Dead Space has never been about frightening the player with cheap scares. Sure, every now and then it throws a surprise at you, but its strength has always been in creating a constant sense of fear as you sneak from room to room, plasma cutter raised, with almost no ammunition to spare. I took the first 20 minutes of Dead Space 3 for a spin, but found that while the action is still there, the game itself is largely removed from its horrific predecessors.
I began the demo by helping Isaac and his two counterparts escape from an exploding ship in the most suitable way possible – by latching on to the exterior of an escape pod. Flying through space while dodging oncoming ship debris and space mines (like land mines, only in space) is a pretty exciting introduction to the game and a good way to come to grips with the controls. The good news is that the core mechanics essentially remain the same.
After a daring escape, poor Issac floated towards another spaceship in search of oxygen, but after breaking into the ship, finds a trail of destruction, reminiscent of the USG Ishimura. Of course, while there was oxygen, the master power had been shut down, and it was up to him to venture into the bowls of the blood-soaked ship to restore it.
Despite multiplayer not being present for the demo, the game still felt like it was tailored towards it, even in single player mode. Although Isaac completes tasks on his own during the campaign, his two friends are along for the ride, remaining in constant communication. Like previous Dead Space games, this eliminates the opportunity to create a feeling of total isolation and mutes the impact of the horror.
It wasn’t long before the first Necromorphs made themselves known, only this time something felt different. A few well aimed plasma cutter bolts dispatched them, but Isaac wasn’t screaming in fear. It doesn’t feel like you are fighting to save his life in a truly desperate situation. Instead, Isaac came off as a headstrong action hero who can handle just about any situation the universe throws at him. In this little group of three, Isaac is the ultimate bad-arse; a point he nails home by shouting “I’ve dealt with these fuckers before.”
No more underdog, no more surviving against all odds. Meet Isaac Clarke, the action hero of 2013. This shift in tone completely changes the feel of the fight sequences. The pressure is still there, but this time you feel capable and confident, feelings that shouldn’t exist in a survival horror. You’ll still need to make every shot count, but doing so doesn’t feel like an act of desperation. After five minutes of exploring, the sense of fear that may have held over from the previous games drops off and you’ll find yourself forgetting to enter each room with your gun raised. At its core, Dead Space 3 is an action game with survival horror element – the direct opposite to the previous iterations.
As I progressed through the spaceship, the game threw Necromorphs at the engineer left right and centre, bringing back a few old favourites and introducing some new alien spawn. Cleverly, some of the new morphs maintain their human form, lulling you into a false sense of security until they launch themselves at you. They move faster and are more cunning than the previous games, which will both make things a little difficult for newcomers and please fans of the series. Strategic execution is great fun, especially when you walk up to a de-limbed Necromorph to finish him off with a well aimed stomp.
That said, Dead Space 3’s action is still rather predictable. Walk into a room and start turning on switches and you’re guaranteed to encounter a tonne of enemies within a few minutes. The music is still overly invasive and adds little to the atmosphere. Instead of increasing tension, it plays a touch too early, alerting you to the presence of your foes. But overall, the creepy sci-fi atmosphere holds up nicely, particularly the ambient sounds of the ship, which are pitch perfect.
The silence of space amplifies the metallic grind of the ship; the sound of a surviving human being mauled in an unknown room and each step that Isaac takes. But the level designers seem to have forgotten to put any effort into the lighting effects, which greatly contributed to the atmosphere of Dead Space 1 and 2. Still, staring out a window into the vastness of space continues to create that feeling of hopelessness, even if it is heavily muted by Isaac’s attitude. Graphically it’s on about the same level as Dead Space 2 with a few improvements here and there.
Although we were only gifted two weapons, the additions to Dead Space 3 are excellent. The trusty old plasma cutter remained, but then there was a really cool gun that fires electronic bolts, similar to the buzz saw. Firing one of these bad boys at the legs of 3 Necromorphs and watch them simultaneously fall to the floor in a beautifully gory display of dismemberment. The weapons bench has also been completely overhauled, allowing upgrades and modifications. It’s pretty complex, but worth looking into, as the potential for weapon modification extends far beyond increasing firing rate and ammo capacity.
But don’t expect this to be easy. Upgrading weapons now involves scavenging around for parts, hidden deep in the shadows. On the face of it, this seems a little tedious, but it’s actually a nice way to encourage players to explore their surroundings and find those tiny hidden elements which add an extra layer to the story and environment. Not that there’s much to say about the horror elements of the environment. Wandering into a room in Dead Space felt harrowing. Here, it feels forced. Like someone on this ship travelled to the USG Ishimura and thought “man, that place is so dark and awesome, let’s deck our ship out to be like that.”
Granted, I only played the first 20 minutes, which may not be indicative of the gameplay that follows, but at this stage it seems that Dead Space 3 is shaping up to be an action based strategic shooter with horror elements. Without that sense of isolation and the reassuring sense that Isaac is able to take on all comers, these elements are all but subdued. Visceral Games has stated that the horror comes from the story which emerges later in the game, so hopefully something will happen that shakes the military grade Isaac to the core, re-igniting his fragile mental state.
Keep the faith Dead Space fans, but do so with an air of caution.
Dead Space 3 is out in February 2013 for Xbox 360 and PS3.