They did it again. The first Dead Space was a universal hit. It’s mixture of unique gameplay mechanics and terrifying horror elements were very well-received, and naturally people wanted more. As details began to leak about the sequel, some people, including myself, worried that they were cutting some of the scare factor in place of ramping up the action. Evil. Of course, Dead Space 2 was awesome, and those fears were immediately replaced by much more necromorphy ones.
As the Dead Space 3 launch approached, all this news of ice planets and cooperative play began to invoke those same feelings of worry. Surely co-op would destroy some of the tension, it happened to Resident Evil right? At least I could be assured that the necromorphs wouldn’t start coordinating rocket launcher strikes at me. But as I began to experience what Dead Space 3 has to offer, I began to understand the brilliance behind their cooperative strategy.
It begins with the asynchronous experience between Isaac and Carver. While playing co-op, Carver has intermittent hallucinations, drastically altering your playthrough. Sure it was cool playing as the Arbiter for the first time in Halo 2, but there were no fundamental differences in gameplay. Times simply haven’t changed that much; picking between Chris and Piers in Resident Evil 6 didn’t drastically alter the game or anything. Even Borderlands protagonists are only different under the hood; they all offer roughly the same experience.
F.3.A.R. (what a stupid name) really showed how promising this new approach to co-op could be, but it failed to execute it on the level that Dead Space 3 did. Behind the scenes, Visceral Games did a great job with the matchmaking (even if I desperately wish it featured split-screen couch co-op), and the gameplay is a smooth as ever. Better than ever, actually. Against all odds, they successfully added a loot system that actually works and much improved weapon customization to the series. Those are some pretty big positives.
Even better, the game subtly changes when you switch to a strictly single-player experience, altering cut scenes and generally tailoring the game to focus simply on Isaac. It’s genius. The single-player crowd still gets to experience just Isaac’s story if they want to, and the co-op players get two different variations: one for Isaac and one for Carver. In a sense, it’s almost like three games in one. And if anything, the tension is ratcheted up a notch sometimes in co-op. Yes, it’s terrifying when a necro pops out of the vents at you, but trying to line up a plasma cutter shot on a Slasher that is harassing your buddy is pure gold.
Despite my gripe about split-screen (seriously, Visceral, want, want, want, want, want!), it’s heartening to see a developer realize a fundamental truth about video games: people like playing with their friends. When we see this much effort put into delivering a quality co-op experience, it is hard to not to appreciate that developer just a little bit more. I salute you Visceral, for a job well-done. Now seriously, get to work on that split-screen patch!