Dead Space 3's co-op and action leanings have some gamers worried. VG247's Dave Cook goes hands on and speaks with Visceral to find out if there is cause for concern.
Digesting horror media - be it a game, book or movie - is always scarier when you're experiencing it alone. That's just a fact. So how then does Visceral Games attempt to make Dead Space 3's co-op mode have the same impact as its solo offering?
This is one of many questions directed towards the game after its initial reveal at EA's pre-E3 conference earlier this year. The clip showed a more agile Isaac Clarke nimbly flopping around the snowy expanses of Tau Volantis like a drunk seal. It felt odd.
Clarke also farted out a military-grade payload of bullets that seemed to go against what survival horror titles stand for. Limited resources, a feeling of weakness and seemingly impossible odds can be just as tense and scary as a cheap jumpy moment, but these traits were no where to be seen.
'That's not Dead Space! That's Gears of War! Get that rubbish off the screen!' cried the masses. But after sitting down to actually play some co-op for ourselves recently, our fears have subsided a little - but not entirely.
Clarke of duty
Our hands-on session begins during act two of the campaign, and just as if Dead Space 2 only came out yesterday we're back into the thick of it, using stasis to slow down Unitologist soldiers, dismembering them with well-placed rounds and yes, even dodge-rolling to avoid returned fire.
So at core level very little has changed here, and that should go some way to convincing sceptics that the game still feels at home in the Dead Space saga. Admittedly, the ammo count has gone up, and the gun-toting human enemies go against the gruesome Necromorphs of old, but it doesn't seem like that much of an issue at the moment.
"The addition of John Carver was something we took very seriously. We did not want to just tack on a soldier who was just Isaac’s sidekick, or who was one dimensional. He needed to have his own unique back-story, which you’ll learn more about throughout the game, and through our new graphic novel.”
We asked Steve Papoutsis, vice president of Visceral Games for his reaction to the negative reception of Dead Space 3's initial reveal, to which he replied, "One of the things with Dead Space that I think is really important is, we don't look at it as a particular stereotype of game. It's not meant to be an action or puzzle game, it's a Dead Space Game.
"Now, a Dead Space game requires the following stuff: intense atmosphere, survival, action, thrills, horror, tension - you need all of those things to make Dead Space game. So if you have all of those things, and Necromorphs, and Isaac, then you can have yourself a Dead Space game."
Granted the game does have all of these ingredients, and perhaps Papoutsis has a point when he says that preconceptions linked to specific genres should never sway one's opinion of a game, but you can't blame fans for jumping the gun at Dead Space 3's reveal.
One thing Papoutsis didn't mention was the insertion of Isaac's co-op buddy John Carver. He's the anomaly here, adding a new spin on the franchise that some critics have slammed Visceral for, so we ask Papoutsis for his thoughts Carver's involvement.
"We've tried to evolve our narrative from the first game, all the way to this one, and we've also gone of and done Dead Space: Extraction, so we've always tried to increase what's been going on in the Dead Space universe.
"In terms of story, one of the things that's important to us is that our characters need to be compelling. They need to have strengths, weaknesses, they need to go on a journey, and they need to learn something during the game."
Papoutsis added, "the addition of John Carver was something we took very seriously. We did not want to just tack on a soldier who was just Isaac's sidekick, or who was one dimensional. He needed to have his own unique back-story, which you'll learn more about throughout the game, and through our new graphic novel."
I see dead people
Carver's modus operandi is that he's an ex EarthGov soldier, and he's out for revenge against the unitologist ranks after he saw his wife and child slaughtered in front of him by Necromorphs.
He's become scarred and a little bit warped after coming into contact with a Marker, which projects imagery from his married life around the dank confines of the ice planet's facilities. This is where Viscerals's clever take on the co-op format comes into play.
”You can play the solo game and get the A-B story, but when you actually play with a friend it adds something to it, so that addition is what you see with Carver, and how he’s dealing with his internal demons.”
While playing as Carver we battle through the Necromorph ranks alongside Isaac and come to a long, dark corridor. In the middle stands an eerie toy soldier carved out of wood. It's about the same height as our heroes and just stands there, not moving, doing nothing.
The doll spooks Carver as a cut-scene triggers, showing him walking towards it. Suddenly he becomes startled and turns to see the face of his dead wife projected onto Isaac as she speaks to him. Isaac shakes Carver until he snaps out of it, and gameplay resumes.
Things only get creepier from here, as the person playing as Carver starts to see more of the eerie dolls lining the hallways, and the person playing as Isaac sees the world as in its natural state.
"Are you seeing this?" Carver asks Isaac, and is met with an order to snap out of it in return. Things get even worse as a set-piece triggers that sees Carver walking around a warped dimension full of motifs from his son's birthday party, more dolls and creepy apparitions that attack and hurt the soldier.
We're playing as Carver, so naturally we shoot the phantoms to drive them back, but on Isaac's screen, it's looks like we've gone nuts, running off, shooting at nothing and rambling like a maniac.
Isaac calls on Carver to come back as Necromorphs in the real world start to swarm him, but we can't hear his cries behind us as we march on through the hellish birthday party, blasting ghouls that aren't even there.
It's a great take on schizophrenia, but we're curious, because at one point Isaac and Carver do see the same weird stuff happening. So our bet is that they're actually the same person, but we'll have to wait until we play the game to find that out.
Back to Papoutsis, who explained to us, "When you look at our co-op, it's what I call 'additive' to the game. You can play the solo game and get the A-B story, but when you actually play with a friend it adds something to it, so that addition is what you see with Carver, and how he's dealing with his internal demons.
"Our biggest hit has been on the story. Writing [co-op] into the narrative in a meaningful way. It's a lot of work for the team, and it's challenging because a lot of people aren't even going to see it, as some will just want to play single player."
“When you look back in a few years and when people talk about this generation of consoles…it’s our goal that Dead Space 3 is remembered as one of the games that pushed the limits of these consoles.”
Deep stories are all well and good, but for some, the best horror experiences come through ambiguity. Explain the horrific goings on in too much detail and they lose their bite, but Papoutsis believes Visceral has got the balance nailed.
"I think you're always going to have a bit of that, but one of the goals with Dead Space 3 is to actually answer a lot of questions. Our players - those who are really into the fiction - want answers. They want to know more about the Marker, Unitology and the Necromorphs.
"That being said, I think there are always going to be some open-ended questions, and I think - again - that's part of what makes a universe compelling for people to get immersed in."
It's a long campaign too, made longer by the lure of co-op replay, Papoutsis revealed, "This is by far the longest Dead Space game we've ever made - significantly longer than Dead Space 2. I can't give you an exact number, but it's really big."
We ask Papoutsis about tech, and how far the team has squeezed power out the game's respective release formats, "When you look back in a few years and when people talk about this generation of consoles...it's our goal that Dead Space 3 is remembered as one of the games that pushed the limits of these consoles.
"Whether that's through the innovative approach we've taken to co-op - doing something that no one else has done in that regard, or what we've done with our weapon crafting system, narrative or our big epic moments.
"We want people to look back and say, 'Hey remember Dead Space 3? They did some really cool things.' That's one of our goals and I think our team is working hard to execute that."
In addition to Carver, a longer campaign, a deeper story and co-op, Dead Space 3 also has thousands of crafting combinations. We weren't able to try crafting for ourselves, but we did gather up a great deal of resources strewn across the environment.
Both Carver and Isaac have scavanger bots that can be deployed in hotspots - areas with strong signal strength - and then let loose to automatically scan for component parts. These elements are then automatically made available to you at the next upgrade workbench.
When in co-op, both players receive any new weapons made, ensuring both parties get a share in the spoils. Papoutsis talked us through the possibilities of crafting, "You've got well over a thousand different combinations of weapons you can create. The crafting system is another addition we're really excited about."
Papoutsis added, "We've taken the idea of upgrading your weapons and now we've gone all the way towards letting you make your own. If you want to make a Ripper with a flamethrower as the alt. fire, then you can make that. If you want a Pulse Rifle with a Javelin Gun as the alt. fire, then you can do that too.
”With Dead Space 3 we look at it and asked, ‘how can we motivate ourselves and surpass ourselves? What could be our rallying cry?’ So, a lot of people talk about triple-a quality – and that’s a term in regards to quality – so we said, ‘you know what? What if we did quad-a?’”
"You can make Stasis packets, upgrade points you can place in your Rig, or your weapons. There is a ton of stuff to make. We've opted to not have credits in the game, instead, you now have resources that you use.
"Some people may not like all that flexibility and depth," Papoutsis stressed, "so we'll ket you take all the resources you collect from defeating Necromorphs and you can use those to exchange those for blueprints that will then be turned into the weapon that you want."
It's nice to see that the crafting mechanic is optional, so that those just looking for a straightforward ride can immerse themselves in the horror and action without having to worry about juggling weapon components.
But don't expect to create a badass weapon that makes the game too easy however, as Papoutsis stated that you will always be tested regardless, "What you played today was tuned to the easy side so you could play without getting too frustrated. There is a lot of effort that goes into balancing our gameplay right up until we finish the game.
"The approach we're taking is that when you play in co-op, the difficulty is increased so that it feels like an equal, if not greater challenge than single player. In terms of difficulty modes, I don't want to give away too many details, but you'll have a number similar to what had in Dead Space 2, but also going beyond that."
We return to the notion of people looking back at Dead Space 3 with fond memories in years to come, and ask him about the challenge behind all of this effort, "One thing that we talk about a lot with the team is, we want to make sure everything we do in the Dead Space 3 franchise is of an extremely high quality level.
"We've been honoured to have people enjoy our games, and give us a lot of praise and support. We owe it to our players to continue to exceed their expectations. So with Dead Space 3 we look at it and asked, 'How can we motivate ourselves and surpass ourselves? What could be our rallying cry?'
"So, a lot of people talk about triple-a quality - and that's a term in regards to quality - so we said, 'You know what? What if we did quad-a?' I know it sounds a little funny, but it's kind of our belief that if you want to hit your target you have to set something in front of you, and we want to aspire to do things better than we've ever done. We want to do that as we are so appreciative of our fans."
Will Dead Space 3 meet it's 'quad-a' goal? You'll find out when the game launches on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 across Europe February 8th.