Dreadfully fun

Turn out the lights, turn up the sound, and enter Dead Space 2.

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Dead Space 2

(Visceral Games/Electronic Arts), Xbox 360, PS3, PC

GAMER Survival horror might be the game genre most affected by the environment it's played in. You'll see the best results when a player agrees to meet the title halfway: turning out the lights and turning up the volume. Then it's up to the developers to deliver on their half of the equation. Though generally lauded when it released in 2008, the original Dead Space launched with promise but ultimately was content to repeat itself for the majority of its playtime.

Dead Space 2 delivers. An homage to movies like 1979's Alien and 1997's Event Horizon (which it most closely resembles), the Dead Space series is set in a future where space travel allows humans to embark on "planet cracking" missions, wherein all celestial bodies of the galaxy are prime meat for resource-exhausting expeditions. On one such expedition the shuttle finds an alien artifact, contagion, blah blah blah ... zombies. A pretty first-rate "previously on" feature in the main menu will catch anyone up to speed.

As engineer Isaac Clarke, it's up to you to survive this "necromorph" outbreak, this time aboard a space station named the Sprawl. Armed with a ton of weaponry and a little kinetic energy module, you'll have to escape another apocalypse of the undead, as always by dismembering their arms and legs (and tentacles).

Perhaps taking a cue from last year's Mass Effect 2's streamlining successes, Dead Space 2 is far more linear and cinematic than its predecessor. But unlike that other similarly space-themed sequel, the divide between what is lost and what is gained in the transition is far less apparent. In embracing the hallmarks of any good survival horror series — jump scares, the feeling of dread around each corner, and limited supplies — this sequel is less about innovation than it is about refinement.

Contrary to the drab shuttle hallways of the first game, the Sprawl was once a bustling metropolis and the environments you encounter are much more varied. From a church to a mall to zero-gravity space walks, the freshness in each area keeps it exciting. While the scares range from terrifyingly atmospheric (a bloodstained and deserted daycare center is especially eerie) to inelegant "monster closets" where enemies pop out of vents as you walk past, the game is never boring.

After a promising debut and a bit of a misstep with the God of War-aping Dante's Inferno (2010), with Dead Space 2 developer Visceral Games has crafted an adventure that begs to be played more than once. Aspects remain overly familiar but, like the best franchises, the Sprawl provides players with a compelling setting and sense of dread that they'll happily return to.

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