Dead Space 3 co-op review: less scary, more efficient

I felt skeptical when I first learned that Dead Space 3 would feature a co-op campaign. This is a horror franchise that's been built on facing grisly creations in claustrophobic, tight spaces--not typically an experience that's meant to be shared. As I played through co-op with Shacknews' Jeff Mattas, I did, in fact, notice that some of the campaign's more intense moments do feel compromised with a partner. However, Dead Space 3's co-op campaign isn't completely bereft of tension and features many adrenaline-pumping moments that help set it apart from its well-designed, single-player counterpart. focalbox It should be noted that Dead Space 3's narrative unfolds the same, regardless of whether it's played solo or with a partner. While playing online co-op, the host plays as Isaac Clarke, while the client plays as Sgt. John Carver, a character that originally debuted in a YouTube short last year. Isaac and John will frequently exchange dialogue throughout the co-op campaign. However, many of the game's NPC's will solely address Isaac, many times completely disregarding Carver's existence. It's an odd narrative presentation that starts to feel awkward at various points. Survival remains key in co-op mode. If one partner dies, the game ends and both partners go back to the previous checkpoint. There's an optional co-op revival setting that allows players to revitalize their buddy within a time limit. This is not as big a crutch as it appears on the surface. Revival mostly comes into play during firefights, which are few and far-between. Necromorphs laugh in the face of this option, often taking players down by ripping them in half or dismembering them, ultimately rendering revival useless. In the end, this felt like the right way to go, since there's no quicker way to remove the game's tension than to resort to repeated resurrections. Two heads are better than one in Dead Space 3, with many of the solo campaign's tougher stretches feeling infinitely easier. One example saw Jeff and myself walk into a closed area to reactivate an excavation drill. The drill reactivated and went haywire, just as a large number of Necromorphs launched an all-out assault. This section of the game plagued Jeff during his solo run, since his focus was split across different hazards. With me there, though, I was able to focus on slowing down the drill and covering his back, making survival much easier. With many of Dead Space 3's solo scares watered down slightly, the co-op campaign tries to add tension elsewhere. One example came early in the game when Jeff was trying to work one of Dead Space 3's puzzle switches. While he could take his time with this in the solo campaign, co-op saw fit to throw out waves of Necromorphs from all angles. Since he couldn't back out of the puzzle, I had to cover his back and keep the Necromorphs off of him. Other areas of the game add co-op puzzles, requiring both players to work together to crack the solution and move forward. While the puzzles are easy, the game tossed in a few more scares here. There were times where I'd hear the dramatic music sting and find myself getting jumped out of nowhere in mid-puzzle. While there are a few apprehensive moments that stem from getting ambushed by a Necromorph lunging from the darkness, from the vents above, or from around a corner, however, it doesn't erase the fact that a partner makes the overall atmosphere less scary. Necromorphs can sneak up on you, but as long as you can call out to your partner, there's no real sense of danger to be had.

Carver's hallucinations add a bit of drama in co-op.

Perhaps the most creative addition to Dead Space 3's online co-op mode is the game's optional co-op missions. Structured exclusively for co-op, these missions flesh out Carver's story and take full advantage of the online setting. At various points during the mission, Carver would start hallucinating. While Jeff (on the client side) would start seeing weird, psychedelic visuals, I would simply see an empty room. A later co-op mission saw Carver having a psychotic breakdown--Carver would be in the middle of a nightmare fighting off shadowy figments of his mind, while Isaac was left alone to fend off Necromorphs that had suddenly infiltrated the area. It's a cool storytelling device and it's a shame that there weren't more of these moments utilized in the main story. Dead Space 3's co-op has some technical quirks that are hard to overlook, particularly the execution of its "drop-in, drop-out" feature. There were moments when Jeff lost his internet connection and would drop out of the game. I hoped the game would seamlessly continue until he could come back, but instead, I got a prompt noting that my partner had dropped and that I would have to be taken back to the previous checkpoint. This was a major annoyance, especially when it came after clearing out a room full of Necromorphs. While "drop-in, drop-out" co-op was touted as a major feature, it turns out that it doesn't fare too well once the game starts. In the end, there's really nothing like experiencing a Dead Space game alone. While I had fun with co-op and marveled at some of the tweaks made from the solo campaign, I can't deny that the overall experience loses something when playing with a partner. Necromorph waves fall quicker, bosses (including the final one) are easier to defeat, and scares ultimately feel diminished. If you have a friend, it's worth running through once, but just don't expect it to feel like the quintessential Dead Space experience.
This Dead Space 3 co-op review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copies of the game, provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC and PlayStation 3.