The survival horror genre has been on shaky ground throughout this console generation, with entries in the famed Silent Hill and Resident Evil series getting mixed reactions and below-expected sales. The Dead Space series seems to have bucked this trend, with two highly acclaimed titles that proved that video games still have the power to scare and enthrall. Two years on from the excellent Dead Space 2, developer Visceral Games and publisher Electronic Arts (EA) have brought us a third helping in the form of Dead Space 3, an entry that brings a few new ideas coupled with classic elements that fans have come to expect. While the game makes a few missteps, both newcomers and fans of the Necromorph-stomping carnage of yore should find plenty to enjoy here.
Once again, the central character that makes the gears of Dead Space turn is Isaac Clarke, the long-suffering protagonist from the first two games. When we catch up with him here, he is a broken man. In the time since “The Sprawl Incident” of Dead Space 2, he became involved in a romantic tryst with cohort Ellie Langford, only to have it fall apart shortly thereafter. Living in a drunken solitude, Clarke is brought back into the fold by soldiers John Carver and Robert Norton, who convince him to join their cause when it is revealed that another Necromorph outbreak has occurred and Ellie’s team has gone missing on the ice planet of Tau Volantis. The Unitologists are bent on spreading the markers and the Necromorph infestation, so it is incumbent upon Clarke to help stop them.
The beginning of the game has you playing as Clarke (with Carver if you’re playing co-op) escaping the Unitologist soldiers and reaching the familiar territory of outer space, where you must obtain a ship in order to make it to Tau Volantis. Running parallel to the main story is a love triangle of sorts between Clarke, Ellie and her new boyfriend Norton, whose latent hostility is all too apparent. The story runs through the usual twists and turns you would expect, however it never really feels fully developed or coherent. The expository dialogue is merely background chatter, and the characters are so wooden that you’ll find yourself paying little mind to the story and focusing instead on the action. While Dead Space 3 possesses many strengths, weaving a strong narrative is unfortunately not among them.
While the first two Dead Space installments were set mainly in abandoned space stations, Dead Space 3 shakes it up further by varying the environments. During the first half of the game, you are sent on a variety of missions in the familiar far reaches of space, full of Necromorphs who would love nothing more than to kill and eat you. In the latter part of the game, you are thrown onto the ice planet of Tau Volantis. The planet is pure Arctic tundra, reminiscent of the Hoth system from The Empire Strikes Back, and the hostile environment becomes as formidable as the enemies that litter the landscape. Most of the enemies that have become the series standard have returned, as well as some interesting variants and effectively menacing bosses thrown in for good measure. From a stylistic point of view, the game effectively balances the classic gameplay style with a few new inclusions that are, thankfully, more hit than miss.
The core gameplay mechanics from the previous games remains intact in Dead Space 3, in which you traverse harsh terrain and fight off waves of Necromorphs in order to achieve objectives and save your friends. While limb-cleaving and corpse-stomping are still the order of the day, a few modifications have been added that bring the gameplay in line with most third-person shooter conventions. The addition of a rolling dodge move allows players to avoid enemy attacks, and a new cover system allows your to duck behind cover to avoid projectiles. While these additions are useful in certain circumstances, they are hardly mandatory and rarely provide anything beyond a brief respite from the action. The monsters rarely wait patiently for you to shoot them from behind cover, and the dodge mechanic is slow and unreliable, so I often forgot that I even had these abilities at my disposal.
Staying true to the series formula, the main quest line for Dead Space 3 is broken up into chapters and plays out in a very linear fashion. Simply following your mission directives will get you through the game in about ten hours, however the new optional missions can easily double your playtime. These missions are assigned throughout the campaign, and many of them are as challenging as anything the story missions have to offer. Despite the qualities that these side-0bjectives can bring, they do highlight one of the key drawbacks of the game; the nature of the missions themselves. The majority of your time will be spent doing fetch quests, which are fun in the early hours but can border on being tedious as time drags on. The free-floating space missions provide some relief, but the standard “go somewhere, kill monsters, find or fix something” formula is far too prevenalt.
If there is one mistake that Dead Space 2 made, it was the inclusion of a perfunctory competitive multiplayer mode that few bothered with. Thankfully, Visceral Games have learned from this and decided to go the co-op route with Dead Space 3. The entire campaign can be played cooperatively with a friend, which also opens up a few optional missions that are not available in single-player mode. This is handled through a simple drop-in/drop-0ut mechanic, and having another player present changes the gameplay experience dramatically. Your partner is John Carver, who suffers from some kind of insanity-induced dementia, so playing as him will result in you seeing things differently and the need to approach certain situations differently. While some might feel that co-op takes away from the sense of isolation and dread that the series is known for, it is implemented surprisingly well here and is great fun when you get the right partner to tag along with you.
Not content to limit your arsenal to the standard weapons, Dead Space 3 has also introduced a crafting system that gives players the ability to better customize their loadouts. The world of Dead Space 3 is littered with scrap metal, salvage and weapon schematics, all of which can be utilized at work benches to create additional parts for your gun. In addition to new parts, each weapon also has upgrade slots that can be used to add more damage, greater ammo capacity and the like. The scrap and salvage can also be used to craft additional ammo clips, health packs and other items. While the process may seem daunting and a little cumbersome at first, you quickly get use to it as the need to enhance your arsenal becomes greater as the game progresses. You can’t expect to get by with just the Plasma Cutter or Pulse Rifle this time around, and you’ll find that tweaking your guns becomes strangely addictive.
The ability to craft items does offset the frequent ammunition and health pack shortages that plagued the previous games, which can either be a strength or a weakness depending on your gameplay style. Those who prefer to play on higher difficutlies will have an easier time, since crafting makes up for the lack of items found scattered throughout the game, while those who play on normal or casual difficulty will find it to be an absolute cakewalk. Equally offsetting to the difficulty are the universal ammo clips, which effectively eliminates the need to obtain a specific type of ammunition for a specific gun. This was likely done to accommodate the vast amount of custom guns that you can make, either from schematics found in the game or custom blueprints you create yourself. As with most aspects in this game, it’s give and take. The crafting system adds depth and complexity to the gameplay, however it negates some of the difficulty. In my opinion, the trade-off is worth it.
Perhaps the most controversial new inclusion is microtransactions, which I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention. In addition to scavenging for resources, you have the ability to buy “resource packs” from the EA online store. These contain a mixture of scrap metal, salvage, upgrade circuits and gun schematics, and purchasing them can greatly fast-track your weapon upgrades. These can be purchased using Microsoft Points or money in your PSN wallet, the most expensive of which is 240 MSP or $3.00 US. Purchasing these packs is completely optional, so those who choose not to partake on principle or simply for want of a challenge won’t be missing out. The terrain is littered with salvage, so I never found myself at a shortage of resources to craft my gear. While microtransactions are optional, the now-standard Online Pass feature is not. This will be required to access to co-op campaign.
From a technical standpoint, the controls in Dead Space 3 are as intuitive and easy to grasp as in the previous installments. The trigger and bumper buttons handle your combat controls, while the face buttons handle the the collecting and inventory. Returning is the ability to highlight your path by clicking the right analog stick, which prevents you from getting lost among all of the corridors, many of which look exactly the same after a while. The additional doge and cover moves are well implemented into the control scheme, and they will feel natural to anyone who has played a similar third-person action game. A few glitches with the responsiveness do occur, but not with enough frequency to consider them a game-breaker. Overall, the standard set by the previous games in terms of playability are fully intact here, so those familiar with the previous games should be able to jump right in, .
While there are many things that Dead Space 3 does exceptionally well, there is one quality that I feel is lacking. While the first two games had be gripped and enthralled the entire time, the third just isn’t scary. The missions will have you mowing down waves of menacing Necoromorphs, but seeing the same enemies repeatedly can greatly dilute the shock value. Likewise, you can easily predict when monsters are going to jump out at you, so the element of surprise is also diminished here. Increasing the difficulty makes the gameplay more intense, but not necessarily more frightening. One likely cause is that the developers are relying on the same old tricks, which had a sharp impact in the past but have become dull over time. As such, those who played the first two games extensively are likely to encounter series fatigue before the credits roll in the third.
The other cause for the lack of scares is the all of the extras that have been added, including co-op, crafting, scavenging and scripted missions segments. These might flesh out the gameplay, but it ultimately detracts your attention away from sense of foreboding and dread that the series is known for. This is not to say that the game lacks impactful moments, but those moments are scattered throughout a game that becomes top-heavy with side objectives. It’s a delicate trade-off, since it’s hard to begrudge a game that tries to evolve the series and introduce new elements, even if it comes at the expense of other key aspects. Some of these inclusions prove to be high points, such as the space missions and boss fights. On the other hand, the frequent back-tracking and frustratingly cumbersome ice climbing missions on Tau Volantis stand out as low points.
The Dead Space series has always boasted great visuals, and this third installment is no exception. The dark corridors of the space stations you traverse early on are effectively eerie and dark, while the icy landscape of Tau Volantis in the latter part steals the show. The lighting effects, wind and snow particles drifting in the foreground really invoke the feeling of being on an desolate planet, and the gorgeous sunsets and landscapes are a treat for the eyes. The enemy animations are also up to the series standard, with a variety of menacing baddies coming out of all corners in an effort to tear you a new one. The blood and gore, which have become par for the course in Dead Space, are also ever present here. Seeing enemy limbs fly off never gets old, and the claustrophobic environments filled with corpses and body parts are effectively creepy.
Equally important to any horror-themed game is the sound design, and again, Dead Space 3 really shines in this area. The voice acting from everyone involved is first rate, especially the banter between Isaac and Ellie, and the quality shines through despite the cheesy dialogue. Enemy shrieks and growls effectively add to the tension, and the squishy sounds made when stomping corpses or eviscerating enemies is a nice added touch. The music score is appropriately subdued during the quieter moments, however it kicks in with gusto when a boss or a large wave of enemies approaches. During the latter encounters, the game becomes assaulting to the ears with its mix of intense music, gunfire and enemy groans. To get the full effect, I highly recommend playing Dead Space 3 with a good gaming headset or surround sound system.
As someone who has been a fan of the Dead Space series from day one, I can honestly say that Dead Space 3 delivers in many key areas. It looks fantastic, plays very well and it has a fresh coat of paint thanks to a new environment and cooperative gameplay. The downside is that these new elements do come at the expense of the genuine frights that the original games provided, making it feel more like a standard third-person action game. For these reasons, Dead Space 3 stands out as being the weakest in the series so far. However, the fact that it’s still a great game in it’s own right is a testament to the strength of the Dead Space cannon. Those wanting a good scare may be disappointed, however there is enough of the classic gameplay mixed with some new additions that should make this a worthwhile purchase for fans and newcomers alike.
Here is the rundown:
+ Exciting gameplay and intense combat does justice to the series standard.
+ Cooperative gameplay is well-impelemtned and provides a unique experience for longtime series fans.
+ The new crafting system allows you to tweak your arsenal to your liking.
+ Stellar graphics and sound design really brings the harsh environments and nightmarish creatures to life.
- The missions rely too heavily on tedious fetch quests and frequent back-tracking.
- Hackneyed storyline fails to deliver any emotional impact
- The new inclusions come at the expense of the shock value and scariness of the game.
7 and 7.5 represent a game that overall manages to be worth a playthrough, just not worth the full price at launch. These scores are for games that are relatively good or even really good, but generally worth waiting for a sale or picking up as a rental when possible.