If you’re a fan of EA’s Dead Space, there’s a pretty good chance a lot of the trailers and promotional material for Dead Space 3 had you, well… spooked. Ever since it’s announcement, including the reveal that it would include cooperative play for the first time in the series, it seemed like EA was pushing the series towards a focus on action rather than horror. The good news is that’s not the case. The bad news is, if you’ve played both of the previous games, it might not matter.
I’ve been a big fan of Dead Space since the beginning. I’ve beaten the first two entries numerous times, and I think that’s where my biggest problem with Dead Space 3 lies. It’s not that Visceral Games is following some mandate from EA corporate suits to make the game more action-oriented to appeal to a general audience or something. All of the techniques (and some new ones) that they’ve used to scare you before are all still here and in fine form.
If this is your time playing the series, you’ll get the jump scares and tense, frightening atmosphere you want. But if you’re like me and played the previous two games, you’ve probably developed an immunity to Dead Space’s scare tactics. Eventually, whether it was in previous entries or this one, there comes a time when you realize that something’s probably going to jump out of that vent when you turn your back to it, that you can just shoot their limbs and keep trucking. There were a few times where I felt uneasy — maybe tense — but nothing compared to the kindergarten scene in Dead Space 2, or nearly any part of Dead Space 1. Even sitting in a dark room, alone, late at night, I never once jumped at a necromorph popping out at me, it was all just more of the same.
What’s left of Dead Space 3, when you strip away the horror elements, is still a pretty great shooter. Frequently in horror games, controls and character movements are deliberately clunky or slow to engender a sense of danger. If you’ve gotten past the fear, the clunk just becomes annoying. To counter this, they’ve added the ability to crouch, roll, and take cover. The new additions of cover and crouch is mostly unnecessary, but the roll ability adds some much needed mobility. Fortunately, the core function of taking necromorphs down by shooting their limbs off is still enjoyable enough to elevate Dead Space 3 above your run of the mill action game. The additional focus needed to take off limbs, particularly when you’re surrounded by different types of enemies, provides a certain exhilaration you don’t find often elsewhere. Forcing the player to keep their head and aim deliberately, as opposed to the spray and pray style shooting when swarmed in something like Left 4 Dead, is challenging, rewarding, and intense.
Perhaps the most important new feature is the ability to craft and alter Isaac’s weapons. The new system allows players to take different components such as frames, tools, tips, and attachments, and use them to create a huge variety of weapons. For example, a plasma core tool can become a plasma cutter, a contact beam, a force gun, and more depending on what frames and tips you use. All the different combinations have a unique feel and function. The jury-rigged, haphazard nature of this mechanic really feels right considering Isaac’s engineering background.
The various weapon combinations were interesting and offered their own unique functions. Unfortunately, I found them all to be lacking in their usefulness. By the end of the game on Normal difficulty, I had extensively upgraded my Line Gun, which projects a horizontal beam of energy to cut through your enemies. Even with the high level, late-game upgrades, I still found necromorphs were able to withstand the beam much more than I anticipated. Enemies would frequently not even flinch at the first shot. If I was lucky, they’d be stunned by the second, and finally lose their limbs, but not life, from the third shot. With the exception of the rocket launcher, I was disappointed to find that this was true or all the weapons I crafted including the venerable plasma cutter.
The crafting system introduces another wrinkle in the fold that takes away from the horror aspects of the game. Resource management has long been a staple of the horror genre, and the previous two entries were no different, but Dead Space 3 regrettably bucks this trend. Being afraid of running out of ammo or health can almost be as scary as a monster popping out of a closet. Because of the huge variety of weapons the crafting system allows, Visceral Games wisely uses a universal type of ammo for all the guns. This has the side effect of taking away nearly all the anxiety of inventory management. It’s not just ammo that’s changed by the crafting system either. The crafting system also allows players to make their own health packs, but they were overly abundant even without making my own. On Normal difficulty, I don’t think I ever ran out of medkits, and I never had my health dip into the dangerous red, which is pretty clearly not ideal for a horror game that relies on the prospect of death to produce fear.
Where Dead Space 3 really shines, despite all the aforementioned problems, is it’s narrative and the way it weaves it into everything else. Isaac Clarke, the spaceship engineer with a connection to the mysterious alien Markers that give rise to the necromorphs, is once again the protagonist, and his life continues to be filled with undead horrors, despite his best efforts. What’s bad for him is good for us though. Thanks to some incredibly impressive facial animation and voice acting, Isaac and his gang’s troubles move past the tired cliches the story would otherwise include. You’ll see every death, betrayal, and “twist” from a mile away, but these moments are produced so well that you won’t really care. What I really enjoyed, however, was how Dead Space 3 really draws upon Isaac’s experience as an engineer. In addition to the crafting system, which feels like a natural fit, there is a lot more variety in the puzzles that feel like the duties a spaceship engineer might perform. Not only does this make Isaac a more relate-able and unique among all the unstoppable Master Chiefs or charming Nathan Drakes of the videogame world, it provides a believable justification for why Isaac has to do all these things, surrounded by monsters, when he’s in a group of people this time around.
Isaac’s only alone if you’re not playing the newly-added co-op mode. Whatever tension and fear that exists in the singleplayer is totally obliterated by the addition of a second player. Playing with another matchmade player on Xbox Live, we either spent the time strolling through the game’s constricted hallways — not built for two by the way — blasting away necromorphs with ease, or punching each other while waiting for locked doors to open and listening to what were supposed to be dramatic interactions between characters. Worse, most of the co-op exclusive missions, and the single player optional missions, were total rips from previously encountered level layouts, maybe with different enemy spawning points if you were lucky.
On the bright side, playing co-op mode does add some interesting revelations to John Carver, the character the second player controls. Without spoiling much, Carver goes through something of a spiritual journey concerning his deceased wife and son thanks to the Marker. This is especially appreciable after you’ve played through single player, where Carver appears to be your average meat-head military man. Another interesting thing is the way Carver does not always follow Isaac in singleplayer, a neat little differentiation between the stories of both modes.
It feels hard to fault Dead Space 3 for lacking the scares of its predecessors when it feels like the blame might be on me for playing through the previous games so many times. On the other hand, if there’s one genre of game that’s damaged by repetition through sequels, its horror. And Visceral should have realized that, while newcomers can still enjoy the thrills and chills, their dedicated fans will be a little burnt out on the old formula.
Even without the horror you might hope for, Dead Space 3 is an enjoyable action-shooter with a few great moments of tension, including perhaps the greatest and most exhilarating flight/fight to the finale since Half Life 2, and a really gripping story that plays off the strengths of its actors and characters. Ultimately, whether this game is for you or not depends on if you’ve played the previous games, and if so, think you’ve still got it in you to jump at that thing behind you.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.