Quick videogame trivia question: What game gave us the term "strategic dismemberment?"
Um, that'd be the original Dead Space, the 2008 sci-fi survival horror game that trapped you in a damaged and doomed spaceship where success meant hacking and blasting off the crab-like limbs of bloodthirsty necromorphs looking to add you to their ghoulish ranks.
The original game was both harrowing and an unexpected hit. The sequel plays kinda like Aliens mixed with Jacob's Ladder. Isaac Clarke, the hero/survivor of the first game, awakes in the hospital wing of a chaotic space station orbiting Saturn's largest moon, the last three years of his life a psychotropic soup of flashbacks, guilt and dread. A new necromorph outbreak has the station in martial-law lockdown, and man, is it hard to tell what's real and what's not. Herky-jerk visions, dreams and flashbacks step in to augment some of the monster-closet moments.
The core game play -- stave off necromorph gang-ambushes with limited ammo and powerful swings of whatever weapon's in your hand -- remains familiar and intact. Elsewhere, Dead Space 2 deftly pulls in elements from other successful games without ever seeming like a bad case of grand theft spaceship.
Some of the décor of the Sprawl space station feels awfully BioShock-ian, as does the increased role of the shady scientific/religious cultists the Unitologists. Isaac's dead girlfriend keeps popping up to haunt him. Some of the new necromorph types, meanwhile -- I'm looking directly at you and your bile-stained chest, Puker -- echo the undead friends we've come to know, dodge and shoot in the Left 4 Dead series, especially in the game's creepy and pulse-pounding multiplayer mode.
As before, it's the sequences that deal with zero gravity and vacuum pressure that give the most thrill. Not even a direct line-cutter hit on a necromorph's limb satisfies quite like blasting out a window, watching the pressure shift suck a set of necros into frozen space, then hitting the safety-lock trigger seconds before you're sucked out, too. Although I'll also give props to the set piece that has you beating back the creepie-crawlies while you're suspended upside-down from the hulk of a damaged tram car.
Opting for the PlayStation 3 version is the way to go here, as it also nets you a copy of the heretofore Nintendo Wii-specific Dead Space Extraction, an underrated on-rails shooter that details humanity's first contact with the mysterious markers. After all, if you're gonna end up piling necromorph corpses to the space station ceiling, it's not a bad idea to understand why.