Since its long-rumored existence was confirmed in the days leading up to E3 last year, Dead Space 3
has drawn a lot of attention for itself, and rightfully so. What began as a bit of a cult hit has burgeoned into one of the most popular and unique franchises in gaming. Not only that, but now Isaac’s third go-around with the alien plague looked like it was changing a lot, and some argued those coming changes would bring an end to the series as we once knew it. After experiencing all this third installment has to offer, it's safe to say that not all change is good, but neither is it all bad.
The opening of Dead Space 3
highlights a lot of things that Visceral Games has been known for and it also introduces some of these much-discussed changes they have been working on. The cinematic quality (a hallmark of the first two games’ presentation) has again been improved. The sound design is still among the very best in the market, the music is effective, and cutscenes often lead seamlessly into the gameplay which is overall bigger in scope than ever before. The story opens where you would expect it to if you followed the promos: the icy wasteland of Tau Volantis. However, it’s not our afflicted protagonist Isaac Clarke we control but a Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces (SCAF) Private Tim Kaufman. The events in this flashback set the stage for what becomes the best story of the three games. 200 years after Private Kaufman's time, Isaac finds himself now living in the slums of a futuristic city.
This introduction highlights a strength and a weakness of the game. The strength is in the varied environments the story takes us to, from this rundown cityscape to the frozen tundra of Tau Volantis to a third act that is unlike anywhere else explored before in the trilogy’s vastness of space.
The weakness, unfortunately, is in the forced love affair that comes between Isaac and Ellie. In the months between the stories of Dead Space 2
, Isaac and Ellie shared a romantic relationship that ended unceremoniously when Ellie pushed to solve the Necromorph plague while Isaac wanted to give up. Now Ellie is missing and had sworn Isaac could help before she lost contact. Her new boyfriend, a soldier in the Marker Ops program, recruits Isaac reluctantly, but out of necessity given his experience. For most of the story we’re treated to misplaced romance dialogue that would have otherwise been enjoyable. Romantic angles can offer depth and humanity to characters, making them empathetic figures. However, when Isaac narrowly escapes a swarm of violent monsters who want nothing but to feed on his face and the first thing he says moments later is “So do you love him?” it feels forced and inorganic and that’s too bad because it would have provided strong characterization otherwise.
The new cast of characters that join Isaac on his expedition are all boring and aren't given their proper screen time to make us care for their well-being. They all feel like glorified redshirts except for Ellie and John Carver, the game’s co-op character. Carver is treated to his own fleshed-out story which is often just as dark as Isaac’s. New Necromorphs, like the Feeder especially, add to what is still one of the most varied rosters of enemies in modern games.
Despite the problems with characters and dialogue in some instances, the story being told is the biggest and best in the trilogy and serves as a figurative bright spot in this literally dark game.
The gameplay, unfortunately, has grown stale and misses the mark often. Thankfully the backtracking layout of missions has largely been removed, and with ten optional missions to play across the game’s nineteen story chapters, the linearity is undone at some points too. The same scares from the first two games are employed with little effect, though. I can’t tell you how many times I was halted by a mechanism of some sort suddenly malfunctioning, causing me to have to survive an unforgiving wave of enemies. It was scary in the first game, not so much in the second game. Now it’s just annoying. In quieter moments, the tired formula of ‘make noise one way, enter another’ is used too often, as well.
Other parts of the game abandon the horror element entirely. Human soldiers make up about 20% of your enemies, and often when I faced off against them, Necromorphs were eating good guys and bad guys indiscriminately. The cover system is simple and doesn't lock you into an environment, requiring just a crouch behind waist-high objects. With kinesis, a lot of cover is also movable, which worked to great effect. Take cover where you want to, and if the enemies continue to flank, just throw it at them. The departure from the true horror genre may be disappointing to some fans, but to be fair, the louder, more explosive approach was well done and the shootouts with soldiers, though possibly out of place, were technically sound.
The action sequences may upset a few people, but the horror sequences were what really disappointed. The memorable, playable moments were few and far between. The events unfolding were interesting, but not the gameplay, so as an horror-action title, Dead Space 3 fails in that regard. So often I felt like I was moving from ladder to ladder, door to door, shooting a set number of monsters over and over again. One cannot blame the action moments for ruining what could have been a great horror game. Instead, the blame falls on the repetitive and familiar enemy encounters for making bland whatever the game wanted to be.
A lot of the objectives Isaac faces also have to do with him crafting certain items, which ties into one of the game’s best features: the new weapon crafting system. Scrounging for supplies has always been important in Dead Space
, and though ammo is now universal and regrettably abundant, collecting weapon parts and upgrade circuits becomes a priority. Utilizing these crafting benches opens up what might be the deepest crafting mechanic in any game ever. There were a nauseating number of possible guns to create and share with my co-op partner and that was barely scratching the surface.
The game's microtransactions pertain to the resources used to craft weapons, but you needn’t get upset over them. The game functions just fine without ever dipping into your piggy bank. Such shortcuts are there simply because people who like shortcuts will buy them. If you and your partner don’t make any purchases, you’ll just have to resort to scavenging, which is a central mechanic to the series in the first place.
Speaking of co-op, it's (surprisingly) the game’s very best feature. Given the new direction of the game, there’s no need to isolate yourself like you would for a true horror title. With that being the case, why not bring a friend? Some argue that co-op makes everything better. Whether you feel that’s true or not, it definitely makes Dead Space 3
better. You scavenge for supplies separately but you can always share items with your partner when they’re in need. The use of puzzles in the story is a lot more fun with a partner and they’re even altered slightly to include a two-person approach rather than a solo method.
The only problem with the co-op is how it forces the second character, Carver, into situations in the wrong places. For example, you might be making your way to an objective in co-op only to arrive to find that Carver looks to have been there already. A lot of the time cutscenes and dialogue change slightly to include Carver if someone is playing along with you but when they don’t, small continuity issues arise.
The implementation of co-op is very convenient as it is of the drop-in/out style. You can customize matchmaking settings, invite a friend, or just jump into the first one available, and you can even bring your New Game+ items with you. After beating the story solo, I loaded my inventory and upgrades into a co-op game and worked together with a co-op partner, guiding him through puzzles, and covering each other’s backs. Ultimately, it was entirely more enjoyable than the single-player version of the game.
The achievement list is not for the faint of heart and anyone who completes it will likely add it to their Trophy Case. There are a handful of my favorite kind of achievements -- story progression -- but there are also a lot of collectibles to be had, multiple New Game+ modes to beat individually, and some secret achievements that will require some research here on TA. I played the game on normal difficulty on my own for my first run-through and earned about half of the list for roughly 500G. A few co-op achievements will boost your score if you don’t go solo the first time but if you want to complete the game, you’ll have your work cut out for you with three New Game+ modes, all of which are difficult, sometimes painfully so.
With an opening scene that is action-heavy, horror fans may be turned off to continue the adventure. When the pacing drags throughout the game at different points, you may again wish it would just be over with. Still, a game of this budget and scope succeeds with all of its mechanics as it should, and the story is the most revealing thus far. Taking on Isaac's third mission alone wasn't nearly as memorable as his past exploits because the gameplay was often stuck in stasis. Just remember, misery loves company. Bring a friend and let go of what Dead Space
was and you’ll at least enjoy, if not love, what Dead Space