CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Five years after its release, the original "Dead Space" remains the most terrifying video game I've ever played. For the sequel, developer Visceral Games ramped up the action, but still packed "Dead Space 2" full of spine-tingling moments. That has continued with the release of "Dead Space 3," a game that eschews pure horror for a more accessible third-person action experience.
That's probably not what diehard fans of the franchise want to hear, but fear not -- what "Dead Space 3" lacks in frights, it more than makes up for in fun.
Of course, that's not to say "Dead Space 3" isn't scary -- there were plenty of instances that had me leaping out of my seat. But there were just as many instances of white-knuckle shootouts with armed soldiers and battles against hordes of grotesque Necromorphs.
Picking up several months after the events of "Dead Space 2," "Dead Space 3" again puts gamers in the role of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who may or may not hold the secret to destroying the Markers, ancient relics responsible for unleashing the Necromorphs and potentially destroying all of mankind. Lured out of seclusion by former flame Ellie Langford, Clarke agrees to join an expedition to Tau Volantis, believed to be the Marker home world, in hopes of eliminating the threat once and for all. Unsurprisingly, things quickly take a turn for the worst and Clarke again finds himself fighting for his life against insurmountable odds.
But in a dramatic change for the series, this time Clarke isn't fighting alone. "Dead Space 3" introduces co-op to the franchise for the first time, with a second player taking control of soldier John Carver. The co-op experience is unlike anything I've played before, with each player experiencing certain specific situations differently. There are also a number of co-op exclusive missions that shed some light on Carver's tragic backstory. While it could have been a major misstep, the addition of co-op in "Dead Space 3" is handled well. And best of all, it's completely optional for those who prefer to experience the thrills alone.
Co-op isn't the only change in store for series fans in "Dead Space 3." Players can now craft their own weapons using various parts found scattered about, allowing for near-endless combinations of modified sniper rifles, shotguns, assault rifles and flamethrowers, to name a few. While it's still possible to complete the game with only your trusty plasma cutter, I really enjoyed tinkering with weapon crafting and fell in love with the stasis-enabled javelin gun/shotgun combo I created.
Another significant change concerns the environments Isaac visits. Whereas the levels in the first two "Dead Space" games were largely designed around narrow corridors and tight spaces, "Dead Space 3" moves much of the action outdoors on the snow-swept surface of Tau Volantis. There are still plenty of claustrophobic passages and creepy rooms to explore, and I appreciated the variety in level design. I wasn't a big fan of the constant backtracking that was required to complete mission objectives, however.
The outstanding atmosphere that the series has long been known for and a rather engaging story helped make up for the incessant backtracking and rather repetitive gameplay over the 20-or-so hours it took to reach the end credits. That's not to say that dismembering countless Necromorphs isn't fun -- it's a blast, but beyond solving a couple of puzzles that's really all you ever do here. The previous two "Dead Space" games were similar in their design, but the constant dread that those games instilled made the journey more memorable.