Dead Space 3 has crawled out of the nearest ventilation duct and popped up with a sufficiently eerie “boogely boo”, but is it a horrifying decaying mass of writhing limbs and blades, or as unappealing as a fresh spring day in an orchard? If you’re quiet and lower that Plasma Cutter, I’ll tell you. Relax. Trust me. It won’t hurt a bit.
Marking the third installment in Visceral’s space terror series, Dead Space 3 hits with an unprecedented bombast and scale, unquestionably larger than either two of the games that came before. The Visceral team are clearly of the mind that bigger is better, and Dead Space 3 is certainly their biggest offering to date. And it may be their best, with a few, very clear caveats.
Action is the focus of Dead Space 3. In Dead Space 3, you will kill lots of things. Probably not all the things, but definitely lots of things. Well, sort of kill, since they’re already dead and all, but you get the picture. Action has certainly ramped way up, with the entire game shifting away from its survival horror roots and picking up action shooter elements. The new direction is one that some shall like and some shan’t, but as a game, it definitely works. One great feature of the first game was its expert funneling of tension into fear of an unknown threat. By the third game, fear of the unknown is no longer viable, so tension must be achieved through other means, and Visceral have chosen to use tight action sequences and an unrelenting onslaught of whirling death. There is still the occasional pause for relief that Dead Space does so well, and the obligatory subversion of previously safe places that jump-start the heart and the Plasma Cutter batteries. Its horror roots are visible, but Dead Space 3 is definitively in the action shooter category.
Keeping in line with this shift in focus from horror to action and looking at it through the prism of narrative, it makes sense. This is Isaac Clarke’s third time facing the formidable Necromorph threat, and his reaction to their presence is understandable. It makes sense that Isaac knows how to deal with the threats efficiently, and his adoption of the role of tired combat veteran reflects that. Isaac knows what he is facing, and, despite his desire to be left alone, he knows he must do what he must. Because, of course, Isaac is the only one able to save humanity.
Expectedly, the story follows the increasing proliferation of the mysterious Markers and their Unitologist supporters throughout Earth and the other human colonies. Isaac is once again drawn in to the fight against the Necromorphs when a government division lose contact with Dead Space 2 survivor Ellie Langford – now working with EarthGov to eliminate the Marker threat. Isaac, recovering from the breakdown of his and Ellie’s relationship, travels with military man John Carver to the planet of Tau Volantis to solve the riddle once and for all etc. There’s intrigue, betrayal, and conspiracy galore, all wrapped around a core of loss and sacrifice.
Utmost in the list of new additions is the introduction of the character John Carver. Carver – the hardened and scarred military survivor – is a grizzled character, playable in co-op. In the single player game, he’s a relatively standard supporting character, with perhaps a little more to do than usual. He’s not a bad character in the single player game, adding a more cynical and disillusioned perspective to Isaac’s pragmatic hope. He slots well into the universe, and single players will find his appearance in the narrative relatively unobtrusive. I want you to hold that thought for later.
Second and more controversial is the addition is the human combat. It is not as terrible as many initially thought it would be, and it is explained quite well in the narrative. The Unitologists are far more aggressive in Dead Space 3, adopting an actively offensive stance against EarthGov and Isaac in particular. They are given a firm place in the story, and their inclusion does not fall flat. The human combat is not great, but it’s not blatantly, offensively bad. There is a clear reason for the human combat. Fighting fellow humans is thankfully rare, and many situations pit Unitologists against Necromorphs at the same time as Isaac, which lessens the pain of their presence.
With the shooting itself, it is as guttural and satisfying as ever. Enemies take hits well, and weapons have that satisfying clout. Dismemberment returns, however it seems less critical or useful than in previous games. Guns feel slightly weaker, or perhaps enemies are more capable of keeping their arms and legs attached. This is emphasised somewhat when being swarmed from all sides by the shrieking creatures, as round after round pumps into bodies with seemingly minimal effect. And you will be swarmed often. Being locked in a monster closet is a dangerous proposition, even for someone of Isaac’s experience. The action combat is well-paced, if more common than before.
Happily, the shooting sequences are interspersed liberally with other forms of gameplay. There are familiar stasis and telekinesis type puzzles, familiar from the previous games. Also returning from 2 is the hacking mini-game. Additionally, there is a rotating circuit puzzle and a circle matching mini-game, ensuring that your puzzle muscles will remain stretched – if not necessarily taxed. There are also dramatic set-pieces, zero gravity sections, flying obstacle courses, and even abseiling. It’s all quite well done, with no segments standing out as being out of place. The set pieces are naturally breathtaking and cinematic and all of those predictable words, and to a scale not before seen in the series.
One more welcome distraction are the newly added side-quests. These take the form of optional objectives that require you visiting a specific location or going through a particular door. Most side-quests are relatively simple, with no real objective other than to complete a circuit of a new enemy infested area. The impetus to complete these side-quests is twofold – one, you can find exclusive loot that counts towards your completion percentage and kits out Isaac with new toys; and two, it reveals additional backstory for the events above and on Tau Volantis. The story beats are largely background, telling the story of the scientists and military teams who died trying to unravel the mysteries of the Markers, however it does add to the rich canvass of lore that the game weaves.
Loot offered has been expanded above the previous fare, due to the addition of the quite intricate crafting system. Med packs remain, as do stasis packs. All weapons use the same source of universal ammunition in some esoteric and unexplained formula, which allows for simpler inventory consolidation. Additionally, there are dedicated crafting resources that take up no space in the inventory, and serve as a form of currency for building and modifying weapons and items. Upgrading has undergone a significant overhaul. Gone are the power nodes of yore, replaced by a modular weapon creation system, accessible at benches. Starting with a frame, you can add an upper and lower tool type, the end result of which is determined by whether you use a light or heavy frame. Next, you can modify the tip of the weapon, which alters the weapon type further. Two attachments can then be added, which can add extra damage types or scopes or co-op benefits. If that wasn’t enough, reload, clip, speed, and damage can be upgraded through the use of collectable and craftable circuits. All discovered components can be crafted using a variety of resources, enabling a veritable custom armoury to be accumulated. This weapon system is designed to encourage extensive variation in weapon usage, however the bizarre decision to cut weapon carrying capacity down to two slots seemingly runs counter to this philosophy.
Enhancing the crafting elements is the fact that loot is quite plentiful. I found myself – usually a cautious survival horror player so miserly I know the max stack size for handgun bullets in the old Resident Evils (and the max box capacity in RE3) – with excessive amounts of health and ammunition stored in my safe. Conversely, the frenetic gameplay did mean I missed my shots and received more knocks than I usually do, so drop rates probably even out for most players. Between the forgiving drops and the ability to craft health and ammo at benches, don’t expect Dead Space 3 to tax your resource management muscles too heavily, though.
Which leads to the controversial microtransactions. I personally don’t see the point of it, and decidedly ignored the entire thing. Well, almost. One in-game resource that is only found via scavenger bots is the rare Ration Seal, which is in game currency for some microtransaction purchases for stronger attachments and crafting resources. I found that I was accumulating them naturally anyway, so I spent them on some of the resource packs. Other real money purchases for suits, weapons, or scavenger bot upgrades, well, they weren’t a part of my game. I can see some people buying them, but it’s not particularly necessary for a patient gamer – there are plenty of resources to go around, and the inventory system is able to be actively exploited.
Environments as a whole feel more open than the previous games. A large portion of the game escapes the claustrophobic corridors of the twisted metal hulks the series is famous for, instead favouring the icy climes of Tau Volantis. Space is less of a feature here, with the zero-g and EVA sections much less common. The rare space segments are very open, however, allowing for a vast, expansive sensation of the vacuum of space. Down on the planet, frequent snow storms restrict vision at will, allowing for some spectacular reveals of open vistas. Inside, it’s sometimes easy to get lost as corridors can be quite similar to each other. The overall effect is of alienation and vastness, of discovery, and of decay. The final areas feature immense alien structures – strange designs and contraptions that serve to reinforce the threat presented by the Necromorph scourge.
Beautiful graphically, Dead Space 3 is the best looking entry in the series to date. While there are no PC specific bells or whistles, the base game looks very slick turned up to ultra. While not the most technically competent engine out there, it does what it does well. Specifically, lighting and shadow are handled with a joyous and deft aplomb, rendering motion and silhouette in a wonderfully ambiguous haze. Animations and textures are crisp, while the environment is littered with scene-setting detritus. Most breathtaking are the fleeting glimpses of sunrise over the cold wasteland hills, with sun shafts and flares setting a gorgeous scene for death. It’s very much more of the Dead Space look that we know, but with a few new lighting tricks and a coat of polish.
Lovely graphics aside, Dead Space has developed a reputation for exceptional audio, and this game continues the trend. Ambient machinery and engine humming permeates the ship sections, and distant clanking will have you sending a cautious plasma burst into the shadows. Frantic discordant strings signal enemy arrivals in traditional horror style. New to the series is an action-oriented soundtrack featuring insistent beats and rock stylings that underscore the more intense action sections. It sits well in place, and adds a triumphal empowerment to Isaac’s more heroic moments. Creature sounds are great and immediately recognisable – from the hissing and skittering of the smaller crawlers, to the distinctive sharp shriek of the exploders, their cries immediately telegraph what kind of threat you are facing. Mostly. Voice work is top notch, with all voice actors giving emotional and believable performances all around. Attacking has that satisfying crunch, stomping is heavy, and the sound of a souped up Line Gun has that delectable bassy thump that is impossible to not love. Audio is, bottom line, next to perfect.
On the other hand, it’s not all good news. One core element deserving of ire is the save system. Eschewing the former titles’ save stations, Dead Space 3 chooses to employ a checkpoint system. There are two basic types of checkpoints – full and telegraphed checkpoints that allow you to continue your game upon restart, and hidden mini-checkpoints that you will restart at if you die in a room – basically room restarts. Additionally, your inventory will save upon exiting the game. Unfortunately, full checkpoints are inadequately located. Not all rooms with benches in them have checkpoints, and those that do will save before you use a bench. Usually this isn’t a big problem, since your inventory will save upon exiting the game, however, if you die before reaching the next mini-checkpoint, your inventory resets to its previous value. Essentially, this means that if you die just after using a bench to craft and modify your inventory, you have to redo all that hard work. Again – not usually a huge deal, until you spend 10 minutes crafting the perfect weapon only to lose it when you walk out the door (and die). The inventory saving system is also open to abuse and farming, which an exploitative player can take full advantage of – they’d rob themselves of a challenging experience, but the exploit is there.
One thing that has to be mentioned is the divisive inclusion of co-op play. We’ve played it for a few hours, and can unreservedly say that the co-op is brilliant. Expectations that the game would be less scary co-op are minimally true, however – since Dead Space 3 is more action than horror focused – this is not a huge detraction. Each character can share items on the fly, or share weapon blueprints at a bench. Partner revives can be turned on, allowing partners to help each other when one is incapacitated. To balance the increase in firepower, enemies are more plentiful and aggressive and puzzles require additional work to complete, which means the challenge and difficulty remain relatively intact.
Dead Space 3 co-op unlocks exclusive new side-quests and areas, which reveals collectable artifacts or upgrades, and expands on character background stories. Character interaction is ramped up, with more banter between Carver and Isaac throughout the main storylines. Situations change almost seamlessly, and every part I played co-op all fitted perfectly into the narrative. The co-op gameplay is wonderful. The additional character interaction and Carver’s back story is compelling, and playing co-op really fleshes out the relationship between the two characters. It offers a richer narrative and gameplay experience in all areas, and works to create a very distinct sense of who Carver in particular is as a character.
Mostly, this is a massive shame, since the exclusive co-op sections I was able to play were fascinating, entertaining, and compelling. Why could that not be somehow included in the solo play?
On top of that, the story elements and items are inaccessible for the single player. This, regrettably, prevents a 100% completion rate in a number of areas, which in turn means a number of bonus items and achievements are completely locked off to those who play solo. You cannot 100% the game solo, and you cannot get some bonus item unlocks without 100% ratings in certain areas. That, in my mind, is not fair.
Overall, co-op play is great. It is fun. It is entertaining. It is as tense as single player. When it is used, it feels like it belongs, and when it is not used, you rarely notice it. Until you realise how much content you miss because you aren’t playing co-op, and then it’s depressing. You get a full game playing single player, but you get the whole game playing co-op, and that, in my mind, stinks.
Now, the third game in the Dead Space series may not have as strong a horror emphasis as the previous entries, but its new, wider remit is handled skillfully. It has a distinct – if different – atmosphere that viscously clings to every bulkhead. There is a definite and deliberate widening of scale that goes beyond the previous entries. The series is shifting from a survival horror laser beam focus to a more open, encompassing action title. It loses some of the horror in the transition, but picks up a new vastness that opens up Isaac’s world to be explored. It is the natural action extension of the Dead Space we know, and, despite a few minor missteps in conceptual execution and a missed opportunity with the exclusion of the great co-op elements from the single player game, delivers a very strong showing indeed. And remember that chapter name easter egg from the first game? That. Remember that.
Dead Space 3 is now available on PS3, XBox 360, and PC. We’ve put together a gameplay video for you on our YouTube channel, which you can find below.
(Reviewed on PC. Review copy generously provided by the people at EA Australia. Thank you.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 8/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 9.5/10
Lasting Appeal – 9/10
Overall – 9/10
(Not an average)
Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC