The Dead Space games have so far built an audience based on a reputation as a final stronghold for intensely threatening, ominous horror, unafraid to liberally spatter their creaking steel haunted houses with viscera and puss, and luxuriating in an atmosphere of constant, chilly menace. Dead Space 3 arrives, then, in a cloud of suspicion and accusations of the worst kind of ideological deviation: it’s trying to go mainstream.
The chief source of discontent has so far been the decision to implement drop-in-drop-out co-op in what had, until now, been a ruthlessly lonely gameplay experience. Dead Space games, at their best, enjoy an airless atmosphere of sustained, sombre dread that has never exactly been crying out to be shared with a friend.
It seems that the developers recognise this, as they have opted to squirrel the co-op away in a separate menu and have recrafted the game to be a slightly different, more traditional experience when played alone. This is an eminently wise decision, but can only be described as making the best of a bad situation, and tends to give the impression that they are aware that what they have done is a fundamentally unnecessary deformation of the game.
Regardless of the welcome absence of a second player charging about nicking all your ammo, the single-player mode may trouble fans of the earlier games with its greater focus on dynamic events, huge monsters and firefights. Dead Space 2, it shouldn’t be forgotten,started the series down this path, and its much-improved sales seem to have emboldened Visceral Games (or, let us speak freely, the people who pay their salaries) to make Dead Space 3 even more of a roller-coaster thrill-ride covered in guts and sick. There is nearly as much Big Action in the Dead Space 3 demo as in the whole of the first game.
Having crashed his shuttle into a hostile ice planet, Clarke trudges through the flaming wreckage fighting reanimated human corpses, several of which burst from the ground with their best startling roar. He then has to scramble through the cab of some sort of truck before it plummets over a crumbling cliff-edge. There follow a number of gun battles with human soldiers, demonstrating the game’s amusingly half-hearted cover system, as well as a mini-boss battle with a huge necromorph which has rather foolishly evolved a number of glowing weak points for you to shoot.
Tension of the old sort still exists in spots, largely during traversal – a pattern of building tension during quiet stretches of exploration that explodes during violent encounters that works nearly as well as when Resident Evil 4 did it back in 2005 (an important influence on the original game, along with the Thing and Paul Anderson’s crass, occasionally enjoyable Event Horizon). The introduction of human enemies has also done relatively little damage to the game; they’re often laughably witless and serve mainly to provide fodder for necromporph parasites to suddenly re-animate, in a rather nice touch.
The much-denounced co-op mode, in the end, proves something of a damp squib, both for fans and detractors. No-one can pretend it’s a natural fit for a series, indeed a genre, which relies on silence and solitude for much of its effect, and things are not helped by the tiresomely predictable decision to make the new character a scowling space-marine only a focus-group could love.
Playing with a random stranger via quick-match inevitably throws up the ruinous problems of moronic behaviour and atmosphere-puncturing voice chat, but even playing with a trusted comrade can’t get round the problem that teaming up with another player simply isn’t and never will be very scary. It’s effective enough, and Visceral have obviously put some real thought into how they can attempt to jam this square peg into a round hole without causing to much damage, but it’s still fundamentally ruinous to what many people seem to have liked most about the series so far.
None of the ideas presented here are dreadful – pedestrian execution aside, making one protagonist mentally-ill is as nice an idea as it was when Kane & Lynch first did it five years ago – but every one of them hints at a creeping trend in AAA games towards uniformity that is slowly but surely smothering even something as comparatively mainstream as the 80s’ Hollywood-inflected horror of Dead Space. Where that game took Alien as its touchstone, this one seems to be drawing more inspiration from an alternate reality where Renny Harlin directed an Alien 3 titled Even More Aliens. Muscular, enjoyable and polished it may be, but this still feels like it may be a step further along a road that leads to Resident Evil 6.
Let’s hope not.