Dead Space 3 Co-Op Hands-on Preview -- Fight Together, Hallucinate AloneBy Adam Rosenberg - Posted Nov 12, 2012
Confusion. That's the secret to Visceral Games' formula for creating a successful co-op experience in Dead Space 3. The series' masterfully crafted sense of ambience delivered some terrifying moments in the previous two games, but having a second player in the mix--and a live human babbling into your headset--threatens to drain away a lot of the tension in the 2013 follow-up.
The challenge of delivering on the horror portion of Dead Space's action/horror presentation for two players demanded that a revised approach be taken. Dead Space 3 will function largely as it always has for those who embrace it as a solitary experience, but co-op pairs will instead feel the rising tension as they begin to question whether or not what they're seeing is actually real.
Marker-induced madness plays a critical role here. Returning protagonist Isaac Clarke and newcomer John Carver won't always be seeing the same things as they explore Tau Volantis together. Visceral hopes that the confusion created by these conflicting perspectives will tap into a similar sort of fear that solo players take from Dead Space.
The hands-on preview chosen to highlight this facet of Dead Space 3 took the form of two playthroughs of a small section of the game, one all alone and the other with a co-op partner. The solo chunk amounts to pretty standard-issue Dead Space, though it feels decidedly fresh thanks to the frozen Tau Volantis environment.
Visibility is low and Necromorphs are wont to hop out from behind snow drifts without warning. Jump scares rule the day, keeping you off-balance whenever the action starts to flare up. It's still familiar, rooted as it is in the same design philosophy that characterized the previous two games, but the setting feels like a change of pace. Fans of John Carpenter's The Thing are going to nerd out.
The co-op playthrough starts off in largely the same manner, with Isaac and Carver working their way through the snow-and an assortment of Necromorph foes--to a nearby outpost. It's only after they get inside that things start to get a little...wacky.
In the solo playthrough, Isaac steps inside and follows his checkpoint indicator down a dark, abandoned hallway to a door. That door leads into a second room of the sort that fans of this series ought to be acquainted with. Dark and fairly open with multiple Necromorph entry points in the floor and walls, it's a straightforward survival arena. Kill all the Necromorphs, proceed to the next bit of game. It's creepy, of course, but also familiar.
In co-op, Isaac still sees that same hallway leading to the same door. Carver, on the other hand, is confronted with pure nightmare juice: an out-of-place, life-sized wooden toy soldier covered in filth and grime. It's just sitting there in the middle of the hallway, plain as day. Carver can see it, but Isaac can't.
The toy soldier is situated in front of an elevator, not the door that Isaac went through during the solo section. This leads them to yet another room, one lined with more of the same toy soldiers. Again though, only Carver can see them. Isaac just finds himself standing in yet another dark, dirty room.
The two advance through Creepy Room and eventually find themselves standing in front of a large, sealed blast door. Co-op dissonance strikes again as they try to open it, as Isaac is suddenly faced with taking on a pack of Necromorphs attacking from the rear. Meanwhile, Carver is transported to...someplace else. A hallucinatory dreamscape with endlessly spawning Necromorphs. The only way out is to run straight through and reach the bright light at the other end, at which point Carver returns to reality and helps Isaac finish off the attackers.
It's honestly difficult to get a sense of how these conflicting chunks of gameplay will feel in the finished work when you're sitting next to your co-op partner--and the second screen--at a crowded co-op event. That said, I can certainly imagine sitting on my couch and freaking out at the sight of these bizarre toy soldiers while my confused friend tries to make sense of my ravings over his headset.
It's a clever approach, and it certainly seems like it will work. The challenge that Visceral now faces is getting the balance right. Too many dissonant gameplay moments and you run the risk of putting story ahead of gameplay, stripping away the heart of what people enjoy about co-op gaming. Too few of them, on the other hand, could potentially dilute the horror portion of Dead Space's action/horror appeal.
The big step of trying something new has at least been taken, and it's definitely a neat twist on what franchise fans know. Now all that remains is finding out if Visceral can strike that right balance. We'll know soon enough, as Dead Space 3 is set to hit stores on February 5, 2013.