Isaac's quest to find the heart of the Markers has finally led him to Tau Volantis: an icy hell-world plagued by the ravenous Necromorphs and the devout militant arm of the Unitologists. It has been a long and constantly evolving journey from the Ishimura to the final confrontation, with Visceral Games attempting to add new mechanics, bigger bosses, more monster variety and and an emphasis on quality with every sequel, app and light gun spin-off.
However, Dead Space 3 is going to distance the franchise yet further from the Event Horizon-esque original with some seriously radical new features; including the addition of ranged combat against human enemies, a cover system and the much-vaunted 'drop in' cooperative play. Factoring in the bright new environs provided by the arctic setting (and plenty in common with Capcom's Lost Planet), I was desperate to take a guided tour of the E3 demo build in order to discover whether horror has taken a back seat to generic Sci-Fi action.
Interestingly, the answer is likely to be yes and no. In many respects, Dead Space 3 is going to be two games in one.
Soon after emerging from the wreckage of his shuttle into the freezing wastes of Tau Volantis, Isaac soon encounters the new, more human Necromorphs that he'll face in increasingly large numbers. Their growth constrained by bulky snow suits, these glowing-eyed horrors attack in a frenzied rage with twin icepicks, flailing wildly as players methodically dismember them with classic rivets, Line Gun and Ripper. However, grievous injury gives the infestation room to evolve, meaning that severed torsps suddenly sprout extra tentacles from their bloody stumps, or disembodied legs burst forth with a multitude of sickening serrated protuberances. The sheer unpredictability of these encounters will likely help to keep the early game fresh and exciting, especially when they start bursting out from beneath the icy walls and floors of the Tau Volantis mines.
One QTE climbing section later (gosh, E3 has a lot of those), and Isaac found himself in the courtyard of a fortified mining base, whereupon he ran into his new companion John Carver. Since the demo was currently running in singleplayer, Carver was positioned atop a lofty catwalk and the pair conducted a brief in-game greeting. Rather than constantly accompanying the player character during solo runs, Carver will instead weave in and out of the story at certain points; there, but never in the way.
Their reunion was shortlived, though, as a squad of Unitologists descended on their location, forcing them to separate. Human enemies fight with familiar weaponry (typically assault rifles) and grenades, attempting to flush Isaac out of hiding and moving from cover to cover in an attempt to flank him. They're also surprisingly adept at melee combat - one even managed to stagger the engineer with a kick and escape before Isaac's Ripper bit home - but decapitation tends to reduce their threat level somewhat.
Unitologists make for an intense engagement, and it will be interesting to see whether they provide a welcome change of pace or end up overstaying their welcome.
In stark contrast with most third person shooters, Dead Space 3's cover system shies away from the traditional 'sticky' model in favour of a subtle 'lean-in' system. When aiming, Isaac fluidly attempts to align himself and lean towards any obvious cover surfaces without actually attaching himself to them. The context-sensitive effect is sometimes almost imperceptible thanks to some realistic and natural animations (he'll never hunker down behind chest-high walls, don't worry), but it does provide the player with a much-needed extra bit of protection.
His foes defeated. Isaac descended back to the snowy wilderness, and was soon beset by a hulking quadrupedal brute clad in thick armour. This implacable adversary proved too tough for the grizzled engineer, who managed to destroy a few tentacles before being ran to ground, snared by a gaping emergent maw in the creature's chest and brutally eviscerated onto the ice.
With two players, however, this humiliating defeat would be a different story. Literally.
Once another Viscceral demonstrator was invited and joined the game via the Xbox 360 blade, Dead Space 3 reset to the mining base courtyard checkpoint. This time, Carver was accompanying Isaac as player 2 rather than standing on the catwalk, which allowed them to have a much longer conversation instead of the earlier skirmish. Ducking into a previously-inaccessible room afforded them a supply vending machine and gave us our first good look at the new Snow Suit, which softens Isaac's heavy metal look with padded thermal layers and a fetching furry collar. Accessorising done, it was time to face the fiend again.
The brute put up an incredibly stern challenge even with Carver's extra fire support thanks to varied, unpredictable pounces and grabs, but during the instant-kill maw attack, one player was able to stasis-lock the beast long enough for the other to get clear. What would have been a harrowing solo experience was certainly made slightly easier, but after a couple of pulse-pounding minutes, the abomination slunk off defeated, yet still alive.
What followed was a blow-by-blow facimile of the EA press conference footage, with Isaac and Carver facing a chaotic battle beneath an enormous drill, enjoying some amusing one-liners, fighting an enormous boss and eventually ending up an an disgusting slimy gullet.
Dead Space 3 certainly feels like a more traditional action game in multiplayer. You've got buddy banter and the constant companion of a pal to stave off the terrors of Tau Volantis - but solo, the unremittingly tense atmosphere returns. By creating two subtly different narratives depending on whether you're playing alone, Visceral could well have created two game experiences, and the very definition of "the best of both worlds."
On the other hand, it also remains to be seen whether the move towards straightforward action and humanoid enemies will carry the series from terrifying to generic. Either way, I can't wait to find out.