When I first played Dead Space, way back in 2008, I had to clean my undies. That game was really, really frightening. I like sci-fi, and I like sci-fi narratives when everything goes to hell in a suspenseful handbasket. But I can't handle horror, I'm way too much of a wuss. Dead Space was all of those things - and even though I could never grow the balls to finish it I'd always held its survival horror ethos in high regard.
So I was genuinely surprised when I sat down for an eyes on with Dead Space 3 at E3. It's survival horror mechanic, which I had thought had sat at the core of the franchise, seems to have been remixed, mashed up and reinvented - and I'm not yet sold on its new direction.
In a darkened, suitably atmospheric backroom in EA's booth space, I was privy to a 30 minute demo of Dead Space 3's gameplay. This play-through detailed the events leading up to the footage displayed at EA's press conference and gave us on the showroom floor some more context about what was happening and why.
The segment opened with Dead Space 3's hero, the indomitable Isaac Clark, hanging upside down in a freezing blizzard. He'd crashed his spaceship on the snowy planet 'Tal Valentis' - a new, open world playable experience that Visceral Games heavily emphasized.
After coming to his senses and checking all his body parts were present and accounted for, Isaac made his way further into the snowy depths - encountering along the way necromorphs inside the corpses of frozen humans, strange necromorphs that jump for the head and attempt to control humans - both those living and dead - and also big, cinematic creatures that put up a stiff fight. The demo ended with Isaac and his co-op companion being swallowed by a mammoth beast, and ending up submerged in its vile belly.
The gameplay was certainly entertaining and quite fun to watch. Except I had a niggling suspicion I'd seen something quite similar before. Alien creatures, open(ish) worlds, violent third person combat and cooperative play seemed very familiar. So familiar in fact, that I seem to recall Microsoft publishing 3 doppelgangers, and announcing a fourth. The Gears of War comparison isn't totally accurate - they are, of course, two distinct franchises - but the move towards open worlds, shooting from cover, and mysterious human enemies replete with insect-like monsters does come close enough to make you wonder out loud. If the whole title is going to be played in this vein then Dead Space 3 has come a long, long way from its inception. My first impression is that it's perhaps stretched too far, but I'll reserve judgement on that until there is a completely finished product.
But this new approach does offer some interesting challenges. For me, co-op has been a strong theme at this years E3, and Dead Space looks to be a contender for my 'most attention to co-op narrative award'. This is because from what I've seen so far, Dead Space 3 looks like it has been specifically designed with a special friend in mind. If you're playing the campaign along with a mate then dialogue, gameplay and progression all changes to fit the new mechanic.
The whole "two stories in one" shtick is classic hype, but this time its genuine. Visceral showed us evidence of the co-op character getting all up in Issac's face about some woman that was coming between them. The dialogue was a little, umm, tepid, but the idea that a co-op character has more importance than just being an extra target reticule is an idea whose time has come.
Dead Space 3 has all the trappings of a solid title. It looks good, and has a wealth of narrative to draw off. Visceral Games have had a good hack at the series and their is no innate reason to suggest they will strike third time unlucky.
But from what we've seen so far the Dead Space experience is about to shift gear into the more action-orientated, albeit social, experience. That's an about face that may be quite jarring for some fans and we will be closely monitoring how this title develops before it is set to hit our shelves in February 2013.
NZGamer.com appears at E3 2012 thanks to Orcon Broadband.
The Good: Another Dead Space, I suppose?
The Bad: It looks far too much like Gears of War
The Ugly: Ending up in a vile creatures gut