A Different Kind of Dismemberment
Dead Space 3 received a lot of criticism, and rightly so, for being an entirely different experience from its predecessors. The twist, then, is the realization as you play that Dead Space 3 isn't trying to be anything like Dead Space and Dead Space 2. Is this the best way to handle a franchise? No, probably not, but taking the game by itself, Visceral Games have done a great job of crafting a new spin on the series that is entirely enjoyable just the way it is.
After a short prologue in the form of a flashback to two hundred years before the original game took place, which very much by design is absolutely meaningless to the players without the context they'll learn later on in the game, DS3 picks up a couple of years after the last game, where series protagonist, beloved Systems Engineer Isaac Clarke, has been hiding out in a dingy apartment on the Moon, not wanting anything to do with the greater threat of the Markers and the undead Necromorphs they create. DS2's love interest Ellie Langford, on the other hand, wanted to take the fight to the Markers to stop the threat to the Human race, so she took off a ways back. Isaac's hermitage is coming to an abrupt end, though, as a handful of soldiers burst into his apartment and conscript him for a mission to find and rescue Ellie, who believed she'd found a way to destroy the Markers once and for all before her expedition went radio-silent. Making the choice easier for Isaac is the fact that this request comes on the very day militant Unitologist extremists attack the Moon, leading to a very familiar kind of chaos.
From there, Isaac flees from the Lunar Colony and into deep space towards the icy, barren planet Tau Volantis, which Ellie believed was the homeworld of the Markers, and the one place in the universe where they could be stopped once and for all. The storyline from there mostly follows the desperate, often improvised efforts of Isaac and the other members of the expedition seeking to complete their mission despite the increasingly poor odds stacked against them. The storyline, while introducing a number of brand-new concepts to the Dead Space universe, still fits in well with those of the previous games, though having yet another completely different explanation for what the ominous phrase "make us whole" means almost feels like the writers can't decide themselves. Still, the story is as good as it was in any past game in the franchise, complete with a few interesting new spins on old ideas.There are new Necromorph enemies, of course, but in general, they aren't as interesting as past 'strains' have been, like a common monster that just looks like a normal Human corpse with glowing eyes, attacking you with pickaxes and hammers and other tools, until it gets partially dismembered, at which point it breaks into a mess of bladed tentacles and becomes much more dangerous. It's a neat trick, admittedly, but they still look like plain-old vanilla zombies most of the time, and it would have been cooler to see the tentacle explosion given to one of the older enemy types, to really surprise us with this new capability.
Additionally, Unitologist terrorists step into the fray, having the player fight Human enemies with guns for the first time. While these enemies are an interesting change of pace, there's absolutely nothing they do that you haven't seen ten times before in more traditional shooters. Fortunately, they also aren't much of a challenge, especially given that, like you, they have laser sights on all their weapons, making it remarkably easy to avoid their fire and locate them. They don't really add anything to the game, but they make sense in terms of the story, and their encounters are never hard enough to be annoying.
Far and away the most interesting twist on the old routine, though, is the optional addition of co-operative play to the franchise. In singleplayer mode, Isaac wanders through the creepy, rusty hallways by himself, just like always, without a brain-dead AI partner to hamper him, but a second player can jump in and join in on the fun as new character John Carver, one of the soldiers who recruited Isaac to the cause in the first place. John is a welcome ally, but he's not exactly the friendly sort, and if you explore his past through a number of optional missions that only become available in co-op, you begin to see that he has very good reasons for not being cheery. The downside to this change-up is that the game was clearly designed with co-op in mind; for the sake of honesty I'll admit that I haven't played through the campaign by myself yet, but I've heard from multiple sources that in singleplayer mode, John's habit of randomly appearing just in time for a cutscene, only to disappear when it's time for gameplay to resume, is rather immersion-breaking, not to mention that removing the majority of his interactions with Isaac from the story makes the character development that does remain seem disjointed and unearned.
Fortunately, the game is at least very smooth in actually implementing co-op. Players must load their own game before they can be invited into someone else's game, at which point, any upgrades or custom weapons (I'll get to that in a bit) that they earned as Isaac will automatically be applied to John. They'll even pop into existence with the same inventory as the last time they played. Similarly, any upgrades or loot they acquire while playing as John will be waiting for them the next time they play by themselves, or host a game as Isaac. Additionally, though it's a purely aesthetic change, the fact that in the co-op-exclusive missions, John hallucinates and sees things that Isaac's player can't does a great job of immersing the players in their situation.
The action is as good as ever, and on the most basic level, it's the same gameplay we've been enjoying since the original game; Isaac and John's Necromorph enemies don't die from headshots or bullet wounds, and must be dismembered in order to be defeated, so aiming for the legs, arms, or new, mutated limbs is always the best strategy to take. The game mixes things up here, though, in that unlike the first two games, which featured a variety of unique weaponry, Dead Space 3 allows players to craft and customize their own weapons, into an astonishingly vast collection of deadly armaments. Sure, it's possible to recreate each and every weapon from a previous game, so if you were a huge fan of the Line Gun or the Plasma Cutter, you can still bring them back, but you can also attach a double-barrelled shotgun to the underside of your Line Gun to give it a better alt-fire than those wimpy mines, or add a module to your Plasma Cutter that causes lingering acid damage on your enemies once hit. And from there, it's really easy to spend long minutes at the Bench, exploring combinations of frames, cores, and tips, searching for ways to build the perfect engine of destruction. Each weapon can be further customized with modules that offer bonuses like increasing the effectiveness of health kits for both you and your partner, or adding specific kinds of damage to your attacks, as well as just slotting in powerful upgrade chips which more straightforwardly tweak the stats of a given weapon.
Really, the biggest flaw with Dead Space 3 comes from the fact that it isn't anything like the previous games in the franchise. It's still a third-person shooter, and it still stars the same characters in a continuing storyline, but this isn't a horror game, it's a pure action game. It's hard for the dismemberment to feel "strategic" when you can craft a rivet-dispenser-turned-gatling-gun and just spray it across your foes' various body parts until they stop moving, and it's hard to want to be more precise and strategic when faster-moving enemies burst forward in larger numbers than ever before. Further underlining this revelation, in order to support and encourage this new weapon crafting system, instead of finding specific ammo types to fuel specific types of weapons, all weapons in the game, from sniper rifles to plasma guns to 'Tesla core' powered machines that shoot bolts of lightning, use 'universal ammo' clips. In another serious departure from previous games, this universal ammo is found everywhere. During the entirety of the game's campaign, I never once came close to running out of ammo, and for most of that, I had a fully automatic Pulse Rifle as my primary weapon's main-fire. Health kits are also found in abundance; While I certainly died quite a few times, and there were times I wasn't currently carrying any health, I'm certain that I found more small and medium health kits in the first third of Dead Space 3's campaign than I found in the entirety of Dead Space 2. Also abundant are the raw scrap and spare parts you can use at a Bench to just build health kits, ammo, and weapon parts, streamlining the experience still further. And while it goes without saying that having a partner with you makes the experience less scary, it felt like the developers weren't even trying to make the game scary anymore.
This is the conflict at Dead Space 3's heart. On the one hand, it's a solidly-made action game with a deep, satisfying crafting system and a fully functional co-op option that actually adds to the experience. But at the same time, it's something of a betrayal to the slower-paced, tension-filled horror games that have already borne the Dead Space name, so I can fully understand the mixed reactions it's gotten since release. All that considered, though, it's still a very good game, and I'd wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone looking for a good co-op experience, especially if they enjoyed the storyline of the Dead Space series so far. I for one would hope that Visceral doesn't overreact to the criticism it's gotten and remove co-op from Dead Space 4, but it will be interesting to see where the franchise goes from here.