Nothing strips a horror game of its scares like the comfort of a second player. If my maths is correct, twice the people equals half the frights, right? So it may seem worrying that the upcoming Dead Space 3 is going down the path of Resident Evil with its most highly touted new feature being co-op. The difference is that Visceral Games acknowledges this disparity between two-player action and fear, and has wisely decided to keep single player scares and multiplayer mayhem separate.
"A traditional fan wants to have that alone in the dark on the couch moment," says senior producer on Dead Space 3, Dave Woldman. "That game's there for you. Boot up the game, play it by yourself, turn off the lights, crank up the sound, and you're going to get a Dead Space game through and through. Tight corridors, atmosphere, tension, horror, everything you've come to know and expect. No AI followers, not anyone chatting in your ear the whole time. It's the game that you know when you see Dead Space."
Based on the 10-minute hands-off single-player demo, that sounds about right. Dead Space 3 looks like business as usual for our spectacularly unlucky hero, Isaac Clarke, who's just crash landed on the frozen necromorph-infested planet Tau Volantis. He begins the demo hanging upside-down with his hair covered in ice, making his head wound resemble a slushy. In a nice touch, Isaac begins the game with a sliver of health as he stumbles around the harsh wintry terrain.
The setting is easily the biggest difference to the single-player campaign. "The planet itself becomes an enemy and a threat," says Woldman. "Limited visibility, sub-zero temperatures, and you never know where the enemy is going to come from." Rather than stick with the dim industrial Doom-like space stations of the previous games, we find ourselves in white, open terrain with severely reduced visibility due to a blizzard. The expansive environment where you can only see a few meters in front of you harkens back to the opening of Silent Hill 2 (before the HD collection removed the fog). It's a fantastic setting made especially unwelcoming when a pair of human legs sprouting three tentacles out of its waist stumbles toward Isaac seemingly out of nowhere.
Eventually the snow lets up just enough for us to drink in the sight of a colossal base set against a red sky. Upon approaching the base, Isaac is greeted by a guy named John Carver manning an outpost from above. While Carver retreats to open the gates, Isaac is attacked by a large crab-like enemy. Apparently, evolution isn't a thing on Tau Volantis as enemies insist on having glowing weak points - in this case tentacles sprouting from the crustacean's back. After Isaac meets his maker, we're shown this sequence again in co-op.
This time the second player controls Carver who's now on the ground, fighting alongside Isaac. The story and cut-scenes change in co-op, with exclusive missions and collectibles only available when playing with someone else. It's hard to get a good feel for Carver in the demo, but we know he's more focused on stopping the necromorphs whereas Isaac insists on finding Ellie, his quasi-romantic interest (or at least it seems that way based on the fact that she's a girl, and he a videogame action hero).
Upon besting the beast, the pair wander into the base where they come upon a giant drill. Once powered up, the machine goes haywire, leading the drill to bounce around a circular arena where Issac and Carver must contend with it as well as throngs of necromorphs. Sparks fly everywhere, monsters emit shrieks, and everything wants to kill you. It's an extraordinarily exciting moment that rivals anything in the series so far.
After escaping the mine, we're introduced to another of Dead Space 3's new additions; ranged combat. Tau Volantis is run by Unitologists who are dead set on killing Isaac and company ("Isaac Clark must die," they explicitly say in an audio diary). A light cover system has been added to combat this threat, though it's not the "snap to" variety that we usually see. Instead, Isaac and Carver take cover simply by pressing up against a surface. From here, they'll automatically peek around to aim. This looked like the game's most unremarkable element. With so many cover shooters out there, Dead Space separated itself with its focus on warding off scuttling mutants, so it's a little unnerving to see the sort of firefights one typically associates with Gears of War.
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After dispatching the human threat, Isaac and Carver encounter an enormous boss creature that I can only describe as a zombie-crustacean-dragon-snake. Its spindly form and bony mandibles make for an astonishing sight, and it spews out eggs that turn into gooey skeletal creatures that charge towards you. Its gargantuan size is only betrayed by its glowing weak points the reveal themselves when its chest cavity opens up or when it opens its mouth upon trying to suck you up. Eventually it succeeds, but the creature is so big that Isaac is able to swim through its innards and face off against its organs, which - in true necromorph form - have their own glowing weak points.
Upon the demo ending, I find myself excited by the spectacular set-pieces, but a little turned off by the 'dude-bro' dialogue in co-op. Lines like "What the f**k is that?", "F**k this planet," and "C'mon! Are you f**king kidding me?" seemed cruder and more testosterone driven than the terror-soaked solitude normally associated with the franchise, but this only seemed to be an issue in co-op. We're told that in single-player Isaac will have conversations with his split psyche, which sounds intriguing, but alas, none of that was shown off yet.
Co-op may not be what Dead Space fans were clamouring for, but it still looks wildly entertaining in a Hollywood action movie kind of way. Best of all, it won't impede upon the single-player in any way. By tailoring the story, dialogue, and difficulty based on whether Dead Space 3 is played solo or in co-op, Visceral will allow players to choose what kind of experience they want, and both look enthralling in their own way.