The one question that everyone has about Dead Space 3 is whether or not the new co-operative aspect, optional though it is, will end up fundamentally dampening the sense of tension and atmosphere that has made the series so popular. Our hands-on session was split into two parts – we played on co-op for one half, tackling the other half alone – and what this did was demonstrate that Dead Space 3 is fully capable of being two completely different things. The single-player section was a slice of classic Dead Space, while the co-op section consisted of a large boss battle that took place out in the open, on the icy plains of Tau Volantis; the frozen planet where Isaac crash-lands during the game’s opening beats.
The single player portion of our hands-on session was itself split in two; the first half involved a mission to power down a space station generator, and the second found us traversing the surprisingly eerie wastelands of Tau Volantis. The space station mission was all dark corridors, flickering fluorescent light sources and locker looting, and could have appeared in either of the first two games. The shocks were effective – given life by the predictably brilliant soundtrack – and the atmosphere was foreboding and uneasy, so anyone who was worried that Visceral were about to turn the Dead Space franchise into a lunk-headed shooter is free to breathe a blessed sigh of relief.
Fundamental gameplay changes are pretty light on the ground, but they’re all welcome. Isaac now has a combat roll – or a backflip when he’s retreating – which is executed by double-tapping the run button. Almost every door on the space station had to be opened by using Isaac’s stasis ability to rotate a circular lock; unnecessary perhaps, but undoubtedly a more engaging process than simply walking up and pressing a single button. This also means that doors can now be opened and closed from a distance, which will hopefully spice up the odd hectic set-piece later on. We also encountered a new breed of necromorph called the Swarm Infector, which quietly slipped in behind us during one sequence, and swiftly resurrected all of the corpses in the room.
When the plot shifts to the surface of Tau Volantis the game doesn’t become any less atmospheric, and the outright success of this transition is what makes the biggest impression. Darkness is replaced by blinding sunshine, but your vision is massively obscured by a ferocious, ever-present snowstorm. Sound design is as immaculate as ever, and the quiet din of creaking wood and metal makes you feel not only as if you’re being watched, but also like you’re walking on totally unstable ground. The dim, barely visible corridors of the space station are replaced by rickety wooden walkways; the sensation of being flanked is replaced by the fear that the ground could collapse beneath your feet at any given moment.
Following a surprisingly exciting cliff-side QTE in which we pulled ourselves to safety from a dilapidated snow plough, we were joined by a co-op partner, who took the in-game shape of a ceaselessly profane grunt named John Carver. To say that Carver doesn’t like Isaac Clarke very much would be a gigantic understatement, and the way that the two characters converse with each other makes co-op feel like an altogether different thing. Carver constantly berates and abuses your words and decisions, and in addition to supplementary cut-scenes, playing through the game on co-op also promises to unlock an undisclosed number of special side-missions as well.
After dispatching a giant, spider-like necromorph on a barren plateau – by satisfyingly using stasis and gunfire in turn with our co-op partner – our demo was over, and it was difficult not to come away feeling extremely positive. Playing the space station mission in co-op may have led us to a completely different conclusion, but the aim here was clearly to show off the best of both worlds. The beauty of Dead Space 3 at this point is that it looks as if it’s going to work both alone and with a friend, and if you want the complete package, you’ll play it both ways. It’s rather a smart observation; when you’re playing something as heavy on narrative as Dead Space is, who would want to experience it on co-op first time around anyway?
Dead Space 3 is currently due for release on Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC on Friday, February 8th 2013.
Watch a Dead Space 3 gameplay walkthrough below: