Dead Space 3 review
When it comes to success stories of the current generation, Dead Space stands tall. Starting out as an unknown new IP, albeit one with the financial power of EA behind it, the game was a big hit and saw a sequel that was similarly well received. A third game was a given, promising more scares, more action, and even deader space.
Unassuming engineer turned action superhero Isaac Clarke returns to face yet another slew of Necromorph outbreaks. Again? The dude has the worst luck, huh? At the start of the game, Isaac is being grumpy in his apartment, looking morose and sweeping things off desks in a display of his oh-so-tortured soul. He’s kicked out of his funk by the stereotypical army bros kicking in his door, and soon enough he’s back to his limb-severing best.
Isaac as a character is more assured than he was in 2. His sanity, so often called into question before, isn’t an issue, and aside from the odd angsty outburst, he tends to take control of the situation, in part due to the lack of competence from the gibbering cretins that make up most of the supporting cast. From his mute spell in the first game to his mental struggles into the second, Isaac has grown into an interesting character, different enough to the standard space-marine archetype to stand out and be endearing. You’ll root for him as he struggles to survive and save the world yet again, and this time, he has help.
The big new feature of Dead Space 3 is co-op. That’s right, co-op, which has been in almost every game released in the last five years, is the major selling point in all the game’s marketing campaigns. Player 2 controls John Carver, one of the standard army guys from earlier, who has a similarly tortured soul thanks to losing his wife and son in a prior Necromorph outbreak. It’s hard to care about Carver thanks to the utter lack of originality. This is a character you’ve seen before in plenty of other games. Even his name is boring.
Fans have been understandably worried about this. Horror games live and die on their atmosphere, and the best way to ruin any sense of fear is by having another person with you, as Resident Evil has proven.
Visceral has solved this problem in a smart way. In single player, Isaac is still almost always alone. Although Carver is still around in cutscenes, he is far less of an important character, with the story subtly changing depending on whether you are playing solo or not. The amount of increasingly contrived ways that Isaac gets split up from the group starts to get a bit silly, but if you want your single-player, lonely Dead Space experience, it’s still here.
But the thing is, even on your lonesome, Dead Space has never actually been that deep-down emotionally scary. If monsters jumping out of airvents, screaming BLAUGAHGAG and walking slowly towards you still scares you witless, then good for you, but that’s the sort of scare that only works the first time, and never when you’ve got plenty of ammo. Isaac has always been so well-armed that you rarely feel helpless. “But wait!” you cry. “On the harder difficulty levels, resources are far more scarce!” It’s true, and the harder difficulty you play on, the more survival-horror-esque the game becomes in regards to inventory management and being careful with your stuff, but it still isn’t scary. Having no ammo or health packs doesn’t make a game horrific, it makes it annoying.
The best scary games work on a dark, psychological level, implying horror rather than outright shoving it in your face. They let your imagination do the work, stirring up true terror through subtlety. Dead Space isn’t subtle. It shoves it in your face, then screams “THIS IS SCARY, ISN’T IT? BE SCARED!” in your ear just to make sure the message is getting across.
Another holdout from the survival-horror games of yore is Isaac’s cumbersome movement. He still feels sluggish, and getting caught in a corner with a bunch of enemies and no means of escaping raises a sigh. New to Dead Space 3 is the ability to roll, supposedly to avoid attacks. In practice, it just doesn’t bloody work. Attempting a timely roll to dodge an attack will almost always result in Isaac being hit anyway. One recurring boss fight in particular comes to mind, where the intention is clearly for the player to roll to the side when the boss charges at him. Yet every time you get hit, resulting in much annoyance and a strategy that involves a lot of legging it and very little shooting.
The second addition to Isaac and Carver’s moveset is a cover system. Astute minds might wonder why a game in which the player faces primarily rage-filled melee-based enemies would need cover, and rightly so. Thanks to the Hollywood Blockbuster Syndrome that seems to infect every horror franchise as they grow (cough Resident Evil cough), Dead Space 3 features human enemies as well as the trusty Necromorphs.
These sections are just awful. Isaac’s moveset doesn’t suit a fast-paced shooter and it shows. The cover system is extremely simple. Aim your gun while standing near a piece of customary chest-high wall and Isaac will crouch down a bit. That’s it. Despite your head and a large part of your torso still being visible, taking cover renders you near-immune to gunfire and makes these sections far too easy.
Towards the end of the game, human and Necromorph opponents are mixed, fighting each other as well as you. It’s here that it
really works. Having to gauge the battlefield and adapt to different types of attacks on the fly is thrilling fun, and it’s always enjoyable helping some enemy soldiers take out a huge monster, only to finish them off when they are distracted.
Many old types of Necromorphs return, along with various new monsters like the morphing Waster, mutating depending on where you shoot it. It’s pretty impressive, despite being exactly the same idea as the J’avo from Resident Evil 6 last year. Huge boss monsters are suitably slimy and tentacled, and the sound design is as spot on as ever. Growls, roars, high-pitched shrieks and human-like cries of pain – the Necromorphs are a noisy bunch. They all look wonderfully grotesque and, although not that horrific, it’s still easy to appreciate the gruesome designs.
Aside from the story differences, there are other subtle changes when playing in co-op. Thanks to the signals being sent out by the Markers and his general ill mental health, Carver suffers from bouts of dementia. This causes him to see things that Isaac doesn’t, while inhabiting the same space. Think of the much-applauded phasing feature in World Of Warcraft. Two players, standing in the same spot in the same shared world, each seeing two completely different things but still able to interact with each other. It’s a neat system that more games should use, and gives players a reason to try out Carver to see through his eyes.
This is the part where we would talk about how different it is playing in co-op, the changes in tone, how the two characters work together, and if the game still works when playing with a friend. Unfortunately, the review code we received from EA couldn’t connect to online co-op, so we haven’t been able to test it on this occasion. Keep an eye on Play, though, as we’ll be taking a look at it next issue.
The second big new feature is the weapon crafting system. This adds an RPG spin to the game, with Isaac collecting various materials as he progresses that go towards making shiny new guns. The system shows a surprising level of depth and is one of the best things about the game. Each weapon can have two guns in one – you can strap an assault rifle to a rocket launcher, or Isaac’s trademark plasma cutter to a hydraulic hammer. To these two base guns you can add attachments, upgrade chips and various other miscellanea to create a truly unique weapon. There are thousands of combinations and each has it’s own model in game. It’s thoroughly impressive, and coming up with your own personal death-machine is a blast. Some of the stuff you can come up with is downright nasty. Want to add a stasis effect to every bullet your shredder/grenade launcher hybrid fires? Yeah, you can do that.
You may well create a weapon so powerful and awesome that you simply don’t need to bother making new ones, but even that isn’t much of a complaint. Weapon crafting is a total hit and the most welcome addition to the Dead Space formula. Unfortunately, it’s in the resource gathering aspect of making weapons and upgrading your suit that one of the unwelcome spectres of this generation invades the series. An option for Downloadable Content is always present on the crafting screens, and micro-transactions allow you to buy extra materials if you find yourself lacking. It’s never a necessity as there’s plenty of stuff to find, but it still feels like an unwelcome intrusion, and if we’re being cynical, rather like EA is pushing microtransactions a little too much. This isn’t iOS, after all.
Otherwise, core gameplay is business as usual. It’s practically the same as the last two games, but an old mantra about not fixing unbroken things comes to mind. Aside from Isaac’s clunky movement, the shooting mechanics are satisfying and stomping on stuff is still as meaty as before. You all know the drill. Stroll around, shoot monsters, stomp on boxes, mash X to pick stuff up as you walk over it. It’s just a shame that it never amounts to more – it still works, but we’ve been doing rather similar things now for two prior games.
Dead Space 3 is interesting graphically, but also a decent metaphor for the game as a whole. It looks alright throughout, really lovely in some places, but for the most part is so standard it’s hard to get excited about. Character faces are a bit iffy; okay from a distance but get up close and you notice things like the weird ears (trust us) that can be off-putting. Some of the environment design is stunning with wonderful vistas setting the scene. Vast swathes of space filled with destroyed ships and sprawling, densely-populated lunar colonies take the breath away. On a smaller level though, design is dull and repetitive. Once you’ve seen a few dark corridors and nondescript snowy plains you know what to expect.
The theme of slight disappointment continues with the story, which is so unoriginal it’s often hard to care. Isaac is a compelling character, and Ellie Langford, returning from the last game, is interesting, but Carver is a cliché and the supporting cast are barely more than cardboard cutouts who exist to be killed off in a variety of fun ways. The plot is a mishmash of Aliens and the whole “ancient creators” shtick that seems to be increasingly prevalent in modern media, Assassin’s Creed for example, with a good bit of unsubtle social commentary on religious fanaticism thrown in.
Isaac and crew travel to another planet, thinking it to be the homeworld of the mysterious “markers” that cause all the Necromorph nastiness, in an attempt to save humanity. Along the way they are accosted by the Church of Unitology, worshippers of the markers who see Isaac as a big threat in accomplishing their goals. Their leader is English, because he’s evil. Or is he evil because he’s English?
The plot is utterly awash with macguffins and barely explained lingo – Black Markers, Red Markers, Machines, Convergence, Pandora, Codex’s, jam donuts. There is always some all-important item for the group to attain which will open access to the next plot device, and so on. Supposedly important plot revelations are clumsily handled, failing to make much of an impact because you aren’t really sure what’s going on.
When the plot works is when it ditches all the high-concept jargon and focuses on the human element. Isaac is a likeable, interesting character and seeing him struggle with a huge responsibility he doesn’t want, coming to terms with it and growing into his role as a hero is good stuff. It’s about as original as the rest of the story, but because you’ve come to care about Isaac over his long, improbable journey, you don’t mind as much. As the story builds to a suitably epic conclusion, you’ll start to care about Isaac’s ultimate fate as he struggles to save the world, despite knowing that really, it’s all a bit silly.
Padding is an issue. Key plot points are few and far between, with the large gaps being filled by Isaac going on yet another wild goose chase as he searches for the next item he needs. Find that item, and guess what, it’s broken. You need to get two more items to fix the first one. But then, one of those doesn’t work either! Isaac has to fix the electrical system first. And so on, until it gets tiresome. Most games, at a base level, are at least in part about walking to where you are told, but Dead Space 3 rarely gives you a reason to be interested in where you are walking to and why. Samey environments and dull puzzles drag the game to an utter halt at times, and boredom can’t help but creep in.
Several optional missions are included, including some specific to co-op. Getting more bang for your buck is always good, but it’s easy to see why these missions are optional. Less effort has been given to them compared to the main game, with a few lines of dialogue setting you on your way and little else. Most end up with Isaac discovering some goodies that often weren’t quite worth the items he used getting to that point. Visceral made the right move making this stuff optional, and it’s appreciated. Completionists have extra content to enjoy, but those who want to power through the story can avoid some of the extra chaff.
Speaking of chaff, the competitive multiplayer modes from Dead Space 2 have been cut, Visceral focusing their online efforts on co-op. It’s not a huge loss. Multiplayer was a fun little piss-about every now and then, but never the main attraction. A few players might miss it, but most probably won’t even notice. What it all comes down to is simple. Dead Space 3 is more of the same, albeit a tad more action-focused and with more snow.
Diehard fans of the previous two games will have just as much fun this time around, assuming they aren’t expecting broad innovations. Everything is polished and this is clearly a title with a lot of funding behind it, but all the money in the world can’t buy innovation. By no means a bad sequel, it doesn’t quite offer a way for Dead Space to evolve as a series beyond its past two instalments, even if the formula here is still potent.