Horror games are a very intimate experience by design. A player sits down and is put into a (generally) nightmarish scenario from which they must somehow escape from, and it's within this struggle for survival that developers try to get players to empathize with whatever character it is they're controlling. Whether its ghosts, demons, zombies or necromorphs a good horror game makes players feel less like they're gunning for a fight and more like they're struggling against impossible odds with limited resources at disposal. The players experience needs to be interrupted as little as possible, which is something that the Dead Space franchise has worked hard to accomplish using a fluid real time map and inventory interface, some fantastic audio detail, and close attention to in game narrative. Perhaps a little too action-oriented at times (and a little predictable with the scares) most gamers can at least agree that Dead Space tries quite hard in trying to keep gamers engaged while delivering a memorably frightening experience.
But that's all in single player, when the game has the sole attention of one individual. How scary can any game possibly be with the addition of friend? Whether sitting next to you or available through a headset over Xbox Live the sudden placement of a second player adds a level of comfort that did not exist previously, and removing the element of isolation that's become a very core part of any horror experience immediately threatens to take the mood apart at its seams. This is particularly important when you consider that Dead Space 3's co-op campaign appears to be the more fleshed out version of the game, offering bonus content and additional mental breakdowns which would normally go unnoticed by the other player. When the choice is to play alone and potentially miss out on game content, or play with a friend and possibly sacrifice narrative and mood, it's understandable how fans of the very niche horror genre are skeptical on what Dead Space 3 has to offer.
Despite being a little dubious about the whole "˜scary multiplayer experience' it's the attention to small details that keep me interested in what Visceral has to offer. If Dead Space 3 can cut down on the mainstream creature-jumps-out-of-window-screaming scares and focuses a lot more on the more psychological side of the IP's horror, we may have a winner on how to do co-op correctly. The idea that both players are in the same location but are experiencing two very different things isn't exactly new to the shooter genre, Kane and Lynch played around with one player suffering mental breakdowns before the first Dead Space even released, but it does a great job of addressing the primary concern in a horror co-op game. Keeping the players feeling vulnerable despite what tools they have at their disposal is what makes horror games fun, and in splitting the co-op party away from one another regardless of their physical location Dead Space 3 could very well retain their atmosphere, or better yet amplify it.
It seems like a weak game play mechanic at first, but that's probably because the last big "˜horror' game to have co-op was Resident Evil 5 and no one finds motorcycle riding zombies to be scary. RE's multiplayer experiences have always been about maintaining control in a chaotic environment, but Dead Space 3 has the potential to explore an entirely undisturbed part of the genre. A game that relishes in forcing both players to survive engagements that are completely detached from one another can still keep that single player feeling of desperation, and if Visceral has figured out how to tap into that kind of madness we may have an entirely new genre of survival horror on our hands.
There's no doubt that co-op will bring the best out of most games, and it's hard to argue that fighting xenomorph zombies in space with a friend will be anything but an amazingly good time. Dead Space as a franchise has set a high bar for itself twice already, and it's nice to see the developer looking to expand their creepy universe to new directions, but aside from the fun ride that co-op has to offer there's still something incredibly special about the tone a single player campaign sets in a horror game. Perhaps this is just the lamentation of a worried fan, but a good scare is hard to come by these days. I would hate to see it all tossed out the window just to give my friends and I another chance to headshot screaming mindless monsters together. That's what Call of Duty is for after all.