Series fatigue slows Isaac down more than the snow
Amidst micro transaction controversy and a strong emphasis on co-op in the games marketing campaign, Dead Space 3 got quite a rough start before it even hit store shelves. While it certainly won’t win back any of the fans that jumped ship after the second title introduced more action into the mix, will the new changes alienate the remaining audience? In short the answer is no. Dead Space 3 may have it’s share of issues but the core gameplay is definitely still there. While action may have been put at the forefront of the marketing, you will still explore dim lit corridors where necromorphs go bump in the night.
Dead Space 3 continues the story of Isaac Clarke, a future handy-man that inadvertently gets involved in a whole mess of necromorphs and markers. After having escaped the Sprawl and destroyed the man made marker in the previous game, Isaac now leads a life of solitude trying to deal with his inner demons the only way humanity has ever known how - through the bottom of a bottle. EarthGov is in complete disarray and Unitology cultists are running amok, exposing marker facilities and converting people to convergence via bullet to the brain. A new series of events drags our engineer protagonist into the fray, and steers him on his way to what some believe to be the marker homeworld. The story continues familiar beats of discovering secrets and ultimately uncovering the true origin of necromorphs, markers and all sorts of alien conspiracy dating as far as 200 years back. While many people regard the plot of the third game with quite a bit of disdain, I believe it does a competent job of moving the gameplay along. For the most part the supporting cast is quite forgettable. Even your co-op partner, the completely stereotypical jughead marine Carver has little to say to you throughout the campaign. Most interactions involve Ellie, quite obviously, and with it her new boyfriend making for a tense love triangle thats bound to come crashing down sooner or later. Ultimately the story as always is there to move you from point A to point B while offering a bit of human drama and answering a lot of questions along the way. Whether you like the answers to those questions is entirely up to you, but none of it is especially ridiculous, when you take under account that a simple engineer has twice now single handedly murdered millions of undead space zombies and stopped a man-made apocalypse. What I’m trying to get across is that this is a sci-fi game about zombies in space, the moment you start picking apart the intricacies of the story you’re ultimately just doing yourself a huge disservice.
What of the gameplay? Has Dead Space 3 become a Call of Duty corridor shooter with rumbustious explosions and dubstep at every corner? Of course not. The game follows quite a familiar pattern, which is actually a shortcoming in the long run. While it would be fraudulent to claim that Dead Space 3 retains the same horror trappings of the original, at the same time it doesn’t move so far away from that classic monster closet formula to be mistaken for Gears of War anytime soon. The biggest change to the gameplay is weapon crafting. Previously guns were doled out at very specific points in the game. They all used different ammo, had alternate firing modes and you could carry four of them at a time. You are now restricted to carrying only two weapons at a time and ammo is universal. The weapons you do carry though are completely customized by you, the player. While slightly overbearing the first time you encounter it, very soon the weapon crafting system becomes not only second nature but almost an addiction. Each weapon has a frame, or basically a handle, and two main weapon types (firing modes) that can be attached to said handle and even further modified. Remember when post E3 when questioned whether you can still have just a rotating plasma cutter, the answer was a slightly cryptic “yes you can still totally do that, if thats what you want” ? Well what that meant was that you can choose a light frame, use one slot for the plasma tool and the second slot for a “rotator cuff” which allows you to rotate the upper weapon. So you can basically craft a classic plasma cutter - but you don’t have to, you can compile a perfectly capable if not even more powerful plasma cutter that simply doesn’t rotate. The second weapon on your frame basically acts like an alternate fire. This opens up a plethora of possibilities. You can combine the force gun with a grenade launcher, and add on a stasis module effectively pushing away enemies, slowing them down allowing you to fire a grenade right in the midst of them while they slowly clamber back up. A good chunk of your time will be spent simply experimenting with crazy possibilities and installing upgrade circuits along the way to enhance the weapons just the way you want.
This new system is completely fueled by resource scavenging. Enemies will drop various types of resources along with health and ammo which you’ll use as currency to craft basically anything in the game. This is where microtransactions come in, allowing players to purchase these resources with real money instead of gathering them organically. Before you start frothing at the mouth and cursing EA to high heavens, you should know that the game economy is completely balanced. There was never a point where I felt I could really use that real money boost or that I simply wasn’t getting enough resources. If anything, I felt that I was a lot more upgraded by the midpoint of the game than in previous installments when you were reliant on finding upgrade nodes.
Another big change concerns the suits. The way ammo has now become universal for all weapons, the upgrades to your rig now apply to all suits, essentially making them a cosmetic change rather than a tactical one. RIG upgrades are also fueled by scavenged resources and by the end of the game I had my RIG almost completely maxed out, including all the useless AIR upgrades, which is something I never really came that close to in the previous games. While this does trivialize the discovery of new suits as the upgrade schematic always remains the same, it does let you dress your Isaac doll up in the suit YOU find coolest without worrying about missing out on any perks.
As for the gameplay itself, it’s still classic Dead Space. After a quick tutorial level which features the all new human enemies, you soon find yourself in a spaceship graveyard and the game takes on a much more familiar, subdued, eerie tone. You explore abandoned, derelict ships with flickering lights and shadowy corners, tasked with finding some part or other to progress the story. Much like the original game, you will be repairing broken down machinery and keeping a close eye on all vents. The necromorph cast from the previous titles make a return appearance, complete with my least favorite type, the regenerators. There are a few new varieties but for the most part you will be fighting the same stumbling slow necromorph and wacky flying tail necromorph that you’ve seen hundreds of times before. The story can be broken down into two main acts, the spaceship graveyard and the ice planet from all the press demos, which comprises a good two thirds of the game. Environments are varied despite being limited to either derelict space or snow. Some of the sections taking place in space are really atmospheric as you float around the abandoned husks of old spaceships. There are series-typical boss encounters with glowing yellow weak points, although it is easier to give yourself a hard time with them when both your weapons aren’t equipped to deal with the situation (hot tip: always carry a precise, fast, hit scan weapon on you like the plasma cutter.)
Unlike the main storyline, there are optional side missions to complete which seem mostly tacked on and extremely action focused. While they impart on the player a bit of backstory, the trade off is crawling through look alike rooms while being constantly assailed by enemies until a specific number of them has been cut to pieces. No other part of Dead Space screams “IM A VIDEO GAME” quite as much as these side missions which basically lock you into arenas and pump out necromorphs by the dozens before allowing you to continue onward to another empty room which will inevitably close shut behind you, repeating the process. At the end of these missions you are rewarded with a ridiculous Borderlands-like loot chest full of extra resources and weapon parts, furthering the uneasy feeling that this isn’t what you came to Dead Space for. In addition you have co-op specific side missions which are a bit more interesting as they provide a second dimension to the extremely one dimensional character of Carver. If you play the game by yourself you hardly ever see Carver for three quarters of the game. The only time his presence feels forced or downright questionable is literally in the last hour or two where Isaac performs some deft acrobatics to get to where he is, and Carver simply saunter off screen to say something incredibly cliche for the “space marine” character. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue as I’ve mentioned you hardly even see him throughout the entire campaign - but when he does pop in during the endgame it is so sudden and out of place that you seriously begin to consider if he’s not just another illusion of Isaacs marker warped mind.
This leads us to what ultimately makes Dead Space 3 feel somehow worse than the games that came before it. Is it the micro transactions? The Co-op campaign element? The universal ammo and fast gunplay? Ironically it’s none of those things - it’s simply that the game feels too much like, well, Dead Space. The horror isn’t gone due to more necromorphs, or faster walk speed or less tension. It’s not the gun toting human enemies which are a lot simpler to deal with than the agile constantly advancing necromorphs. It’s simply that we’ve seen it all before, twice. It’s impossible to feel any sense of dread when your eyes automatically scan each room for ventilation shafts, making a mental note of where not to stand when you press the big glowing button. When you have dismembered thousands of necromorphs, and seen hundreds of monster closets in this sci fi setting, it’s simply impossible to retain that same tension and horror anymore. A lot of people criticize the story, while this is the first game in the series with any real story behind it other than “oh shit we gotta get out of here.” You have to give credit to Visceral for trying out a lot of new concepts which technically should have freshened up the gameplay, but ultimately were not enough to shake the feeling that you’ve seen and done it all before, twice.
In the end Dead Space 3 is a good game. It’s not a great game like the second entry in the series which hit all the high notes, but it’s not a bad game either. Long time questions are finally answered and the solid gameplay of shooting off limbs and manipulating space puzzles is as great as ever. You will definitely get your fill of stomping corpses, manipulating generators, stasising deadly fan blades and smashing green boxes. If anything, I wish Visceral pushed the envelope even further much like what Ninja Theory did with the new Devil May Cry reboot. Creating a third game in a series and keeping things fresh, while at the same time trying to retain all the original gameplay trappings from the first one seems like a battle you simply can’t win. Dead Space 3 is still a one of a kind experience that you won’t get anywhere else. Fans of the series should definitely play it to see the story to it’s conclusion. Don’t be scared off by the co-op or microtransactions - the same old Dead Space gameplay you know and love is still there, the only problem is that it’s the same old Dead Space gameplay you’ve already played.
(Addendum: I would honestly rate this a 3.5/5 rather than a flat 3 but half scores are gone and I don't think it's quite a 4)