Dead Space 3 hands-on: is psychological horror as affecting with a co-op partner in tow?

Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3 takes the concept of psychological horror literally. Sgt John Carver is clomping down a corridor – series stalwart and co-op partner Isaac Clarke in tow – when he begins to see things. Toy
soldiers flash by, then reminders of his family, all dead at the hands and chitinous spikes of the cultist Unitarians and necromorphs. Soldiers appear near doors and along hallways, coated in bright blue paint, with rictus smiles, and smeared in blood. They’re impossible to miss – impossible for Carver, at least.

Dead Space 3’s new co-op mode means both players view their character in the same way – the same tight over-the-shoulder perspective as before – but not the world. Clarke can’t see Carver’s toy soldiers, nor see his slide into slightly clichéd madness.

Later, a particularly evocative door provides the series’ most reductionist take yet on psychological horror: Carver is thrust into a swirling hellish dreamworld to fight off his inner demons – which understandably take the form of those outer demons swarming the game’s ‘real’ world – while Clarke is left to defend his panicking, swaying partner. Carver is literally fighting the horrors of his psyche. Coupled with a lot of confused shouting once he’s made it back to the world of regular consciousness, it’s not a hugely subtle take on one man’s slide from sanity.

Dead Space 3

Human and oncehuman enemies don’t need the careful dissection of necromorphs, although some stubborn infected examples may require systematic separation

Dead Space 3 is similarly unsubtle in other ways. The first game’s neat conceit meant weapons weren’t weapons, but rather power tools. They were welders or bandsaws: items designed for utility, not direct conflict. Here, we get shotgun and assault rifle analogues, and seemingly enough ammunition to make sure that few of them run dry. Your partner, whether Carver or Clarke, requires protecting from an increased host of enemies.

Dead Space 3’s enemies are faster, too. The quick-moving Twitchers return, seemingly able to phase through space to reappear elsewhere, confounding players’ careful aim. Carver and Clarke are attacked by a group of them prior to Carver’s door-related minibreakdown. The duo are making their way between shelves of ice on the planet of Tau Volantis when they’re assaulted by human Unitarian troops (the alien-worshipping cult has apparently grown an armoured limb). Those troops are boring kills, requiring little of Dead Space’s trademark dissection, but fortunately, they’re not around for long: Twitchers appear behind the tooled-up humans as they shoot at Clarke and Carver, eviscerating them before they get a chance to reload. Then the Twitchers turn to new targets and judder toward the screen.

They’re annoyingly hard to hit, and close the distance quickly. Fortunately, Isaac’s grown more accustomed to his clanking suit, and can now perform a quick combat roll. Used correctly, it’ll pull players away from the necromorph, ready to line up a shot. It makes fighting less restrictive, less tense, but it’s a necessary concession when the game throws so many foes your way.

Dead Space 3

Dead Space 2’s spacebound sections were visually arresting but required little input. They return in 3, prettied up but still not very interactive

The increased body count reduces the frights through sheer force of attrition. It’s hard to be spooked by Carver’s mental demons when you’ve just chewed your way through 50 of their corporeal relatives. The more insidious visions are spookier, and closer to the series’ horror origins. Silent toy soldiers are unsettling, particularly when one player will have to convince the other over voice chat that they’re not going mad.

Co-op looks like the way Dead Space 3 is meant to be played. Duos will find their paths split en route, and will discover extra missions a solo player won’t. EA has been open about how this new focus is aimed at new players previously scared away by the gloom and the monsters that lurk within. But for those who want a horror flick over an action movie, the switch in tone is perhaps more disconcerting than any necromorph.