Are the open spaces of a frozen planet inherently less conducive to fear than the claustrophobic confines of a creaking interstellar haunted house, blood-stained metal dungeon or sprawling catacomb? Does being followed around by an angry man called Carver tend to cut through an atmosphere of exhilaration and dread somewhat? These were the foremost questions running through my mind as I sat down to play Dead Space 3. Oh, and what's with the universal ammo?
That last one is easy; apparently the universal ammo that showed up in demonstration videos, and indeed in the early version of the game I played, is a placeholder and will not be in the final version of Dead Space 3. That's a good thing. Choosing an arsenal could be even more important than in the previous games, with a greater variety of enemies to face, many of which have more specific weaknesses. Even in the two levels that I played, the plasma cutter wasn't always the weapon of choice and I found myself intentionally switching from evisceral engineering equipment to actual guns for the first time in the series.
More on why that was later but first, a few words on the apparent move from the hulking hulls and stations of space to the ice and snow of a seemingly lost planet. I did have a chance to trudge through the snow, which parts and folds around Isaac's legs as he pushes his way through a skin-scouring storm, but that came later. You might have seen the E3 demo, with its out of control drill and giant weak-spot-studded monsters and that was the second area I played, but before that it was steam spewing pipes, narrow corridors and access tunnels. Isaac's back on a ship and it's as rundown and grim as ever.
A major strength of the series has been its ability to make space believable. Not space as in the screamless void, but rather the spaces in which the dismemberment occurs. The first game in particular, through signage, detail and layout, had a location that felt lived in and died in, an industrial workspace that flailed an acknowledging boneless limb in the direction of Alien’s Nostromo. That game’s problem, even as it launched the series, was how often it reused locations and repeated ideas. The hero as repairman, as janitor - Roger Wilco huffing nightmare fuel, although infinitely less prone to sudden death.
Seeing the ship makes the ice planet seem not so much a complete change of pace and scenery as a possible addition of some much-needed variety. The necromorphs are more grotesque than ever, the visuals enhanced so that each shuddering piece of cartilage and splash of fluid is lovingly rendered, and there are some changes. The spitters seem a different species entirely, much more dissolved and decayed, and in one sequence corpses writhed back to life, some missing limbs that had been severed previously and struggling to move at all, just spewing and snarling on the floor. Stomp on everything is the basic lesson here.
Isaac’s not afraid anymore though. The aggressive streak he showed in Dead Space 2 is even more magnified as he appears to be taking the fight to the necromorphs, perhaps even where they live. He’s on their lawn, shooting out their windows and kicking in the door, or at least that’s what it seems like. It’s not the greater frequency of action and set pieces that risk removing the fear (if not the horror) altogether, it’s the fact that these things, no matter how hideous they might be, are familiar now. To make me, and Isaac, afraid again, there’s going to have to be something unexpected.
And there was, down on the planet, but not in the way that I’d hoped. At this stage, the fourth entry in the series, Dead Space has built up a considerably mythology. The first game was about a man on a ship full of monsters searching for his girlfriend. The second was about what happened to him afterwards but also what had happened before in a broader sense and what was happening elsewhere. Dead Space 1 didn’t have much of an elsewhere and that’s one of the reasons its isolating terror was so effective, even though it was essentially an action game. Dead Space 3 seems like it might have a lot of elsewheres.
It comes down to this: I think I’d prefer to play a game about necromorphs rather than a game about batshit future-religion Unitology. The two are linked, sure, but as soon as Dead Space 3 put an assault rifle in Isaac’s gloves and planted him in a fight against some Unitologist believers, it lost me a little. Isaac with a gun shooting human beings just doesn’t feel like Isaac anymore. They gave him a voice and I was fine with that and now they’ve given him a partner (optional) and I’m actually fine with that as well, but once he starts crouching behind walls and charging positions with a shotgun, he’s definitely not an engineer anymore, he’s just another space marine.
The objection isn’t simply conceptual either. While the majority of my time on the planet’s surface was spent fighting all new necromorphs, with spiked tentacles erupting from their waists once their torsos had been neatly lopped off, once I started shooting humans the oomph was gone. Tough thing to capture oomph but let me put it like this: firing a scythe of energy into a mutant baby that’s hanging off a ceiling, dragging it from its perch and then pinning it to the floor before tearing the uncanny little bastard into quivering chunks of flesh with a shrieking circular saw is oomphy; firing a clip of bullets into a man who barely reacts to each shot and then falls over is not oomphy.
There was no point where I could use a plasma cutter on a human being, plot reasons having stripped me of all my engineering equipment by the time I ran into them. I do wonder if the man on man action will only take place during very isolated incidents where that is always the case, to avoid the messy consequences of strategically dismembering a living person. My assault rifle did knock someone’s leg off at one point but he was already dead.
Given how solid the rest of the game already feels, I reckon it’s an area that’ll see improvement, but at the moment, the man-shooting doesn’t feel as brutally satisfying or, bizzarely, as real as the monster-slicing. The presence of the unitologists does offer something that’s squelchy and satisfying though. I saw one hapless group caught between my Isaac, a fellow journalist’s Carver and a whole horde of necromorphs. Because computer games have transformed me from a mild-mannered chap into a cold-eyed and sadistic sociopath, I shot the unitologists in the legs and then watched the necromoprhs tear them to shreds. I did it to conserve ammo, which is why I was laughing at the time. I find tactical use of resources absolutely hilarious.
We need to talk about Carver. The entire game can be played solo and I managed to play through the snow level twice, once alone and once with a partner. There are changes where needed, such as a single switch to be pressed instead of two simultaneously or a helping hand from NPCs or the environment. I’m guessing there are more enemies as well, although we worked so perfectly in harmony that the game seemed a great deal easier than it had while alone. Perfectly in harmony except when we were stomping, swinging and shooting at each other, that is. The first rule of any co-op game played briefly is this: discover if friendly fire causes damage (here it does not) and then exploit that for comedy or sabotage.
The most interesting parts of the game from a co-op perspective where the set pieces, those being the giant malfunctioning drill and a giant fully functioning monster. The former requires one player to perform crowd control on necromorphs, perhaps by actually leading them into the drill’s path, while the other uses a combination of stasis and weaponry to disable the machine. It’s a fun sequence, although didn’t seem quite as hazardous as might be expected. As for the monster it’s an impressive boss battle, albeit rather familiar. Smaller enemies must be taken out while a larger enemy’s attacks are avoided and its glowing yellow bits are shot and shot and shot.
The co-op might add longevity, or at least that’s how I see it, because I can’t imagine playing through for the first time with a partner. I want to continue Isaac’s story without Carver bleating on in the background and I think the whole setting becomes much more ridiculous when a second person is thrown into the mix. It does feel like the strangest odd couple spin-off that never was, with bickering, disagreements and ‘accidental’ punching and grunting whenever in close proximity. I definitely want to play the game with a friend but not until I’ve seen it all first.
Despite my hesitance to embrace Isaac the man-murderer, I quietly applaud the apparent intent to bring some variety to the game. If the gun combat can be made more convincing and there are proper surprises in store as well, which I don’t doubt, then Visceral are probably going to suck me back into their lifeless vacuum. There’s much to discover yet, with suggestions everywhere of more complex mechanics and systems that can’t be spoken of yet, but based on what I’ve seen, Dead Space 3 isn’t the all-out hoo-rah action game some people are worried it might be. I hope that some of the surprises yet to come are actually frightening though and I kind of hope I don’t get to see those before I’m playing the game at home, headphones on, in the dark, for the very first time.