Dead Space 3: Will The Huge Gamble Work?
Dead Space 3, we have decided after playing the first four chapters and speaking with Associate Producer Yara Koury, is a devious little so-and-so.
It makes you think, at first glance, that it’s just another Dead Space title. It sits you down in a comfy chair with familiar game mechanics, telling you to relax, that everything is just as you remember and that the beer is in the cooler over there.
But then, when your back is turned it and your attention distracted, it grows two extra heads and comes at you, yellowing teeth bared. “We want to innovate”, says Yara Koury, “we always want to bring them (the players) something new”.
This is without doubt the bravest Dead Space game to date, and it’s clear that EA and Visceral games aren’t intent on pandering to fans of the series. Instead, they’ve made a game centred around a co-op campaign that features many new ideas that they hope will change the way think about horror games.
Going it alone
That’s not to say that, at its core, the single player campaign will greet you like anything other than an old friend. You’re still looking straight over Isaac’s shoulder as he strategically dismembers a variety of Necromorphs and solves simple puzzles with his kinesis and stasis abilities, all whilst trying not to soil himself as flailing limbs and wild eyes appear out of nowhere.
The story remains an even balance of epic and personal, with love and betrayal mixed in to a continuing journey to discover the origins and meanings of the Markers. However, the changes that they have made are certainly noticeable as you play through, and add up to make quite a significant difference.
As you would expect, there are new enemy types to face, and chief amongst them is the Waster.
An unpredictable – if not entirely original – foe, the Waster can grow back gruesome body parts when they’re shot off, which turns a fight with a group of them into an intense game of guess-that-body-part as you panic fire at anything that resembles an arm or a leg (which, after a few seconds, will be everything).
The human enemies are far more benign and tedious to battle. The game opens with Isaac being directed to safety by Earthgov operatives, fighting through waves of Unitoligist forces as he tries to escape the New Horizons colony. The Unitologists don’t seem to know how to take cover properly, and leave the top of their heads poking out from behind chest high walls.
That’s just asking for trouble. They’ll often blindly rush out into your fire with no apparent strategy, which, although rather convenient for you as it allows you to rack up easy kills, means they pose no challenge.
One of the most anticipated features is the ability to customise your weapons. “It has been inspired by players”, Yara Khoury tells me, and it certainly seems to have been built with the idea of maximum enjoyment in mind.
The customisation goes deep – building a new gun requires you to choose a frame, upper tool, lower tool, upper and lower tips, attachments and upgrades, all of which require specific materials found throughout Dead Space 3’s levels.
Not only does this mean you can walk around with something that feels and looks very personal in your hand, but it’ll also lead you to explore your surroundings extensively for precious resources, meaning no nook or cranny or the meticulously detailed environments will pass you by.
By leaving no stone unturned and no dead alien body ceremoniously un-stomped we scavenged enough to make a weapon that boasted both a plasma core and a line gun, kitted out with a damage upgrades which meant we could knock enemies back and slice them to pieces in two button presses.
Although it sounds like a good thing that Isaac now has more firepower, it’s not always what you want in a horror game. Part of the charm that the original Dead Space was so famous for was down to the fact that you felt rather helpless.
You were an engineer, using an engineer’s tools for a job they were not designed to do. Holding a gun which is part ripper blade, part flamethrower, all hold-down-trigger-to-kill equipped with damage and reload upgrades, you’ll feel that sense of helplessness slip away.
This trend can be seen elsewhere, too: Isaac now feels far more mobile than he has ever done. He’s agile despite his cumbersome suit, and can now roll away from enemies or take cover behind low objects, eliminating the kind of feeling you got, particularly in the first Dead Space, that you were always exposed.
Yes, that sense of hopelessness has been sacrificed to make combat a more intuitive experience, but the heady atmosphere that made the Dead Space series so great is still here in abundance, created by a number of wonderful environments. Even though our time with Isaac didn’t see him land on Tau Volantis – that happens slightly later in the story – it’s clear the in-game environments are predictably superb, and more varied than ever.
The murky corridors Isaac trudges through on the ship Raonake are suitably menacing and do a good job of creating tension, but he’ll also find himself fighting for his life atop a speeding train and running through a modern apartment block, never bored of something to feast his eyes on if he has a moment spare (which, seeing as Necromorphs are trying to eat his face, he probably doesn’t).
The huge variety of settings mean that whilst there are scares in certain areas they are less frequent than in previous titles, hacked away like a gangrenous limb to make space for action.
Whilst this doesn’t bother us – we’ve never felt the Dead Space series was shit-your-pants scary – you might be disappointed if it’s pure fear you crave.
Yara admits that Tau Volantis is “much brighter” and more “open” than the dark, dingy spaces that we’re used to seeing Isaac lumber around in but it does seem suited to the genre. “We’re playing a lot with the fact that you can’t see in front of you”, she says, “The Ice planet felt like a great fit because it’s still very hostile environment and makes our players extremely vulnerable.”
The slight shift towards a more action packed affair is epitomised by the set pieces sequences that Yara calls “Epic moments”, which are “very carefully crafted” in an attempt to provide some welcome variation in pace.
One minute you’ll be peeking around corners, chewing your nails and wondering what the hell just moved in the shadows, the next you’ll be piloting Isaac as he thrusts his way through a asteroid field-like expanse of floating debris from destroyed spacecraft, all the while shooting speeding mines to stop them reaching his companions.
Expect these events to figure heavily in the narrative as the game unfolds. “One of the big action moments is when you crash land on Tau Volantis”, Yara says, “we didn’t really wanted to have them landing safely, it wouldn’t be a Dead Space game otherwise”.
Hunting in packs
All this may be very interesting for the solo player, but Dead Space 3’s real meat and bones lies in its co-op mode, and the developers are extremely keen to get you playing it. Perhaps too keen, you might think, given that they’re actually holding back certain areas of the game from those playing solo in an attempt to convince us that buddying up will really make the game more enjoyable.
“I think that we have provided enough incentive for fans to play the co-op experience”, said Yara, “There are missions that are unique to the co-op experience… players are usually keen on playing as much as they can”.
This feels like a kick in the teeth to those who want to play the game on their own. As Isaac wanders through the first two hours of the game, the evidence of these exclusive co-op areas is there for all to see. Locked doors loom menacingly around every corner, glaring at him like angry bouncers at the entrance to a couples-only party.
This will no doubt irk some players, but EA’s policy seems to be that if it gets you to at least dip a tentative toe in the co-op waters, it will be worth pissing a few people off.
“I’m pretty confident that they’ll at least give it a shot”, says Yara, and when they do, she’s sure that “it will get them hooked”.
Although EA didn’t showcase any co-op play at the event, what we saw and heard has still worked up our appetites. This will not be Dead Space as you know it – you’ll have to stick to the single player for that. This will be an extremely different animal.
The main focus is the highly anticipated dementia mechanic that will permeate every aspect of the co-op campaign. It promises to create some of the most unique moments we’ve seen in the Dead Space series so far with both players, at various points, seeing things that the other can’t through hallucinations. Yara tells me that the team have been “creating gameplay mechanics around” co-op.
John Carver – the second playable character in the campaign – and Isaac will experience their own stories in tandem and despite the fact that Carver is easy to write off as a run of the mill, shaven headed soldier who hates everything and everyone (he keeps telling Isaac that “we’re not friends” and to “try harder next time”), EA have tried their best to flesh him out.
“As an individual we crafted him very much in his own way”, says Yara. “We built this whole back-story about Carver that has been introduced in the graphic novel Liberation, so he’s very different from Isaac.”
It’s clear that the co-op campaign will be a very personal, story driven journey, with both characters coming out of their shell in time.
“They have common things that bring them together”, says Yara, “their families have been taken away by the Necromorphs. Both these characters evolve together in the story” and “define themselves by playing together”. Whether Carver turns out to be anything other than a cardboard cut out still remains to be seen, but at least we know the team have put effort into his character.
The reason that creating this co-op mode was such a bold move is that it promises to be worlds away from everything we’ve come to expect from the Dead Space series. Whereas previous games have relied on a sense of isolation, and created fear through edge-of-your-seat suspense punctuated by big scares, Dead Space 3 will have an entirely different focus.
“We’ve explored a lot more the psychological horror”, Yara says, and although it doesn’t look like the dementia mechanic will be particularly frightening, it will certainly create moments that are strange, bizarre, and above all, intriguing.
While it’s a shame that go-it-aloners will miss out on the bulk of Dead Space 3’s content, the addition of co-op makes Dead Space 3 one of the most interesting propositions in many a gaming year. The single player option is still there to be played and thoroughly enjoyed, but once you’ve run through it you’ll still have that wonderful feeling that comes with having a whole lot more game to sink your teeth into.
Although the co-op follows the same story arc as the single player campaign, the difference in game mechanics means that Dead Space 3 is really two separate games. The first, a solid, familiar, single player story that is a little lighter on scares than previous titles, and the second a unique, mysterious, highly original co-op mode.
Dead Space 3 may not look just like its older, much loved brothers, but it promises to a very exciting addition to the family.