I entered into Dead Space 3 as a definite fan of the series, and therefore respectful of the endeavours of developer Visceral Games. Could they live up the standard they set have set?
Dead Space 1 set the tone by obviously introducing us to then silent protagonist Isaac Clarke, the Necromorph threat and its mysterious origins. With its claustrophobic environments and Isaac confined to his equally claustrophobic but entirely necessary RIG suit, the fantastic seamless UI integration into the game world, terrifying monsters, fantastic horrifying sound design, limb-blasting combat, and survivalist inventory management, Dead Space 1 easily became one of my favourite action-survival-horror games.
Dead Space 2 upped the ante, as well as giving Isaac a voice, and the gameplay evolution was clear. It retained its horrifying spirit but Isaac was more agile in combat (despite his mental demons) and the pacing was more frantic. It had just enough action, survivalist horror, and driving storyline to crown it a worthy successor to the original.
Which brings us to Dead Space 3. Core changes to this iteration include an integrated cooperative mode, a single ammo type, a weapon crafting system (with associated resource harvesting and real-money micro-transactions), larger open environments, and undeniably more action-packed gameplay.
In Dead Space 3, players will join up with Isaac as he tries to hide from the demons of his past just in time to see them catch up. Isaac (and love interest Ellie from Dead Space 2) will flee from the New Horizons colony on Earth’s Moon to the icy planet Tau Volantis, which they suspect is the source of the Necromorph infestation. Hot on their heels is a fanatical group of Unitologists (Necromorph and Marker worshippers) who intend to fully unleash the infestation on the galaxy.
Among the contingent accompanying Isaac on the quest to uncover the true nature of the Markers is John Carver, a sergeant from Earth Defense Force. Carver is the second playable character in Dead Space 3 and he has his own personal demons that will be explored while playing cooperatively.
Of the three games in the series, I found the plot of Dead Space 3 to be the weakest, and Isaac to be less engaging than he was in Dead Space 2. In fact Carver’s personal sub-plot is more interesting to uncover. Isaac is simply stuck in a love triangle with Ellie and Captain Robert Norton which comes to a predictable conclusion. To a degree it serves to humanise Isaac and give him an extra layer of motivation for stopping the Necromorph threat, but to me it felt weakly delivered.
On top of this is the ‘imminent destruction of the galaxy’ story arc, which is bland in its inevitability. Raising the stakes and removing the mystery has undermined the horror game pedigree established by the first two games. Before you really get into the game you know how it’s going to end – all that’s left is to fill in the details.
Despite the shortcomings of the story telling, I was happy to let it take a secondary role to driving forward gameplay.
It is pertinent at this point to establish that Dead Space 3 isn’t really the same game as Dead Space 1 that many fans fell in love with. With its refreshed gameplay, Dead Space 3 is a fast-paced action shooter, with the only stressful horror elements being a superficial veneer. Combine this with abundant ammo of a single type and more health packs than you can shake a severed limb at, you’ll rarely be struggling on your first play-through. It should be noted that having completed the game once unlocks some great alternate gameplay types for hardcore fans who want to relive the Dead Space 1 vibe, making ammo and resources more limited or removing ammo drops from corpses completely, forcing players to rely on resource harvesting skills.
Despite this evolution, the gameplay was certainly fun when assessed on its own merits. All the mechanics from the previous two games make their way back, including kinesis attacks, time slowing, dodge-rolls, and a powerful stomping boot. I found myself rarely using the kinesis attack to fling pointy objects at enemies as it was simply too slow; when you are being charged down by innumerable Necromorphs, expediency is a necessity and your plasma rifle is loaded to the hilt.
A few irritating mini-games return from Dead Space titles, along with new ones, and these are essentially fancy ways of unlocking doors and supply crates. Some have been designed for co-op players to each have a role in unlocking, but the challenge is so trite that it may as well not be included. Ironically, these prove more challenging when performing by oneself. Perhaps that was the point, and if so, I could have done without it as it simply halts gameplay. There are only a few occasions when the game challenges one co-op player to defend the other while unlocking something, and these were great moments. For all the rest, it was a silly diversion.
The controls were fluid and accurate, implemented well on PC, with aiming motions conveying a satisfactory sense of weight from the game world. However, there were occasions when the player model collided with infuriatingly tiny environment objects, turning a dodge roll into a stationary somersault. This happened in enough situations that it became a nuisance and often resulted in death by Necromorph mauling.
Combat is often fast-paced and frantic, with the player being overrun by sheer numbers and a few well-conceived surprise spawn points. Unfortunately, enemy level entry points largely took the form of all too obvious ventilation grates, making even my first play-through somewhat predictable in terms of the enemy surprises. The enemy AI is nothing to remark on, with Necromorphs simply charging down the player – but I suppose that makes sense given the nature of the monster.
The various Necromorph monsters were suitably grotesque and horrifying, with a classic cast of enemies bolstered by some newcomers. However, I couldn’t help feel they had lost some of their shocking character in Dead Space 3, and combined with the fast pace in which they attack and are killed, you rarely have time to soak up their horrifying presence.
On that point I can discuss the weapons, as they have also fundamentally changed the interaction between player and Necromorph. Where in Dead Space 1 you had to make every shot count precisely because ammo was scarce, and dismember your Necromorph assailant in the best way to buy yourself maximum survival time in the cramped corridors, in Dead Space 3 you find yourself blasting away with fully automatic weapons and diving and dodging if things get too close for comfort.
The weapon crafting and upgrade system is an interesting element of the game, and there truly are numerous combinations to try out, each proving effective in their own regard. To create weapons players will have to scavenge resources, doing so themselves through exploration and by setting down scavenger bots in ideal locations. Blueprints can be discovered throughout the game in order to remove some of the tedium of crafting your own designs. For the most part this system is interesting, but one might find themselves settling for a few core effective weapons and focussing on upgrades.
Now comes mention of the maligned micro-transaction system. It allows players to buy bundles of advanced weapons parts, and more, faster scavenger bots. Having looked at it closely, I personally could not see any real value in the purchases, and not merely because you will be doing yourself a gameplay disservice by reducing the challenge. The items on offer simply do not seem worth it and anyone who buys them is pretty much wasting their money as resources are so abundant during the first play-through and can be carried over into the next.
I’m labelling it as snake oil for the unwary consumer and a particular low-point for EA by shoe-horning it into a game that does not need it.
Aside from the resources micro-transactions, there are some unique weapons and suits included in other DLC packs, which are arguably more enticing because it does offer something unique to enjoy with your game.
The visuals are great for the most part, providing a mix of spectacular vistas, horrifying scenes, and fascinating alien landscape. Playing the game through on PC I was rarely left wanting for eye candy, although there were occasionally drab corridors to plod through. The PC version also featured a satisfactory amount of graphics tweaking settings, and so happy to that I am satisfied to
Sound design was also good, with atmospheric discord, spine tingling wails and screams from unknown sources, and brutal combat sounds and Necromorph roars combining to create a wonderful cacophony of visceral aural destruction. However, there was one incredibly irritating and recurrent sound glitch associated with opening and closing doors – something which happens a lot in Dead Space 3.
In terms of level design, things are mostly solid with an interesting flow from different environments. A brief dash through the underside of New Horizons leads to an expansive and spectacular exploration of zero G space around a destroyed flotilla which provides plenty of familiar cramped space ship corridors to fight through; down to the unforgiving surface of ice world Tau Volantis, into the Necromorph-infested bowels of its research and mining facilities, and finally the chance to explore an ancient alien ruin buried deep in the planet.
An interesting element of the co-op design is that the second player in the role of Carver will get his own sub-plot, taking the role of lead protagonist while Isaac plays the side-kick. Carver will see his own maddening, debilitating visions, and experience terrifying alterations of reality while Isaac sees an otherwise “normal” environment and has to defend Carver from attacks while his sanity goes for a loop.
One complaint is the co-op mission design, which while providing an interesting back-story for Carver, takes place in some very generic and recycled research base buildings. Without giving away too much of the story, it seems like this can be explained away by imposing your own understanding of the events on gameplay, but the fact remains – you will be plodding through a number of the same corridors with your co-op partner through about 4 hours of side mission gameplay.
Overall, the co-op gameplay was a fun addition and I enjoyed playing through it with a friend from the MyGaming forum. While it does add a layer of difficulty to certain combat situations, the challenge was welcome. However, the addition of a second player further undermines the core nature of a horror game, which is to be alone and dis-empowered.
Thankfully, if one decides to go it alone, Carver doesn’t bungle along with the player causing more AI trouble than he’s worth – he confines himself to radio communications and cutscenes and the single player gameplay is just as solid.
Visceral Games must be commended on their ability to keep the game flowing by using a clever yet obvious loading technique of two stage doors and elevators. While travelling in a lift, you typically are treated to a bit of story telling while the next section of the game is loading up.
Overall, with plenty of time spent soaking up and exploring the environments with my co-op buddy, and replaying some areas due to violent deaths, I managed to notch up close to 30 hours of gameplay. Other reports from the Internet suggest up to 20 hours, but I think those players must have barrelled through the campaign without much pause.
Overall, Dead Space 3 provided me with a fun and engaging game that kept me coming back for more whenever I had some free time. The gameplay has diverged from its progenitor somewhat, but it still retains enough for fans who are willing to evolve with it. Get a buddy in on the act, slaughter some Necromorphs, don’t make any pointless micro-transactions, and maybe tie up the loose ends of the Dead Space series…