Dead Space is one of the few truly good horror games of this console generation. Developer Visceral Games just gets the genre. To up the ante with Dead Space 3 the Montreal-based developer isn’t just relying on the new cooperative gameplay revealed at E3; everything is being overhauled.
And why shouldn’t it be? The old saying “don’t fix it if it ain’t broke” doesn’t apply to videogames. Us stingy gamers get bored doing the same thing all the time, no matter how many iterations of Call of Duty we get. The Necromorphs, reanimated horrors that were once human, are deadlier than ever: faster, uglier, and much more capable. In my demo, two different types found aboard a 200-year old derelict space station chased me down like a cheetah hunting a hedgehog. In the past games protagonist Isaac Clarke could outrun almost any enemy and earn a few seconds to regroup; that one safe haven – speed – is gone, and it makes combat way more frightening.
All the better.
I admit, I don’t scare easily. I laugh at horror films (literally…been thrown out of a theater or three for it), and generally don’t play horror games because they either aren’t scary for me or rely on shock frights, which are lazy. Yet within the first 30 seconds of my demo, I jumped in my seat from nothing. Just from the brilliant sound design, which kept me on my toes the entire time. Mind you, this took place in a public setting, with decent headphones but in a crowded arena.
But what’s most endearing about Dead Space 3 is that this time around, Clarke’s had enough. He’s the most grizzled Necromorph hunter in all the galaxy, and not of his own volition. He lives his nightmares, sleeps only to the sound of his dead girlfriend’s blood-curling screams, and is driven mad constantly by the Marker’s influence. And now it’s happening again, the monsters have returned, but Isaac’s done. He is pissed. EA’s marketing team may tell you that Dead Space 3 is a horror Star Trek, the real theme is simple: not again. Isaac is not fighting back; he’s going to finish it, or he’s going to die, and he doesn’t care which one comes first.
Isaac is faster than ever before. As a veteran Dead Space player, I instantly noticed the generally slower, more methodical gameplay is now comfortably quicker and smoother. More Necromorphs fling themselves at players with blinding speed, and Isaac reacts just as fast. Things go wrong and Isaac isn’t always ready, but he’s used to living by Murphy’s law; blasted into space without a helmet? Go get it. Precious cargo shot into the same dark vacuum? Chase it down. This is a man turned soldier, battle hardened and with the scars, emotional and physical, to prove it. Even a military captain early on in the demo I played takes orders from Isaac, who dishes them out better than Major Payne.
But those scars are also psychological, and they haven’t healed. Bits and pieces of different demos have already shown that Isaac isn’t all there. He’s started talking to himself, babbling on about nonsense. His connection to Ellie, Isaac’s helping hand in Dead Space 2, has come to the point where he relies on her to keep him grounded, and more often, sane. She’s the only one he trusts; Isaac still doesn’t know Carter, the new coop partner. As much as Isaac wants to end the demonic plague he can’t escape, it’s still eating him alive from inside.
Isaac’s journey is also being supplemented by a new gun customization system, where collectible items in the world can be used to improve on the standard list of engineering tools players have come to know and love. With up to eight upgrades per gun (four per primary and secondary firing modes), weapon customization isn’t just about going out and collecting damn near impossible to find power nodes. Instead, everyday items aboard a spaceship, from tungsten scrap metal to broken handles can be used to piece together more powerful weapons.
Upgrading is simple: collect enough of the required items and add new features to any weapon. Dead Space fans need not gawk – inventory space will still be scarce, so there aren’t too many different types of scrap to pick up. And they’ll each fit into a single slot, no matter how much of any one item you have. Of course, with limited parts to find it’ll be impossible to fully level all of the weapons up in a single playthrough. The “game+” mode returns so players can complete the game 100% over several full sessions.
But if you’re not the sort of player to collect and build, don’t fret over the more complex upgrade system. There will be fully-built parts collectible throughout the game, and upgrades will also be available for purchase at the store. There are even different classes of weapons, from lowly engineer tools to military grade guns and ammo.
Just don’t expect to be able to supercharge all of your weapons. With eight slots per gun, and pretty powerful individual upgrades like +3 damage and +3 reload speed, it seems very easy to overpower any weapon. When I spoke to the team about it, they stated that weapon upgrades are still undergoing internal testing, and that there is no way they’d let guns become overpowered like that because it would either break the game or make it too easy and remove the challenge.
So as much as Isaac Clarke charges into battle, head-on against screaming undead space monsters, refusing to let the nightmare start again, this writer knows that players will be wetting their seats in equal parts anticipation and fear. But for those steely-eyed gamers, bring it on. The darker, more twisted Isaac; faster and deadlier enemies; better weapon customization; larger (and still plenty of confined) environments, and cooperative play…Dead Space 3 doesn’t just look like an improvement. It’s one of the hottest games to look forward to this year. January can’t come soon enough.
Dead Space will release January 2013.