'Dead Space 3': terror, action and adventure in three acts

We've seen the Dead Space 3 that manages to make gaming with friends scary, that can still produce frights on the surface of a snow-swept frozen planet. A game that neatly weaves action into its out-of-control, fighting-to-survive moments. But today is about a Dead Space 3 much more familiar to fans of the series.

I am alone. I am lost. It is dark.

There are bad things here.

They will kill me in many gruesome, terrible ways.

We've seen the Dead Space 3 that manages to make gaming with friends scary, that can still produce frights on the surface of a snow-swept frozen planet. A game that neatly weaves action into its out-of-control, fighting-to-survive moments. But today is about a Dead Space 3 much more familiar to fans of the series.

This is a Dead Space that takes place alone, in the gloom of a derelict spaceship's claustrophobic, labyrinthine corridors.

Before maneuvering my way, Issac Clarke's way, into the death waiting among the steel and shadows on the television screen, Electronic Arts global product manager Ellana Fortuna sets up the scene for me.

Clarke is aboard one of many ships floating above the frozen planet of Tau Volantis in a lost flotilla that forms a ship graveyard in space. He has just entered this particular husk, which serves as a sort of unnecessary side-mission to the task at hand: finding the CMS Greely.

Played alone Dead Space 3 feels every bit like the past two entries.

Steve Papoutsis, Visceral Games' executive producer for Dead Space 3, later tells me that the game is packed with side missions, many of them in this floating graveyard that serves as the backdrop to much of the game's first act.

Act one, he tells me, is more than a third of the game. Players spend that act in outer space visiting these "islands of the haunted ship graveyard." These ships, he said, crashed here as long as 250 years ago.

"You are adventuring through these abandoned space ships learning what happened to the crew, " he said. "You are allowed to explore throughout the flotilla in zero g."

My 20 minutes or so with the game, though, all take place within the confines of a single ship. While Dead Space 3, including this level, can be played cooperatively with John Carver, it doesn't have to be.

Played alone, at least amidst the floating space flotsam of a ship graveyard, Dead Space 3 feels every bit like the past two entries. I don't find myself worrying over cover, or even seeking it. I don't look to a pal, controlled by the game or a friend, for comfort or fire power support. I am not fearless. It is with increasing trepidation that I slowly work my way through the tight hallways of the ship, down stairs, around corners, always expecting something to pop out at me, or charge, or drop and attack. Often that doesn't happen, but sometimes it does and despite the expectation of a shock or a scare, it still manages to startle me.

While captivating, the experience isn't packed with much new information. I do notice on my fetch quest journey that the ammo I pick up from broken boxes and inside lockers is all "universal ammo," but Electronic Arts declines to discuss what that means in the broader sense of the game's use of varied weapons and limited reloads.

After wrapping up about half of the side mission, my real world handler tells me I can't continue, stopping Clarke's progress at a large steel door. Finished playing, I hop on the phone with Papoutsis to talk about what I just experienced and try to get him to put it into context for me.

The game is told in three acts, he tells me. Act one takes place above the planet's surface. Act two, a bit of which has been shown in a gameplay video, takes place on the surface of the planet and in the buildings found there.


"There is a mix of exterior adventuring and interior adventuring," Papoutsis said. "What you saw today is similar to the surface of the planet. There was an installation there and a number of people working in a research facility, storage facility, weigh stations ... anything you would see in an Antarctica station you would see here."

This mix of inside and outside, of day light and night, of blowing white outs and creeping darkness will help to deliver a variety of gameplay that sounds like it will carefully walk the line between action, survival and suspense.

Act three, Papoutsis said, includes part of the planet and a "whole new environment that I can't talk about."

Papoutsis said he couldn't say how much of the game takes place in those memorable, tight spaces versus those new outside areas.

"The game is not completed," he said. "It's hard to say, but it will be paced and tuned expertly.

It will also stay true to what Papoutsis and the game's developers believe make a Dead Space game a Dead Space game: "Thrilling moments, it has an element of survival to it and also has a lot of intensity to it."

While much of the focus on Dead Space 3 so far has been about the developers' decision to introduce cooperative play and elements of action, like being able to roll away from danger or take cover, those decisions weren't driven by a desire to expand the audience, or even broaden the game's genre.

Papoutsis said it was all about the story they want to tell.

"We look at our story first," he said. "We build from the story out. This is our third game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 and fourth overall. We felt with Dead Space 3 we owed it to our players to answer some questions."

Does that mean that Dead Space 3 will wrap up the story kicked off in the original game, I asked.

"When I say we're looking to answer some questions, I mean questions created with one and two specifically," he said. "Our hope is to do a lot more with Dead Space."

Dead Space is a growing media franchise as well. Since the first game's release in 2008 there have been spin-off games for the Wii, as downloadable titles and for phones. The franchise has also seen two animated films, a one-shot comic, a comic book series, and a book.

"We felt with Dead Space 3 we owed it to our players to answer some questions."

While those transmedia experiences won't be going away, Papoutsis says that they're trying to be a bit more careful with what's produced around the release of Dead Space 3.

"We are always looking at different opportunities," he said. "We have had a lot of cool transmedia ideas. Those are interesting and fun to collaborate on. With Dead Space 3 we are focusing on doing just a few of them, not quite going as wide and making sure they're very important to the fiction and very high quality."

For now that means a new graphic novel and a novel.

The team also plans to continue to seek the feedback and suggestions of their many fans. With Dead Space 2 that turned into a contest seeking suggestions for over-the-top dismemberments. Papoutsis said they remain very interesting in hearing feedback from fans.

Does that mean another chance for a gamer to have their ideas show up in a Dead Space game, I asked.

"We've got something up our sleeves."

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