The Dead Space 3 demo, available via limited exclusivity now with a public release through PlayStation Nework and Xbox Live next week, was quite a thrill. Internal tweaks were probably in place, but from a pure-content point of view it seemed identical to the sequence I saw several months ago at E3. Most of what struck me then still holds true now, namely:
- The wintery atmosphere of Tau Volantis really works. It's a fundamentally different setting for Isaac Clarke, and provides Visceral with a fresh landscape for new ideas. Getting surprised by Necromorphs popping out of the snow, seeing Isaac visibly struggle to make it through the blizzard, and a vibe generally consistent with The Thing are all positives.
- The weapon creation/modification system has been completely overhauled, and it extends all the way to customizing Isaac's suit. What I assumed was a minor upgrade to the weapon progression revealed surprising depth with regard to customization, and even in a limited demo I was making cool (though somewhat ineffective) things with and out of my plasma cutter.
- The newly added cover mechanic was shifty. Double tapping the trigger to stick Isaac to cover felt out of place, like it was grafted onto an existing control scheme. I suppose that's literally what happened given Isaac’s moveset and how it applies to a controller was already pretty tight, but the "time" it took to engage that option felt prolonged. Furthermore it seems disappointing to watch Dead Space conform to modern ideas of a third person shooter, but of course judgment should be withheld until the complete game is in my (well, our) hands. The encounter that required cover is obviously not enough to base an opinion, and it was hard to tell if it was general unfamiliarity with its implementation or an early sign of a potential snag in the end product.
- Though I was skeptical at first, I actually enjoyed Isaac's opposition using traditional guns. The Necromorph threat is well in place, and layering another, for lack of a better term, enemy class on top of that is fine by me. Something I didn't notice at E3 was when a Divider's head/spine would crawl inside and overtake a human corpse; it would retain the rifle and errantly fire it at the player. I legitimately didn't expect that to happen.
- Carver, Isaac’s optional co-op partner, has potential as both another gun and another lens through the same world. Though, given my first play through will likely be a solo-Isaac run, I'm worried about what I might miss. Getting a second run in as Carver with someone else before the review embargo lifts is also a problem (but admittedly my problem, not yours).
On top of that, here's a transcription from a round table interview with Visceral Games' Steve Papoutsis, Executive Producer of Dead Space 3 (note: Only my questions to Steve were transcribed. Another participant from Armchair Empire was present on this call and I deliberately omitted his questions. It's his content, and I assume it'll find its way to his site in the near future).
Eric Layman: After the first two games, you guys have almost literally put Isaac through hell. Can you describe the task of finding new ways to psychologically challenge him for Dead Space 3?
Steve Papoutsis: Dead Space 3 takes place about two months after the end of Dead Space 2, and Isaac's emotional state is one where he wants to get away from his past and everything that's happened, and he's running away from the events of The Sprawl. The stuff that happened on The Sprawl cost a lot of money, destroyed a whole space station basically - the government's not very happy. He picks up and moves to the New Horizons Lunar Colony in hopes of just laying low and being left alone. He's in a state where he wants to pull into himself and get away from things.
With that being said, at the end of [Dead Space 2] he had a connection with Ellie, but they've become a little bit estranged. What people may have assumed was going to be this great relationship, he's pulled away. Isaac is trying to get away from everything in his past and wants to start fresh in a place where people don't know who he is. That's how we set that all up.
Eric: I've read and I kind of understand how the narrative is going to be different in cooperative play, but regarding the gameplay and the challenge, does that go beyond harder or more enemies?
Steve: The challenge is going to be based on a bunch of different things. There's obviously the difficulty level, you'll be able to elect what difficulty you want to play it in. There's also our New Game Plus modes which will allow you to tweak game rules a little bit, and that will determine how you play. Ultimately, one of things we are doing is making the enemies more difficult and we're adding more from time to time. We're tweaking the values on the damage, both from the player and from the Necromorphs. It does scale, so when you play on single player and when a friend jumps in with you on co-op, it will make it more difficult so that, roughly, the difficulty feels the same. If you're playing in normal single player and then have a friend jump in, co-op, it feels relatively similar. For the most part, that's the approach we're taking.
Eric: I played the demo for the first time yesterday, it's the first time I had seen it since E3, and it made me remember there are lot more open, outside environments with Necromorphs popping up out of the snow. Did that change Visceral's approach to enemy encounters?
Steve: It didn't change it, but it added another set of tools to what we do. Wanting to stay fresh and keep combat feeling interesting and getting away from too predictable, the addition of lower visibility, the snow storms and blizzards that we can create, and the fact that we can have enemies pop out of snowdrifts and things like that - it really allowed our designers to be a little bit more creative with encounters. It didn't change our philosophy, it added to it. Did you enjoy the demo?
Eric: I enjoyed it, to an extent. It was the same E3 demo that I had already seen, so the surprise was kind of removed, but, barring some issues with the cover system, I enjoyed it.
Eric: I have another question that spawns from the demo. When I was playing and there were human-type enemies firing guns back at me, it felt kind of alien, for lack of a better word, in the Dead Space world. What lead to the decision to have more traditional gunfire back at Isaac?
Steve: As I said earlier, one of the things that we really focus on when we're developing the game is that what you're doing in the game and what you encounter in the game comes from the story and where we want the story to go, the kind of top-level vision we have for the game. Over the course of Dead Space 1 and 2, Isaac has been the victim of Unitologists. In the first game, clearly the Unitologists were up to some nefarious things that caused his girlfriend to die. Right off the bat, they haven't been very positive in his life. Not to mention his early days, with his mother being a Unitologist and where his family life was at. Unitologists haven't necessarily been the greatest influence in this guy's life.
In Dead Space 2, he's not only incarcerated by the government at the beginning, but he thinks he's getting rescued and of course it's Unitologists again they're trying to manipulate him. They've been a part of why his girlfriend's been murdered, and many other people have been killed, and now they've kidnapped him.
When Dead Space 3 started, the Unitologists have been up to their own thing again - and I'm not going to get into spoilers with that - but they're a bigger presence in the game. It was time for us to see more of them, it was time for us to see what they are up to, and it was a chance for us to answer questions. The introduction of the Unitologists naturally worked for us with the story. We also thought it would be cool for Isaac to actually get a chance to showdown with them in a way that was meaningful. While Unitologists are a presence in the game, they have conventional weapons. They're not pacifists, and because they have weapons, they use them against anyone who stands in their way. Isaac encounters them and dispatches them as you see in the demo.
Eric: It sounds playing as Carver provides a different perspective, like an entirely different way to absorb the narrative. I was wondering, maybe you can't answer this, but will there be an option to play as Carver solo in the game?
Steve: No. The primary protagonist of Dead Space 3 is Isaac Clarke and in single player that is who you play.
Eric: Lastly, what was one of the more important things that Visceral may have learned from the reception or feedback of Dead Space 2?
Steve: With Dead Space 2 we got a lot of good feedback, and I think [were a couple] influential things that I saw. Some people really like the end of Dead Space 2 in terms of the intensity and pressure that was placed on the player as you were finishing the game up. Other people didn't like that. That was interesting in that it was conflicting feedback, we saw that quite a bit about the lead up to the ending through the last facility. That was interesting, and reminded us that we really needed to pay attention to the pacing. While a lot of people really seemed to enjoy it, a lot of people either didn't enjoy it or thought it was too hard. We looked at that and really questioned the way we paced the ending of this game to make sure it felt fun and engaging and didn't become a grind for anybody.
The other thing that was interesting to me was the talk about weapons and load outs. When you look on message boards and see people talking about the game, "oh what weapon did you play with, and how much did you upgrade it?" and that was really cool because we had been interested in really blowing out our weapon crafting system. It was good to see that people were interested in the weapons and liked to talk about them and the tools. We always wanted to lean more into Isaac as an engineer, so our weapon crafting really allowed us to do that.
One story that I told a couple weeks ago, we were reviewing our weapon crafting system in one of our daily meetings, and it was very challenging system to create. It required a lot of people to work on it, and there was a lot of concern that maybe people won't like this. Do we really need to do it? The last one seemed to work, why would we change it? We were reviewing it and trying it out, and I was a huge supporter of it and very excited about the progress we were making. People were questioning it and concerned. I was looking at my phone, I was actually checking Twitter, and on my feed somebody said, "You know it would be really cool if you could create a ripper-flame thrower."
In the middle of the meeting I said, "I hear what you're saying guys, I know it's hard, I know it's a concern, who knows if it's gonna be what people want - but this guy right here seems to want it." I read that tweet to everybody in the room. They [accused me of writing that] and I said no, this is what our players are asking for. I think we're on the right track here, we really have to nail this to make it awesome. That was another one of the things that came out of the ending to Dead Space 2.
Eric: That's interesting. I don't know if you've seen the forum judgment of the demo so far, but the weapon creation stuff almost 100% positive from the stuff that I've looked through.
Steve: It's fun, and my sensibilities tend to be more of an RPG kind of guy. I really like to tinker with stuff, that's why we have the scavenging and the scavenge bot and all that. I think that adds a lot to the replayability and allows players to feel like they have an investment in customization and control over what the game is. I think it's really fun, and I hope people do enjoy that.
At this point Steve inquired if he could freely talk about something else and asked if we would put it up. I gave a non-committal answer (when this happens it's usually to deliberately reiterate an on-message statement regarding the game), but what Steve had to say was legitimately interesting and great news for those who may have some hesitation about cooperative play in Dead Space 3.
Steve: One thing that I don't think a lot of people realize yet, and I think they'll realize it when the game comes out, but our co-op is super different than a lot of co-op games that you'll see. Let me give you an example. You and I are playing and then you get busy, but I am sitting there [and want to keep going] and have to start a different version of the game. I get invested in that version of the game, that save file, and that inventory of the character at that point. Then, you come back and want to continue. Have you ever done that and felt like it was a huge bummer because in your single player game you had way better powers and now it feels like a total drag to jump in and play with your friend again?
That doesn't happen in Dead Space 3. That's because we put a lot of effort into insuring that your profile is your inventory. What I mean by that is I can play single-player by myself and get to chapter 3 of the game. I can invite you, you can jump in, and you can start playing at chapter 3 with me, or, through our chapter select, I can go back to Chapter 1 and we can start playing from there - but I keep everything that I've picked up so far. We can get halfway through the game and you decide to leave, you can take all your stuff. I finish the game, and you want to jump in again but I don't feel like it. Well, you can take that character and either continue as Isaac with all the gear you picked up [as Carver] from the place you left off with me, or you could elect to back to the beginning of the game, keeping all that stuff that you collected. Or you could just start a whole new game. That ability you don't see in other games, and I'm hoping that people will see that when they play the game. It's very hard to do that, and that's why you don't see that in games! The team did an incredible job making sure players were able to do that. That came from us thinking about our players and thinking about the way we play games. We wanted to make sure that playing Dead Space with a friend was fun and didn't feel it limited your ability to play single player, or that there was a reliance on playing co-op. It's really about players being able to play the game the way they want, and we're supplying them with the ability to do that with a persistent inventory. That's something that I am super proud of the team for being able to do. There aren't any other games that I play, with the exception of an MMO, that have that level of persistence with your inventory and allow you to do stuff like that.
Eric: You said the difficulty is selectable, but does it vary for each player? Like my buddy could be on normal and I could be on hard?
Steve: No. It's always based on the host. If your buddy comes into the game with you and you're all tricked out and they're not, either you're going to have to help them out and give them ammo, watch over them - or you're going to have to deal with selecting a difficulty that works for them. That's something that the players are going to have to talk about that.
I’d like to personally thank Steve Papoutsis for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk to us. Follow him on Twitter @leveluptime keep on the lookout for him to drop more codes for the Xbox 360 demo before it becomes public next week. Dead Space 3 comes out on February 5th, be sure to check back Digital Chumps then for a full review.