One of the big highlights from this past week’s EA Summer Showcase in Redwood City was a new playable demo for Visceral Games’ upcoming Dead Space 3, the latest chapter in the ongoing (and harrowing) saga of Isaac Clarke, a guy who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time when it comes to dealing with xenomorphs.  This time around, he’s stuck on an icy planet, dealing with more of the nasty alien beings while contending with a new hero, John Carver, who ties in more to the story than you might expect.

EA previously offered a look at the game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, where players were treated to a 15-minute-ish demo that also demonstrated the addition of co-op support, with one player controlling Isaac and the other backing him up as John.  (The game is playable in single player form as well, with John intermittently making appearances.)  EA had this demo back on hand at the event, for those who missed it the first time around, and while the co-op support isn’t quite perfect, it’s ideal in certain situations.

For instance, in one stage, we find ourselves in the depths of an arctic station, with a huge power drill hanging overhead.  In an effort to move further into the level, the drill needs to be activated, but creates havoc by running amuck, forcing the players to use statis (a special slow-down fluid that works on a target for a few precious seconds) to slow it down, revealing a vital weak point in the center of the drill – which can be shot at in-between the cracks.  The two players must work together to destroy it, with one shooting at the drill and the other fending off enemies and keeping danger at bay.

Another situation in co-op involved fighting a huge, scaly beast the end of the stage, with glowing markers around its face and a dangerous set of tentacles, which it had no problem swinging at us.  Luckily, the glowing points are the weak spots, and even while getting sucked in by its vacuum-style breath, we were able to get off enough shots from our plasma gun to weaken it and regain our ground.  Unfortunately, it proved mostly fruitless, as the thing swallowed us anyway.  Luckily, that’s only half the battle, and a Visceral rep told us up front, “You’re not getting out the same way you came in.”  Ick.

After messing around with the familiar co-op demo, EA also demonstrated a new single player demo, one that actually leans closer to what Dead Space is all about.  Rather than taking place in a huge, vast whitened environment, this one is traditional Dead Space territory, in a dark, barley lit interior with rusty pipes, dripping fluids and creepy xenomorphs creeping around every bend.  For those of you who were concerned that Visceral “lost its touch” with the upcoming sequel, one look at this demo would convince you otherwise.  This team knows how to create genuine tension.

Like previous Dead Space games, the level focused on delivering equal parts action and puzzle solving.  Switches need to be flipped (using a new electrical conductor that rotates to activate them) and enemies need to be shot, preferably from down low as that slows them down.  Ones also appear high in the rafters, forcing you to scramble as they spit dangerous fluid at you, which does damage to your health bar.  Take too many hits and you’ll collapse dead on the floor.

The co-op demo delivered a great deal of epic tension, while the single-player demo focused on a more harrowing survival horror experience.  But both feature strong gameplay elements that fans will be familiar with, including a switch between classic and new aim styles (the classic one uses a holographic technology that works well) and plenty of melee strikes that would leave an enemy dead on the ground.  The only thing that felt a bit iffy is the new cover system.  In some situations, like facing soldiers in the co-op demo, it worked fine.  But honestly, we felt more at home in a run-and-gun situation, rather than hiding and taking our potshots.  Some people may grow to like this addition, but we’re fine with the way it plays to begin with.

Visually, Dead Space 3 is shaping up to be the best yet in the series.  The outdoor environments are quite striking, and the alien designs are nastier than ever, especially the freak you face midway through the first part of the stage, who takes great pleasure in trying to rip you apart.  The dialogue is good too, especially when John and Isaac get in each other’s faces, torn over their individual missions.

Dead Space 3 will be available in February next year for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.  Whether you’re a casual action fan or a long-time lover of survival horror, this is bound to be worth exploring.