The wind was knocked out of fans at E3 this year when Visceral brought new definition to the term terrifying with its latest shake of the Dead Space tree. The claustrophobic, decrepit space junkers and abandoned planetary stations of earlier instalments appeared to have been jettisoned out the air lock in favour of bro-op shooting more akin to Gears of War than the franchise that had captured millions of survival horror adherents.
Gamers around the world looked on in shock as Isaac exchanged curses with Carver – a new cooperative character – and shot at highlighted zones on bosses while combat rolling from one piece of sticky cover to the next on the surface of a planet.
EA Labels president Frank Gibeau only fanned the flames shortly thereafter, when he suggested that finance must trump vision. Dead Space 3 needed to be “more broadly appealing” in order to “get to audience sizes of around five million to really continue to invest in an IP like Dead Space.”
Visceral’s Sharif Pattu told Gameplanet that the studio was prepared for the response the game received at E3.
“I think the initial reaction, yeah, we expected some people to be concerned about it. We wanted to showcase everything that was new at E3, we didn’t want to show Dead Space 2.5. When you have a sequel, you want to show what you’re innovating, one of our many new environments, human enemies, a new adaptive cover system.”
Since then, Visceral has been demonstrating some the more traditional elements and mechanics of the series as they appear in the third instalment. The hands-on demonstration shown to press at Gamescom makes a rocky start. Here’s Carver exchanging sharp words with player-protagonist Isaac as their ship is breaking up in orbit above Tau Volantis, the icy planet featured at E3.
Isaac must stumble down a crumbling, brightly lit corridor as fires spread and sirens wail. It’s easy to imagine our hero muttering that he’s getting too old for this. Next, Isaac makes a drearily “high octane” Michael Bay-esque grab for his space suit before being sucked into the vacuum of space and a debris dodging minigame in order to make it to an intact craft from the Lost Flotilla.
Once aboard, however, things return to the familiar. Isaac is soon navigating the decaying ship in pitch-blackness and fearfully checking behind him as sudden clatterings suggest he’s not alone in the dark.
Visceral’s audio mastery and its deliberately cramped camera, two aspects that make the first two games so powerful, return here in form. Later in the game, Pattu believes Visceral can apply these lessons to the new environments found in Dead Space 3. “It’s not just about the confined spaces but not being able to see while hearing acutely – having vision blocked so that while one sense is dulled, another is heightened,” he says. “When you go onto the planet surface you have a lot of conditions like heavy blizzards, so you can’t see. This time, now you can’t hear because the wind is up. There are shadows, shadowy figures in the background. Some weapons have an audio sensor, so you get the beeping, and that kind of thing. So that’s a whole new dimension of fear.”
“When you think about what it is about a dark corridor that makes you freaked out, you can apply those, if you’re creative, to a lot of different areas.”
Back aboard the Lost Flotilla, things are warming up: Isaac has reencountered the necromorphs and is shooting limbs off with aplomb. The cover mechanic and combat roll either aren’t implemented in the build or aren’t readily activated, but they also aren’t needed. Isaac can still shoot talons from his enemies and use them as projectiles, and weapons appear to be more robust than they have been in previous instalments.
Perhaps the most promising new addition shown at Gamescom was the inclusion of ad hoc weapon customisation. Isaac is an engineer, of course, and his arsenal has always had a certain number-8 feel to it. In Dead Space 3, Isaac can collect components and assemble Frankenstein’s arsenal.
“Something that people always liked was the nonconventional weapons,” says Pattu. “Isaac is an engineer, he’s engineering these tools and making use of what he’s got. A lot of people really resonated with that, and the team loved making the weapons. We evolved that in Dead Space 2 by adding mines and javelins. We’ve taken that to a new level with the weapon craft system, because now you’re engineering your own tools, and the player can now feel like an engineer because they’re creating something that feels unique to them.”
Now, Isaac can create one- or two-handed guns with primary and secondary fire; damage, splash and accuracy modifiers. In the game, all ammo appears to work for all weapon types, and if it’s a concession to the distress of hearing that click of an empty chamber, it facilitates a system that’s befitting of Isaac’s character, and a solid addition to the series’ gameplay.
After exploring this ship in the Lost Flotilla for half an hour, it turns out there may be much to recommend Dead Space 3 to existing fans of the series who are simply looking for more of the same. Indeed, the experience can at times perhaps be too familiar, as if most of the change and addition reserves were tapped creating Carver and cooperative play.
Nor does it appear that Visceral is short on ideas for the series. “There are a lot of questions that will be answered by the end of Dead Space 3, questions about the necromorphs and the Red Marker, stuff like that, but we’re not prepared to say this is the end by any means.”
“There are a lot of levers we can pull.”
We’ll learn whether Visceral and EA can deliver on Dead Space 3 when the game is released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 early next year.