Dead Space 3 Review

ds3 (3)

Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: February 5, 2013

dead space
The original Dead Space struck at the right time and place. Horror games were as scarce as ammo in Resident Evil 2 and Dead Space‘s passionate and heavily-influenced team over at Visceral brought forth a title that encapsulated fresh ideas within a familiar landscape rife with a deep lore. A direct sequel spawned, Dead Space 2, refining and practically perfecting the series’ mechanics and, even though thoroughly more of an action-heavy game, it never forgot it tension-filled roots. Both titles had a vision and executed on said vision. Such success has led to Dead Space 3, the latest installment in the franchise. With promises of co-op, cover shooting, and a newer, brighter setting, speculation ran rampant about what Dead Space 3 actually was at its core. Dead Space 3 simultaneously fumbles series’ staples and is a step back for the franchise as a whole.

Dead Space 3 even begins with a lack of focus. After an unexpected opening, we’re tossed back into Isaac Clarke’s miserable life. He’s just been dumped by the boobed-up and glass-eyed Ellie, lives in a shitty apartment, is already behind on his rent, and is greeted by the barrel of a submachine gun from a few “friends” politely kicking down his door. Brilliant chaps.

Strangely enough, these gruff soldiers need Isaac’s assistance in locating Ellie and stopping the Unitologist head Elton John lookalike from unleashing his poisonous religion on the rest of the galaxy, turning them into necromorphs. And you thought the constant knocking of Jehovah’s Witnesses was annoying.

A glass eye, a boob job, an angry British, and a bunch of false melodrama.

A glass eye, a boob job, and a bunch of false melodrama.

It isn’t long for Isaac to get back to the old grind and that’s exactly what it is: a grind. Isaac’s mute personality carried him through the original game and his dementia-ridden epidemic gave him interesting quirks in the sequel, but here he doesn’t have any appealing hooks to draw you back in. He’s just kind of there without any sort of personality gimmick to lean on to make it more interesting. Isaac seems to have come to grips with his sanity and has devolved into a protagonist that is barely memorable especially when compared to the past titles.

“Barely memorable” would be an accomplishment for the new cast and returning members. Ellie must have traded her badass points in exchange for a bigger bra size because, although she may slay a necromorph or two, she levels out and just becomes worthy of nearly ignoring. She’s even a bit cheesy, a far cry from the gutsy survivor that Isaac stumbled across in Dead Space 2.

Three others join your crew but each is more forgettable than the next. Short radio conversations and severely limited face time with these support characters are just about the extent of contact you have with them, meaning you have no reason to even care about them or even remember their names. Even with that in mind, their little on-screen time is flat and dry, even when compared to the lackluster performance by everyone else. Voice acting and the animation is actually solid, even from the underutilized villain, but the hollow words and shallow, forced-in drama don’t hold much impact.

Of course, he's also got an accent.

Of course, he’s also got an accent.

Even with all of these fallen characters, the story doesn’t have quality substance to lean back on. Isaac has always been a glorified errand boy, but it has been intelligently disguised in prior games. Not here. Just about every tasks requires three of this, two of that, a switch or two flipped, and an interpretive dance to delay progress and destroy any hint of narrative pacing. Losing sight of the main objective is entirely possible given the amount of time spent on routine sub-objectives that feel petty in the grand scheme of events.

By the time you drag yourself to the end, the game unravels in a left-field way that will surely leave most players unsatisfied. Science fiction requires some manner of suspending your disbelief, but the half-cooked explanation coughed out to the player can’t even be saved by saying “it’s just sci-fi.” The finale is laughably stupid and baffling how it was chosen as the “reason,” becomes another prime example of a developer feeling the need to explain every facet of a universe’s fiction. Some aspects are better left to the player’s imagination.

Although two separate pillars, sloppy pacing brings down the gameplay as well. Dead Space has always been about cautiously walking through a dark environment, carefully anticipating whatever pile of flesh will try to kill you next. On the surface, Dead Space 3 mimics that feeling but, after a few hours, fails on figuring out why the prior games were so effective at creating jump scares.

Jump out of snow. Jump out of vent. Repeat.

Jump out of snow. Jump out of vent. Repeat.

Tension builds slowly. In order to maximize the effectiveness of a jump scare, the designers must allow the dark atmosphere to naturally ramp up anxiety within the player’s mind. It usually requires a few minutes of audio cues and nothing happening to finally allow a release (an enemy leaping out, for example) and then the process repeats with minor variations. Dead Space 3 has the crushing atmosphere in most areas but it completely botches most enemy encounters and subsequently ruins all tension.

dead space

Necromorphs almost never go more than a few minutes without bursting out or some vent or patch of snow, leaving almost zero time for any sort of impact. Because of this, the player will quickly numb themselves to any pathetic attempts at creating terror. It falls victim to the “WE NEED EVERYTHING HAPPENING ALWAYS BECAUSE WE NEED ACTION” agenda that has increasingly crept into many other games. Instead of a carefully calculated haunted house of scares, it reduces itself into just another shooter that just happens to take place with dim lighting.

The shooting reflects this downgrade. “Thou shall strategically dismember” was set in stone in the Dead Space commandments, but Dead Space 3 grabs a red crayon and scribbles all over a once sacred phrase.

Just aim at the body or something.

Just aim at the body or something.

Plucking limbs from enemies is no longer solely part of the plan because of the speed and sheer number of the necromorphs. Because of the mass hordes constantly thrown in the player’s way, not enough time is given to carefully choose shots because it only allows his buddies to creep up and blindside Isaac. Using a rapid-fire weapon to hit the center mass and maybe an arm is the only viable option in most situations. Spraying rapidly dumbs down a shooting mechanic that once mixed pacing and strategy well, morphing it into a system that requires far less thought and satisfaction.

Increasing the number of foes could have been manageable, but Visceral has upped each necromorph’s movement speed as well, making each faster than Isaac himself. Sprinting is the new shambling, making it even more difficult to line up any effective shot. Automatic weapons take precedent for this reason and when the numbers clash with the agility of the deteriorating space zombies, it results in a mostly mindless shooting experience that feels like a drastic step backwards. Time is always of the essence, something the unrelenting waves don’t allow.

Not shown: his multiple buddies behind him and behind you.

Not shown: his multiple buddies behind him and behind you.

Level design, enemy movements, and Isaac’s moveset were not all made with each other in mind. Environments are still cramped, but since there are more agile foes, it is all too easy to get inescapably cornered and get blasted into chunks. Dodging doesn’t save you either, getting you caught in random geometry more often than actually saving your hide. All of these conflicting ideas clash and feel like desperate attempts to appeal the horror and action crowd, but neither feels appropriately catered to.

The cover system exemplifies that sub-par action agenda as well. You did not scroll to another game review; Dead Space 3 has cover-based shooting with human opponents. Narratively, the battles make sense since Unitologists have always had a vendetta for Isaac, but it just isn’t any fun to actually perform. Slightly tweaked or not, Dead Space‘s core foundation was built on melee-based foes. Human enemies sling a foreign element in the machine, one that doesn’t work to game’s benefit. Cover is appropriately not sticky, but actually firing from behind a wall feels incredibly outdated due wonky reticle placement, overly simplistic cover movement, and the lack of strafing while aiming. Human fights don’t appear up too often but none of them are actually worthwhile encounters.

Cover shooting circa 2006.

Cover shooting circa 2006.

Co-op might be the saving grace for that adrenaline seeking audience since enemy configurations are more manageable with another trigger finger present. An AI companion doesn’t follow Isaac if playing solo, assigning John Carver, the second player’s avatar, to more of a peripheral role. I’d say congratulations to Dead Space 3 for not making co-op mandatory, but that would be like complimenting your father for not pooping in the fridge; it should be a given.

Choosing to bring a partner along will generate exclusive dialogue and unique missions, ones that delve into Carver’s debilitating psyche. His descent into madness is the best thing co-op has going for it and yields replay value for those in Carver’s boots, since his demented perception displays an interesting twisted alternative to Isaac’s “normal” world.

Even with that notable difference, there are some negative inconsistencies that stand out. Carver will sometimes have the wrong voice, fail to say anything when he clearly should, or even teleport in some instances, all of which annoyingly point out that you’re playing a gamey-ass video game. They’re small but noticeable flaws for a co-op experience that may serve people that aren’t the typical Dead Space crowd.

Isaac won't see these soldiers among other things.

Isaac won’t see these soldiers among other things.

Combining the three co-op missions, optional side quests, and long campaign easily crowns Dead Space 3 as the lengthiest in the franchise, but such a descriptor is damning. Dead Space 3 crumbles under its own weight to the point of feeling extremely bloated. The previously mentioned aimless mission objectives reflect this pathetic attempt to pad out the game’s clock. Recycled environments emanate an all too similar feel to most levels, explicitly showcasing how much was just shamelessly copied and pasted. By the time the credits roll, you feel like you’ve done everything past its obvious limit, neutering the urge to return and keep upgrading.

Weapons usually capture a fresher feeling with the new crafting system. Rather than choosing between the Ripper or Contact Beam, you can now create a firearm with both abilities at the nearest Bench. Although daunting and lacking resources at first, this system opens up and allows for a staggering amount of customization in the two weapon slots. Adding unique frames and tossing an array of upgrades or tips can make a specific weapon that might fit your playstyle better than the preset armaments of past titles. Birthing your signature weapon is one of the few areas where Dead Space 3 excels.

Craft what you please when you grasp the deep system.

Craft what you please when you grasp the deep system.

Business decisions usually don’t leak into reviews, but I feel like I should state that the scummy resource-enhancing DLC isn’t a necessity. In fact, I was absolutely swimming in resources to the point where I could make it rain in Tungsten and Somatic gel. So fear not; the game is balanced enough to never spend a dime on the resource packs.

Ironically, that could be part of the problem though. Dead Space 3 has long abandoned its horror roots with the plentiful bounties of resources and lack of good, unique scares. Ammo was never scarce and health was usually plentiful. Predictable placement of necromorphs ruins any cheap jump scares and the lack of any good new foes butchers any sense of fear and wonder. Specific one-off spooks are rare and homogenize the entire title. Dead Space 3 desperately attempts to emulate the series’ past endeavors along with new ones but doesn’t fully succeed at either, failing to both gain new ground and retain the same horror. A few early chapters feel like classic Dead Space and are the best for it, but it isn’t long until it completely drops the ball.

Oh... you again.

Oh… you again.

Despite everything that Dead Space 3 forgets, it recalls how to look fancy. Artistically speaking, it can be inconsistent because of the comparatively drab environments, but technically the visuals almost always look spectacular. Lighting is still within the best of its class and some of the detail given to the landscapes and character models is impressive. Dead Space 2 might be the most beautiful out of the three, but that doesn’t leave Dead Space 3 completely out in the cold in this department.

Like Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy in the mid-1990s, my Plasma Cutter and I had a symbiotic, nearly inseparable relationship. The pistol-like hardware dismembered many necromorphs while I gave it a steady supply of Power Nodes to make it an unstoppable limb-slicing force. I had tried to keep that style of play alive in Dead Space 3, but it wasn’t that kind of game anymore. When I came to the conclusion that I had to break down my coveted Plasma Cutter in order to survive the game’s new found hostility and shooter oriented attitude, it became glaringly obvious that something had gone sideways. The entire game collapses under its inflated design and prolongs a serviceable experience that borders on mediocrity. Weapon crafting is a worthwhile addition and early levels show promise at the onset, but not much time passes until the game drunkenly wanders into territory it has no business in. I don’t know what Dead Space 3 is trying to be and by the looks of it, I don’t think it knows either.

Necromorphs:

+Weapon crafting, although initially daunting, is a deep, customizable way to make firearms
+Strong visuals make even the dirtiest environments look pretty

Necrophilia:

-Overly stretched out campaign with an anemic, contrived narrative and forgettable new characters
-Poor pacing leads to low tension and constant, mindless shooting gets repetitive
-Said low tension means even lower amounts of scares with the most predictable enemy placements
-Recycled environments make the game feel like a long déjà vu trip

Final Score: 6.5/10

Platform Differences:

The game is on one PS3 Blu-Ray and two Xbox 360 DVDs.

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