Dead Space 3 co-op preview: can terror survive a twosome?

Dead Space 3 preview

This preview originally appeared in issue 248 of PC Gamer UK.

In space, you'll remember, no one can hear you scream. But don't worry, because you won't be doing much screaming in Dead Space 3. The series once traded on slow-burn body horror and things making wet, meaty bumps in the inky black space-night. Now it prefers hurling gruesome beasts of increasing size at the screen, a psychological warfare of attrition rather than subversion.

The change is debated by developer Visceral Games. Studio vice-president Steve Papoutsis has refuted claims that the game was defanged on the fright front, maintaining that it's just as scary as previous Dead Spaces. Publishers EA, on the other hand, admitted that they wanted to set a lower fear-barrier for entry, inviting those with lillier livers into the game for the first time.

It's a confused message, and watching someone else play Dead Space 3 reveals a slightly confused game. Co-op play is the major addition to this third outing. Returning protagonist Isaac Clarke is joined by John Carver, a character more grizzle than man. Carver is the soldier to Isaac's engineer, removing some of the tension of previous games. Isaac – the shtick went – had to adapt to survive, a nonviolent man by trade. Carver is used to blowing limbs off things though, be those things human or grim megamonsters from beyond the stars.

Dead Space 3 preview

The arsenal has copied that trend. Previously, Isaac would make do with welders and bandsaws, the tools of his trade turned into lethal weapons. Dead Space 3 has standard shotguns and assault rifles – the same kind used by the game's human enemies, the first of which I spot in a valley on the ice planet of Tau Volantis. Carver and Clarke are picking their way through the world's snowy wastes when they're jumped by a group of Unitologist soldiers. They have body armour and wield assault rifles, but they're quickly jumped in turn by a group of Necromorph 'twitchers'.

The soldiers are eviscerated before Carver and Clarke can bring their weapons to bear, leaving them with the task of cleaning up the twitchers. The aliens can flick forward at a frightening speed, closing the gap before either of the co-op players I'm watching can draw a bead on them. It's a mechanically tense section, but it's not directly unsettling.

Psychological tricks make more concessions to the series' trademark horror. Playing in co-op, Carver starts to see haunting remnants of his past. They don't appear on Clarke's screen, promising some panicky conversations over Ventrilo as one player absorbs his character's forced madness. Another section that details Carver's loopiness sends him inside his own mind to fight off his inner demons, in the form of Necromorph enemies. It means the game, for better or worse, doesn't really cultivate the same oppressive menace as previous Dead Spaces.