Isaac dated survival horror. Then he started coming home late, his space miner’s suit smelling like a different genre, and still survival horror stayed quietly by his side. He’d been fooling around with action horror. It never got bad enough to give up, but the phone calls came less frequently and the fights got louder. One night, Isaac came home with his friend John, pulled survival horror aside, and asked the unthinkable.
I believe it’s pronounced “drop-in drop-out coop.”
To evolve any beloved IP is essential to the business model of game development. Rather unlike film, game sequels have an undue burden to grow, to develop new limbs, to tread new ground, but to do it in a way that Commenter #48 feels is “true to the series.” It’s a ridiculous proposition because the IP is the developer’s insight. Games that fall outside blockbuster appeal can’t afford to iterate; they must innovate or reappropriate to draw attention, and to keep that new game smell that made the IP so attractive initially.
From what Visceral Games and EA showed of Dead Space 3 at E3, Isaac’s new companion has changed the tone for the series away from the survival horror staples that made Dead Space somewhat of a cult hit back in 2008. The series’ influence grew with a quicker, more badass Isaac in Dead Space 2, already creeping away from the shadows and into rich thriller territory. Dead Space 3 will sport drop-in drop-out cooperative play as it introduces a new protagonist, John Carver, and bright, open environments on the surface of the frozen planet Tau Volantis.
To be clear, none of this is a step backward for Dead Space. When Isaac takes non-locking cover behind some space crates in a shootout with some non-zombie Unitarians, Dead Space 3 loses the taut terror it left back in the Ishimura, but it picks up the tempo and presents an accuracy challenge unlike the twitch reactions required by a space station’s confined corridors. When Carver rattles off his eighth buddy-cop one-liner (“You’re the rocket scientist!”), a universe formerly consumed by dread gets a twinge of macho humor. When Isaac rolls out of the way of a colossal hive-mind stage boss, the streamlined controls empower the player.
It’s a departure from atmospheric, lingering horror, but it’s not unexpected or unwelcome. Dead Space 2 effectively bridged the gap between survival horror and action horror in play and narrative, setting the stage for Isaac’s third brush with necromorphs, markers, and things that go “Altman!” All that looks to be missing from Dead Space 3 a sense of habitation, a stake greater than the fate of the heroes and their damsel.
The bleak, snowy landscape leaves open the door for the psychological and visual impairment that crippled players in past games. Dead Space introduced players to a new breed of space zombie with the words, “Run Isaac, get the hell out of there!” Dead Space 2 opened with a gruesome custom animation of an up-close necromorph transformation and a harrowing dash bound by a staight jacket through an infested medical ward. Dead Space 3 feigns at a similar powerlessness at the beginning of the second act by limiting Isaac’s visible range and crumbling the arctic industrial complex beneath Isaac’s feet a la Uncharted 2. Outside of the imposing character of the environment, a few pop-scares and some torsos sprouting tentacles seem to be all that’s left of the tension that piloted the series.
On the other end of the spectrum, the weaponry has been injected with a sense of practicality, combining weapons like a semi-automatic with a shotgun, or the plasma cutter with the ripper. Put this jacked-up arsenal in the hands of two players, each also outfitted with Kinesis and Stasis modules (throwing stuff, slowing stuff) and the sci-fi shooting gallery takes a turn for the high-octane. A good example is the drill segment shown in the E3 demo which finds Isaac and Carver dodging a swerving drill while dismembering scores of mutated miners and tactically disabling the drill from the inside. It’s a new brand of intensity for the series, and one that EA is hoping will net the company five million fans to keep the IP alive.
Visceral’s answer to the potential watering down of an action-horror experience with cooperative play is to make it completely optional. That is, Dead Space 3‘s narrative can be played through with one player and no AI sidekick, or two players. As the E3 demonstration implies, the “fuller” game is found in co-op. Contextualizing conversations, asides, even cutscenes are missing from the lonelier single-player game, although Isaac’s scripted animations appear to be tailored for either scenario. Given this protagonist’s illusion-speckled past, an insanity defense might function as the narrative rationale for the co-op compatibility.
What’s most concerning about co-op here is the “have our cake” mentality. If a studio is going to craft a solo horror experience, can that be reconciled to an action-oriented co-op experience? Invariably, compromises will have to be made, which have the potential to dilute the sense of direction or purpose of both experiences. If Visceral is able to seamlessly integrate co-op into a focused single-player survival-horror narrative, it will be a first.
The trailers for Dead Space and Dead Space 3 explain best the evolution of the series, especially when compared side-by-side. The original is, more than anything, disturbing. The newest iteration appears to be huge, bristling with activity, and polished to a frosty sheen.