Why Dead Space 3 co-op should be scary
Dead Space 3 made a splash in the news when Visceral announced it would be adding co-op to the survival horror series. Not everyone took the news well. That's not just because the games have always been pretty solitary, or because co-op tends to remove some of the tension (see Resident Evil 5), but because EA and Visceral explicitly stated that the mode was designed to draw in new players. Making a game more accessible to a wider audience sounds like a good idea on paper, but for a series like Dead Space, there's a very real risk that you alienate the audience that loved the games in the first place. Rather than using co-op as a platform for potentially watering down the game, Visceral should be playing to their strengths and trying to make the first truly scary co-op experience.
Now why do I think Visceral, and more specifically EA, should continue alienating certain players by making co-op even scarier? It seems like bad business. I think it's a matter of quitting while you're ahead, and the fact that Dead Space has managed to turn this many players on to a niche genre is impressive enough. Not every series in EA's stable needs to be Madden or Battlefield, and not every kind of game is built to support that kind of audience. With Dead Space, making the game more approachable and less scary is completely antithetical to the experience. For the series' core audience, a lot of the appeal comes from Dead Space 1 and 2's relentless intensity, ammo scarcity, and sharp edge. Take that away and they run the risk of having the foundation of core fans fall out from under them.
And not to be too harsh on Visceral, because I love them, but this approach to co-op just sounds uninspired. They went as far as adding a new character, and they're even changing the way the story plays out depending on if a second player is there or not, but unless there are other surprises to come, the rest of the co-op package seems pretty standard. The new character, John Carver, lacks Isaac's everyman charm, instead bringing a sort of "oorah" dudebro bravado that could even further defuse the series' iconic tension.
What if, instead of tossing in drop-in, drop-out co-op as a way to lighten up the tension and horror, Dead Space 3 instead used it as a way to mess with players. After all, some of the best and most memorable moments of the Dead Space series are when the game designers are complete assholes—Necromorphs playing dead, shops enticing you to buy a ton of ammo only to lose it all in a firefight 3 seconds later, regenerating enemies chasing you while you're hacking a door, a save point placed in an area so dangerous it can only be a joke—these are the moments I'll never forget. Why not take it even further in co-op?
I'm no game designer, but the possibilities seem too good to pass up. Imagine you're playing co-op and suddenly you and your partner are split up? What if communications suddenly go out and you lose your actual voice communication? Taking it even further into Dead Space territory, I could see one player's character hallucinating and thinking the other player is a Necromorph. Suddenly you're surprising and scaring each other with concepts that flow perfectly with the Dead Space lore. You could even have sections a-la Doom 3's co-op mode in which one player has a gun and the other holds a flashlight, requiring the two to work together in darkness. Or what if, like Isaac's girlfriend Nicole, we find out the second player character is in his head all along? These are just a few quick examples, and I imagine the talented folks at Visceral could come up with some really clever ideas.
At a time where an edgy, demanding game like Dark Souls can thrive, I can't help feeling that "more scary, more sinister" is the niche Dead Space 3 should be trying to fill. Not to mention the fact that the end of a generation is a time for experimentation and innovation in gameplay. Developers have figured out the current consoles' limits and the last suite of games should take us to those edges of creativity. Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us look to be doing just that. Dead Space 3, I'm sorry to say, simply looks like another entry in the series. That's still pretty good, but considering the jump in quality from Dead Space 1 to 2, I'd hope for another leap with Dead Space 3.
All that said, I will admit I could be completely wrong. After all, Visceral's preview coverage of Dead Space 2 also suggested a sequel that was losing touch with the series' roots. That ended up being completely false, as the seeming focus on more action was simply one aspect of a genuinely tense horror game that took players on an incredible ride and turned Isaac into a truly iconic character. Dead Space 3 may surprise us all over again, and I truly hope it does. But for now, the best I can muster is a healthy bit of cautious optimism.