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Dead Space 3 Preview: Alone in the Dark

After a shaky E3 debut, Isaac shows his more traditional side.

Dead Space 3's E3 debut was terrifying, but for all the wrong reasons. In the spotlight of EA's conference, followers of the series watched aghast as the slow-drip tension and slimy body horror of the series was drowned out by long, steady streams of rifle fire and swears.

Cinema has always been a big part of Dead Space's make-up, but worryingly the key influences seemed to have shifted away from the sci-fi horror of Cameron and Scott's Alien films and towards the shiny messes of Michael Bay.

Now the noise has died down, EA's keen to show another, more traditional side of Dead Space 3 plucked from early on in the single-player campaign. Isaac's isolated on the planet of Tau Volantis, seeking refuge from the frozen crags of its surface aboard a research ship that's been left gutted and abandoned.

The co-op doesn't alter a level's layout, so two players are effectively sharing the single-player space.

In opposition to the white expanses that marked out the reveal, this is aggressively familiar territory, a backdrop crafted from damp steel and stuttering neon that allows for some slow exploration regularly punctuated by sharp shocks. The disembodied voice of scientist Santos pulls you through the tangle, instructing you to carry out repairs in certain sections of the hold and confirming that despite establishing himself as humanity's saviour, Isaac's still an errand boy in a space suit.

This is the Dead Space experience as you likely know it, replicated in this small slice of the third instalment to a fault. The rhythm of old returns, as light puzzling is interspersed with frantic combat - as well as the occasional quiet pause in which you're free to wistfully stare out of a window and watch shredded corpses float by in the ether.

So familiar is it all that you'll also have to stop and stare at the mesh of mechanics to decipher exactly what's new. The puzzles that provide the cerebral backbeat are fresh; gone is the analogue fumbling of the prior games, in its place a simple switch puzzle that sees you rerouting power between two circuit boards. Simple, though it's too early to say just yet if it's that effective.

Many doors also require a quick tug via Isaac's kinetic stasis power - seemingly more of a reminder that this superpower exists and an invitation to use it more readily in combat, than any fundamental shift in the make-up of the exploration.

With a second player at your side the dialogue's slightly altered, with cut-scenes reflecting their presence.

Combat promises the most significant step forward in Dead Space 3, though it's shy in showcasing its progress. On a surface level the blend of melee and brutalized gunplay returns intact, but some subtle changes belie the slight change in the series' direction. Ammo's now universal, and subsequently more readily available - the sound of an empty barrel is no longer so chilling, or so frequent - and weapons are more robust and noticeably more powerful.

They're now a more prominent part of the game as well, with combination weapons suggesting a little more player-led flexibility. There have been murmurings of a new emphasis on crafting, and once those plans are fully revealed a more fundamentally changed Dead Space is likely to emerge.

For now, though, such changes are only chanced upon by accident. Clicking in one of the sticks sees Isaac haunch down, stalking through the environment that seems quite fitting for the series. Less fitting, perhaps, is the cover system that was glimpsed at E3 - oddly it's a feature that's sidestepped by this small demo and not acknowledged at all by the EA representatives on hand. Levels, it seems, neither necessitate nor accommodate the mechanic - so for now it seems entirely superfluous.

So despite the additions it's currently hard to distinguish Dead Space 3 from its predecessors. Some new enemies help flag up the fact that this is an all-new game - Swarm Infectors are small, scuttling beasts that blend two of the series' existing necromorph species and gives them the power to reanimate human corpses, turning hushed mausoleums into warzones in an instant.

The naming of the second playable character - a certain John Carver - continues the series' slightly heavy-handed borrowing of classic sci-fi figures.

Despite the protestations on how Dead Space seems to have left its horror roots behind, then, one of the more concerning aspects is how over-familiar the third game feels right now - and of course the one meaningful addition is the one that, to the bulk of returning fans, is the most meaningless.

Co-op's been neatly implemented, but a swift play-through of the E3 demo reveals that its execution feels a little weak. There's the option to mix up tactics, with one player focusing on stasis attacks while another resorts to brute force, but it's not integral enough to feel truly engaging. Elsewhere the staccato nature that's introduced as one player waits for another to catch up at certain waypoints ensures that, for now, the second player is an unwelcome impostor.

It feels like an unnecessary appendage, though it's easy to forget the noise that surrounded the announcement of Dead Space 2's competitive multiplayer - a mode that was ultimately as limp as it was redundant, but one that did little to hold back one of the finest action-horror experiences in years.

And so Dead Space 3's still got the potential to win back its core following as it pursues a wider audience, and it certainly retains the capacity to inspire awe and, at certain points, a little of that trademark dread. The Isaac of old is still to be found here, though EA's going to have to inject a few more shocks yet if this is to live up to its lineage.

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