Review: Dead Space 3
By Chris Davis on February 11th, 2013 (8 comments)
For all the work we put into talking, writing and playing video games, most of us are powerless when we are faced with change, especially when it comes to changes for the perceived worse. This generation has seen an almost dramatic shift toward homogenization, more so than any other before it and the results have been a mixed bag of shining examples of quality work amongst rotten-to-the-core titles. For all the shooters, RPGs and strategy titles that have experienced this over the past seven years no genre has been more noticeably subject to change than that of the horror game. Long running series of scares like Resident Evil have jumped the shark, ruining themselves thanks to ideas of action-oriented gameplay and the belief that the fanbase will buy their products so long as the name is on the box. The fitting replacements for such beloved series have mostly been indie titles as publishers seem to be afraid to put a strong budget behind a scary experience.
Dead Space has the distinction of being an exception to that rule. For two games now, Visceral Games has presented us a rather startlingly claustrophobic story of advanced technology amongst fanatical religion and a threat to all life that binds those two together. With this new release comes many changes to the Dead Space formula, introducing elements like cooperative play and survival-specific gameplay alterations. With so many changes that are similar to those made to the latest (and abysmal) Resident Evil game, does Dead Space 3 still have what it takes to do its series proud?
The Marker Escalation
Issac Clarke was once the everyman, an engineer who boarded the USG Ishimura hoping to see his girlfriend and instead ended up the preeminent Necromorph expert, having survived two major outbreaks and lived to tell the tale. The character has grown from an everyman into that of a distinct, reluctant hero and it is a status that Clarke has tried to hide away from in the three years since the Necromorph outbreak on Titan Station in 2511. Wallowing away in a hovel of an apartment complex on the lunar colony on Earth’s moon, Issac is suddenly attacked and detained by members of EarthGov, the same force that held him captive and experimented on him to create the Black Marker on Titan Station. Clarke agrees to help them however as the team leader, Norton, reveals that Ellie Langford, the woman who escaped Titan Station with him, has sent for his rescue in the hope that he can aid in a mission to stop the Marker threat. Norton also divulges that a radical wing of Unitologists, the religion founded to worship the Markers, has gone rouge, attacking EarthGov and wiping out most of their military.
Issac and the group are barely able to escape the lunar colony after the Unitologists destroy the containment shell of a Marker test site hidden within the city, unleashing the Necromorph plague upon the population. Onboard the USM Eudora, Clarke finds out just why he was rescued: Ellie and her team have uncovered what they believe to be the source of the Marker signal and the origin of the Necromorph infestation on Tau Volantis, a frozen planet on the outskirts of the known galaxy. With no other choice, Clarke agrees to face the threat that has haunted him for nearly six years once more.
After two large and immensely enjoyable stories in this universe, Dead Space 3’s story is one that’s hard to place in any sort of ranking system. While the Necromorph threat is still as large and omnipresent as it has been since the beginning of the series, it feels as though this third entries’ story is meant to be a strong escalation of circumstances and potential consequences. There’s a lot riding on Issac in this one in comparison to the first two stories and, for that, the story makes this tale to the end of the universe an exciting one to explore. There are a few things holding the experience back from taking the top spot in terms of narrative though.
For one, pacing is an issue. In comparison to the two previous games, Dead Space 3 is a decidedly sped up affair. Much of the game does not let you take a moment to catch your breath and steady yourself for the next task. You’ll notice a significant uptick in Necromorph encounters, missions seem to be over far sooner than one would suspect and there is significantly more dialog to be found throughout the game despite the strong reduction in RIG-projected video conversations. All of these add up to a more action-oriented experience than the previous titles which, normally, is a detriment to horror-based series like this one. This doesn’t seem to be the case this time around though as many of these narrative changes are balanced out by several gameplay elements but more on that in a moment.
The action-oriented shift in gameplay also pertains to the story and, unfortunately, in some ways it is to the game’s detriment. Taking a look at the big moments of the game you will notice that not only are unique set pieces few and far between but that even these big moments don’t really wow any experienced Dead Space veteran. The game checks off most of the tropes the previous games have done in the past without providing us with as many epic scenes to experience. By comparison, Dead Space 2 offers plenty of unique moments such as the Church of Unitology, the school with the Necromorph chidren and even the return to the Ishimura. When looking at Dead Space 3, save for the game’s opening and the final areas of the game (which I will not go into for fear of significant spoilers) there just is not enough to really get the blood pumping and the eyes dilating anymore.
One point that must be mentioned to the game’s benefit is the character development throughout Dead Space 3. More so than the previous two games combined, this third game introduces us to a wide range of emotions and points of view that round out a more humanized take on the series. From the lost love story between Issac and Ellie to the fanatical preachings of Jacob Danik and his Inner Circle Unitologists, the characters seem to be much more interesting this time around. The characters have a definite appreciation for both the stakes of their actions as well as the risks they are putting themselves through. More so than the previous games, I found myself really feeling for Issac and his situation thanks to his reluctant call-to-arms story, making me appreciate him more.
If Visceral and Electronic Arts didn’t make it clear outside of the game that they intend to continue the series on beyond Dead Space 3 it would be easy to believe this is the end of the series thanks to its rather emotionally dark yet hopeful ending. The game’s singleplayer story alone can reach lengths beyond twenty hours on a first playthrough and several more hours can be tacked on to that number separately thanks to the game’s cooperative mode. In short, Dead Space 3 offers a significantly longer story to explore with a fine cast of characters and while the story that’s told is indeed an enjoyable one, its pacing and development leaves something to be desired.
The Precipice at Man’s End, Discovered Long Before
Dead Space has always been a horror story a survivor amidst chaos and carnage who is tasked (and aided) from afar with only his wits, tools and weapons allowing him to survive beyond their first encounter with the enemy. In many ways, Dead Space 3 is still that formula as Issac is repeatedly tasked with less than desirable mission objectives that force him to utilize what little resources he has to complete the assignment. Visceral has seen fit to expand on this structure in many ways and while some are a credit to the natural evolution of the series as a whole, the overall nature of these changes are a stark shift in an unwanted direction.
Dead Space’s roots are found specifically in the survival horror genre and there are three primary aspects that make a survival horror game what it is: an initially underpowered protagonist, item management and exploration. The first two aspects have undergone a dramatic change, presenting a gameplay mechanic switch-up on par with the removal of many of the RPG elements that occurred in the transition between Mass Effect 1 and 2. This change occurs due to two interlinked additions to the game: a new crafting system and the addition of universal ammo.
The crafting system by itself is a fairly robust one. Utilizing materials gathered in the field (there is no in-game currency this time around), players have the ability to create and customize a strong number of different weapons for all types of scenarios, anything from a standard plasma cutter to the immensely powerful contact beam. These, in turn, can be combined to form dual-action weapons that make them immensely versatile. This reviewer concocted a contact beam with an alternate fire shotgun that shoots javelin spikes, allowing me to one-shot harder enemies while significantly hurt groups should I be strongly outnumbered. The game now limits players to two weapons now and while this doesn’t harm a players’ ability to craft and experiment to their hearts content with new weapons and configurations it can be a bit difficult to accept when certain sections of the game require the use of a particular weapon type.
Due to the nature of the weapon crafting system though Visceral has been forced to utilize a universal ammo system and it is something that really detracts from the experience in my opinion. Most survival horror games put a strong focus on ammunition management but given the weapon crafting the player would be otherwise forced to utilize up to three different ammunition types at once, something that isn’t exactly feasible given your limited carrying capacity. It’s a necessary evil and one I don’t completely agree with. Had there been the ability to play through the game with classic Dead Space rules as far as item and weapon management I’d have been happier with the final product but, as of this review’s posting, the option does not exist.
The crafting system also applies to your character’s tools and RIG, something that I also find fault in. While the player still has the ability to upgrade their character’s health, kinesis and stasis abilities, the player’s armor rating now applies to the rig instead of the suit the player can wear. The player can no longer find or build suits as the game progresses and instead grants the player a new suit at regular intervals throughout the experience. This completely detracts from the systems built into Dead Space 1 and 2 as it gives the player absolutely no incentive to experiment and try out new suits, also removing one of the catalytic elements for which players would want to do another playthrough of the game. It’s a problem and one that Visceral should definitely consider reverting for future games in the series.
Tying into the crafting system as well is the added “feature” of micro-transactions to purchase in-game content. Now, Dead Space has never been one to shy away from downloadable content but it seems that EA is content to make sure they can get every last dollar out of you that they can should you fail to have the patience to earn the content yourself. These mini purchases will grant you more resources and better weapon mods for certain prices but in reality it is entirely unnecessary. I cannot stress this enough: you can unlock everything in Dead Space 3 without purchasing it by simply playing it. The system is there for people who are not patient and it’s a system that has present in many high profile EA titles since Battlefield 3 so there’s no need to get in a tizzy about it.
The final element of a survival horror game, the exploration, is something that, unlike the first two elements, has been greatly expanded upon in Dead Space 3. In addition to far larger environments to venture into Visceral has also included new optional side missions. While these seem to have no bearing on the overall narrative of the game they do expand on the background of the events preceding it. Unfortunately many of the optional missions utilize recycled environments and the rewards for completing them are only meant to augment your weapons and RIG. It would have been a far more enticing experience had these optional missions in fact held storyline consequences for Issac and crew, possibly allowing for a multiple ending scenario for the game, but this is something that, for now, is not in the final product.
Human combatants in Dead Space 3 is an item many have groaned audibly about ever since the game’s debut at E3 2012 but this is something I can safely say is not nearly as big a problem as one would think. Encounters with human enemies occur less often than one would think, making them a far smaller threat than one would believe. If anything, they demonstrate the power that lies within the Necromorph threat as the humans are fairly weak in comparison. It is also a bit of a narrative necessity as Issac and crew are hunted by Danik and his Unitologist brethren and given the way they are handled throughout the experience, it’s not something that harms the game at all.
Another aspect of the game that pushes the line for defining a game as a survival horror experience is Dead Space 3’s much talked about cooperative mode. Despite all indications to the contrary, the co-op in Visceral’s newest game is decidedly a very solid experience. Playing as John Carver alters the story only slightly, allowing for a less lonely experience and some interesting banter allowing you to see Dead Space from a new perspective. Carver also receives exclusive cooperative missions throughout the game that harken back to Issac’s previous hallucinogenic encounters with Nicole, an antagonist I very much miss as she does not appear in Dead Space 3 since Issac came to terms with her death at the end of the previous game. The player taking the role of Carver will experience similar hallucinations, something that appears on their screen but not on the screen of the person playing as Issac. This can lead to some rather confusing moments for both players as one will see a normal environment while the other sees and hears one that’s significantly altered. It’s definitely fun to play through and is a very strong incentive for playing through the game a second time.
On a final note, one must mention Dead Space 3’s difficulty, or rather the lack thereof. Despite having played through the game on hard the first time through, this reviewer has come to find that the game is a decidedly easy affair for series veterans. The player is given a significant amount of ammo and health items can be found almost everywhere. In fact, upon completion of the game my safe of items was filled to the brim with healing items, stasis packs and ammo. Although the game’s litany of new game plus variants address this it simply instills a level of ease that hasn’t been inherent since the series’ debut. Hopefully this will be addressed in future iterations of the franchise.
Make Us Whole, Turn It Off
Despite the next generation being a hop, skip and a jump away from arriving on our doorsteps, Dead Space 3 is a visually stunning affair to be had. Many of the environments in the game are simply gorgeous and will make you sit back for a moment to take in the lighting and set pieces presented to you. In particular are the space environments early on in the game in which you have the ability to wander about the wreckage of the flotilla unabated, watching as pieces of ships float amongst a star-lit backdrop. Character animations are well done and emotions are well represented amongst the cast, complementing the game’s already well done voice casting.
The audio presentations in Dead Space games have always been rather wonderful and this new entry is no exception. Players will find a wonderful assortment of environments to listen to as they go throughout Tau Volantis and the sound design is well representative of the derelict ice planet. Necromorph howls and growls are haunting and the clash of rusted metal is both loud and oppressive, more than giving the hint that you are not only in a place long since abandoned by humanity but also one that is certainly not welcoming. Just like the previous entries, Dead Space 3’s audio design is supremely well done and should not be missed by anyone who has a strong surround sound setup.
Convergence Is At Hand
Dead Space 3 had a lot going against it ever since it was announced. Skeptics were quick to call out elements like the co-op feature as signs that the series had finally gone mainstream, attempting to draw in as many players as possible at the cost of what has made the series so great to begin with. Thankfully, despite these voices saying otherwise, Dead Space 3 is a rather good game. Though there are several questionable design choices that should be reconsidered for the series going forward, what Visceral has brought to the table is both a very strong Dead Space title as well as a rather intense and occasionally scary game. It is definitely not something to be passed over for series fans and though I would point newcomers to the previous games in order to gain an appreciation for the story and universe, it is equally as welcoming.
Issac Clarke’s story may be over with this third title but the Dead Space universe still holds more than enough secrets and mysteries to explore and learn for at least a fourth title. With a few lessons learned from this game I can’t help but be excited for where the series takes us next.
80-89%: Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.
I am 4Player's video and feature producer. I've been writing about games for years and I enjoy every minute of it. I'm pro-developer and I have a few friends who have gone on to successful careers in the industry. I may only be an amateur but I've got things to say.
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