Everyone's heard of the difficult second album syndrome, but spare a thought for those lumbered with the even more difficult third album syndrome. The first Dead Space was a modest success, and the very definition of a cult hit; a small, vocal group rallied behind this stark space-bound survival horror game and were delighted when it was granted a sequel.
That sequel went bigger and, popular belief has it, better. Set-pieces were more spectacular, enemies more varied, and the gore didn't just come in buckets any more - it was shipped across in huge industrial vats. Everyone, it seemed ,was happy, and Dead Space 2 has a strong claim to being one of the best all-out action experiences that this generation's offered us thus far.
3, The Magic Number
Which brings us to Dead Space 3, and things don't look like they're going to be quite so easy for developer Visceral and publisher EA this time around. Everyone's got their preconceptions of what a Dead Space game should be - cold blank horror, isolation, and limbs being ripped from their sockets, but EA's keen to find a bigger audience. There's a clash in there somewhere, and so far it hasn't looked pretty.
Dead Space 3 continues the story of Isaac Clark and his search for the truth behind the Markers, mysterious artefacts that are worshipped by a shady religion known as the Unitologists, even though these monoliths have a knack of turning everyone who comes into contact with them into gurgling, mutated monsters.
Having escaped the spaceship Ishimura and then, in the second game, the vast colony of the Sprawl, Isaac's now on the ice planet of Tau Volantis, a key location in the backstory of the Marker. So far, so very Dead Space. A jaunt through the ice-scape sees the palette reversed, the black spaces of the first two games flipped into the white static of a snowstorm, and all the while the fear of the unknown remains. There are well-directed shocks and some pleasantly violent interludes as Necromorphs stumble through the blizzard, and in a way it's all comfortingly familiar.
But then there's trouble, and it comes not in the way of an enemy that's looking to liberate Isaac's limbs. There's a second playable character in Dead Space 3 (and continuing the series' appropriation of iconic sci-fi names, he's called John Carver) and his presence threatens the fabric of the game in a way that many fans aren't happy about.
Alone In The Dark?
There's a simple equation that fuels that fear - the more players sharing the space, the thinking goes, the less true thrills there are to be had. After all, it's that much harder to be scared when you're not alone, isn't it? That's proven to a point in a run-through of some of Dead Space 3's early missions with another player by our side - the horror's gone, but the action's been intensified, a shift in tone amplified by the addition of a slight cover system and an athletic evasive roll for both characters.
But here's the thing: it's actually kind of fun too, as one player can concentrate on layering stasis effects on an enemy while another can get busy with a rifle. And that's not even the most important thing: Dead Space 3's co-op is entirely optional, and it's perfectly possible to play through the game's no-doubt meaty campaign without ever knowing that it's there.
Anybody who's followed Dead Space throughout the years will likely be feeling a little déjà vu with this current round of whining about the direction that the series has taken for this sequel. When the second game was announced, fans were aghast that Visceral had bolted a multiplayer mode onto a game whose charm lay squarely in its single-player campaign.
Those fans were right, in the end - the multiplayer was awful and kind of redundant. They could well be right this time too, and the co-op may well be a little pointless. But as Dead Space 2 proved, those fans would be wrong to write off the game as a whole - beneath those additions there still lies a horror game that's slick, well-executed and more than capable of providing some genuine chills. Take its track record into account, and there's every reason to believe that this will be one of the more thrilling games of the new year.