The worst in the series but worth playing for fans of the series
The Dead Space franchise is one of my favorite new franchises from this generation. The first game was a modern survival horror game done right, taking place in an interesting and well-realized space setting with some clever creature design and tight combat. The second game built upon everything that was great in the first game, creating a sequel that was actually better than the original. Dead Space 2 was a bit less about the horror and more about the action, but it suited the style of the game well. I feel that Visceral actually struck the perfect balance between horror and action in Dead Space 2. As you may know, EA wanted an even more actiony game with Dead Space 3. This meant shared ammo between weapons, huge open environments, and a co-op mode. All of these changes sounded terrible, but I wanted to believe that Visceral could still pull it off--and they did so...mostly. While Dead Space 3 doesn't come close to the level of Dead Space 2, it does manage to pack a lot of entertainment into one $60 package.
Dead Space 3 is once again about space engineer Isaac Clarke. He is pretty fucked up after the events of the first two games, drinking heavily and falling behind on his rent due to his inability to work. All he wants to do is try to forget all about Markers and Necromorphs. Unfortunately, Ellie doesn’t feel the same way. She wants to stop these things from ever happening again and leaves Isaac to do so. When she goes missing and her team loses contact, they recruit Isaac for his knowledge of the Markers. He can’t refuse and is pulled once again into this conflict. The Unitologists are also involved, lead by a man named Jacob Davik, and are activating Markers and killing UAC soldiers in order to ensure Convergence comes to pass. Of course, Isaac is forced to deal with them as well as the Necromorphs in order to save Ellie and end this thing once and for all.
The story starts off rather strong, but I felt it didn’t live up to what it could have been. Dead Space 2 was full of moments where Isaac’s sanity started to wane; Dead Space 3 doesn’t do a single thing with Isaac’s mental condition, even though he seems even more mental than before. Instead, they focus on the origins of the Markers and if there is a way to stop them. This isn’t a terrible story idea, but it doesn’t pay off well. The ending is almost guaranteed to leave you either wondering what the developers were smoking or laughing hysterically instead. Another large issue is that the characters are pretty terrible. I found myself barely caring for most the game about them or the events they were going through. Davik could have been a cool villain, (especially voiced by Simon Templeman, the actor behind Kain from Blood Omen) but he pops into the story at the strangest times and has some bland, cliche dialogue. Ellie’s new beau, Norton, is somehow even worse; I guarantee you will HATE him by the end of the game. Not only are these characters bad, but they spout some pretty lame dialogue too (including the groan-inducing use of the phrase “dead space”). I do think it is worth seeing for fans of the series, but all other players can just ignore it contentedly.
The game itself starts off pretty strong (after a short human-fighting section). You first travel to a derelict fleet of ships in space. This is the Dead Space setting you will be familiar with if you’ve played previous games in the franchise--tight corridors, zero-gravity sections, and plenty of Necros to blast to pieces. The coolest part is that Isaac gets a shuttle and can freely move between each of these ships. When he arrives at a particular vessel, there is a large space area around the ship itself that can also be explored for loot (get to that later). As a huge fan of the zero-G sections from these games, I really enjoyed this part of the game. Later, the story of course moves to the ice planet seen in all the pre-release coverage. These areas are much more open and start to introduce more and more soldier enemies as the game proceeds. The game definitely slows down and becomes less fun at this point, especially as the story starts to really go nuts. Dead Space, to me, is all about those tightly confined corridors so I had a very hard time enjoying the ice planet at all; this is a huge problem considering it is most of the game’s length.
Dead Space 3’s also has the problem of too often relying on the formula of “go to the quest marker, fix this giant piece of space machinery, fight some Necros, repeat.” You fix a LOT of space machinery in this game, which always looks cool but isn’t particularly challenging or enthralling. Previous games were a bit like this too, but this game really likes to separate Isaac from the others, forcing a story beat to take even longer to complete. It’s quite annoying. Another reason the game might drag is the new optional missions. These are often paired with a small story to keep them moving and end with a large amount of loot for completing it. Unfortunately, they aren’t interesting enough to be worth doing, unless you want that loot. They are very repetitive (but at least have separate environments) and just feel like extra padding for length.
An interesting new feature added to Dead Space 3 is the co-op mode. Instead of the competitive multiplayer from DS2, Visceral opted to include the option to play through the entire game with another person, who plays as broish soldier Carver. Visceral tried to place a bit of backstory for him to make him relevant, but it doesn’t really pan out (at least, not in single player). It is the exact same campaign, no matter which way you play it. This doesn’t mean that single players have a companion foisted upon them (thank God!); the game is actually a bit different, just having Carver randomly appear at times for story moments (which is more than a little weird) and vanishing again when gameplay resumes. The campaign seems very much tuned to two people no matter how you play it. Enemies have a tendency to ALWAYS spawn behind you and there are quite a few of them to deal with. It certainly feels like more enemies that previous games but maybe I’m mistaken. I will note that I did not actually play any of the co-op. This is due to the fact that I rented DS3, and the co-op required an Online Pass to use. I’m not sure how I feel about a cooperative game having an Online Pass, but this feels less important with the knowledge that EA will not be using them in future games. I still don’t appreciate its inclusion here, but it doesn’t really matter all that much at this point in time.
Let’s talk about the gameplay. If you’re anything like me, you LOVE the sharp third-person action that Dead Space games bring. Happily, I can tell you that the core gameplay of Dead Space 3 is just as fun as its ever been; blowing Necromorphs to pieces with a variety of weaponry is still immensely fun and doesn’t ever get old. It feels pretty much exactly like DS2--tight and responsive controls, the ability to run and reload at the same time, and dismemberment galore. I wasn’t expecting Visceral to suddenly fuck up the gameplay, but it is nice to note that it still feels fun three games in. Of course, a big change is that Isaac now has to fight soldiers with guns every so often. You may think that this would feel absolutely terrible with the types of guns Isaac has, but it actually doesn’t play too badly. Unsurprisingly, soldiers are MUCH easier to kill than Necros; a blast or two to the head usually does them in. Because of this, these sections are made very tolerable. I won’t call them fun or necessary segments (and they really pack them in near the endgame, which can get annoying), but they are loads better than I would have thought possible. The absolute worst new addition to the gameplay are these rappelling sections, where Isaac is forced to climb up or down a wall. The first time or two I did these, they were kinda cool as setpiece moments. By the end of the game, I had been forced into them probably a dozen times, getting more and more frustrated with them as they accrued. Several of these sections have instant death mechanics that can be hard to dodge without trial-and-error to know when they happen. Many of them also force you to fight a large number of enemies at the same time, which can be tricky since your range of movement is so limited. I really came to hate these segments as the game wore on, as they slowed down the pace of the game for a mechanic that wasn’t really that fun or inventive. I feel it would have been much better to simply not include them.
Of course, probably the most meaningful change made to the Dead Space style is the new weapon building and upgrades system. Instead of pre-defined weapons found/bought as the game progresses, Isaac must build his weapons at benches. Every weapon is made up of two basic parts: a frame that defines what size of weapon it is (one or two-handed) and a tip that determines the type of gun it is. Various attachments, such as scopes, and modifiers, such as shock ammo, can also be attached. Parts and materials to build new parts can be found lying around the world. Materials can also be harvested with the new scavenger bots. You use the radar on the bot to find the best spot for deployment, and it does the job for you. Ten minutes later, the bot shows up at your bench with new materials. Overall, the weapon building system is pretty fun. Crafting a destructive new weapon with which you can lay waste to the game’s various difficulty settings scratches that creativity itch--or you can just find the best stuff online and make that. I enjoyed playing around with different weapon types, and I recommend doing the same thing on your playthrough.
Of course, EA being EA, you can also opt to spend real dollars for packs of resources and weapon parts. Thankfully, the option to buy them with an in-game currency called ration seals also exists. These seals come solely from scavenger bots, and take awhile to accrue, but it is entirely possible to build up enough for several packs in one playthrough of the game. The even sleazier packs upgrade the bots themselves in a variety of ways. One halves the time the bots take to get back to the bench; another ensures you receive more ration seals from bot scavenging (essentially a coin doubler). These upgrades really aren’t necessary (and I can’t stress that enough--don’t spend money on these) since you get so many free resources and parts just playing the game. As always, these microtransactions are completely avoidable for a savvy gamer--but that doesn’t make them any less sleazy in a game that already cost $60 new and includes an Online Pass.
As was the case in the previous two Dead Space games, the visual and sound design is top-notch. Visceral is unmatched in creating spaceship environments, making them feel like real ships instead of conveniently designed game levels. Of course, the lighting and UI design are also absolutely fantastic, just as you would expect from Visceral at this point. Sound-wise, the score is pretty so-so. My rule with game music is that if I don’t particularly remember any of the music after I’ve played a game, it is probably underwhelming; that rule applies here. Space sound effects are just as great as always, with everything going quiet when you are out in a vacuum (one of my favorite touches) except for Isaac’s breathing. I mentioned the voice acting problem earlier: groan-worthy dialogue mixed with some middling voice performances. It’s certainly not the worst out there, but it drags the game’s enjoyability down a bit. Overall, the presentation is sharp and appealing, only hampered by the meh voice acting.
Looking back over my review, I feel that I was pretty harsh. However, I think I ended up liking the game more as a whole than the individual pieces and systems. I mentioned that I rented the game from Gamefly earlier; I would also like to note that I immediately bought the PC version of Dead Space 3 after I sent it back. Something about the weapon-building system and the lengthy list of collectables and unlockables (handily noted in a checklist, by the way) drew me back in for a second go. I still don’t think that Dead Space 3 is a worthy successor to Dead Space 2 (but what is?), but I do commend Visceral for managing to craft a suitable ender to a great new franchise. I would like to see a DS4 on next-gen platforms, returning to the horror elements, but I sadly know that will probably never happen. I hold DS2 as the pinnacle of the franchise, but I believe Dead Space 3 is still worth playing.