Review: Dead Space 3 / Developer: Visceral Games / Publisher: EA / Platforms: PC, PS3, 360 / Release Date: Out Now
The thinly veiled attack on Scientology that is the Dead Space series returns to put mining ship engineer, Isaac Clarke, through the necromorph mill for a third time. Clarke, the once unwitting, terrified everyman of the series is now the unwitting, severely pissed off everyman with pretty much nothing to lose. He’s hardly a gun-toting, musclebound, near indestructible grunt, the likes of which occupy many a triple A franchise these days, but Clarke’s attitude is reflected in the tone the series has now taken. The results are mixed and long time fans may baulk at the action heavy gameplay, but Dead Space 3 still has a few surprises tucked up the sleeve of its E.V.A. suit.
It’s an almost pointless endeavour at this stage to attempt to get you, the reader, up to speed with the convoluted goings on within the Dead Space universe. It would require a full page in itself. The CliffsNotes version, however, is as follows; It’s the 25th century and Earth’s resources are all but depleted. The last hope for mankind lies in the planet-cracking, resource mining ship USG Ishimura. But during one mission the Ishimura hits a snag and sends out a distress signal. Isaac Clarke is sent out to see what the problem is. Cue abandoned mining ship, alien artifacts, mysterious ‘Markers’, necromorphs, the aforementioned L. Ron Hubbard dig with the ‘Church of Unitology’ and all manner of power tools, limb severing and old school, monster-closet scares.
The ongoing story itself is a mess. It’s needlessly complicated and only serves to illustrate how much the developers have had to pad it out for the sequels, since the first game became a sleeper hit. However, the story really isn’t what’s important here. What’s important in Dead Space is atmosphere and that is what the series has delivered in spades with each title.
Dead Space 3 ups the ante by bringing the majority of its campaign down to the beautiful, desolate, frozen planet of Tau Volantis. The first three hours or so take in the lunar colony where Clarke is taking solace, through to the spaceship graveyard flotilla above the planet. Fans of the previous two games will feel most at home here. Moving through each harrowing, eerily abandoned ship and Zero-G’ing between each section as you orbit the planet recalls some of the best moments from the previous two entries. The pace, breathtaking visuals and almost ‘open world’ structure of these first few chapters make crashing down onto the icy wastes feel a little restricting. Tau Volantis certainly has its moments, and taking down all manner of alien and human necromorphs is as satisfying as ever. It’s just that, every so often, you’ll look to the stars and begin to respect what made Dead Space the franchise you fell in love with in the first place.
Dead Space 3 has not had an easy ride up to its release. Fans had already written it off when it was revealed that the campaign would feature co-op. Understandable really, since the sense of isolation is the signature of Dead Space and any attempt to shoehorn in a second character to ‘share the terror’ would surely dilute the experience. Then there’s the focus on action. Sure, Dead Space 2 had its fair share of setpieces, but these were merely garnish to the regular dish of dread and foreboding. But Dead Space 3 has these sequences by the bucketload, on top of (gasp) human enemies in the form of Unitology soldiers, a first for the franchise.
Let’s address the co-op feature first. It’s not an issue. Visceral Games had the foresight to sidestep any fan backlash by making it completely optional. There isn’t even an AI partner if you choose to take on the campaign solo (which is, of course, highly recommended for your first playthrough). Whilst the second character, Earth-Gov soldier Carver (Earth-Gov being the planet’s governing body), remains in the story and cutscenes, the solo experience has him move off in a different direction once gameplay resumes. There is the occasional jarring moment of having him appear over your shoulder in certain cinematic sequences, but the overall solo experience isn’t affected and Visceral must be commended for not taking the lazy route. And when you do decide to tackle co-op you’ll find it a pleasant surprise. It works. It’s not unlike having two full campaigns for the price of one.
The sections in which you fight the Unitology soldiers are, to put it bluntly, awful. It’s actually a testament to how brilliant the core gameplay mechanic of ‘strategic dismemberment’ still is. It simply does not work with cover-taking, weapon-toting human AI. Thankfully, these sequences are few and brief and the vast majority of the campaign still revolves around dispatching all manner of disgusting, mutated necromorphs. Exactly how it should be.
The general consensus that Dead Space 3 had become a (*yawn*) Gears Of War clone is unfounded. The addition of Isaac being able to take cover boils down to having him crouch beside chest high walls. It’s hardly game changing and you’ll most likely never use it more than two, possibly three times throughout the entire campaign. As for his newfound acrobatics with rolling? It’s highly probable you won’t even realise he has this ability since the need to use it never arises. Ever.
What does work is, undoubtedly, Visceral’s sweetest addition to the franchise, weapon crafting. Doing away with the nodes and stores of the first two games, Dead Space 3’s upgrade system is based entirely on gathering resources. Searching out parts, materials and blueprints will, upon finding a Bench, enable you to craft any weapon of your choosing to suit your playstyle. Although confusing at first glance, the weapon crafting system will become your new best friend a few short hours into the campaign. Every weapon from the first two games, plus a few new additions, has been broken down into their component parts. This allows you to cobble together any weapon you desire. A Line Gun with a flame thrower attachment? This game has you covered. How about a trip-mine launcher coupled with a rip-blade? Oh yes. Throw in various add-ons such as coating projectiles in fire, acid or even stasis and you have a feature that never gets old, even after multiple playthroughs.
The optional side-missions scattered throughout the 19 chapters (three of which are co-op specific) are another pleasant surprise and offer up some of the creepiest moments in the game as well as expanding on what has, until now, been a generally linear franchise.
There’s much to love in Dead Space 3. It retains what has been so special about the series with regards to atmosphere, combat and the best HUD in gaming, whilst offering up something fresh with the crafting system and moving the story to terra firma. While not everything that happens on Tau Volantis is something to write home about and the story and mission design falls flat during a few of these chapters, it’s refreshing to see the developer tread new ground and not have a repeat experience on another abandoned spacecraft for the duration of the campaign. You also have New Game + and other, harsher modes that become available upon completion. The best of these is Pure Survival in which you have to craft everything, including med packs and weapon parts. A true test of resource management.
Is Dead Space 3 as disturbing as previous entries? No. But it’s still a tense affair, especially on harder difficulties. The story may simply be a means to an end at this stage, but the gameplay has always outshone the narrative and it will be impossible to deny you had fun seeing Isaac Clarke reach the end of this particular trilogy. And hey, if you don’t like it, well... there’s always Peng!