Dead Space 3's asymmetrical co-op drove us mental. As we buddied up with a Visceral developer during a recent hands-on, bundled into our warmest RIG (Resource Integration Gear) and set a course for some bitingly cold fringe world, we started to seriously question reality.
That's entirely the point. Our man was Sergeant John Carver, an EDF officer whose own sanity took a hit when he became separated from his wife and child in a savage Necromorph outbreak. During our 20-minute demo he crosses paths with Isaac Clarke, on the run from EarthGov after utterly destroying their civilian space station The Sprawl in Dead Space 2.
Together, the two of them land on the frigid and frostbitten planet Tau Volantis to find the source of the Necromorphs and end the infestation once and for all. For the first time in the series, two players can fight through the game together, and while there's no dedicated co-op campaign dedicated co-op sections scattered throughout the story justify the extra man, who can drop in at any time.
We're introduced to the Feeder, a new and scarily fast enemy that wants you very, very dead
So, as the demo starts, we pick ourselves up and head off into the tundra. Icy winds whistle like several thousand boiling kettles and a thick blizzard makes it hard to see even a few feet ahead. Suddenly, we spot a vague shape lumbering in the distance. Initially, it looks like a common or garden Necromorph. Except it's not.
The thing, upon hearing our feet crunch snow, snaps around lightning quick and makes a beeline for us. The Feeder is a brand new and scarily fast enemy that wants you very, very dead. The story goes that Feeders were once humans, so starved that they began snacking on Necromorph flesh until it corrupted their bodies, stripping skin from their limbs, contorting their hands into sharp bony talons and blinding their eyes. Their auditory senses, as a result, were heightened, meaning as long as you tread carefully, you'll slip by the monsters unscathed.
Luckily, we've got backup, and it's not just our battle-hardened wingman Isaac who's providing it. No, our faithful plasma cutter is back to slice and dice, making mincemeat out of the malnourished monster fast approaching in an Exorcist scurry. From one unfamiliar foe to another, the creatures we faced next were even more shocking - people. Unitologists, we're told, aren't all stuffy church-goers. This time they're armed, dangerous, and your most intelligent foe.
With the introduction of humans, is Dead Space 3 in danger of becoming a shooting gallery - Gears of War minus cover? How can something be menacing when you're decked in a space-age suit of battle armour and your enemy is only a six-foot fleshbag? Fortunately, the battle didn't last long, several Feeders wading in to chomp on the men before our guns could cut them down. It stopped things becoming too familiar, too shooty, and soon the series' trademark tension returned, a creeping dread accompanying our cautious first steps through the ominous entrance to a frosted and threatening outpost.
First, though, it's time to check out our new toy. Meet the scavenger bot which, once deployed, sets out on an independent journey to forage and horde items. When you next hit a save station, all those items will be there waiting for you. You can check its position on a handheld radar, a kind of 'warm, warmer, warmest' device which beeps louder the nearer we get to firearms, grenades and ammo. It's a useful tool in a game where these things are a precious commodity. We didn't get the opportunity to check out what it's capable of nabbing, but we assume it'll be things like ammo, unique guns and new suits, depending on where you leave it. Nice to see Visceral hasn't merely concentrated on offensive weapons, but tactical ones too.
NECROMORPHIN' POWER RANGERS
In Clarke and Carver's co-op bug hunt, however, it gets much more interesting than guns and ammo. During our initial descent into the base, Carver's insania becomes even more frenzied: we see a small wooden soldier lying conspicuously on a table (a memento from, we presume, his missing song). As we push on, even more soldiers appear, bigger ones too, until eventually they're blocking routes, towering over us imposingly, and following us down corridors. It's a completely mental juxtaposition. Our co-op pal, meanwhile, didn't see any of it. While our screen was blocked with toys, his was clear.
The asymmetrical co-op adds a maniacal twist to what could have been a very by-the-number experience...
Visceral, in showing one player one event and another player something else, cultivates an atmosphere of paranoia, confusion and distrust. The insane episodes only grow more intense. We spy framed pictures of our estranged wife and child and hear chilling toy box music drifting on the breeze. When Isaac can't take any more, he even ventures inside his own head to, quite literally, battle demons.
This manifests itself in some interesting ways: on player one's screen, Carver is busy fighting the slick, black manifestations of his insanity; on player two's screen, though, he's simply huddled in a corner clutching his head. It falls on Isaac to defend both him and his partner from a sudden rush of Necromorphs, adding a maniacal twist to what could have been a by-the-numbers experience.
The essence of Dead Space has always been the horror and the scares, and while a more mobile protagonist packing a bank of intergalactic weapons and amour detracts from some of the fright, the new co-op earns its place courtesy of some truly demented design.