The original Dead Space was the saviour of the dying Survival-Horror genre. A genre that has been reeling under an identity crisis ever since its pioneer Resident Evil degenerated into a soulless Third-Person Shooter. Visceral Games' horror franchise single-handedly revived the dying Survival Horror genre pioneered by the Resident Evil (RE) series, with clever modifications to the gameplay mechanics. Unlike the RE games, the Sci-Fi horror title allowed players to run and shoot at the same time. With that, it brought back what the genre had been missing all these years—a true distillation of Survival Horror without relying on a frustrating control scheme.
Did that take away from the horror, you ask? Well, the fact that the games invariably make everyone traverse their dark corridors with guns drawn at all times — that would be a resounding no. The credit goes to the ingenuity of the Visceral team for employing a much more sinister means to get the job done. The franchise reaches into the deepest recesses of your brain and toys around with the most primal fears with a brilliant use of dynamic shadows and some remarkable audio design and foley work. Both Dead Space and its sequel have their fair share of frightening moments and employ some of the most dastardly tricks in the horror book to keep you on your toes. While it's hard to imagine the scare quotient of what can effectively be described as a cross between Sci-Fi horror classics Alien and The Thing, it helps if you visualise the film Event Horizon and multiply the dread by a factor of ten.
It's not all superficial scare tactics with Dead Space, because the franchise has one of the most comprehensive mythos woven around two games, books and feature films, along with an excellent satire of the cult of Scientology that forms the pillar of its narrative. The original was set against the backdrop of an alien infestation that mutates the dead crew of a gargantuan ship into twisted undead beings eager to disembowel every living thing in sight, whereas the sequel continued the madness on a large facility on the remnants of Titan (Saturn's largest moon). For those keeping track, the last game ended with protagonist Isaac Clarke's resolve to find the source of all malevolence—the Black Marker. The third instalment is set on the freezing planet of Tau Volantis, where the source of the Necromorph plague has been found.
Sgt John Carver is the new kid on the block and your co-op buddy as well
It is on Tau Volantis that Isaac and fellow survivor Ellie Langford run into the quintessential space marine Sergeant John Carver. This brings two main radical shifts to the Dead Space formula. The most significant addition being the cooperative campaign, which purists lament will dilute the Survival Horror element by having an extra gun by your side. The other paradigm shift involves human enemies in the form of zealots from the Church of Unitology. Much to the loyal fanbase's chagrin, Visceral has succumbed to the temptation of throwing some cover-based combat in the mix. For better or for worse, this sort of gameplay has turned out to be the aginomoto of the video game world. The kids love it and the studio bosses swear by it, but what really needs to be seen is if that will go down well with the franchise's horror formula.
Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the man-on-man firefights since the preview code steered clear of that aspect. However, I did get a hands-on experience with early levels and the much vaunted and equally despised drop-in, drop-out cooperative gameplay. The venue was Electronic Art's Sydney office and my co-op partner was an EA employee, who clearly had gotten enough practice with the preview build to strategically dismember Necromorphs and answer my many queries at the same time without breaking a sweat. I had chosen Isaac Clarke, while the prodigiously talented gent from EA led me on as John Carver.
The cooperative demo started off in the snowy exterior area, where we had to evade the searchlights of a gargantuan fighter craft. One careless step from me and I was smiling pretty into the ship's floodlit crosshairs, which drew a judicious shower of lead even as we scampered for cover. My reckless dalliance with the spotlight elicited a sharp groan of disapproval from my partner. It's a pity then that Dead Space 3's co-op mode is restricted to online, because little things like this make the offline splitscreen mode conspicuous by its absence. It's definitely more fun to have a friend present in the same room to share the horror, frustration and high fives during the course of the game.
Overly attached Necromorph
Before I could ruminate on this issue, we were quickly ambushed by a horde of uber-fast Necromorphs. The co-op action was nothing out of the ordinary, as we took turns slowing down the monsters with Stasis while the other unloaded heavy ordnance into them. During the course of the demo, it became apparent that the sheer awesomeness of tag teaming against stronger and more numerous monsters may be fun, but this indeed comes at the cost of the horror quotient. Traversing dark, foreboding corridors on your own is certainly scarier.
However, the game provides the same solitary horror experience through the standard single player component, while still giving you the option of a co-op mode that doesn't seem tacked on. The latter lays a greater emphasis on the EarthGov soldier John Carver's side of the story, even as his higher clearance unlocks alternate routes and whole new areas that differentiate it from the single-player campaign. The mode's lack of friendly fire, however, makes things a lot easier. It gets too easy to be honest, because this immunity to your buddy's bullets takes all the risk and the need for skilful coordination out of the picture.
Like Isaac, Sgt John too may have been exposed to the marker. I say this because, much like Isaac, he too has to endure tell-tale hallucinatory episodes depicting his dead wife and son. This descent into insanity manifests itself in the form of a clever gameplay mechanic that's visually striking while also being functionally significant. John and Isaac's dementia sometimes show radically different things to each player. This is not only creepy, but it also ingeniously allows one player to lead the other without either of them realising it.
Sheesh kebab in 3...2...1
We experienced a taste of this gameplay mechanic the moment we stepped into the familiar corridors of an eerie planetside installation. While my side (Isaac) of the display looked perfectly normal, the other player saw creepy mannequins on doorways and heard disturbing sounds on his screen. This was the game being smart about telling my co-op mate which door to take in a rather dramatic manner.
Further down the level, my partner decided to have a mental breakdown in the middle of a Necromorph swarm attack. All he could see on his display was his dead family, while the monsters appeared as wisps of smoke—one which he couldn't hurt at all. On the other hand, he appeared to be freaking out when viewed from my screen, so the onus of protecting both our asses was suddenly my responsibility. Clever design decisions such as these let Dead Space 3's online co-op component transcend from a seemingly perfunctory addition to a truly interesting addition that begs to be sampled.
Apart from the cover system and human enemies, some traditional single-player elements of the franchise have been improved as well. The strongest point of any Dead Space game is how Isaac Clarke isn't your typical macho hero with all the big guns in the world at his disposal. He is an engineer first and the games have always stuck to the formula of having him co-opt mining/engineering tools and equipment to fashion deadly improvised weapons. Dead Space 3's delightfully comprehensive crafting system does a fine job of putting the engineering back in engineering tools.
Yes, it's time to call the shrink
The game does away with the idea of fixed weapons types and the credit-fuelled upgrade system of the prior games. This time, each weapon can be crafted from scratch and is comprised of integral components such as weapon frame, tool, modules, upgrade circuits, and attachments. A frame decides if the gun is one or two handed and how many upgrades it can carry, whereas weapon tools actually determine what sort of projectile or energy source it will employ. Upgrade circuits, as the name suggests, enhance parameters such as damage, speed, reload time, clip size and more. Modules affect alternate fire. Attachments, more or less, are similar to passive buffs found in RPG games. They imbue a weapon with additional fire, electricity and stasis effects, in addition to providing scopes, energy concentrators and even healing properties.
In essence, Dead Space 3 has pretty much crammed its weapon crafting system with every conceivable element from an RPG skill tree. This lets players create a staggering permutations and combinations of weapons and save their creations as blueprints in order to share with their friends. All that weapon building requires resources, which can be garnered through crates and enemy drops. Thankfully, considering the sheer number of weapons that can be crafted, the developers have made way for a hassle-free means for resource gathering with the Scavenger Bot. Just drop one down and it goes about picking raw materials for you, which will be in your inventory after a short while.
This will not end well
The single player levels that I had tried harked back to the same gameplay and design approach of the past two games, with a few new enemies thrown in for good measure. Without actually sampling how the battles with Unitologist footsoldiers work out and the sort of emphasis on that aspect, it's hard to determine what direction this franchise is headed towards. The revamped weapon crafting system bears a dizzying level of complexity. It will be interesting to see what the community makes of its freedom.
From the different single player and cooperative levels that I had sampled, it seems as though Dead Space 3 is capable of maintaining the same experience of its predecessors, while at the same time adding a whole new dimension of co-op gameplay. Thankfully, it is optional and seems to add a fair bit of unexplored areas and John's story arc to the existing single-player content. Let's just hope cover-based combat isn't as offensive as it's expected to be, and the developer has the sense to strike a fair balance between the horror and the Call of Duty elements. To be honest, I really hope the old-school horror gameplay overshadows the cover system both in quality as well as quantity.