Dead Space 3 is the game I would love to love to hate, but instead it’s become the game I hate to love. It’s dumbed down, action-oriented and nowhere near as smart or as scary as Dead Space 1 and Dead Space 2. It has a dumb plot, forgettable characters and no real atmosphere. Where it should have creeping terror, it has turret sequences and clumsy monster cupboard shocks. It can be dull or even frustrating, and it features some of the most cynical microtransactions we’ve ever seen in a AAA game. Yet it’s got me. I can’t stop playing it. I just have to see what happens next. Maybe it’s the slick game mechanics, maybe it’s those high EA production values, but Dead Space 3 has me hooked.
Certainly the story has little to do with it. Dead Space might not have been original, but there was something ruthlessly efficient about its mix of Doom 3, System Shock and Alien. It had its own industrial sci-fi aesthetic, and it had the necromorphs, who were the nastiest limb-sprouting, razor-clawed freaks found outside of a Capcom horror classic. Dead Space 2 did a nice job of opening out the story, with weird psychotic interludes, sinister cults and a great Titan colony setting. Dead Space 3 feels like an unnecessary extension of the saga, dragging hero Isaac Clarke out of hiding for unconvincing personal reasons, and through a series of settings that seem to recycle old Dead Space haunts until the game hits fifth gear about a third of the way through.
Who are you trying to scare?
The necromorphs have also lost their edge. Once they kept you on the edge of your seat with their menacing background skitterings and sudden shock attacks. Now gunning them down is almost business as usual, as you aim a range of cutting, slicing and whacking tools at them and do your best to remove their limbs before they get a chance to claw you. While Dead Space 3’s necromorphs can still make challenging opponents, they rarely send shivers down your spine. Like the zombie mutants of Resident Evil 4 and 5, they’ve grown less threatening with over-exposure.
Yet, somehow, Dead Space 3 still works. Working your way through the early game’s derelict starships and space stations might not be new, but that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. The necromorphs are thrown on thick and fast, sometimes too much so, and there are some exceptionally good set-pieces. You get a bit tired of encounters where the only real idea is to swamp you with numbers, but there are some brilliant sequences that have you drifting through space on the trail of shuttle parts, plus some harrowing battles and chase sequences.
Armed and Dangerous
The combat has never been better, either. Evasive rolls and duck and cover moves do little to make up for slow movement while aiming and a pitiful turning speed, but the combination of a big and imaginative armoury and Isaac’s stasis and kinesis powers means you have all the tools you need to defeat the ravening horrors, and simply working out effective means for slaying necromorphs is a whole heap of fun.
There’s also something special in the armoury department: an all-new weapon-crafting feature. By finding parts or stripping weapons into their constituent engines, chassis and attachments, you can create a huge variety of composite weapons, with primary and secondary fire modes, optional melee attachments and damage/fire-rate/reload time-boosting upgrades. With a plasma-cutter/flamethrower in one hand and a machine-gun/bolas launcher in the other, the world is your necromorph-slaying oyster.
And once the action hits the icy wastelands and cold facilities of the planet Tau Volantis, the action starts to veer away from corridors and monster cupboards. There are some forays into shooter territory, but the new setting allows more room to explore some smart ideas, even if they’re smart ideas you might have seen before in other games.
Graphics and Sound
We now take high production values for granted, but the EA team at Visceral Games has done a fantastic job here. Dead Space 3 is the best-looking of the three games in the trilogy, not least because some outdoor and daylight environments give the engine a chance to show off more detail, light and shadow. Meanwhile sound plays as big a part in establishing the mood, whether it’s the panic inducing score when things kick off, or the weird, muted sound effects of the outer space sequences. A few of the voice actors could sound a little more engaged with the material, but EA has clearly thrown money at the game, and a lot of it’s stuck.
And that’s the problem. My brain keeps telling me I shouldn’t be enjoying Dead Space 3 half as much as I am, but there’s something about creeping through those corridors and using my latest boshed-together weapons on those nasty necromorphs that keeps me coming back for more. There are slow bits, repetitive bits, annoying bits and bits where you’ll wonder why Isaac can’t make it from one point to another without falling down a hole and having to battle his way out, but there are always enough big and exciting moments to keep you pushing through. The way some people talk about Dead Space 3 you’d think it was like the worst bits of Resident Evil 6 and Lost Planet 2 rolled together, but it’s far too slick and effective for that. It might not be horror, but it still feels good.
Co-op and Microtransactions
The other big surprise is how well Visceral has integrated co-op play. You could happily play Dead Space 3 blissfully unaware that there was a co-op mode at all, yet the whole campaign is playable with Clarke joined by a space marine-type, Carver. This reduces the fear factor even further, but it doesn’t transform Dead Space 3 into another fist-bumping shooter, and the emphasis on covering each other’s backs and adding support makes the experience a lot of fun. Effectively, Visceral has done what Capcom tried to do with Resident Evil 5 and 6 without compromising the experience for solo players.
Finally, microtransactions. The bad news is that they’re there, and that the excellent weapon-crafting systems mentioned above are dependent on harvesting materials. You can do this yourself by stomping dead necromorphs to find hidden loot, checking boxes and cupboards and using the scavenger bots the game throws in as time goes on, but some will be tempted to throw EA some cash and just get a jumbo assortment delivered. The good news is that you really don’t need to, so it’s a matter for you and your conscience/wallet.
The worst thing about Dead Space 3 is that, while it shares a story and an aesthetic with its predecessors, it doesn’t really feel like a Dead Space game. Get beyond that, however, and it’s a slick, good-looking and very entertaining sci-fi action game, with some interesting mechanics and fantastic co-op play. It would be a shame if Visceral abandoned survival horror at this juncture, and Dead Space 2 is easily the best of the three games, but if you can stand the shift to big guns and fast-paced violence, Dead Space 3 still delivers a good and lengthy game.