There's Life Here Yet
Dead Space 1 and 2 may be the two most beloved AAA horror games of the last decade, having brought us hours of sweaty-palmed interaction as we crept through derelict spaceships, desperately battling the horrifying husks of people we call Necromorphs. Dead Space 3 rounds out the trilogy by bringing back much of that manic sense of action from the first two games, but it also leans further towards being a conventional action game than any of the other entries in the series. The game revisits outer-space handyman Isaac Clarke two years after the events of Dead Space 2, during which time he hid from the Earth government with girlfriend Ellie Langford, broke up with her, regretted it, and generally became a bit of a mess. He’s quickly thrust back into action after the religious zealots of Unitology manage to activate the dangerous alien artefacts known as Markers, and Isaac is retrieved by EarthGov soldiers Robert Norton and John Carver to rescue a now endangered Ellie and save humanity.
Often Dead Space 3 is at its best when it’s just being Dead Space. You won’t see a return to the original game’s survival horror sensibilities here, but most of the game is still about anxious exploration of claustrophobic environments, waiting for monsters to spring out at you, and fights that through a combination of refined shooting mechanics and unsettling character designs, become tense and panicked in the best way. The twists that the series thus far has placed on regular third-person shooter combat are also largely intact, with strategic dismemberment and your enemy-slowing Stasis ability being key tools in fights. The Kinesis ability also plays a fairly big role in the game, allowing you to grab and throw objects at a distance, although I found fewer combat situations than in the previous game where impaling enemies with objects was a viable tactic.
While many of the familiar hallmarks of Dead Space remain, the areas where Dead Space 3 sets itself apart from its predecessors are many and noticeable. From start to end, you’ll be collecting numerous doodads and gizmos to use in conjunction with the game’s new crafting system. Not only can these items be used to upgrade Isaac’s suit in various ways, but levels also feature construction benches at regular intervals, where you can upgrade or construct weapons, and create items. Being able to create a combined machine gun-shotgun or make your trusty line gun fire faster adds a new and interesting element to the game, and for better or for worse, you have to worry less about rationing your resources when you can concoct extra ammunition and med packs out of spare parts. Most of my trips to the construction bench however, left me tediously flicking through menus, trying to find whether I could actually build anything useful and having only periodic success. The game will tell you when new upgrades or parts are available, but without trawling through the necessary menus (and there’s a menu for each component of each gun) you don’t know what they are or how practical they’re going to be. The game limits you to only carrying two weapons this time around, so you need to ensure your guns are in top form, making at least some trips to the construction bench mandatory. Dead Space 3 also brings with it optional missions, chances to explore side sections of the game and net a large cache of extra items before continuing with the main story. It’s a welcome option to be able to vary the length of your time with the game and take some refreshing detours in the campaign.
The other new features are less focused on the systems surrounding the gameplay and more on your encounters in the world itself. Outdoor areas, large open spaces, boss monsters, and ambitious action sequences are all made use of in Dead Space 3 to a degree that they just weren’t in any of the preceding games. To be fair, there are actually some impressively grand spectacles to be found here and the enormous budget of the game shows in the polished presentation on a lot of its big moments. The setting of ice planet Tau Volantis plays host to some beautiful vistas, and some of the more unconventional sections do add variety to the experience. It’s just that none of this is what you want if you’re looking for a scary experience with Dead Space 3, and even if you don’t mind it veering from the whole horror angle now and then, it’s not always with impeccable grace that it dons its action game hat.
The opening chapter of the game features a wildly uncharacteristic sequence in which Isaac must escape soldiers in an almost Bladerunner style future city, and while they’re by no means a constant fixture, the game’s insistence on occasionally featuring Necromorphs with firearms or even regular soldiers, is a bit disheartening. One of Dead Space’s big achievements was presenting a take on third-person shooting that no other game out there has, and expanding combat beyond just trying to pop off a series of headshots, but these fights reduce the game back to the only too familiar genre conventions of back-and-forth shooting or just clearing out areas by aiming for heads and squeezing the trigger. You start to get the impression that Dead Space 3 suffers from kitchen sink game design, and that maybe it doesn’t have co-op, and a crafting system, and big action moments, and all that other stuff because it really compliments the existing gameplay, but because it was what EA/Visceral thought they needed to hit their sales target of 5 million copies. Speaking of co-op though, it’s here and it’s at the very least serviceable. Combat remains fun, and having two players ganging up on foes can add an interesting new dynamic to the way you tackle enemies. Just know that co-op predictably makes the game far less fear-inducing, and that waiting around for your co-op partner to finish their business at a construction bench or suit kiosk can get a bit boring.
Sadly, whether you’re joined by a brother in arms or just playing solo, story doesn’t stand up as one of the game’s fortes. The problems are many, but among them are a villain who sporadically alternates between rational intellectualism and inexplicable nonsense, an Isaac who seems to have just up and forgot about his severe mental trauma from the previous games, and a poorly executed subplot where Isaac remains trapped in a love triangle with Ellie and Norton. The world also robs itself of any sense of the unknown by spelling out the answers to all the interesting mysteries created by the past two games, and it fumbles and stutters as it attempts to crowbar co-op character John Carver into the single-player mode. He’s oddly absent for large sections of levels, and then pops up next to Isaac with no explanation as to how he actually got where he is or what he’s been doing. He and Isaac talk as though they’ve been hanging around with each other the whole time, and then he just disappears into thin air. It’s baffling.
Again, your experience with Dead Space 3 is going to be coloured by where you stand on the action-horror trade-off. Either way though, the game makes good on a lot of what has made the previous Dead space titles such big deals, and finds some impressive outlets for its penchant for the indulgent and flashy this time around. It’s just a shame that it’s also mired in bad narrative, an imperfect crafting system, and an occasional delusion that it needs to take lessons from more garden variety third-person shooters.