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…

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.