The Dead Space franchise is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed of this generation. It started with a non-protagonist surviving unimaginable horrors in space, only to have Isaac Clarke return with a face, a voice, and true character development. Dead Space 3 ups the ante one more time, perhaps to end off a trilogy or just to introduce a new significant gameplay mechanic: cooperative play.
That may not sound like much. Cooperative play has been around for years. But not for horror games. That is a whole different breed, one most developers have decided long ago is an experience best done alone. In the dark of night, with a bright screen and loud volume, listening for every sound and more often then not scaring yourself. But after Dead Space 2 changed from a simple shock thriller to a smarter, more paced horror shooter, adding a second player is a no brainer. Horror games when played together are a whole different beast; it’s no longer about surviving…it’s about working together to make it through every level in one piece.
My closest experience to a true horror shooter with co-op was an old Doom 3 mod, since the game never supported co-op on PC directly. Trudging through dark halls and having demons and monsters popping out at you alone is an often overwhelming experience, and a draining one at that. With a friend, you can take turns leading the charge, take comfort in knowing that there’s a helping hand, and with less troublesome scenes have fun where normally alone the game would lull. From the co-op gameplay I’ve seen of Dead Space 3, the newer title follows the same style.
Developer Visceral Games has also made cooperative play a simple drop-in and drop-out function. Pick up a controller and as soon as the current player dies, the newcomer is in (assuming an invitation was set or the game is open). The second player takes a true role in the fiction as well, playing as Sergeant John Carver, who’s background is still a mystery for now. When playing solo, the game unfolds with Carver dropping in and out of scenes as any non-playable character would, but with a friend the story unfurls deeper. One section has only a brief note when Clarke is alone, just him mumbling to himself. But with Carver, the two have a confrontation that talks about Clarke’s potential psychosis, his looming insanity, and how Carver won’t hesitate to put him down if need be. This sort of dialog is only available for co-op gameplay. I doubt that the experience will be vastly different playing solo versus with a friend in terms of story, but there will certainly be a difference in gameplay. Contributing this unique setup for the character progression is just icing on the cake.
Some drastic changes have also come to the traditional gameplay common in both previous Dead Space titles (not including Extraction, which was a Wii exclusive and utilized the Wii’s motion controllers). The first is a cover system that activates only when crouched, requiring no button presses to enter and exit. Crouch and walk up to a wall, and Clarke or Carver will drop into a cover stance and will be harder to hit from oncoming fire. This plays well into the second major change: a far more open environment that turns away from simple linear gameplay. While Visceral didn’t make it clear if the game was playable in any fashion players see fit, it is not a wholly linear experience. Players can choose to go one way or another to accomplish missions, which means that there is more room for more enemy types, like more human combatants and more types of Necromorphs. And fighting humans is a far more common conflict now.
While no hands-on time was allowed, I did witness gameplay and saw one level that takes place outside, on an ice world. It was a massive area, with a lot of movement and a lot of danger. Ice shelves fall apart, the barren world appears as dizzying and deadly as Necromorphs, and according to Visceral cold has a severe impact on gameplay, and is something to watch out for. Dead Space 3 amplifies the scope of the series by offering so much more, but may as well be biting off more than the developer can chew. We’ll just have to wait and see when the game releases across all consoles on February 23rd, 2013.