tidel's Dead Space 3 (PlayStation 3) review

Bisecting Built for Two

I know what’s coming.

Not precisely when or how, although by now I can read a room pretty well. I’ve been here before. Different ships, different hallways, same monster tactics. Same Perpetual Startle Machine Dead Space always has been, more or less.

But it still gets me.

The franchise has ostensibly traded out terror for tension, but I don’t know the difference. It feels the same. I still walk gun-up through every room, breath held, heart thudding; I still panic a bit when something drops on my head or sneaks up behind me. Vent covers pop like champagne cork and roaring creatures bubble out, and I am scared, still, even though I’ve never been better equipped to handle it.

Of all the tweaks Dead Space 3 brings to the franchise, none feel as right as weapon crafting. At first blush it comes off a bit convoluted, but I came to value Bench time (both in-game and out) as much as stalking through these dead, haunted halls. Crafting is fun and deeply satisfying; it adds a solid loot-sense to the series that, now here, feels overdue. And it makes fiction-sense — Isaac is an engineer, after all, and it’s about time he used his skills for survival instead of just running errands for assholes who send him out to die whenever they need something plugged in.

I went through the last two games a Plasma Cutter purist, but here I was forced to experiment – the game is built for two. As the story block-busts along, encounters increasingly come in waves, crowds, an unrelenting all-sides assault that, at times, feels over-tuned for solo play. As grateful as I am to arm up, I’m a bit cold on why I need to.

Two gripes kept my enthusiasm down for Dead Space 3: co-op, and micro-transactions. The latter is, thankfully, a non-issue – loot drops are generous and include Ration Seals, which can be used to purchase the pay-for material packs. But it’s still evil. We need to maintain CONSTANT! VIGILANCE! against pay-for creep in full priced games. That the game doesn’t require you to pay more for progress can be read as Visceral, game makers, pushing back against EA, fun cancer.

Co-op, though, is exactly as I feared – not an additional, optional mode, but the impetus for all design decisions. This is a game constructed around co-op that lets you go it alone – we lone wolves sacrifice knowing, caring about Carver as a character, even though the game acts as if we do and should.

Carver doesn’t make sense to me. He starts the game as a bog-standard bitter Space Marine who hates Isaac because that’s how he do, yo, but ends as a… bog-standard bitter Space Marine who doesn’t hate Isaac so much, presumably because they’ve been through The Shit together; except, no, not as far as I could see. All his development, the entire relationship between the two of them is trapped behind the co-op curtain.

Playing alone, Carver’s story isn’t a mystery so much as just plain nonsense – especially since Isaac reacts as if he’d been there the whole time. They have this whole off-camera romance that I didn’t see. It bothers me, to the point where I might have preferred tag-along AI, as annoying as it can be. I love the Dead Space gameplay, but I’m here for the story first.

Fortunately for Carver, but not me or you, his mad-lib characterization isn’t the worst crime against storytelling Dead Space 3 commits.

At what point did we decide the best way to make a story palatable to the most people was to write stupid?

Dead Space has never been high-art, but it’s always been fantastic pulp – a well-imagined dirty future, a convincingly realized religious cult and corrupt government, and the best use of Space Monolith since apes were inspired to violence in 2001. You can sell any story, regardless of how inherently dumb it may sound, with great characterization and clever writing. Like TV’s Spartacus – on the outside it is more or less porn, but inside it is densely plotted, smartly executed, emotionally resonant porn; it has brain and heart to match it’s blood and boners. It doesn’t aspire to be more than pulp, just the best of, and in that elevates what pulp can be.

If Dead Space 3 aspires to anything in its direct storytelling, it doesn’t succeed. For a series built around startles, you can set your watch to the character beats – nothing you haven’t seen a hundred times before, elsewhere. It squanders the believable, likeable characters from 2, opting instead for a tiresome love triangle, a sneering villain, increasingly contrived reasons for Isaac to meet up with and then get separated from his half-reluctant crew of faceless monster-bait. Ellie – poor Ellie, here reduced to a cat-faced boob-sweater exposition engine. She clearly can’t fit into a suit anymore, which is why she spends the first half of the game tits-out. She deserved better. So did we.

On the bright side, the story itself – the plot, the answers given and new questions raised – is great. Stupidly great, a satisfying escalation of the mythos that suggests a universe far weirder than we’ve seen so far. Indirect narrative – what the rooms say, through text or audio logs, or even just in what they are, and what that suggests about the time before and since – fares the best, fleshing out this world in a way that feels deep, rich and real. Dead Space 3 is in constant conflict between the quality of what it shows and the inanity of how it tells; the former makes up for the latter, but only just.

‘Only just’ defines most of the game, actually. The action doesn’t overwhelm the tension – barely. Crafting compensates, maybe even justifies, late-game horde-mode monster waves – but even so, those encounters still border on tedious. Solo play squeaks out a solid Dead Space experience, except too much is held back for an allegedly optional, mass-appeal mode. The game succumbs to B-tier writing that lessens – but doesn’t ruin – the fun of its pulpy-good horror sci-fi premise.

I loved it more than I resented it, in the end. I hope it sells well enough for another entry, but not so well they become complacent in their choices here. For all its flaws, this evolution of the Dead Space series still gets me; and good, though not great, is good enough.

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