The Thrilling Dead: Dead Space 2

Dead Space 2 (Electronic Arts)
Xbox 360; also for PS3

Dead Space 2, like its 2008 predecessor, is a cross between Alien, Aliens, and every zombie movie — and it’s as awesome as that sounds. On a space station whose inhabitants have been transformed into decaying Necromorphs, it’s your job to fight your way out and save the galaxy. You’ll be assaulted from all angles by a menagerie of predators. Thankfully, you have an armored suit — and a variety of upgradable weapons to reduce your enemies to mutton. (Warning: The game is rated M for, y’know, Messy.) It’s an action-packed shooter, of course, but there are frequent puzzles that are well implemented, and the story, script, and setting are all better than what you’ll find in many movies.

The 1080p graphics are nothing short of spectacular. Art design borders on the brilliant, from stained-glass churches to antiseptic government zones to pastel-colored day-care centers (no, really). Lighting is used expertly; the lack of it is used even more masterfully. You’ll often be forced to navigate with nothing but a flashlight, which means that every shadow could be hiding something that wants to terminate you (with extreme prejudice).

The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix fills the rear so much that you’ll be missing out if you don’t play on a surround system. What’s borderline sadistic is that not every sound is a cue to danger. You’ll start getting used to the noises behind you, then bam. It’s all fantastic, and not for those with hypertension. Meanwhile, the music (composed by Jason Graves and performed by Skywalker Symphony Orchestra) is at times big and bombastic, other times intimate and moody, and always cinematic. When you’re under attack, dissonant strings get the heart pumping nearly as much as the jolt from seeing the big ugly.

Two direct-to-video movies round out the Dead Space franchise. Downfall is a prequel to the first game and is almost unwatchably bad. Aftermath bridges the time between the two games and is surprisingly good. You don’t need to watch the movies to understand the gameplay (and some reveals in the games are spoiled by the movies). However, I watched and played everything in order, and it was kinda cool (the downer of Downfall notwithstanding).

While perhaps not as inherently groundbreaking and creepy as its predecessor, Dead Space 2 is a better game — as well as a high-def, multichannel knockout. Playing alone in the dark is highly recommended. Just keep your Xanax handy.