Dead Space 3 is a game that left many of its fans worried. Early footage made it seem as if the Sci-Fi Action Horror series had dropped any and all of its core gameplay for something closer to a straight-up action shooter. Statements by publisher Electronic Arts saying they want the game to appeal to a broader audience, as well as sell 5 million copies just to keep the IP alive, didn’t help these impressions. From a Co-Op mode to microtransactions, Dead Space 3 looked like it was going to crash and burn under too many unnecessary additions and changes. The result is something unsettling.
Isaac Clarke has not had the best career as an engineer in the past few years. After surviving an outbreak of Necromorphs, alien creatures made out of reanimated corpses, on the abandoned space vessel, the USG Ishimura, he spent years in an insane asylum. Seeing psychotic visions of his dead girlfriend, he also had to fight off a second outbreak on a populated space station, as well as avoid the machinations of the Church of Unitology, a group of zealots who believe Necromorphs are the next stage in human evolution. Now, Clarke has been pulled out of self-imposed exile by the remnants of EarthGov to help them find the source of the Necromorph creating artifacts, known as Markers, and destroy it. No easy task because on top of disgusting space zombies, Isaac must also avoid Jacob Danik, the charismatic leader of the Unitologists who have gone from cult to psychotic terrorist group.
Core Gameplay remains unchanged from the previous games. You still manage health packs and ammo clips while taking careful aim at enemies from a third-person over the shoulder camera. The enemies still illicit startling jump scares by leaping out of the walls, the ceiling, and sometimes even the ground to ambush when you least expect it. The Necromorphs are still a pain to kill by strategically cutting off their limbs, head-shots do nothing. The Dead Space experience at its very core is still very much alive.
The new features are a mixed bag. A major change is instead of picking up credits to spend at shop kiosks for better weapons and ammo, there is now a weapon crafting system. By collecting scrap metal, gel, tungsten, transponders, and various parts, you can make your own weapons at a workbench. You can recreate classic weapons using blueprints you find if you like, but the system is very open to creativity. In my initial play-through, I managed to create a gun that rapidly fired superheated rivets with a Tesla core attached to fire bursts of electricity, all while slowly regenerating my Stasis (read freeze beam) energy. The designs can be as simple as an assault rifle with a shotgun attachment to as unusual as a buzz-saw thrower that freezes while it cuts. Thinking outside the box is encouraged since you only have two weapon slots and resources are always limited… unless you have spare cash to burn.
The first major controversy surrounding Dead Space 3 is supplementing the weapon crafting with a micro-transaction system. If you don’t have enough resources to make a weapon you really want, there is an option to buy a chunk with real world money. This could easily be seen as content being locked away, but is enlivened by two factors. First, the system is optional since it is completely possible to get through the game without paying a single extra dollar. Second, there is the ability to buy these packs using in-game currency called Ration Seals which can be obtained by using Scavenger Bots to scour the area.
The weapon crafting is counterbalanced by a lot more aggressive enemy AI. Past Dead Space games have never terrified me because the monsters in question never actually seemed threatening, just messed up and annoying. Fast forward to Dead Space 3 and lots of moments of panic were had. The Necromorphs will attack in packs, move out of the way of incoming fire, and clear entire rooms in half a second, keeping the tension high and the action frantic.
It’s a shame that while the gameplay has been polished and refined so much that the story mode falters. The scale is much larger than previous games in the series, but so many of the subplots such as the attacks by the Unitologists crippling galactic order or the complete absence of Isaac’s dementia-induced hallucinations, either go nowhere or don’t lend any additional depth. Too many plotpoints seem to come and go with little to no connection and there are too many points where the narrative appears to serve out of place gameplay set pieces. For example, the Unitologists seem to become an amoral bunch of gun-toting psychos just so the Necromorphs have some Red Shirts to kill to artificially raise the stakes or so Isaac can fight them in ham-handed cover-based combat that feels like a low-budget rip off of Gears of War. From a pure action perspective, these set pieces do a good job of breaking up Necromorph attacks. The final act culminates in an utterly bizarre, crap hits the fan final boss fight that is quite a spectacle to behold in the moment. However, the action affects Isaac Clarke in the same way subsequent Die Hard movies affect John McClane: their sympathetic Everyman personality slowly falls away into the predictable guise of a generic larger-than-life action hero.
A second point of apprehension towards Dead Space 3 involved the addition of drop-in/drop-out cooperative multiplayer. On the whole, it works but feels phoned-in at spots. Player 1 plays as Isaac Clarke while Player 2 plays as gruff military man, John Carver. While Isaac has had two games to develop a personality, John Carver comes off as generic and forgettable. There are some optional Co-Op only side missions that flesh out his character a bit using Marker-induced dementia, but don’t do much to diminish the feeling that the character is just a palette swap. On a gameplay level, the mode works with both players retaining their weapons and gear from their separate respective games, with enemy threats scaled appropriately to maintain a challenge. On a story level, the difference between a Solo story and a Co-Op story is marginal at best. As for finding a game, the process is intrusive and immersion breaking at best and a test of patience at worst. Whenever a partner joins or drops out, a loading screen pops up, slowing down the pacing, then drops you at a previous checkpoint which can be anywhere between two minutes ago and twenty.
Visually speaking, Dead Space 3 is impressive. Whether its the inside of a space station, or the surface of the ice planet of Tau Volantis, the foreboding atmosphere is quite thick, helped by solid lighting and a consistent frame-rate. The motion capture work on the main characters are also great.
Moreso than past games, the foley effects of Dead Space 3 are great. The unsettling squelching and snapping of human muscle and bone, the ominous crackling of ice overhead, and the groaning of spaceship hulls all take center stage. Voice acting work is solid all around, and the musical score helps elevate the whole experience.
Dead Space 3 is a game that is difficult for me to like. As much care as Visceral has taken with the experience, it feels diluted. The story mode, which clocks in at about 12 hours long, feels stretched and puts the gameplay through the wringer. No matter how intense fighting off Necromorphs are, it becomes tedious after a while, especially during repetitive boss fights. Still, for those looking for a lot of content for their purchase, there are a lot of New Game + options and replay value to be had in making new weapons. The Co-Op mode is functional but feels vestigial to the solo experience. What could have stood as a great action horror experience feels weighed down by unnecessary fluff, and a lack of narrative focus makes the whole thing run the danger of becoming forgettable.
On the whole, Dead Space 3 is a solid game but not exactly the big earth-shattering mega-hit some would expect. Fans of the series will enjoy it, and co-op is a great way to introduce new players, but for all of its ambitions, it falls just short of amazing..
AAG SCORE: 8/10
+ Refined Intense Gameplay
+ Creatively Open Weapon Crafting
+ High Replay Value
– Muddled Story
– Functional But Forgettable Co-Op Campaign
– Clunky Genre-Shifting Set Pieces