The first two Dead Space games left an impact that still resonates throughout the opening events of Dead Space 3. Within minutes, players brave the frigid conditions of an icy moon, battle a new Necromorph breed, and rappel down a frozen cliffside while flaming debris rushes by. This explosive tutorial and the quick transitions from moments of calm to life-threatening dangers mislead fans, however, setting an uneven pace that Isaac only breaks after landing on Tau Volantis. The five hours prior cripple the storytelling, which never truly recovers. Although none of these detractors offset Dead Space 3 as an excellent cooperative or solitary action experience, series veterans anticipating more than just monster closets from Isaac’s plight should temper their expectations.
The ordeal begins anew when protagonists Robert Norton and John Carver recruit Isaac to rescue ex-girlfriend Ellie, whose communications went dark during an investigation into the Marker home world. Meanwhile, destroying two alien obelisks has earned the engineer a reputation among the zealous Unitologists. More so than the collective Necromorphs, these brainwashed revolutionaries want him dead. Their current figurehead supervises the manhunt as Dead Space 3’s primary villain, but like Tiedemann before him, Jacob Danik does not get the character development he deserves. He delivers his few lines of dialogue with clear acumen, yet Visceral Games attributes Danik's motives to a cliché religious radical too blinded by his quest to “make us whole” to see the apocalyptic warning signs. The developers even cut Danik out for half of the 15-hour campaign to seemingly preserve his 10 minutes of screen time.
Unitologists always were more showy when it came to mass ritualistic slaughter.
No doubt Danik and his empty antagonistic threats join Dead Space 3's list of disappointments, then, along with a narrative stretched for coherent ideas. Of course, crafting a rational tale about alien technology that reanimates the dead and repurposes the living may not have been in the cards. Does that mean Dead Space 3 needed to lift entire "those who came before" and "intergalactic weapon of mass organic eradication" plot reveals from Halo nd Mass Effect. Players should iron out the details for themselves, though Dead Space 3 definitely mirrors some parallels between the Forerunners and Flood.
Isaac’s mission to rescue Ellie may just be the dullest journey in the Dead Space trilogy, too. Remember Dead Space 2’s robust setting variety? The disheveled psychiatric ward, Unitologist church, infected preschool, and underground mine distinguished the Sprawl from the Ishimura’s grisly interior without losing any of the original game’s suspense. In Dead Space 3, the pacing crawls to a standstill while players backtrack through identical frigate corridors in similar states of disrepair, and the déjà vu only dissipates once the environments open to the vast emptiness of space. As the lonely confines of the stars rob Isaac of oxygen, a graveyard of derelict ships sits serenely against the Tau Volantis backdrop, rousing the sense that you could visit any point on the nebula’s horizon.
It's hard not to be impressed by how good the game looks.
The pace eventually picks up after Isaac and company reunite and depart Tau Volantis’ orbit during the trilogy's most harrowing set piece. On the surface below, Visceral offers more original environments that culminate in scenic dioramas, no matter what console version you choose. The modicum of indoor locations also kindle comparisons to John Carpenter’s The Thing, though backtracking still proves to be a downfall of the frozen wastes. Every facility looks exactly alike when coated in blankets of thick snow, severed limbs, and reused art assets. Sure, mountains of text and audio logs expose the horrors buried on Tau Volantis 200 years ago better than the sloppy narrative, but revisiting an area or fighting the same boss for a third time sours the fun.
Speaking of sloppy, Dead Space 3 often entrusts the relationships of the sloven supporting cast to drive the story forward. Isaac would obviously do anything for Ellie – she being the one person in his life worth fighting for – yet his flat personality overrides many interactions with the other survivors, including Ellie’s boyfriend. Carver’s mental trauma, on the other hand, excuses him as the character of note. His past as a deadbeat father and degenerate husband haunts his every step – not unlike Isaac’s visions of Nicole in Dead Space 2 – and I enjoyed seeing Carver grow. The optional co-op missions chisel away at his rough exterior and mess with the second player’s perception, almost demanding another playthrough. Whatever hallucinations affecting the world as seen through Carver’s eyes cannot be witnessed by Isaac. While I would prefer a fix that makes these segments playable alone, gamers without an online pass are not missing groundbreaking origin stories.
What do these plastic soldiers represent? Only the side missions will tell.
Solo players will still get glimpses behind Carver’s mask. Otherwise, the storytelling, set pieces, and puzzles hardly account for the addition of Isaac’s militant teammate: Explosions that previously sent Isaac reeling now envelop Carver, and instead of communicating via their RIGs, the duo converse face to face. What sounds like a detriment is quite the opposite. The developers assure fans that favor a solitary sojourn do not feel cheated of a separate experience. Frankly, the extra fire support just lowers the strain of tougher difficulties.
Cooperation does not diminish the underlying tension. Rather, the indescribably few scares fall on Visceral’s shoulders, and the game’s idea of the alarm clock from Dead Space 2 sent no shivers down my spine. Horror demands a mixture of suspense, hesitance, dread, fear, and helplessness; jump scares are cheap and thoughtless. For one brief moment, your heart rate elevates before settling back into a steady, rhythmic beat. Dead Space 3 finds itself riddled with so many monster closets that the simple act of opening a door or pulling a lever commonly generates a fresh contingent of Necromorphs. Think of the encounters as a game of fatal hide and seek, where creatures award watchful eyes by trying to stab you.
You may want to ask your plastic surgeon for a refund.
The combat seems to be malefactor as well … initially. Most Necromorphs move with the speed of an Olympic sprinter, and the Plasma Cutter’s slow rate of fire and meager stopping power prove awfully insufficient against enemies that can mutate their upper or lower torsos. This pushed me to dabble in the labyrinthine weapon crafting, the most meritable addition to Dead Space 3. Players build their dismemberment tools through blueprints or general experimentation, starting with a one-handed or two-handed frame, then selecting the right tool (a plasma core produces the Plasma Cutter, for example), upgrade circuits, and attachments.
Want to attach a Ripper that shoots electrified saw blades to a cryogenic flamethrower? Have at it. Need a close-range counter to balance out the Seeker Rifle’s sniper capabilities? Fasten a Force Gun to its underside. Maybe you desire a more impractical weapon, one based on entertainment instead of efficiency. Tape a fully automatic javelin thrower and Tesla coil together, and watch the humor unfold. Visceral's system does limit Isaac to four weapons (two frames with two tools each), but the freedom lets fans craft dozens of combinations they can truly call their own. No game has ever left me debating the benefits of increased damage or a larger clip size, acidic or flame rounds, or instant ammo pick-ups over an amplified stasis radius, for hours.
Necromorphs and Unitologists have no qualms with dismembering each other.
In addition to collecting parts strewn about the environment, players can assemble the necessary components from mineral resources, which replace nodes and credits. Corpses contain enough tungsten, semiconductors, and scrap metal to upgrade Isaac’s RIG and create health packs, stasis modules, or ammo stacks, but scavenger bots do most of the heavy lifting. Similar to Mass Effect 2’s mineral scanning, these droids pinpoint high resource locations, giving completionists reason to explore every the fork in the path.
As a completionist, however, my favorite feature of any Dead Space title inarguably remains New Game+. One playthrough of Dead Space 3 will get fans their money’s worth, but who could deny the value of carrying Isaac’s loot over from a previous save and unearthing better circuit upgrades? The game also contains three more difficulties that start you from scratch. Classic mode restricts the action to lone wolves and eliminates weapon customization. Pure Survival, in contrast, requires players to craft their health and ammunition (enemies do not drop items), and Hardcore erases the save file the second Isaac dies. Although different in how they operate, each of these difficulties tests your resourcefulness and knowledge of enemy spawns.
While not the swan song many had hoped for, Dead Space 3 presents a conclusion befitting the trilogy's weakest installment. The pacing bounces between insufferable and exciting, the narrative sews together a stream of events from other esteemed franchises, and the characters prove tolerable as long as they keep their mouths shut. Except, these issues disappear when dismembering waves of Necromorphs with a friend, or whittling away the hours at a workbench, designing the weapon tailor-suited to your play style. Considering the number of New Game+ options, I will continue to revisit Tau Volantis in the coming months, too. Let the record show I like Dead Space 3, but I do not love it.
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Number of Players: 1-2 (Campaign)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC