By Leo Stevenson
I've had a love affair with survival horror games ever since I first played Resident Evil on my PSone. Over time, that franchise has moved farther and farther away from survival horror; Resident Evil 5 & 6 arguably aren't horror games at all. Then came the Dead Space series, which stepped up to become the new face of gaming horror when the original was released. Dead Space 2, while thrilling and certainly featuring its share of scares, never quite lived up to the terror of the first. Now with the third in the series hitting store shelves, Dead Space is beginning to experience the law of diminishing returns. Dead Space 3, while ambitious, never quite achieves the same fear, thrilling action and engaging story of its predecessors. A great game is tucked away inside the code, but never gets a chance to shine, overshadowed by a bloated, overlong narrative, tedious combat and characters that are unsympathetic, have questionable motivations or exist as mere plot devices. Oh and a silly shoehorned love triangle.
A personal analogy of the Dead Space series is that the first game is Alien and the second is Aliens. While I won't be as cruel as to call Dead Space 3 the Alien 3 of the series, I must say that the two are similar for featuring some unnecessary changes -- for the worse -- and for not living up to that which came before.
I love the stories of Dead Space and the Markers. The depth of the lore is astounding and the first two games did an exceptional job of presenting to the player a living, breathing world. The motivations of Isaac Clarke, our heroic engineer, were always central to that world and to the player. In Dead Space 3 though, I found myself at odds with the story and Isaac from the word go. You'd think that a man that was almost sliced to pieces by Necromorphs once when trying to rescue his girlfriend Nicole, tormented by demonic visions of her then tortured for the alien information stored in his brain would be less inclined to think with his pants. Alas, no. Although they had been together and broken up (due to Isaac turning his back on the outside world) during the period between games 2 and 3, Isaac is easily convinced at the very beginning to help look for Ellie, who went missing on a mission involving the Markers. Girlfriends and Markers seem like two things that Isaac would be eager to keep a wide berth of, yet he suits up and heads off to save the damsel once again, with only minor coaxing from her new boyfriend.
Captain Robert Norton is the new man in Ellie's life, and the man who convinces Isaac to help find her. He finds Isaac in a Lunar City apartment just as Unitologist forces are tearing the city apart looking for the "Marker-Killer" (Isaac). Norton is one of the previously mentioned clichéd plot device characters. His sole purpose seems to be antagonising Isaac and disregarding everything he says, even though Norton needs Isaac's him because of Isaac's expertise with the Markers. None of that matters once they find Ellie and jealousy and bravado take hold. The strange love triangle is given far too much importance without much of any back-up. We never got to see Ellie and Isaac together as a couple, so his feelings for her never seem quite real or strong enough. Likewise with Norton. He comes across as some jealous goon and the fact that Ellie is with him just seems plain wrong.
The drive behind much of the beginning of the game comes across as rather forced. I'd much prefer if Visceral had focused instead on Unitlogy or EarthGov as opposed to another damsel in distress story, but that's they road they chose and the one the player must walk. Unitologists are used in the most perfunctory sense, appearing more zealous and fanatical than ever, now carrying out full scale terrorist attacks in order to free the Markers and bring about convergence. As you flee Isaac's apartment, you'll fight wave upon wave or armed extremist and while many feared the addition of more action-orientated fire-fights would ruin the game, I found myself enjoying and even looking forward to them. Especially when compared to the tedium of some of the Necromorph combat found later on.
The pace picks up wonderfully once you reach the long abandoned flotilla of ships in orbit around Tau Volantis, an ice planet thought to be the Marker home world. Apart from the opening moments in the Lunar City, much of the first act is spent among the derelict ships of the fleet. This section of the game feels remarkably like the first in the series, with plenty of dark, grimy hallways and industrial ship interiors to explore. Of course, you aren't alone. The occupants of these ships have been dormant for 200 years, made Necromorph by a Marker event, and have been patiently waiting for a snack to come along. The strategic dismemberment the series is known for is alive and well and even ramped up this time around with a whole new arsenal of toys to play with.
Dead Space 3 has done away with credits; instead, Isaac collects resources which can be used at benches to create and upgrade weapons or at suit kiosks to upgrade his RIG. Weapon crafting allows you to create a wide array of tools specifically designed to take Necromorphs apart. Want to build a Ripper Blade with acid coating and a flamethrower secondary fire? You can. Want to build a shotgun that propels javelins that set enemies on fire? You can do that too. There are a huge number of combinations to play around with and a whole lot of fun to be had with experimentation. Benches also allow Isaac to use the resources he's collected to craft health and ammo packs (ammo is now universal).
An element of strategy comes into play when you consider your limited resources and how to spend them. It's a fine line between upgrading your RIG, crafting health packs and ensuring you have enough ammo to survive. Later on in the game resource management becomes less of an issue as you eventually have more than enough, but at first it's a great balancing act that can really add to the tension. If you aren't one for tension though, you can always buy resources through the micro-transactions built into the Bench. While many railed against the idea when it was first revealed, the truth is most people will barely notice that its there and many will never use it. If you want a quick injection of resources then you have the option to spend real world cash and get the instantly. If not, you can play the game for a little while and achieve the same result. The game simply gives you the option, no one is forcing you to use it.
While the weapon crafting gives you almost limitless ways to kill Necromorphs, I found the combat in Dead Space 3 -- although technically great -- to be lacking at first, and then eventually tedious. In both previous games, most of the encounters with enemies would be in small groups, with the occasional large scale, horde-type event. In Dead Space 3 most, if not all, of the encounters are very horde-esque. Initially, aboard the flotilla of ships, Isaac would come face to face with a few Necromorphs at a time, but very quickly -- in what seems like a misguided attempt to keep up the tension -- rooms would become filled with wave upon wave of fast moving, elite Necromorphs. On more than one occasion, I actually groaned out loud as I walked into a room and realised I was about to face yet another onslaught of enemies. My tactic was always the same. Back up into a corner, stasis, dismember, use kinesis, repeat. This is a bulk of the combat scenarios in Dead Space 3... and if I'm being honest, it got old fast.
I'm not sure if it was because I was playing on Impossible difficulty or not, but there were very few regular Necromorphs in my game. From the beginning I was up against fast moving and extremely aggressive bad guys and a whole lot of Pukers. It felt like whoever was driving this game had their foot to the floor the entire time, refusing to indulge in moments of respite. Without easing off of the accelerator, it all starts to feel the same and that's where the tedium sets in. The optional missions are the worst offenders. While it's great to see additional content, these missions are essentially a long slog through room after room of Necromorph hordes, earning you a some supplies at the end and very little in the way of story. They offer some of the best rewards, but will certainly test your patience.
The pace and plot suffer once you do reach Tau Volantis as the game settles into a predictable routine. Isaac has to find some item or another. He finds said item and is then separated from the group. He tries to regroup and decides to collect another item along the way. Once he regroups, something new causes him to be separated and so on. By the fourth of fifth time it happens, it's laughable. Eventually the story picks back up again and the motivation to continue returns. The final act delivers some great revelations regarding the Markers and convergence which should leave fans of the series satisfied, yet still intrigued. The problem is, the game takes entirely too long to tell its tale and its padding is evident. A large portion of the mid-section could have been removed (or strategically dismembered, if you prefer) which would have tightened up and greatly improved the narrative. Once you reach the end of the game, you will face the weakest of the three Dead Space final bosses, which even on Impossible I beat first go and barely sustained any damage. After the credits roll, you will unlock three additional game modes which provide replayability but only for the completionist.
While controversial when it was announced, co-op is a surprisingly good feature. Although it does remove all remaining horror and fear from the game, taking out hordes of Necromorphs is actually a lot more fun with two people. Playing through the game solo, the co-op nature of the game is sign-posted frequently, be it computers having dual terminals, puzzles designed for two players or even the previously mentioned horde mode mentality of almost all combat encounters. The second character, Carver, is interesting enough and his story has some weight, but will most likely be overlooked in favour of the single player experience. There are several co-op only optional missions throughout the game with each providing backstory for Carver and shedding some light on his situation. Co-op is not without its flaws though. Joining a game means waiting until the other player reaches a checkpoint, which in some cases can take a long while, and exiting a game may cause the other player to restart at a previous checkpoint. The lack of any split-screen co-op is a real shame though and should have been included.
I'm a huge fan of the series, and genuinely did enjoy my time with Dead Space 3. I felt that the 20+ hour campaign (on Impossible) was too long and the story really sagged in the middle, but the eventual pay off made up for it. The weapon crafting and resource management are a clever and organic addition to the franchise, and experimenting with new ways to kill the Necromorphs has never been more fun. That being said, the new horde mode mentality of almost all of the combat scenarios grows old and tired really quickly and the fact that I was looking forward to fighting the human enemies should speak volumes to how far removed this game is from its older brothers. Dead Space had the scares. Dead Space 2 had the story and tightest gameplay. Dead Space 3 feels like one step forwards and two steps back. Some great new elements have been introduced and some other not so great elements have replaced old ones that were working just fine. If you're a fan like me, it's well worth the price of admission; you'll still get a kick out of the latest entry in the series. If you're a newbie, the story will make absolutely no sense but the action and combat will likely satisfy. While the story of the Markers and Isaac Clarke may end here, I sincerely hope that Dead Space 4 sees the light of day. This chapter is closed but there are many more to be told.