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Dead Space 3 - how Visceral out-grew terror

Sprawling hands-on with the noisy third outing

There's something in the ventilation duct above Isaac Clarke's head, something mobile and angry. We level our Cutter - and an enraged knuckle of shellfish barges through the grate, stops dead in a cloud of blue Stasis energy, and is blasted to giblets by plasma fire. Our pulse barely jumps. Five years ago, this would have been a show-stopping tactic, but we're old hands at Dead Space, well-acquainted with its roster of pop-up scares and vengefully heavy-duty sci-fi weapons.

Dead Space 3 has been treated to a round drubbing since the appearance of gameplay footage at E3 this year, savaged for cynical "concessions" to the popularity of more bombastic, less unnerving shooters. But it's possible we're all missing something obvious here. Franchises trade on givens - an established world, enemies and stage-setting - whereas horror is about facing the unknown. Three iterations in, Dead Space was never going to be quite as terrifying as it was in 2008, and Visceral's alterations are as much a question of facing up to this as heeding the mainstream's call.

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And to the studio's credit, Dead Space 3 is shaping up to be an accomplished balancing act, deftly unfurling the old mechanics to embrace bustling engagements worthy of an Army of Two, then whittling them back down to the cramped suspense that made the original game so thrilling.

We've all heard talk about pleasing new and returning players before, of course, especially when it comes to horror IPs, but the game's second chapter is the proof in Visceral's pudding, taking place as it does aboard a trashed starship that's a cast-iron clone of the USG Ishimura. Well, almost.

As we plod around in search of the inevitable busted generators and security controls, tiny distinguishing details become apparent. This is an older class of floating necropolis: chunky phone handsets share dashboard space with analogue dials and phat keyboards, and the doors are a step back from the Ishimura's self-cycling locks, requiring that we spin their visible components using Isaac's faithful Telekinesis ability. Visceral's capacity to hint at an entire narrative universe using architecture and clutter is as remarkable as ever.

Isaac's agenda is unclear at this point - there's talk of encrypted military signals over the comms line - but one consequence, needless to say, is the evisceration of an army of possessed corpses. The new bits in combat are harder to spot here, as there's rarely any cover to hide behind and not much space to employ that flashy evasive roll.

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Deep freeze
The nasties follow standard Dead Space procedure, showing up in groups of two or three - one getting your attention from the front while another champs on your ear from behind, or rains bone darts and acid from the walls and ceiling. Stasis remains the most useful of Isaac's abilities, letting you freeze-frame thrashing talons for easy trimming or simply so you've got time to reload. A big hand, too, for those cathartic melee attacks. At one point a Stalker surprises us at close quarters with a triumphant screech, only to be hustled into a corner and clubbed to lumps of protesting gristle.

Weapons Benches have been overhauled, letting you stitch together primary and secondary fires can be stitched together Necromorph-style into custom guns. The latter prove helpful on the surface of Tau Volantis, the frozen ice world on which much the game appears to be set. Isaac crash-lands there in the second part of our hands-on, and promptly sets off through the glacial haze in search of fellow Dead Space 2 survivor Ellie Langford.

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