Every time you die when playing as a Necromorph you have the chance to reincarnate as a different type, but you must wait longer if you want to respawn as the more powerful creatures, an ingenious system that forces you to decide whether it's more important to rush back in as a weaker unit and overwhelm in numbers, or sit out till you can arrive in power.
The game borrows Modern Warfare's influential experience system and after each match you earn points for the number of kills made and the number of objectives you personally cleared, with bonus points if you were on the winning team. As you level up your character, you unlock various extras. Some of these are merely aesthetic, such as the different colours and styles of suits for your Human character. But most offer tangible advantages in play by unlocking new weapons and upgrades for those weapons, and increasing the abilities of your Necromorphs.
In the immediate term, the system is compelling, as you want to level up your characters, increase your options and grow more powerful, and the excitement of growth distracts from the limited number of maps and game types. But as with any competitive multiplayer game that offers advantages for players that have been playing for longer than others, the cost is imbalance. If you manage to secure a higher-level player on your team, the increased abilities and power can make victory a foregone conclusion. Once you finally reach the cap of level 60 (which will take 50-60 hours) the promise of new unlocks is gone and there's little left to sustain interest.
But only the most dedicated players will plough this much time into the mode in order to press their noses up against its boundaries. For the majority, who want to dip in and out for an hour or two as a break from the single-player campaign, Dead Space 2's multiplayer mode is well-constructed and satisfying. It's a game that, when played properly, demands teamwork, as a group of Humans working together against a disorganized Necromorph side will plough through the defenses, while a scattered Human side will be overwhelmed by Necromorphs that move together.
The small environments keep the tempo of play quick and exciting, and when all eight players are thrashing about in close proximity there's no sign of slow-down. It's like a hellish rendering of American Football; the thrill when you break the Necromorph defenses and make it to an unattended objective marker is addictive. Far from a dull bolt-on to the single-player campaign, Dead Space 2's multiplayer is slight but focused – Visceral Games choosing to do one thing well, rather than 10 without polish.