms beamed from the shaft of the weapon, eliminating the need for on-screen furniture.
Nevertheless, the move from space ship to space station for this sequel has had less of an effect on the experience than you might expect. The game primarily consists of a series of dark rooms, interconnected by dingy corridors or shafts through which you must crawl.
The Sprawl allows Visceral's environment artists chance to explore new types of area, from the stained glass walls of a high ceilinged church and the warm breeziness of a tube station to the Mass Effect-esque space vistas seen through the occasional window. However, the ambience is consistent with what has gone before.
Two economies exist within Dead Space 2's world. Currency is used to purchase new weapons (added to the shops' inventory when you stomp the relevant schematic from a crate), ammo and med packs. Nodes, meanwhile, are used to upgrade your equipment or gain access to item-rich 'secure unit' side-rooms.
Each weapon has its own tech tree, a set of upgrade nodes to improve reload times, ammo capacity, or damage efficiency, which can be advanced at a cost of one node per upgrade. The choice then, is whether to spend all of your nodes on a single gun to create a super weapon early on, or to spread your nodes evenly across your inventory - increasing your power at a slow but universal rate.
The game is at its best during the set-piece moments, when you're jumping into zero gravity from one carriage to the next as a train breaks apart, or taking down a roomful of Necromorphs while hanging upside down from the ceiling. A battle against a Tormentor that spills out from the spacestation into the crushing silence of space and back again is effortlessly memorable. Visceral strings together just enough of these set-piece moments to sustain the plod of moving from corridor to corridor.
The horror, however, struggles to shake off a Disneyland flavour. The linearity and reliance on set-piece shocks can often make Dead Space 2 feel like a multi-million dollar Ghost Train ride at a funfair. Overuse of 'mash-the-A-button-to-escape-the-monster' moments jars with the more distinguished mechanics elsewhere.
Nevertheless, this is an exemplary game. The sound design is second to none, the gurgle of unseen enemies raising the tempo of fear. Isaac himself now enjoys his own dialogue and has become a more knowable protagonist, with cutaways revealing the face under the helmet on multiple occasions.
Meanwhile, the mental visions invading his consciousness on top of the horror of his reality lend the game a Jacob's Ladder feel. These add depth and sit well alongside the one-note Scream-style shocks elsewhere.
Considered in isolation, Dead Space 2's ambience, brute frights and player toolset are good rather great. But in combination, these three elements prove as irresistible as the pull on Isaac exerted by a malfunctioning airlock. For once, you'll want to let go.
9 / 10
NOTE: The multiplayer portion of Dead Space 2, an asymmetrical 8-player mode in which four assume the role of survivors and four assume the role of Necromorphs, was not available to play for this review.