A survivor-horror sequel is one of the hardest projects a developer can face. A follow-up loses the advantage of surprise and the unknown. By the time a series moves to its second or third iteration, players know what to expect. All the cards are on the table, and the creative team has to find ways to reinvent those scares.

It's a daunting challenge for Visceral Games' latest project, "Dead Space 3." The third part of the Isaac Clarke saga kicks off with the engineer in a downward spiral. Ellie, his girlfriend and fellow survivor, has left him. Haunted by the memories of his battles with the structures known as the Markers, he has withdrawn from a world already crumbling around him.

Just when he thinks he's escaped everything to do with the monster-producing monoliths, he's grabbed for one last mission. His old flame has stumbled upon a key that could stop all the Markers, and he's recruited by EarthGov's last battalion to investigate it. That will take him from a lunar colony to a frozen world called Tau Volantis.

On that planet, players finally will get the answers they've been searching for since the original "Dead Space." They can expect the same type of scares. Necromorphs will jump out of vents. They'll reanimate dead bodies and sneak up on Isaac in the middle of battle.

The big change this time around is a weapon system that lets players create their own guns. It's incredibly deep and offers plenty of customization as players try to create the best firearms to take out monsters as well as religious zealots hellbent on stopping Isaac from his goal. The fact that players can carry two weapons makes weapon creation incredibly important.

It lets players augment their playstyles. If they want to set up traps with mines and focus on close-up fighting, that's viable. If they want to attack from afar, "Dead Space 3" can accommodate that as well. But it's best for players to have a flexible armory, because they will encounter scenarios where they can have the wrong firearm to deal with enemies. It can be frustrating, like trying to eat spaghetti with a spoon.

The other big feature (and the more important one) is two-player co-op. This is where Visceral Games experiments with new forms of terror. One person will be Isaac, while the other takes on the role of John Carver; the twist is that Carver is a soldier unaccustomed to fighting necromorphs, and the Marker causes dementia to those never exposed to it before.

In the campaign, Carver will encounter situations and see things that Isaac won't. The scares work in the same way horror flicks do when seen with friends. When one person starts freaking out, that fear can be infectious. Players can go on the adventure alone, but it's preferable to tackle the story with a friend.

Those two features nearly carry "Dead Space 3." But the game is riddled with flaws that hold it back. Minor annoyances such as far-apart checkpoints, clumsy set piece action sequences and unkillable enemies interrupt the flow.

The series has evolved away from its survival-horror inspired origins. The game isn't focused on scaring us any more or making us feel desperate as our resources dwindle. It's more like an action game that stumbles upon a few scares, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"Dead Space 3" takes players across familiar emotional terrain, but it reaches a satisfying crescendo. It's a payoff that's worth the ride for fans of the series.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'dead space 3'
H*H
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Rating: Mature