Developers: Visceral Games
Publishers: EA Games
I nearly wet myself going through the first Dead Space game, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm 6'3, not exactly what you might call small, I fell asleep during Paranormal Activity, I once knocked a guy out accidentally with my own head, but none of that prepared me for Visceral's claustrophobic masterclass in tense, murderous paranoia. My flatmate simply laughed when he saw the husk of a man who resembles a small bear smoke half a pack of Camels as a result of jumping in terror for the thousandth time. It turned me into a gibbering wreck.
That's not really a problem I've had with Dead Space 3.
The icy planet of Tau Volantis presents a new Dead Space experience, one that has broadened and branched out in a number of ways. Gone are the tight confines of the Ishimura and the vast human tragedy of the Sprawl; the claustrophobic corridors of the past are replaced by icy caverns, abandoned outposts, and the stormy tundra wastes; scares have been subbed for wits and a quick trigger finger.
It's nice, though, to find that before Isaac finds himself stranded on Hoth's Necromorph-infested twin he spends a little bit of time stomping around a derelict ship or two. The start of the game sees our Mr. Clarke in hiding, cowering from EarthGov, from quasi-religious nutbags, not to mention his own waking nightmares. Still, it's not long before he's tracked down by all of the above, and finds himself whisked away by a ragtag group of soldiers and scientists, on the trail of the Marker homeworld.
Picking up the trail sees Isaac doing a little space-work, and so the first few hours of Dead Space 3 have us in familiar territory. The phenomenal use of lighting and sound once again make every corner suspect, every distant noise a chilling distraction. Necromorphs seem a little faster, and more numerous than in previous games, but it's still the usual routine of screaming like a loon, then dismembering the fiends as fast as possible, lobbing lopped limbs back at oncomers with kinesis, and solving the odd little puzzle here and there. There's a dazzling section where you're sent outside of the ship to scour the obliterated flotilla above Tau Volantis for navigation computers and useful parts, jetting around in zero-gravity as the sparkling vastness of space unfolds before you.
There are optional side objectives to complete as well. For example, an early chapter sees you in control of a shuttle that can be used to investigate a neighbouring derelict. Later on you're given the option of checking out an abandoned armoury on Tau Volantis. These supplemental missions are typically as long as the nineteen regular chapters themselves, and come with the promise of resource bundles, extra collectibles that help flesh out the story, and new parts to be used at the new crafting bench.
The crafting bench is easily the biggest addition for Dead Space 3, embodying both the finest aspect of the game, and the reason that series stalwarts might find this third game somewhat disappointing. Let's start with the good stuff...it's fantastically deep. You start off with a simple frame - one-handed or two? You decide. Then it's a case of fitting your frame with bits and pieces that will determine the nature of the weapon, its efficacy, and add any bonuses and upgrade circuits. Stick a plasma core to the top and you'll fashion a trusty plasma cutter that you can adjust to deliver a wider spread or a more focused blast depending on the tip that you choose. Then you can affix a military engine to the bottom, or powerful hydraulics, or an electrical emitter, or a flamethrower, and turn your creations into a glorious hybrid. Moreover, every creation is able to be fully deconstructed, allowing you to play around rather freely once you've gathered a few little things.
It's an extremely satisfying introduction that promotes thorough exploration so much more than the previous two games. Instead of money, you'll find yourself scrabbling around for resources such as tungsten and semi-conductors, the idea being that if you don't have a certain part for a weapon you want, there'll come a point when you can just make it yourself with the resources that you've scrounged. To help you in this endeavour, you have access to scavenger bots that can be set upon resource-rich areas once you discovered plentiful areas via a little radar-based minigame.
It's here that we turn our attention to the dubious business of microtransactions, because as well as punching open every crate that you find to rummage around for resources, you can just buy little DLC packs that'll boost your bank substantially. However, we must doff our caps to EA, because they've managed to implement the system pretty much perfectly. Let me spell this part out for you: You do not need to buy them at all! By the halfway point, if you've been diligent, done all of the side missions, and explored every room thoroughly, you shouldn't need to purchase anything extra. You can only carry two weapons at a time anyway; you can recycle all of your existing weapons parts; and you can save blueprints of your own creations.
Of course, there's a long list of existing blueprints, which all require a fair number of resources, that you're given rather close to the start, and it's not long before envy and impatience set in. You scroll down the list to be presented with names like 'Intimid8or' and 'Mjolnir', with their stats so much greater than your own modest rifle. But if you're patient, it won't be long before you can start playing about yourself, and creating things purposefully designed around your own style of play. EA and Visceral have played the temptation game rather than nerfing the main game to suit a supplemental business model. It's very well wrought, and never forced upon the player, just there if you want it.
The other potentially ugly duckling in the room is the game's inclusion of a co-operative mode, something gamers have been concerned with since no-nonsense soldier John Carver first bounded onto screens at E3 last year. Except it's not an ugly duckling at all, it's a beautiful, mutated, dismembered swan. No it's not scary at all, of course it isn't, you're playing with a friend which instantly halves the tension. But that doesn't stop it being tense, fraught with plenty of exciting action, and ultimately huge amounts of fun.
From a narrative perspective, Carver's character makes some rather larger personality jumps in the solo game that are never explained there, but fleshed out and filled in here. There are some nice touches that see players having something of an asynchronous experience, with one character occasionally hallucinating things that the other can't see. On section sees Carver disappear inside his own mind to literally fend off the Marker's demons plaguing his consciousness as Isaac has to defend his body in reality. On paper that might sound a little ridiculous, but in action it's fantastically engrossing.
Dead Space 3 is not the same game as Dead Space 1, of course it isn't, what would be the point in that? Lovecraft once wrote that "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown", and here we are three games in. But the sheer nature of this title being a Dead Space game means we're in familiar, and therefore less scary, territory. Isaac is no longer new to this, and it's understandable for the game to reflect a certain competency on his part. Yes, he's tooled up to the nines, but the rather solid combat system, combined with a handy evasive roll, a few new varieties of enemy archetypes, makes for some tense action.
The pacing is therefore key, and for the most part Visceral succeed in flinging us hurtling through calamity after crisis. The game becomes a little bloated and frustrating towards the end as the developers shove more and more enemies in your path and killer turns to filler, but you'll stick with it for a narrative denouement, and because the gunplay is a fair bit of fun.
The thing is, there are plenty of games out there with solid, rather fun shooter mechanics, and Dead Space 3 worries us in the same way that Mass Effect 3 worried us. It's a game in which EA's business strategy is plain to see, and sometimes that's rather immersion breaking and, occasionally, alienating in its predictability. The content offering is huge - with a large variety of difficulty modes to keep gamers coming back, including a Hardcore mode that sees you trying to make it all of the way through the game without dying once - but you can see Dead Space 3 trying to tick all of its boxes, and it's lost a little of the edginess and the personality that made it such a massive deal to begin with. Visceral's environmental storytelling is better than ever in this game, and the backdrops and vistas are hugely impressive - it's still a hugely attractive universe that they've created - but our role within it has shifted to become something a little less special.
- Intense, engrossing combat
- Crafting system is fantastic and microtransactions are in no way forced
- Co-op is great fun and ties into the story nicely
- Fantastic outer-space section
- Solo game feels a little over-extended
- Some rather cheap and frustrating enemy spamming
- Large amounts of Day 1 DLC
- In danger of being 'just another' competent action-shooter
The Short Version: Dead Space 3 is in no way the disaster that many predicted, but neither is it particularly special. There's some strong narrative appeal for series fans, and the crafting system and co-op are both well implemented. But it's solid without sparkling, and EA's bigger-is-better strategy is writ large for all to see a little too easily, making it a fun but ultimately forgettable experience.