Where to next?
Of the nearly three hours I played of Dead Space 3 two weeks ago, the final 30 seconds were perhaps the most telling about the experience, due out on February 5th for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Visceral Games is bringing Isaac Clarke back out of retirement for another run at the Markers and all of the trouble they've caused the universe.
Despite the possibility of an entire galaxy redeemed from gruesome life after death, Isaac remains reluctant, and who can blame him? How many franchises make it through three games in six years and come out shining on the other side? Dead Space started as a linear, horror-focused title in 2008 and expanded to include more white-knuckle action as a means to break the tension in Dead Space 2.
Thankfully, Dead Space 3 seems set to blow the air lock on everything you've seen the series do so far, expanding the amount of activity, interaction, and replayability you'll have with the universe and a cooperative partner. By the end of the demo, I saw Dead Space 3 as more Metroid than Resident Evil.
When it's revealed that Ellie, the femme fatale who aided Isaac in his escape from The Sprawl at the end of Dead Space 2, has gone missing, Isaac is left without a choice and joins Robert Norton and John Carver. It's at this moment that Unitologist insurgents blow up a Marker test site and infect the colony with the same disease originally encountered on the Ishimura.
The gameplay beats in these early chapters should be familiar to longtime fans of the series. Use Kinesis to solve puzzles and use the environment to your advantage. Use Stasis to slow down enemies and target their limbs easily. Blow the arms and legs off anything that moves, but give them a curb stomp or two to make sure they don't come back.
"Booooring," I thought. These beats weren't the ones I was hoping to see, but an explosion quickly separated me from the NPCs and I was left to pace through an eerily silent office building. Tension filled the air and one-off sound effects made my skin crawl. Then I heard Necromorphs behind me. Spinning around, I blew one enemy in half with my trusty Plasma Cutter. I quickly turned my attention to the other two who were trying to flank me.
Seemingly in control, I was suddenly at the mercy of the lower half left behind from my earlier shot. Some Necromorphs can transform and keep the pressure up on cocky players like me.
Fast forward to the Eudora, Norton, and Carver's ship en route to orbit Tau Volantis, the last known location of Ellie and her Marker research crew. When mines blow the armor hull and the vacuum of space destroys the ship, Isaac has to quickly suit up in classic Dead Space style and Halo-jump from one decimated transport to another left hanging in space for centuries.
There, Visceral reestablishes the way engineering challenges in the narrative are presented to the player as puzzles. A generator room requires Isaac to jump-start three turbines by rotating them into place with Kinesis, all while holding off intermittent Necromorph attacks. Tripping back through this room after completing an objective reveals that now another huge Necro monster has awoken in the bowels of the ship. Repeating the turbine action allows Isaac to defeat the monster, but not without some heart-pounding action and sound.
There was never a worry in my mind about Dead Space 3's sound design, as the series has built its reputation on audio cues and atmospheric design. I'd be happy to play six games of linear-corridor shooting if it means the lighting, mood, and aesthetic are on the level of Dead Space 1 and 2, but Visceral has added two new systems to keep things fresh.
Next: Handcrafted weapons and the open road
Weapon Crafting & Objective Choice
The first and most noticeable is the weapon and resource crafting mechanics you'll access at Benches strewn throughout the game. Benches allow you to craft new attachments, engines, and modifiers for your tools of dismemberment, whether you've discovered a new engine type in a crate somewhere or you've just gathered enough raw materials and scrap metal for the job.
I've got a long-standing fondness for the base Plasma Cutter, but attaching a Tesla coil to the gun added a shockingly effective Necro stopper as secondary fire. Before moving on I decided to attach the military engine to the lightweight stock my Plasma Cutter was built with. This gave me an Uzi-like weapon I could use to perforate Necromorphs.
Following that, I attached the Plasma core to a heavyweight stock I had in my inventory and found that it created a shotgun-like force blast that knocked charging enemies to the ground. While they struggled to get back up I quickly switched to my Uzi and sprayed them with enough ammunition to keep them down.
Experimenting with different weapons will yield incredibly varied results, but finding one you like can still result in the kind of satisfying gunplay Visceral attained in previous entries. There are still plenty of developer-crafted guns as well, allowing you to rebuild the Ripper you fell in love with or the Detonator Mines you used in Dead Space 2.
And then I came to the end. Instructed to jump to another ship and rendezvous with the rest of the cast, Isaac boarded a small cruiser called a "SK-1P." On my way to the transport, a comm line opened up and a Secondary Objective was added to my menu.
"That's odd," I thought briefly. With my oxygen running lower and lower, I boarded the "skip" and looked at the menu screen in front of me. Dead Space 3 doesn't just push you down a path, throwing Necromorphs and plot points at you. The "skip" allows players to choose their next destination.
It dawned on me that Dead Space 3 wasn't about to follow Resident Evil despite the intense similarities between the two. Instead, Visceral Games and Electronic Arts seem to smartly ape Metroid and Castlevania, rewarding players who explore with enhanced equipment, credits, suits, and guns. At this early stage, the skip would allow me to choose one of four floating cruisers locked in orbit around the planet Tau Volantis.
I could only assume how far the skip might take me as the demo was over at this point, leaving me to stare at the looming white planet in front of me. The suggestion of so much player autonomy left me hungry for more. Metroid's mysteries have always been enticing, playing off our limitless wonder of space and alien lifeforms. Dead Space 3 hopes to play off our fear and excitement for the unknown and alien monsters. We'll see if Visceral can capitalize on this newly expanded vision of Dead Space in the coming weeks.