The Dead Space series has provided some of the most terrifying and exciting moments of the current console generation – achieving blockbuster IP status after only two numbered installments. Spin-off experiments in handheld gaming and motion controls, Dead Space (Mobile) and Dead Space: Extraction, respectively helped build the series profile and made quality (albeit limited) additions to the franchise offerings.

Along with bigger sales numbers comes larger expectations and with the release of Dead Space 3 Electronic Arts and Visceral Games have upped the ante in nearly every way imaginable – crafting immense “open world” environments, significantly retooling the weapon system, and adding drop-in/drop-out co-op gameplay. Still, after Resident Evil 6 flubbed with a “bigger is better” approach, many survival horror fans are unsure of what to expect from the next battle between Isaac Clarke and the necromorph scourge.

Fortunately, the Dead Space 3 demo provides a clear idea of what’s to come – specifically the same trademark Dead Space amputation gameplay mixed with a few less successful additions (most notably cover-based shooting sections). That said, in spite of a few underwhelming evolutions to the series format, the demo should come as a relief to fans who were concerned that Electronic Arts is attempting to entirely undercut the survival horror experience in favor of mass-market action appeal.

You can check out a full 30 minute video walkthrough of the Dead Space 3 demo below (courtesy of Ve3tro) or continue reading our hands-on preview impressions below:

Ten seconds into a shootout with Unitology loyalists, it’s clear that long range gunfights in open arenas littered with stacked boxes is a stretch for the series. Worse yet, the available weapons in the demo don’t provide a lot of options for precision kills on distant enemies – a sharp failure when compared to the quality close-quarters fights that helped put the franchise on the map. In general, the firefights are familiar video game moments – tacked onto the unique and immersive Dead Space narrative and survival horror experience.

That said, the cover-based shooter segments do up the quality of action – since, at least in the demo, there’s an interesting chaos created when Unitology agents have to break-off from shooting the player in order to fight-back a necromorph outbreak. Gameplay is made even more intense by more prominent use of the “Divider” necromorph mutation – specifically disembodied heads that can skitter across the battlefield and take control of downed Unitologists. In spite of some overly-familiar “gamey” set-ups, the rapidly shifting dynamics of these battlefield sequences successfully create new and terrifying challenges for the player.

Of course, these hectic actions moments are somewhat subdued in the optional co-op mode. Co-op is a fun addition to the format and will no doubt extend replay value but it undermines many of the scares and spooky moments, at least in the demo, since players can revive and cover their partner. As promised by Visceral Games, development of the co-op mode hasn’t negatively impacted the single player experience – since gamers who elect to face the necromorphs alone will not be partnered with the player two character, John Carver, for much of the campaign. Carver is present in certain sequences but does not accompany Clarke moment to moment.

Dead Space 3 co-op trailer

The trial chapter also provides insight into how the single player story changes when playing in co-op but, at this point, it’s unclear whether or not these relatively small alterations will entice many Dead Space 3 players to fight necromorphs with a parter.  If there’s one thing to be learned by the co-op mode demo, it’s that fans of the series should probably play through Dead Space 3 in single player first – it is definitely scarier and offers a greater challenge. Afterwards, if they want to spend more time with the game, there’s no harm in recruiting a friend for harmless co-op fun.

The last Dead Space 3 demo feature is a crafting mode that allows players to test out the new weapon customization options. Essentially, players now have the ability to find different mods for their weapons throughout the game – instead of simply finding a complete gun itself. This allows gamers to build hundreds of unique weapons – such as a plasma cutter that, instead of a rotated alternate fire option, shoots a flamethrower burst instead.

The new options are overwhelming in the demo but it’s easy to see how much fun customizing weapons will be in the main game – not to mention how useful it’ll be to craft an arsenal that is uniquely suited to the player’s necromorph killing style.

Dead Space 3 Running Necromorph

At this point, there’s reason to be optimistic that Dead Space 3 gets enough right to counteract any missteps. Based on the demo, Visceral Games is walking a risky line with the series – in danger of straying too far into underwhelming and generic action-shooter experience (we’re looking at you Resident Evil 6). However, overall, the demo also includes enough core Dead Space 3 horror and fresh ideas to keep us excited for the full retail release.

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Dead Space 3 releases on February 5 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC.