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Dead Space 3: Why the 'dumbed-down' action game additions you're scared of actually make it a better survival-horror

Co-op. Proper machine guns. Cover-shooting against human enemies. Loads of ammo. Co-op. All of these things more often than not utterly ruin a horror game (especially co-op), so I'd been scared of Dead Space 3 for all the wrong reasons since its E3 2012 reveal. But now I've played it, I can happily tell you that none of the above makes this second sequel any less true to its brutally disturbing roots. In fact they make it even better.

Trust me, I have not gone mad. And I shall now address each of the previously perturbing things about Dead Space 3, so that you truly know that I have not gone mad.

You can erase any hint of the co-op mode's existence

Co-op, the accepted wisdom goes, usually makes most games better. In the case of the horror genre though, that statement is only accurate as far as you replace the word “usually” with “categorically and without fail”, and swap out “better” with “a lightweight, irritating atmosphere vacuum”. Throw in the option of a second player, you see, and you all-too-often get a story written around two characters by default. And thus, even when choosing to play alone, you end up with a perpetually present ammo-thief/target-blocker/one-liner generator/tension sponge, hobbling unconvincingly alongside you, making the whole thing a rather tiresome and unexciting affair. Or, to use a more economical description, you end up with Resident Evil 5.

Above: You will note how there is only one person in this screenshot

Not so in Dead Space 3. While I was flat-out miserable at the first mention of Dead Space getting co-op, and borderline catatonic after the E3 demo, it turns out developer Visceral has actually side-stepped every potential problem by way of a very simple technique. Co-op character John Carver just isn’t in the game when you’re not playing solo. The approach, obviously, has been around since Contra, but for some reason most devs have seemed completely oblivious to it this generation.

Implementing it has taken a bit of extra work (two versions of the story for a start, with Carver appearing as an occasional NPC in the single-player mode), but Visceral seems to appreciate that extra effort is worth it if it means not ruining the core appeal of the game.

Above: Same here, plus a Necromorph doing the dance from Thriller

And aside from that, there are actually some bonuses to be had from co-op. For instance the totally drop-in, drop-out nature of both the mode and Carver himself means that should you hit a difficulty bottle-neck you can always bring a friend in for a bit of temporary help before continuing on your own. And, post-completion, New Game+ is fully available in co-op. With branching paths, the return of DS1's more explorable hub structure, and a bunch of extra, co-op only side-missions - not to mention NG+'s weapon and armour boosts -  you can essentially turn Dead Space 3 into two completely different games depending on how you play it. Oh, and you wouldn't believe how fun Dead Space's trademark corpse-stomping is with two players.

Isaac’s new manoeuvrability doesn’t make him a badass.
It has the opposite effect

Isaac can now duck and perform evasive rolls in Dead Space 3. So it’s Gears of Dead Space: Drake’s Misfortune, right? Wrong. While Isaac’s new found manoeuvrability might send alarm bells going off in your head (provided you have some kind of crazy Inspector Gadget style hazard warning system implanted into your cranium), in reality they haven’t actually changed the core survival horror gameplay much. Because in reality, they’re not half as useful as you might expect.

Above: Go on, roll your way out of that one

Isaac’s evasive roll, for instance, is a rather stiff and clunky affair, and nigh impossible to accurately control when trying to roll at diagonals. Basically, it’s a combat roll focused through the lens of cumbersome survival horror control, rather than survival horror control ruined with the addition of a combat roll. In fact, if anything, it’s a hindrance in DS3’s tight, cramped, black-as-an-eight-ball’s-bumhole corridors. With little room even for traditional movement, a flailing leap into a wall is hardly going to help you stay on top of a tricky combat situation. In fact the only real use I found for it was in making a large boss' charging attack less frustrating. And let's face it, that sort of thing did need fixing.

Similarly, Isaac's new crouch seems useless except in specific cover-shooting scenarios (which I’ll come onto in the next bit). Again, it’s a rather stiff and slow manoeuvre, and thus it's about as effective against Dead Space’s bestiary of thrashing, scrabbling, whip-lashing beasties as trying to stab a flaming Balrog with an ice-cream cone. Instead, it seems only really intended for use in squatting behind boxes while angry men fire bullets at the space where your head would otherwise have been. And speaking of that…

Cover-shooting is scary rather than exhilarating

Cover-shooting. Men. Guns. Open spaces. Total loss of brand identity. Rubbish. I know what you’re thinking, and you should not feel silly for thinking that. I was thinking the same thing until I played Dead Space 3, and I’m brilliant and certainly far from silly. But the fact is we need not have worried. When men with guns do appear in open spaces and force you to shoot them from cover in Dead Space 3, it’s far from a gung-ho, Chuck-Norris-with-a-chaingun affair. In fact it’s pretty oppressive.

Above: Gung-ho gets you gibbed. A nice alliterative piece of Dead Space 3 advice for you there

Human enemies are bullet-sponges, soaking up multiple hits from the very same tools that would split a Necromorph in half with a single shot. They can also put you down in no time at all, forcing an approach much closer to cower-and-crap-yourself than fire-and-forget. Without a specific lock-to-cover system (instead the game gives you a context-sensitive pop-up-and-shoot movement when it realises you’re ducking behind cover) there’s none of the sense of safety you get in Gears of War or Uncharted. And again, Isaac’s considerably more lumpen movements only compound the feeling of being on the back foot.

Basically, it works. It probably has no right to, but thanks to a bit of careful implementation, it actually does. So that’s another thing less to worry about. As is…

30 comments

  • sciencepatrol - August 8, 2012 2:27 p.m.

    One of the big factors that helped make the protagonist in the first Dead Space so interesting and likeable was his every-man quality. He was just some working class shlub thrown into a horrifying situation without any combat experience or know-how. He fought with his tools and whatever was laying around the ship. His own personal narrative was compelling. He was slow moving and clumsy, not because of poorly implemented controls or a half-baked combat engine, but because if you were the ships engineer skulking around the depths of some restricted access maintenance bay in a massive protective suit you probably wouldn't jump around into and out of cover like a cop in a John Woo movie. Whatever. Another one bites the dust.
  • Fox_Mulder - July 31, 2012 2:39 p.m.

    Thank you for this, David.
  • code_r - July 31, 2012 11:36 a.m.

    These ideas are pretty weak, cover shooting and daylight are big problems, and not ever going to contribute to a horror atmosphere.
  • AngelsandDemons1 - July 31, 2012 6:58 a.m.

    Wishful thinking by the author indeed...open spaces mean plenty of space to move around and maneuver. That open, bright tundra is what turned me off the most after the co-op boss fight. The claustrophobic halls create automatic tension when you see big, sharp-toothed, monsters with glowing eyes suddenly charging at you from the "DARKNESS"...isn't this why we like to sleep with the lights on? "Bullet sponges"...everybody hates bullet sponge NPC because designers don't tend to give you more ammo to compensate. It's a cheap way to increase the difficulty like infinite enemy respawns in a choke point. With all due respect, based on the typo in your first paragraph, obviously no one is editing your articles, David.
  • Todd Danger - July 31, 2012 6:56 a.m.

    Even with the new stuff I cannot look past it just because it isn't good to use. I have to look at it because it is in the game. No amount of good or bad implementing is going to save it. I play this game because of no cover shooting and I get to kill horrible monsters not people.
  • ParagonT - July 31, 2012 6:25 a.m.

    I'm not convinced like many others as well. Something seems off about this game and no offence, but I'm in no hurry to get my pre-order from these types of articles. This article just highlighted all the good counters to the criticism, so I think that it's being too approving in my taste (good article although). I'll look into the gameplay myself when there is more released.
  • GuyIncogntio - July 31, 2012 5:05 a.m.

    So how much money did EA pay you to write an article about how we should be happy EA is destroying the survival horror genre?
  • Cruddi - July 30, 2012 5:26 p.m.

    Just one Question. Can the humans be disected like the necros or do they just drop in the end? I was hoping that you could disect the humans or the very least the killing shot could remove the limb it hit. I'm no sadist, but i remember the days when games like Soldier of fortune 2 would allow you to blow arms, legs off and even blow open a characters stomac this generation of games seem to have done away with dismemberment of all "living" characters. Even blood olmen 2 allowed you to cut heads off (if i remember right lol)
  • slimjim441 - July 30, 2012 1:26 p.m.

    This article has completely shattered any doubts I had from E3. I'm excited to be pissing myself with a friend in DS3, but first I need to finish getting platinum in DS2. Great work, Dave.
  • Pwnage19 - July 30, 2012 1:11 p.m.

    "Co-op character John Carver just isn’t in the game when you’re not playing solo." If I'm not mistaken, that was incorrectly written. It should say that John Carver isn't in the game when YOU ARE playing solo.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - July 31, 2012 1:36 a.m.

    Correct. Will tweak. You get today's prize. It is imaginary.
  • ObliqueZombie - July 30, 2012 12:13 p.m.

    I can't thank you enough, Mr. Houghton. Not only did I get a few good laughs before work, but you've utterly opened up my excitement for the game. Dead Space, though not as scary the second- and third-playthrough with New Game+, was always one of my favorite new generation series. On so many levels, the least of which is was that is was devoid of glitches and bugs, it was a triple-A game worthy of its triple-A description. I will share this fantastic bit of writing to anyone who says Dead Space 3 is losing its luster. (Of course, it could still suck. But I trust your judgement of games. After all, you're professional.)
  • Viron - July 30, 2012 11:07 a.m.

    I remember them saying somewhere that there was going to be weapon crafting and that was why they had uni ammo. Guess now you'll have to ration ammo for your plasma ripper.
  • Clovin64 - July 30, 2012 11:05 a.m.

    I'm looking forward to Dead Space 3 overall, but I'm not convinced by your defence of the cover shooting, Hooters. Bullet sponges that can cut you down in seconds? I forsee some irritating difficulty spikes. :(
  • Crypto140 - July 30, 2012 10:21 a.m.

    I think that insted of showing us more and more footage about the new Co-op features, they should show us more of the single player and what will make that great, insted of constantly trying to say "Look at this crazy new Co-op, do you love it yet, do you do you do you do you?!". Show us what will make us love the single player of Dead Space 3, things like what will be the same from Dead Space 1 and 2, or what will be improved from the previous games, like the rolling to avoid the boss attacks. Then once their fanbase is ok with it, then move on to showing us the Co-op and other new features so we know it's still going to be the Dead Space we love first, and not some new game that's just an excuse to give us a new feature(Kind of like Assassin's Creed Brotherhoods multiplayer, or God of War Ascension's mulitplayer). Don't sell the game based on the new Co-op, make us buy it because it will be a fun Dead Space game. The Co-op is nice to have and it might work out to be somthing amazing, and we will use that as an example for future games when they do somthing like this. But the Dead Space devs shouldnt put all their eggs in the Co-op basket. Alright, horribly worded and gramaticly incorrect rant over
  • CrashmanX - July 30, 2012 10:09 a.m.

    I want to buy DS3. I really do. But that'd mean having to go through Origin. DAMN YOU EA!
  • ObliqueZombie - July 30, 2012 12:10 p.m.

    ... Wow. I... ... I never thought of that. :'(
  • RedHarlow - July 30, 2012 10:02 a.m.

    Yeah, I still don't know if I'm convinced yet.
  • Rhymenocerous - July 30, 2012 8:11 a.m.

    Sounds... Alright. But to be honest I'm not convinced by the human enemies - making them bullet sponges isn't a good thing at all. Also, that partner bloke can just appear in co-op, then disappear again for solo play? What?! Hopefully This doesn't read too negative.
  • DaManStan - July 30, 2012 6:15 a.m.

    I think horror games with guns could actually be incredibly scary if done right. Just make the guns work realistically. Imagine a terrifying monster coming at you and your gun jams, or misfires? I'd say STALKER got it the best with realistic ballistics, just add jamming and misfires to that and you could create a lot of tension.

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