I recently read Corduroy Turtle's "Buy It/Avoid It Report," and his Dead Space 2 review gave me an interesting topic to discuss. (Great article, Turtle! This isn't meant to slight you!)
I'm actually a huge fan of backtracking, and I think it isn't getting the love it deserves! I love Dead Space 2, but I also miss the backtracking bits in the original Dead Space. When backtracking is overused it can be the worst (think of collecting all the stars in your least favorite world in Mario 64). But I also think that backtracking can provide a game the essential elements of a classic!
My first argument for moderate backtracking is the level of content it can provide the player. A huge fun factor for me isn't just my first run through a game, it's how many items remain hidden, how I'm supposed to get into a locked room, or what rooms can I explore off the beaten path. In a game with little or no backtracking, content and surprises can be minimal.
For instance, I feel that Dead Space 1 has more rooms to explore and reasons to explore. Sure, Dead Space 2 takes you to a lot of different locations and gives you new armor on your 2nd run, but rarely did I look anywhere but where the waypoint system told me... there wasn't much else to do. If the player was given the option to return to earlier scenes, even just before going to the next chapter, they could have squeezed out way more content and made the areas more interesting by having secrets lying about (think how neat it was to find the Peng Statue hidden in the vent system in Dead Space 2). It isn't that Dead Space 1 was that much more in depth, but I still felt like I explored more...
In Dead Space 1, I felt like the Ishimura was my big, scary stomping ground. I got to know the whole ship, and I had a sort of spatial awareness that allowed me to go to new parts of the ship during different chapters and feel like I knew where I was. If anyone think backtracking sucks, I'd argue that my favorite portion of Dead Space 2 was the thought of backtracking through the Ishimura; albeit, they could have done more to spice up my trip back. It's good to feel like you're character is actually impacting the stages, and I got that feel out during both my tours through the Ishimura.
On the other hand, Dead Space 2 was a great game that took place in all sorts of different locales. My gripe is that each new area felt like a gimicky new background to kill off the same enemies. Whether I'm in a nursery or a church, I felt sort of like I was playing an on-the-rails-shooter. No need to explore, just blow guys up and move forward. It made my second run MUCH less enjoyable, especially levels like the nursery that offer very little to do.
Creators can vary the levels and gameplay with the awesome space/zero-gravity sequences or puzzles, without abandoning the atmosphere all together I would easily trade the nursery stage for another chance to free fall back to Sprawl through space! Shit, I think that the game should let you ride an elevator back up to the solar reflectors and do it as many times as you want! THOSE are the scenery shifts that really made the game stand out, and you actually look forward to them the 2nd time through.
If it means enough to you, you won't want to leave. Shadow of the Colossus (my favorite game) takes place in one seamless world. I never got sick of how awesome some of the location were. Other games, like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, had me returning to old location just because they made such an impact on me.
How would I have implemented this value in Dead Space 2? It would have been neat to give the player a better idea of what the entire station looked like and make it possible to go back to earlier chapters. For instance: the player could have been required to leave the medical bay through a security hatch and rocket through space to get to the next chapter. Imagine going back to the medical bay from a later chapter and be rewarded to a trip through zero-gravity space, with the silent behemoth, Saturn, gracing the backdrop (along with a fiery/chaotic vista of Sprawl)! Spice that scene up with some debris to dodge, and I'd return more than a few times!
In any event, I really loved Dead Space 2, and I really hope that Dead Space 3 keeps up the good work and gives fans something that we can really hold on to and come back to, like all my favorite games!
(Favorite Games: Dead Space, Shadow of the Colossus, Grand Theft Auto III, Final Fantasy X, Zelda Series, Shadow Complex, Limbo, Command and Conquer)