Over the years, the survival-horror genre has slowly crept away from the survivalist gameplay its been known for in exchange for action driven sequences complimented by huge-set pieces. When the Dead Space series debuted in 2008, it built a reputation based upon tense moments as you cautiously wandered through dimly-lit corridors afraid of what could be lurking inside an air-vent. With the newest iteration of the lauded series comes plenty of changes to the tried and true formula, turning this entry into an all-out action game against grotesque abominations.
The first noticeable difference is that Dead Space 3 follows a mission to save mankind, rather than that of one man’s survival. Picking up two years after the events of the second game, we find our engineer protagonist Isaac Clarke recovering in his Lunar Colony apartment from his bout with dementia and eerie hallucinations caused by his previous endeavor. His “staying off the radar” approach quickly ends when he is drafted by EarthGov Captain Robert Norton and Sergeant John Carver to help them locate the source of the Necromorph creating artifacts, known as Markers, and search for Ellie (Issac’s ex-girlfriend). This won’t be an easy task as Isaac must also avoid Jacob Danik, the charismatic leader of the Unitologists, whom has formed a terrorist group intent on overthrowing the government and activating Markers across the universe.
In the beginning, Dead Space 3 feels like a natural extension of the series. You’ll explore environments like the hollowed hallways of deserted spaceships while solving lucid but enjoyable puzzles using a combination of Stasis and Kinesis. About midway through, you’ll find yourself on the the icy planet of Tau Volantis, the supposed origin of the Markers. The setting is refreshingly at first as you attempt maintain your body’s temperature while dissecting your enemies, but after a few hours of exploring identical looking ice caves and deserted storage facilities you may wish for a change in scenery. However, the secrets uncovered on Tau Volantis will answer a slew of questions about the role of the Markers and Necromorphs. You’ll be pleased with the amount of closure Dead Space 3 provides to the trilogy.
As in previous titles, the combat is a methodical take on the third-person shooter that encourages aiming at the limbs of Necromorphs to quickly dispose of them. This time Isaac has learned an inherent new dodge roll, which makes avoiding the larger enemies attacks more manageable. His enhanced mobility is extremely helpful during gigantic, tense boss battles that forces you to think strategically about your placement on screen. The oft-lamented cover-based shooting portions as Isaac fights off the brain-dead AI Unitologists members feels unpolished. This new opposition helps move the plot along, but they don’t do much aside from shoot from behind cover and swear at Issac. On the other hand, the Necromorph present a better challenge and their AI has been significantly increased. They will swarm, flank, and it’s not uncommon for several different types to attack at once, each requiring different tactics and an acute situational awareness to eliminate. Surprisingly, these encounters with the Necromorphs are greatly increased compared to the last entries, especially near the end where the difficulty increases sharply.
A robust weapon crafting system is a welcomed addition, and adds to the ominous atmosphere and the survivalist gameplay. Instead of purchasing weapons with currency spewed throughout the level, you must instead scavenge resources and forge your own hybrids at crafting benches. Ammo is universal and each weapon is capable of accommodating an Upper and Lower Tool, which means any given gun can have two mix-and-match firing types tailored to your own play style. From shotgun blasts that also shoot saw blades to high-powered spike cannons mounted atop a Stasis-infused rocket launcher, the bizarre combinations are only limited by your imagination. While you’re able to painstakingly gather resources for weapon crafting, you can also send out a Scavenger Bot to do all the hunting and gathering. Crafting the right weapon based on your game-style is important since Issac is only able to carry two weapons at a time. But devising your arsenal adds a deeply satisfying amount of depth and strategy to the game’s core combat.
Having the ability to equip such diverse weapons comes in handy since Dead Space 3 offers a lot of optional content in the form of branching side quests and areas to explore. These missions are a welcome addition to a series, and genre, that is often quite linear. While the main story, for the most part, trades horror for action, the optional missions often incorporate dark and creepy themes along with their own accompanying story. You’ll want to do these missions partly to nab more loot, but also to get more backstory via text and video logs. Unfortunately the novelty of these missions deteriorates into cookie-cutter fetch quests.
While I agree that the depreciating of survival horror is a worrying trend in the gaming industry, the inclusion of online co-op has been unjustly criticized. In Dead Space 3, a second player steps into the shoes of Sergeant John Carver — a fairly interesting character, whose optional missions, extra segments, dialogue and additional cut-scenes slightly enhance the story. Dismembering relentless waves of Necromorphs with a buddy rarely gets old and selecting the right weapon that compliments each other makes the playthrough a lot more enjoyable. Sure, having your some backup makes the scares a bit less frightening, but the non-stop action becomes significantly more enjoyable when you’ve got someone along for the ride.
With Dead Space 3, Visceral moves even further away from what made the original a cult classic. It hits a few sour notes with its uneven pacing and a lack of frightful moments we’ve come to expect, but it is a worthwhile sequel — just not the best entry in the series.
Editor’s Note: Dead Space 3 was reviewed using a Xbox 360 copy of the game. The 360 version integrates voice recognition using the Kinect, but its inclusion does not provide this version with an edge. If further investigation reveals any further differences the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 version, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.