When it comes to Dead Space, what dies doesn't stay dead for long. Dead Space 3 launched in February 2013 and EA has said nothing since to indicate it's ready to revive the science fiction horror series. We've already explored the Dead Space 3 the developers wanted to make, but what about Dead Space 4? It turns out Visceral had ideas - some properly exciting - for a fourth game in the series. Unfortunately, Visceral never got the chance to turn them into reality. After Dead Space 3 flopped, EA put the studio on the Battlefield series with spin-off Hardline before assigning it a Star Wars game that was eventually cancelled. Now, Visceral is no more.
Editor's note: In light of EA closing Visceral Games, we thought it would be a good time to remember the game and series the studio is known best for: Dead Space. This article was first published in February this year.
My initial plan for this article was to write about the space bits of Dead Space, also known as everyone's favourite bits of Dead Space. I was going to write something cool and arch and critical like "the true horror of Dead Space lies not in the snarling, gibbering Necromorphs that attempt to rip and tear the flesh from Isaac Clarke's body, but in how the game imagines the inky void of space as a direct physical threat. Throughout its length, Dead Space constantly reminds us the USG Ishimura is a tiny lifeboat spinning in a vast, black vacuum. It sucks the air out of Isaac's lungs, and forces us to fight in environments where even simple things like the concept of 'Up' become entirely redundant."
Something like that anyway. But then I played Dead Space, which I haven't done in about five years. I arrived at the first jump-scare, the one where Isaac is separated from his crewmates in the docking bay as Necromorphs start falling from the ceiling like coconuts on the galaxy's worst tropical island. I wish I could tell you that I was stalwart in the face of danger, hardened by my years playing horror games in the name of games journalism. Instead I completely bricked it. Again. I'd prepared myself mentally for it as well, playing the scene over in my head as the game downloaded. It made no difference. The moment Dead Space dropped the NecroMic I panicked, racing blindly through the corridors, fingers stabbing at the wrong keys, swearing with increasing volume as I tried to get the goddamn elevator doors to shut.
Do you read Cliff Bleszinski's blog? You should! It's really smart and interesting, which isn't much of a surprise from a guy who spent 20 years making games like Unreal and Gears of War - deceptively brainy action titles full of bright and influential ideas. (I still can't believe no one's ripped off Active Reload.)
Sci-fi survival shooter Dead Space 3 includes micro-transactions, Eurogamer uncovered last week, as a way to save time with the game's weapon-crafting system. The response to this news was fairly one-sided: that publisher EA had switched into full money-grabbing mode to nickel-and-dime hardcore gamers. It was another example of a company initiating a "pay to win" scheme, and an encroachment of free-to-play principles into a game that already costs £40. But is it really such a controversial move? Is it that unexpected? Or is it, like other time-saving examples in console games, something you can just ignore?
This week has seen two big stories about premium games trying to squeeze ever-more money out of their players. They're not immediately obvious bedfellows; Square Enix's Final Fantasy: All the Bravest is a mobile title divided into cash-hungry chunks, and Dead Space 3 is as typical an AAA console title as you'll get. But both excite the same feeling of unease, and not just because they share a common theme of exploitation; it's that point where something bearable becomes too much.
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.
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.