Dead Space 3 preview: taking risks

By Kat Bailey, Dec 13, 2012 11:35am PST

When Dead Space 3 made its E3 debut earlier this year, the early results didn't seem especially promising. By moving to an ice planet, it seemed to be trying to ape The Thing while simultaneously betraying the franchise's original spirit of terror and claustrophobia. We saw giant ice monsters and thought, "Why is Dead Space trying to replicate Lost Planet?"

The people at Visceral Games, however, know what they're doing. They understand what makes this series tick. And as it turns out, moving down to a planet may be just what Dead Space needs.

Of course it had to be an ice planet. The dead of winter is about as close as you're going to get to replicated the cold, barren vacuum of space. From The Shining to The Thing, many classic horror movies have made great use of wintery settings. Dead Space is right to do the same.

The level shown at EA's latest press demo eschewed the great outdoors for a frozen cave--an environment every bit as narrow and stifling as the Ishimura. It's dark, it's cold, and to paraphrase another great sci-fi horror film: "They come out of the wall man." The Necromorphs on Dead Space 3's ice planet are everywhere, and they're more powerful too. This particular breed has been lying dormant for centuries, using the time to gather their strength.

Luckily for Isaac, the protagonist of the first two games, he's not alone. Unfortunately, the newcomer John Carver is also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder following his own run-ins with the Necromorphs. Regardless of what happens, it doesn't seem destined to be a happy pairing.

Among fans, the decision to add co-op was heavily criticized when it was first revealed at E3. Even after four years, the flaws of Resident Evil 5 remain very fresh on everyone's minds. There are signs, however, that Dead Space 3 will succeed where Capcom's seminal survival horror series failed.

"We definitely learned a lot from Resident Evil 5," said a Visceral representative at the event. "The most important thing we learned was to not use AI partners, because otherwise you're never alone, and you lose the atmosphere and the sense of fear."

It's a smart decision on Visceral's part. If anything sapped the horror out of Resident Evil 5, it was the cumbersome process of swapping items with the AI partner; not to mention the complete lack of atmosphere. Dead Space 3, it would seem, neatly manages to avoid both pitfalls.

One consequence, however, is that it substantially raises the overall degree of difficulty for Visceral. Consider, for example, John Carver's PTSD, which worsens as the game goes on. In addition to having his own character arc, Carver will actually hallucinate, which means that he will see things that the player controlling Isaac cannot. It's a fascinating dynamic, but Visceral's engineers are in for a heck of a time keeping everything synced.

The other challenge the Dead Space 3 team faces has to do with the decision to eliminate the AI partner. That decision means that they have to effectively create an entirely new set of cutscenes--one for single-player and one for online co-op. Basically, Visceral now has to do twice the work.

If Visceral can implement co-op without sacrificing the horror though--something of a white whale for the genre--it'll be worth it. And to make things a bit more interesting for Xbox 360 users, the game will use Kinect for voice commands, allowing for such things as sharing ammo or giving health.

In the meantime, Dead Space 3 is just as stifling (in a good way!) and nerve-wracking as ever. It feels like a pretty logical extension of Dead Space 1 and 2, which felt unlikely as recently as a few months ago. Among the major plot points that Visceral plans to hit is the origin of the mysterious Markers--the alien artifacts that have a great deal to do with the creation of the Necromorphs.

By and large, it feels like Dead Space 3 is coming together rather nicely after a somewhat shaky E3 debut. Given a few months to polish up the graphics, Dead Space 3 is now looking like one of this generation's more attractive games. The ice cave inspires the appropriate amount of dread, and the Necromorphs have a gross sort slithering organic look that is all the more jarring when juxtaposed against the sterile snow. The effect is appropriately eerie.

The best thing that can be said about Dead Space 3 is that it continues to look ahead, take risks, and further the overall franchise. It would have been easy enough for Visceral to make another single-player survival game set among the stars, but it's clear that this team is looking for a challenge. So far, they've been more been more than equal to it.

The game is scheduled for release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on February 5.

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