The months leading to Dead Space 3's launch have been trying for fans of the series. From early rumors that it would be a first-person shooter to the eventual reveal of online co-op, Kinect support, cover-based shooting segments, and highly controversial microtransactions, Dead Space 3's run of worrying news has been enough to test the loyalties and patience of any follower.
Visceral Games, either by its own choice or through the mandate of Electronic Arts, has made many alterations to this third major installment in the series, and not one of them has been made without protest from would-be customers.
The bad news is Visceral's new "improvements" do nothing but get in the way of everything fans loved about the series. The good news is that, despite such intrusions, Dead Space 3 still retains the flavor and quality we've come to expect. If anything, this game proves just how fine the core experience is, and that it can survive things capable of murdering a lesser series.
Dead Space 3 (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
One major challenge in any Dead Space story must surely be contriving a reason as to why anybody, sane or not, would want to face the torment of the Necromorphs multiple times. As much as the infamous Marker may have scrambled the man's brain, our long-suffering protagonist Isaac Clarke surely isn't stupid enough to let himself get tossed about by mutated corpses in a third traumatizing romp. Oh wait ... he is!
This time around, it's left to a military group to track a now-reclusive and paranoid Clarke down, pressing him into service on the basis that his partner and, love interest of Dead Space 2, Ellie Langford has gone missing near the mysterious ice planet of Tau Volantis. That, coupled with an armed and dangerous Unitologist army led by the murderous Danik White, is enough to get our lovable madman strapping on a Rig and returning to the thick of things.
Outside of a rather fantastic prologue, players won't actually see Tau Volantis for a few hours. The opening chapters instead involve some derelict space vessels orbiting the planet. These chapters, heavy on space travel and the rusty corridors of abandoned ships, evoke a feeling of familiarity, designed to be eerily similar to the original Dead Space. For a good while, you'll feel like you're back on the Ishimura, the site of Isaac's first gory ordeal.
Visceral's commitment to consistency of atmosphere has changed little. Isaac's HUD and menu system remain seamlessly integrated into his body suit, loading screens are hidden by the elevators and sluggish doors to keep players absorbed in Isaac's world, and the eerie tension preceding violent encounters are maintained as effectively as ever.
The Necromorphs are deadlier than they've been in the past, now capable of faster movement and more intelligent behavior. Their tendency to rush forward at frightening speeds and back away from attacks, sometimes even retreating when injured and reappearing once reinforcements arrive, make for some formidable opposition, able to test the resolve of any Dead Space veteran. While some fans may find the faster pace less enjoyable than the slower, more methodical dismemberment of prior games, I personally found these battles ramped up the fear factor to enjoyable degrees. Necromorphs still need to have their arms, legs, and heads shredded forcefully from their torsos, but now they're far less willing to let you, and far more eager to overwhelm your position through speed and numbers. This is a good thing, as it balances out the new weapon crafting system -- something that could have made Isaac far too powerful, far too quickly.
The weapons and upgrades of prior games have been totally thrown out of the window, replaced instead by a system reliant wholly on a new form of in-game currency. Separated into various resources, this currency is used to build new guns, improve Isaac's rig, make consumable items, and create torque bars to pry open reward-filled storage rooms. Everything is done with these resources, collected intermittently by Isaac's new scavenger bots in the game or purchased by using real money.
Weapons are built by putting various components together. Staring with a compact or heavy frame that determines whether it'll be a one or two-handed weapon, players attach a core to get a basic weapon and then add a weapon tip to the core to create a variant. Placing a plasma core on a compact frame makes a regular plasma cutter, but if you then add a repeater tip, you'll get a rapid-fire plasma cutter. A telemetry spike core on a heavy frame gives a fairly trusty rivet gun, but if you then attach a condenser, you'll get a chaingun. Each gun holds two cores, effectively giving players four weapons in two inventory slots, all of which can be further refined through stat upgrades, elemental properties, and support abilities.
What we have is a shockingly robust system that rewards experimentation and can lead to some very satisfying, unique, and fun weapons. With time and a willingness to keep messing around at the crafting bench, I eventually created a high-impact chaingun that inflicted stasis on anything it shot, coupled with a modified force gun that shot its ammo into the ground to send surrounding opponents flying back in a shockwave. Thus armed with rapid-fire ranged power and an area-of-effect blast for close encounters, I felt nothing but pride and love for my new son.
For those worried about the reliance on microtransactions, I can happily say they're not at all necessary to enjoy the game. With time, patience, and judicious use of the bots, players will find themselves enough materials to craft a weapon that works for them. One major positive aspect is the ability to disassemble and re-use weapon parts, meaning you never have to worry about consuming items in the crafting of a gun. It would have been easy for Visceral to inflict a penalty on players every time they built something, but instead you'll only lose resources by making objects from scratch, not from building guns out of components you already own. Once an object is built, it can be added and removed from as many creations as needed.
It also helps that the crafting system has backfired a little bit -- savvy gamers will soon spot that some of the most exquisite weapons, while tempting in their visual splendor and awesome firepower, aren't that practical. While it's indeed enticing to spend cash to craft an electric bolas gun with attached rocket launcher, its reckless performance in battle often means the humbler, easier built guns are far more effective. Resource packs can also be bought using Ration Seals, items brought back by bots that, when saved up -- and it does take a long while -- bypass the need to reach for a credit card.
Defense aside, it needs to be said that Dead Space 3 does all it can to still make microtransactions seductive, and they threaten to obnoxiously creep into the experience. Being given a constant DLC option every time you open a crafting bench, and being reminded to do so whenever you try to build something you can't afford, undermines the previously flawless atmosphere of the series, letting real life bleed into a game that's always been about building as believable a world as possible. The time-based nature of the scavenge bots and the pre-built blueprints for impressive looking guns (just buy resources and they're yours, kids!) serve as a constant, pressuring reminder that you can access cool gear immediately so long as you spend money. Such is the psychological pummeling fee-to-pay models are designed to inflict on players.
The microtransactions are optional, and the game is far from a "pay-to-win" experience where you remain invincible provided you keep pumping in cash, but it doesn't alter the fact that any game trying to support itself with an economy does so by tugging on the player's sleeves regardless of whether or not they wish to support it. Dead Space 3 is more subtle than some, but it still tries its hardest to test the player's patience, and in a game that already cost $59.99 at retail, it's a tacky little scheme.
Assuming Visceral was made to include the system, I admit it did an admirable job of compromising, providing something that truly is optional despite the illusion of its importance to the game. It's true that it will take most of the game to get anywhere near enough resources to buy Dead Space 3's pre-made unique weapons, but when you're capable of crafting comparably efficient items far more swiftly, it's acceptable. Moderately offensive ... but just about acceptable.
It's a shame I needed to dedicate that much time to talking about a ridiculous little get-rich-quick scheme, and it's sad that the weapon crafting system feels like it was made solely to support such chicanery, because it genuinely is a great idea that has been implemented nicely. The sense of power that came from upgrading weapons in Dead Space and Dead Space 2 has been amplified tremendously, and hunting for new upgrade circuits, weapon pieces, and resources in-game is a compelling new aspect of the adventure. The ever-present "New Game Plus" mode is now far more rewarding, and it really feels worth it to battle through multiple times. As tainted as it may be by Visceral's "appeal to mobile gamers," the system is largely a great success.
Dead Space 3 boasts both a solo and cooperative mode, though the fundamental experience for both is largely the same. Either campaign tells roughly the same story, with co-op throwing in some extra side quests and bits of fluffy banter between Isaac and the uninteresting schlub he's paired with (John Carver, though he's so humdrum I rarely remember his name). Cooperative play is not mandatory, and that's a good thing, because the solo experience is infinitely superior. Isaac's story is best told alone, and the game's wonderful sense of isolation is intruded upon when a secondary player is introduced. There's plenty of playtime for solo players too, with the campaign lasting around thirteen hours on a first run -- longer than previous games.
Co-op, on the other hand, has been clumsily shoehorned into the existing solo campaign and feels utterly forced. Not only do "cutscenes" still play out largely as if Carver isn't there -- or was already in the room he just walked into -- the need to reload the game whenever a second player drops in or out makes for a jarring, disjointed affair that once again slices mercilessly into the atmosphere. The second character is so boring he adds nothing to the story, and on the Xbox 360, the issue of a campaign split between two discs leads to a lot of messing about, as players join games only to find they're in the wrong half.
This is not to say cooperative play is totally lacking in merit. The optional co-op missions are pretty decent and exploit the Marker's penchant for hallucinations by making one player see things the other can't. These areas go some way toward enhancing a horror experience largely reduced by the inclusion of a second player, and add some fun extra stories. Furthermore, it can be a simplistic laugh to stomp Necromorphs with a friend and show off your weapons, but it's a laugh best had in the New Game Plus mode, after you've already experienced the story the way it was clearly designed to be. It's best to treat co-op as the disposable extra it is, as it's a remarkably poor replacement for the solo adventure.
That solo adventure more than makes up for any multiplayer failings. Robust, lengthy, and boasting some of the biggest scares of the series, Dead Space 3 manages to remain riveting stuff. The optional missions are by far the highlight, with Isaac able to undertake side quests at various points in the game. These missions, as well as rewarding completion with all sorts of weapon parts, often boast self-contained stories and have some of the most intense and spooky segments of the entire game. It's actually a shame that some of them can be easily missed, because they're totally worth doing.
I'm also impressed at how much of a horrific environment Tau Volantis can be. Despite many of the outdoor sections taking place in broad daylight, the Necromorph threat is no less oppressive. Enemies now tear their way out of the obscuring fog, or tunnel up through the snow itself, turning the planet into a giant ball of paranoia. Those staunchly unimpressed by such things, however, will be pleased to know Volantis is still packed with interior sections promising more traditional horror fare.
It's not all peaches and cream in the world of Dead Space, however. One thing I'm disappointed with this time around is the weakness of Visceral's usually strong narrative. With the Marker's hallucinogenic influences only afflicting Sergeant Boring, the whole idea of Isaac going insane has been abandoned in the main plot. The wonderful Event Horizon flavor of past games has gone, leading to a more standard science fiction yarn lacking in the truly psychological horror we've enjoyed before. Some of the plot threads are nonsensical, especially toward the end, while an unnecessary love triangle introduced in the first half of the game feels inappropriate and convoluted.
The sudden shift of the Unitologists from creepy cult to full-on terrorist psycho army is a bit of a waste, too, after building them up as such an insidious threat only to blow the beans in one gauche move. While not dreadful by any means, Dead Space 3's narrative contribution to the series is relatively mundane, providing a shallow conclusion with a dismayingly obvious ending.
While, for the most part, Dead Space 3 is still a game about cutting up undead space horrors, the sloppy introduction of cover-based shooting sections nevertheless provide a semi-regular irritant. At various points, Isaac will come under attack by Unitologists, armed as they are with automatic weapons and grenades. At these points, players are invited to crouch and get behind cover, popping off enemies like they're in a bargain basement Gears of War.
These sections play that way, too. Isaac doesn't stick to cover so much as duck halfway behind it, never actually covered by the conveniently placed boxes. The game's generally heavy physics and slow movement are nowhere near built well enough to support these sudden, jarring shifts into Gears-lite either -- speaking of which, who thought the idea of introducing dodge rolls via a double-tap of the sprint button was a good idea? It's terrible (the other control schemes are no replacement), and given how utterly useless the roll actually is, it's a total waste of time and player patience, making Isaac put on an impromptu tumbling act at the slightest twitch of a sprinting finger.
Fortunately, again, Visceral did a solid job compromising. While the game's first main chapter may trick you into thinking the whole game's a cover shooter, the Unitologist battles throughout the rest of the campaign are -- thank Altman -- few and far between. They're an abrupt shattering of the experience when they do occur, but they're often over quickly and usually end with plenty of delightful Necromorph interruptions.
Because using buttons is hard, Isaac's latest adventure boasts Kinect voice support. The game is hardly "better with Kinect," but this feature is at least responsive, should you wish to utilize it. The game has little trouble understanding prompts, and one can locate objectives, open menus, and check the status of bots with simple vocal orders. As seems to be the standard with Kinect, I have issues with it picking up the game's own audio and interpreting it as commands, so don't be surprised if your character will suddenly heal without permission. Frankly, it's quicker and easier to just use the buttons, but if you're easily amused, it can be worth a little spin.
Dead Space 3 has topped itself in the visual department. The bright environments provide some previously unseen beauty to the scenery, serving as striking a break between gloomy, blood-soaked corridors. Things look prettier than ever -- if "pretty" can ever be used to describe Dead Space -- with fantastic lighting and wonderful reflections bouncing off Isaac's metal suit. Necromorph designs this time around are some of the most disgusting, taking several cues from John Carpenter's The Thing to create tentacled blasphemies more threatening and hideously juicier than prior games. There are some great new rig designs for Isaac, too, giving our hero his characteristically distinct look with an intricate attention to detail.
It would be wrong to not highlight the soundtrack, too. Audio has always been important to the series, but this time around there's some beautiful and haunting music that manages to be more memorable compared to the atmospheric-but-forgettable tunes in past games. The monsters, of course, continue to hurl nightmarish screams and howls at the player, while the voice acting is top notch. Special accolades go to primary human antagonist Danik, whose smarmy gloating gives players a genuinely detestable and remarkable nemesis for once. It's just a shame he does little in the story other than provide a vague threat now and then.
Dead Space 3 tries some new things, and those new things are largely a failure. The attempts to appeal to Gears of War fans feel awkward and strained, the cooperative play is poorly implemented and shatters the atmosphere, while the existence of microtransactions leaves a very sour taste in the mouth. It's hard not to see the "enhancements" made to Dead Space 3 and view them as cynical -- confused attempts to make a game with a cult following look attractive to the mass market in the hope of overnight worldwide success. It's sad to think that a cult success can't be considered a success anymore, so desperate these companies are to make everything sell five million copies in a week.
The great irony is that all these new features really serve to do is prove how damn good the series' "old" features actually are. That Dead Space 3 can suffer intrusive new ideas and poorly structured gameplay modes, yet still come out providing players with at least thirteen hours of quality action-horror gameplay with as much atmospheric brilliance and delightfully vicious combat as ever, is an attestation of the sheer brute strength of Dead Space as a property. It is sad that one gets the feeling Electronic Arts has so little faith in the property, because there are few franchises able to weather what Dead Space has been put through and come out on top.
Even with such criticism in mind, Dead Space 3 does manage to pull off a few new tricks that actually work. The open, mist-shrouded arenas of Tau Volantis are a welcome break from the bleak interior environments, while still maintaining a palpable aura of menace. Some of the distinctly more "human" Necromorphs are creepy as hell, especially the skeletal swarming creatures that react to light and start pouring out of every vent at the slightest provocation. Weapon crafting and scavenger bots may have been a contemptuous plan to justify monetary installments, but that doesn't stop it being a genuinely rewarding enterprise.
Dead Space 3 could have been the best entry in the series, and in many ways, it still does provide some of the franchise's most energetic, thrilling, entertaining moments. The changes thrown into the game inevitably damage its charm, though, and make this a step down from its predecessors. A step down from Dead Space's high standards don't necessarily make for a bad game -- far from it, in fact, for this is still a bloody great game and well worth any fans' time. It's sad that market pressure and industry fear tried so hard to ruin things, but one can at least savor the victory of Dead Space 3's creative success in spite of commercial encroachment.
Try as they might, ain't nobody killing Dead Space yet.
Not until we get that online multiplayer first-person shooter, anyway.
THE VERDICT - Dead Space 3
Reviewed by Jim Sterling