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Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3 Preview — Hell Freezes Over
by Jeff Cork on Jul 16, 2012 at 09:33 AM
Platform PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer Visceral Games
Rating Mature

Isaac Clarke has experienced unspeakable horrors. His exposure to an alien artifact known as the Marker has left him psychologically unhinged, making him a target for medical experimentation and betrayal. He has been haunted by the spirit of his girlfriend, Nicole Brennan, nearly losing his own life through her manipulations. Through it all, he’s had to battle the necromorphs, a terrifying alien threat that repurposes organic life, corrupting and twisting its hosts into mind-bending forms. Through the series, players have been left with a series of nagging questions. Who build the Markers and why? How do they work? With Dead Space 3, Visceral Games is not only providing answers, but it’s delivering an installment that will make players look at Dead Space in a whole new light.

Isaac awakes with a start, coughing. His eyes dart around frantically as he tries to gain his bearings. He’s suspended upside-down, and his face is banged-up and bloodied. More disconcertingly, his hair is dusted with a layer of frost. He’s in a confined space made from walls of twisted metal beams and paneling, and flames lick through small gaps. His breathing is labored, and he strains to free himself. After a few agonizing seconds, he drops down, and the camera spins to meet him on the ground. 

The impact frees a few icicles from the misshapen ruins of what’s now clearly a crash site. Isaac rises to his feet and activates his suit’s helmet, which slides over his head. The camera pulls back, giving us the first full-bodied view of the engineer. A low-health beacon flashes on his back, providing visual confirmation of what we already figured out: Isaac Clarke isn’t doing so well.

He takes a few tentative steps out of the flaming scrap, and he’s enveloped in a powerful blizzard. The wind howls and whistles as snow obscures the wreckage in his immediate vicinity. He trudges forward, holding a forearm up near his face in an effort to block the wind. “Ellie?” he calls out desperately, hoping his Dead Space 2 companion has also survived the event.

Welcome to Tau Volantis. This inhospitable planet is the stage for our gameplay demo. It’s desolate and brutal. An unrelenting wind scours the surface, making trips of otherwise mundane distances a gamble. This is the second chapter of the game’s story, which picks up a few months after Dead Space 2 left off.

Isaac lurches on, knee deep in the snow, which is also accumulating in spots on his segmented helmet and shoulders. As a precaution, he pulls out his trusty Ripper, a rotary saw that carves through flesh as easily as whatever it was once intended for. Ahead, he sees an opening in the snow framed by a swinging gate — a sign of civilization. Suddenly, a ghastly sight pierces the haze. A creature with a glowing orange, grimacing face rushes out, and Isaac quickly dispatches it with a few well-placed blades. Isaac isn’t alone.

A New Enemy
Inside the cavern, Isaac is insulated from the elements, but he’s certainly no safer. A few corpses in yellow parkas lurch upright as Isaac approaches, and the Ripper is once again called into action. Necromorphs. As he blasts these new Fodder enemies apart with his weapon, we see one of Dead Space 3’s new features. The Fodders transform from their biped forms into one of two other abominations depending on how they’re attacked. After one enemy has a leg dismantled, four large spidery legs burst from the bottom of its torso and it skitters forward. Isaac drops the beast as it charges, dragging its remaining, useless leg behind it. Another Fodder enemy gets its top half ripped off, and it responds to the destruction by growing four tendrils near its exposed spinal column. This variant is particularly aggressive, and Isaac barely has time to dismember the creature before it slashes him apart with its whipping arms.

Isaac makes his way through the cavern, dropping a few necromorphs that pop out of the snowdrifts and collecting valuable ammo and health packs. They’re nowhere close to piñata-like showers, but ammo drops are more plentiful this time around, says lead gameplay and combat designer Ben Walker. Before you think that’s an invitation to fire blindly and hope for the best, consider this: Your errant shots could end up clipping an unseen Fodder, twisting it into a form that’s difficult to deal with.

Eventually, Isaac’s way is blocked by an abandoned excavator that’s stopped next to a ***-tightening drop. He opens the door, and the body of its driver slides out, plunging into the darkness. He’s only able to enjoy the refuge of the vehicle’s interior for a moment before it lurches toward the abyss with a groan. Now Isaac has to climb up and out of the vehicle, which has listed precariously on its side. He inches up slowly, steadily, gripping the seats and working toward the steering wheel. After a few agonizing seconds, Isaac slams the frozen driver’s side door open with his shoulder, escaping seconds before the machine disappears into the void.

Isaac has been doggedly travelling forward, but that isn’t the only way to play, says Visceral Games’ head and Dead Space 3 executive producer Steve Papoutsis. “Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 1 were very linear games. If you think about it, you start the game and go from point A to point B, and it’s fun and awesome. With Dead Space 3, we really wanted to open it up a bit. You’ll still have that really consistent and linear experience if you choose to experience the game that way, but if any moment you want to go off the rails so to speak and see what’s around, you’ll have the ability to explore the environment and find unique beta missions that aren’t required for the completion of the game.”

Ahead, he sees another tunnel. With any luck, that doomed vehicle was near an outpost. Isaac advances, taking out a few scattered necromorphs along the way. After clearing his way through the snowy burrow he emerges in front of a massive wall. Guard towers and spotlights line the structure, which at least implies that the location could be secure from the body-stealing necromorphs.

Shelter could provide more than a psychological break from the elements. Visceral wouldn’t specifically say how the cold affects Isaac, though senior producer Dave Woldman says the setting is more than window dressing. “You have a natural assumption of what that could mean for the gameplay and it’s our goal to deliver or exceed on that.” It seems likely that players will have to keep track of Isaac’s body temperature in the unforgiving cold or suffer the consequences, similarly to how oxygen management is a critical part of certain space sections in previous installments.

Another Survivor

Isaac spies a figure on top of the wall. “Carver!” he shouts. “I’m down here!” “Clarke!” comes the response. “How the hell did you…never mind.” Their conversation is cut short when John Carver’s seemingly safe perch is compromised by a swarm of Fodder. Isaac rushes to a door set at the post’s base with the hope of meeting up with Carver and any other crash survivors.

There’s a lift on the other side of the wall, but Isaac first has to power up a nearby generator. He does so using his new telekinetic torque ability, which allows him to spin objects within his telekinetic grip—in this case, the generator’s flywheel. 

Isaac’s ride up the wall is cut short when a large creature, known internally at Visceral as the snow beast, pries open the lift’s roof with its talons. The lift isn’t large, which makes it tough for him to dodge the tentacle-like tongue that’s emerged from the creature’s gash of a mouth. The snow beast does its best to get Isaac, stabbing at him through the lift’s exposed sides, until its weight shifts and the structure collapses in the snow below. 

Once on the ground, we get our first good look at the beast. It’s huge, and it looks more like a bug than anything else. As Isaac prepares itself for combat, tentacles erupt from its back. Each has a large, orange nodule on it – nice, soft targets. Unfortunately, Isaac is only able to shear off a few of the tentacles before the beast charges and grips him in its claws. In true Dead Space form, we’re then treated to an extended look at Isaac’s demise. His limp body is pulled close to the creature’s gaping mouth by a pair of hand-like jaws. They crush him into a ball of meat before finally swallowing the bloodied chunk.

Now the elevator sequence picks up again, only with a second player joining Isaac. Instead of disappearing on the wall, Carver is at Isaac’s side.

“Ellie,” shouts Isaac. “Keep it down,” Carver responds brusquely. “As long as we’re on this side of that wall, we’re sitting ducks.” 

“She’s in there, and we’re not getting in through the front f---ing door,” Isaac counters, sounding more than a bit unhinged.

Before Isaac can kickstart the generator, Carver blocks the doorway with his large frame. “Let’s get one thing straight, Clarke. We came to this frozen s---hole to stop the markers. And nothing—not you or your obsession with Ellie—is going to get in my way. You got that?”

The lift is ready, but Isaac takes a moment to change out of his damaged engineering gear into a snow suit. The suit looks similar to Isaac’s engineering outfit, though there are obvious inspirations from classic 1930’s mountaineering gear, including leather straps and pouches, a fur-trimmed collar, and spiky ice-gripping crampons on his boots.

With Dead Space 3, art director Alex Muscat says his team is working on more of a vintage look, with plenty of CRTs, dials, and knobs. For example, door mechanisms aren’t hidden behind panels – you can see the wheels and lock bars as they’re sprung into motion. They’re capped off with electronic panels, marrying that old-school look with refined digital sci-fi. Tau Volantis is isolated, and the cold and wind have deteriorated the site’s low-slung buildings.  

The Co-op Connection

After the lift is compromised and then trashed, Isaac and Carver take on the snow beast together. Here, we see how well co-op fits into the Dead Space formula (see sidebar for more details). Isaac blasts the snow beast with stasis, which temporarily slows it. At the same time, Carver whirls behind the creature and fires at the orange nodules. Enraged, the snow beast charges at Isaac, who narrowly avoids getting stabbed by quickly rolling out of the way – another new maneuver in his move set. Isaac and Carver need to be more mobile, considering Dead Space 3’s more open environments. The creature eventually realizes that it’s outclassed by the pair, and it scampers up and over the wall. In its hasty retreat, it loosens some scaffolding, which creates a makeshift ramp.

Isaac and Carver work their way through a snow-lined corridor, and we gain some understanding of what is going on. This area was once an archaeological site, and we spy the frozen remains of a few horrific creatures. Surprisingly, none of them spring to life in a now-familiar jump scare. Instead, the tagged corpses provide a chance for Isaac to look at necromorphs in harmless – but still creepy – repose. Unfortunately for the people originally working at this facility, they unearthed something substantially more active.

“Tau Volantis, without getting into too much detail, was the site of an expedition in the past,” Papoutsis says. “An expedition had gone on and then it had uncovered something very wrong and [they were] trying to take note and do what archaeologists do.”

Walking through a corridor in the facility, their radios burst to life. 

“Everyone, spread out. Clarke is out there somewhere. If you see him, shoot to kill.”

The pair emerge in a courtyard of sorts, with a series of Quonset huts providing shelter from the growing blizzard. A few people spy the intruders, and they move into attack positions. Isaac takes cover behind a stack of supply crates and returns fire. Judging from the arcane symbols and Marker pictographs scrawled on their snowsuits, Isaac and Carver are dealing with Unitologists. The cult, which believes that the madness-inducing Marker provides the path to heaven, has been an increasing threat to Isaac over the years.

The firefight ends quickly, with Isaac and Carver methodically advancing toward the group. Their military-grade weapons are no match for Isaac’s repurposed tools, which rip limbs from sockets and decapitate humans with ease. Unlike the necromorphs, uninfected humans don’t drag themselves around when they’re torn apart. Dead is dead. Usually.

We see the exception to this rule as a pair of Dividers slither toward a few decapitated humans. The creatures, which look like heads with tentacles, orientate themselves into position, and then jab themselves deep into the spines of their new hosts. The victims lurch upright, puppets to their new necromorph masters. Each of the former humans was armed with a submachine gun, and they awkwardly fire them in Isaac’s direction. Their attacks come in wide, clumsy arcs, but they’re no less deadly. Carver eliminates one foe, but the other Divider shows why it’s a particularly fearsome threat; the necromorph uses its host’s arms to wrench itself free from the body, and hurls itself at Isaac. Isaac has to quickly remove the Divider from his own face before becoming another meat puppet.

Three-Way Battles

Isaac and Carver barely have time to catch their breath before stumbling onto a battle in progress. A group of humans are doing their best to take out a similarly sized cluster of slashers. As the humans try to stave off the lashing necromorph attacks, Isaac and Carver hang back, taking potshots at both factions. Players are free to target one side or the other as the Unitologists and necromorphs fight, and then take out the wounded survivors.

Once the battle is over, Isaac walks through the carnage, pausing to stomp on the human corpses he passes. The humans won’t come back to life through their own volition, but the earlier encounter with the Dividers was proof that it’s best he errs on the side of caution.

Finally, Isaac and Carver come to an interior chamber. The circular substructure is dominated by a massive rotary drill, which has come to a stop in front of the exit. Judging from the sparks and the fact that it’s flopped to its side, the machine has seen better days. Still they need to keep moving. Isaac turns the machine on, and it stirs to life. A recorded message counts down in a warbling recording, instructing personnel to clear the deck – easy to say, but difficult to respond to once the gate slams shut and the necromorphs pour in.

The encounter is tense and brutal. Isaac and Carver have to survive the necromorph threat while also avoiding the machine, which courses over the ground like a maniacal floor waxer. Carver provides cover while Isaac slows the machine with a stasis blast. Now the machine’s weakness is evident: a glowing core module, which activates a failsafe shutdown. A few shots later, the rotary drill is lifted up.

Now we see a few of the Feeder enemies, which have a unique origin in the Dead Space universe. The creatures are more humanoid than other necromorphs, and there’s a good, if not completely disgusting, reason for that. “A Feeder is what happens when a human isn’t actually infected by a Swarm or by a Divider head, but by necessity ends up eating the flesh of a turned necro,” says Woldman. “That’s the fiction of what happens when you see a dead necro there and start to chow down on it as if it was chicken.” Was that flesh eating something that the original members of the Tau Volantis expedition resorted to after food reserves were depleted? Or is that a part of a perverse Unitologist communion? Until Visceral is ready to spill more details on the story, we’ll have to weigh both equally nasty options.

Before Isaac and Carver can get too comfortable, the drill seizes back to life. It’s obviously worse for the wear, as it’s tilted on its side. The diamond-tipped bits are no less deadly, as it blindly scours the ground, showering the area in sparks. Enemies who are unfortunate enough to get pushed into its maw are immediately reduced to a stew of gore. After a few more volleys of fire, the device is finally destroyed. 

Isaac and Carver emerge from the machine’s chamber relatively unscathed, but clearly beaten down. “F--- this planet,” Carver mutters, “Come on. Let’s get out of here." 

A Bigger Beast

The pair wander toward their warehouse goal and stumble upon a few fellow survivors, who are just finishing up a fight against a few necromorph stragglers. The friendly reunion is interrupted by a centipede-like necromorph called the Nexus that dwarfs any creature that Isaac has ever seen. Isaac is barely able to exclaim, “What the hell,” before the beast, which has to top at least 30 stories, shakes the planet’s surface with an unearthly roar. It slams the snowy surface with its bus-sized claws, and hunches down toward the group. Its lungs must be similarly scaled, as it draws a deep breath in, sucking crates, snow, and people into its disgusting face. Isaac frantically grips onto an icy stalagmite, but it’s all in vain; he’s pulled toward the beast, and it seems he can do nothing to stop it.

Before we can see how Isaac can get out of this predicament, the demo is over.

The Nexus poses an interesting question. Based on what we know of the necromorphs, the species takes over the bodies of unwitting hosts and changes their form. Was the Nexus some sort of life form that was indigenous to Tau Volantis, or is it the ancient, ancestral form of a necromorph? Papoutsis wouldn’t answer, but the thought of seeing completely new varieties of necromorphs—especially if they’re analogues to Earth’s dinosaurs—is exciting.

Even with the new setting, Dead Space 3 has that unmistakable Dead Space vibe all over it. As Papoutsis says, Visceral created the series and has a fundamental understanding of what makes it is what is. Simultaneously, the studio has to know that what’s worked in the past few games won’t necessarily feel as fresh in the third main entry. Winter is a brutal and isolating season by itself; add reanimated corpses and you’ve got something that will give Isaac plenty of reasons to shiver in his suit.

This preview originally ran in the July issue of Game Informer magazine.

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