When Visceral Games’ Dead Space first slithered its way into existence it managed to strike a balance between action and horror that resonated with gamers who wanted more out of their shooters. It was scary and tense, and in control of the inexperienced engineer Isaac Clarke, players were filled with the feeling that they had to hone their own skills to make up for the protagonist’s lack. Then Dead Space 2 emerged, and with it, a more capable Clarke who could hold his own a little better. More militant in his approach to dealing with the Necromorph threat, he nudged the series further towards the action genre but the game still held its own in assisting players to empty the contents of their bladders at inopportune moments. Looking at that progression and the way that mainstream games have evolved over the years, it’s clear that Visceral plans to bring even more action to the dissection table with Dead Space 3. What’s that rule with the third title in a trilogy? All bets are off…
Following the events of Dead Space 2 (which you can learn all about in the below video – spoilers are guaranteed), our now highly experienced hero Isaac Clarke and a few friends he met along the way have decided to take the fight to the Necromorphs and follow a lead that could help them eradicate the alien infestation for good. This brings them to the icy planet of Tau Volantis, where a secret government colony was established that could hold the key to the eradication of the Necromorphs.
An Isaac Clarke more skilled in combat has a number of implications on the gameplay in Dead Space 3 which, collectively, put the game quite a distance from its predecessors. Perhaps the biggest change is the inclusion of The Circle – a zealous group within the Unitology religion that is out for blood – Isaac’s blood, to be specific. Unitologists believe that the Necromorphs are the next evolution of humanity, and embrace the parasitic species as a means of transcending this life and waking up in Heaven where everything will be happy cakes and lullabies forever. They also have this thing where they want to destroy all of humankind, too, which sort of makes them a bummer to be around when Clarke is searching through the frozen ruins of Tau Volantis for the information he needs. Many familiar reanimated beasts will return to slice up and generally murder Isaac in a variety of interesting ways, but the Circle are quite different to anything we’ve seen in the series before. For one, they use guns and wear armour, and they don’t like to run straight at you like the Necromorphs, either. To deal with this ranged foe, Isaac has learnt to take cover and fire from reinforced positions. It seems like a sensible thing to do, but often players will encounter Circle and Necromorph enemies together, forcing them to think on their feet and not get trapped in what initially appeared to be a safe little corner somewhere.
Clarke has also developed as an engineer, and this means that the previously simplistic weapon upgrade system has been expanded to a system that will see you gathering scrap and building your own weapons. Upgrade benches (which also serve as item storage safes) dotted throughout the planet’s rickety infested installations can be used to turn scavenged items like scrap metal, somatic gel packs, tungsten shards and semiconductors into ammunition, healing packs, stasis recharge kits or even whole new weapons.
Weapons are made up of a number of components which can either be found or built from base scavenged parts. They begin with a frame which determines whether one or two “tools” (guns) can be attached to the weapon. Each tool is made up of a base component and a tip, the former affecting the type of damage (bullet, electricity, etc.) and the latter dictating how that damage is delivered – sprayed in a cone, confined to a point, fired rapidly, or something more exotic like a bouncing bolas projectile, for example. Attachments include the standard sorts like scopes and rate-of-fire triggers. Then there are the regular circuit upgrades which will be familiar to series veterans. Although this application is a little simpler than the old system, upgrades still affect weapons by increasing damage, rate of fire, clip size and so on.
Along with suit upgrades like hit points, oxygen and stasis power, weapon upgrade circuits can also be assembled from scavenged parts, which creates an interesting resource balancing act that players will have to learn; it also allows players to better define their play style by mixing offensive and defensive upgrades across a large field of options. How much this will detract from the traditional Dead Space atmosphere remains to be seen, but the fact that you can instantly swap fire modes between two weapons and manufacture ammo for your preferred weapon strongly suggests that Dead Space is keen to push further into the mainstream market and away from the horror of being abandoned in a corridor filled with tentacle baby things with nothing but your big boy boots to protect you.
Along with the new cover system and resource management, there’s another, quite decidedly un-horrific addition to the series: two player co-op. Since Clarke isn’t entirely on his own on Tau Volantis, it makes sense to give him a combat buddy should the player desire (this is an entirely optional feature). If player 2 does press start, they’ll jump into the skin of Sergeant John Carver. Awesomely surnamed, battle-hardened and kind of a nut-job, Carver will fight alongside Clarke and in doing so will have a fairly significant impact on the narrative. With Carver on board, you’ll experience a number of cutscenes and gameplay challenges that wouldn’t take place if you were on your own, so there’s sure to be some replayability owing to that.
There’s no denying that Dead Space 3 is setting itself up to be a very different animal to its two older siblings. It’s heavy on the action but we’ve seen a lot of familiar throwbacks. The cynics might argue that the throwbacks are just there to quench the thirst of series diehards, and that the new features have been added purely to cater towards the bro shooter market and turn this intense single player experience into one better enjoyed with a six pack. Does Dead Space need any of this stuff? Will it be a better game for it? Is it necessary to transform the series? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered; let’s hope that those answers are positive when the game launches next month.
[As an added bonus for being awesome at life and taking the time to read this preview, we've got a pair of download links below. Swiftly clicking them will reward you with the original PDFs of NAG magazine's previews and reviews of Dead Space and Dead Space 2. You can thank us later. – Ed.]