Discussion Review: Dead Space 3

Review written by Matt Litten & Aaron R. Conklin

DeadSpace3

Aaron: These last five years have seen an interesting expansion/evolution for EA’s Dead Space series—assuming we’re all okay with using the word “evolution” to describe a set of games where 90 percent of the characters have, um, “evolved” into spiny, tentacled monstrosities looking to snack on your jugular, and the main character has actually gone the opposite direction, devolving from a taciturn engineer bent on unlikely survival into a grade-A psychological hot mess.

But let’s consider it from an environmental standpoint: The first game trapped Isaac Clarke—the modern sci-fi equivalent of the Biblical Job crossed with an armored FedEx delivery boy—in the claustrophobic confines of a ruined spaceship. Several thousand slain necromoprhs and foot-stomped containers later, Dead Space 3 sets him loose on the surface of a frozen planet that rivals Capcom’s Lost Planet series in its whiteout-washed scope. The real estate agents, at least, would call that a win.

But entry trois isn’t just about suddenly sprawling architecture—it expands and evolves the franchise in plenty of other ways as well. For starters, It’s the first game in the series to aim Isaac’s ripper sights at actual humans—or, more accurately, Unitology soliders–even if those sadly deluded humans behave with about as much strategic intelligence as The Onion’s social-media interns. Apparently, the “mindless servitude” listed on the job application is meant to be taken literally.

This switch is one of several reasons that, like last year’s Resident Evil 6, Dead Space has come in for a faceblast of criticism for supposedly ditching its horror roots in favor of a more action-happy approach. We even got an off-the-cuff economics lesson from TheRealCliffyB, who pronounced, as he’s been wont to do with alarming regularity since leaving Epic Games, that no horror game can retail for 60 bucks in this economy. Guess it depends on what you classify as “horror” these days.

And it also depends on what you expect from your modern franchises—are they supposed to, like, say, Bruce Willis and the Die Hard series, somehow stay frozen in amber, offering the same experience again and again until they devolve into a pop-culture punchline or are they supposed to, like the Marvel hero flicks, build and evolve in new directions? I know how I’m answering that question. Diehard fanboy group mileage may vary.

I kinda wish we could have skipped the “on last week’s episode” treatment that begins the game and brings everyone up to speed on the history of the Church of Unitology’s black-marker master plan, but this is what happens when your backstory is more convoluted than three years pass between your sequel installments.
Weapon crafting feels like a great feature that should have been part of the Dead Space universe long before now – Isaac’s supposed to be an A-list engineer, right? Having the ability to customize your weapon so that the secondary grenade you fire explodes in a satisfying burst of tentacle-searing acid on contact isn’t just inspired, but it also adds an interesting and clever strategic twist that goes well above and beyond your typical weapon-wheel spin. All the way up to the end, you’ll be twerking away on the tool benches, looking for the perfect mix of utility and power to get you through the next monster closet. You’re not just killing necromorphs, you’re killing them your way, and that’s empowering stuff.

And of course, the biggest evolution is the ability to play the game in co-op mode, effectively jettisoning that sinking alone-against-the-undead-swarm feeling. Whether you sally forth solo or play the whole story campaign with a friend, you’ll get the, um, pleasure of meeting grizzled U.S. Marine John Carver, saddled with the Tommy Lee Jones role in this bloody space opera. Either option dramatically changes the gameplay experience for the better. I’m especially impressed with the ways Visceral anticipated the potential issues with having a second player involved, like offering ammo and health drops for all so there’s no in-fighting about who’s grabbing the lone ammo pack. We all know that bullets are scarcer in Dead Space than a shred of credibility on the set of Kim and Khloe Take Miami. And there’s just no denying the one-two thrill of having your partner zap a nasty with a well-timed stasis blast so you can wade in and make another plate of necromorph-limb sausage.

The only thing that hasn’t evolved here is character development. After everything we’ve been through together—dude, I’m not sure I’m ever getting the Necromorph slime off my boots—I feel like I ought to care more about poor Isaac and his sad-assed love life. The fact that I don’t doesn’t take anything essential away from the adrenaline thrill of trying to survive being bum-rushed by six feeders at once, but it does add a double-entendre edge to the game’s title. Anything resembling an emotional connection to these characters is still floating among the Ishimura debris. In that sense, never has a game title been more apropos.

Matt: Much like Resident Evil 6, talk of Dead Space 3’s survival-horror demise is grossly exaggerated. Dead Space 3 may not have the lonely atmosphere of the original and it may not mind fuck you with psychological head trips like the second installment, but it does find new ways to keep you on the edge of your seat and looking over your shoulder.

After three games, it’s only natural that the fear of the unknown has dissipated. The necromorphs are a known adversary at this point, so even if Dead Space 3 still took place entirely in pure darkness aboard an overrun space station it wouldn’t be as terrifying as the first game. Instead, Visceral Games has juiced up the necromorphs so that they are faster, nimbler, and more aggressive, attacking relentlessly from all sides to the point where if you ever stop moving, you’re sure to get a suicide Exploder or Slasher arm-scythe up the ass. A mastery of stasis and keen peripheral vision are more vital to success than ever, that’s for damn sure.

Dead Space 3’s first five or so hours have Isaac stalking darkened space station corridors and floating about space in anti-grav mode like days past, but new terrors await our engineering hero once he steps foot on the frosty Marker Home World of Tau Volantis. Rather than complete darkness, extreme whiteout conditions generate a different type of claustrophobia. And I’m not sure about you, Aaron, but I certainly flinched the first few times I was surprised by the subterranean necromorphs that give chase like the Tremors and pop up when least expected. Even battles with the new gun-toting human enemies turn interesting when you’ve got the three-way dynamic of Isaac, soldiers and necromorphs going at each other at the same time.

The game definitely hits rock bottom when you must face soldiers alone – the terrible AI and weak cover mechanic make these moments feel like a cheap Gears of War wannabe. Fortunately, the number of such scenarios can be counted on one hand, so they ultimately leave very little impact on the experience one way or the other.
Storytelling is definitely where the game hits some skids. Without his everyman hero persona and guilt-wracked conscience, Isaac is just another generic video game dude who’s only likeable when he shuts his yap and lets his iconic suit do all the talking. However, the broader historical narrative is intriguing enough to capture your attention and hold it with a firm grip, especially for players who’ve been following the story arc since the beginning and want to see how the Marker conflict comes to a close. Sadly, the closing moments are the game’s weakest in my opinion. The final boss relies on the most basic form of pattern recognition, and is a total cakewalk compared to half a dozen standard issue necromorphs ripping at your head. And of course Visceral couldn’t help itself from capping the game off with a predictable post-credits tease, but from what I understand the Awakened DLC picks up from where the cliffhanger leaves off. Perhaps you can elaborate more on that, Aaron, since you were able to try the DLC.

One area it sounds like we’re at odds on is the co-op. I certainly won’t argue that the co-op campaign is poorly designed, for the very reasons that you have pointed out. My issue is simply this: co-op feels out of place in the Dead Space universe. With a buddy tagging along for the ride, the fear of being alone on a strange planet having to watch your own back is completely gone. I love how playing from Carver’s perspective brings back some of the psychological horror tricks from the previous game as the Markers enflame the guilt he feels over events that transpire in the Liberation graphic novel. On certain occasions, Carver will be in mid-hallucination fighting off his own inner demons while the player at the controls of Isaac has a clear view of the necromorph assault, wondering what the other player is freaking out about on the other end. But it’s just not enough. Co-op turns the experience into too much of a buddy action blastfest, which isn’t bad, but, like competitive multiplayer in the second game, it’s not what I personally want from a Dead Space game. And I think the majority of the franchise’s fans see it the same way.

I also was annoyed at how co-op encroaches on single player. Co-op and single player are completely separate campaign options from the main menu, yet at certain points while playing solo a prompt will appear telling you that if you invite a friend there’s a co-op mission in the area. If I’m playing alone, I don’t want to have it rubbed in my face that I’m missing part of the experience by doing so. I’d appreciate it if they would just butt out and leave the co-op missions to the co-op campaign.

Aaron: Your last point touches again on the point I was making earlier, a point that’s particularly poignant in the context of an evolving franchise like Dead Space: What do we want from our videogames? Like television producers pairing faded Hollywood stars and diving competitions, the gaming industry seems convinced that we now want co-op multiplayer in everything we play, even if it sometimes fits about as well as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in size-five spandex. With Dead Space, co-op makes sense within the scope of the universe: At this point in the story, Isaac wouldn’t be alone against the necromorph masses. (Think of it like the hordes of marines that went back to get their asses kicked by Xenomorph Nation in Aliens). Yes, you’re now experiencing a very different kind of dread, but it also forces you to think, blast and stasis juggle using different strategies. I didn’t mind the co-op invites in the single-player mode in LittleBigPlanet, and I don’t mind them here.

Now contrast that with a game like God of War: Ascension, where the co-op multiplayer mode stands outside the main campaign, and ends up feeling like a vegetable peeler that’s been duct-taped on top of a meat cleaver. You can say it’s an evolution for that series, too, but only in a “hey, here’s something we haven’t done yet!” way. With the God of War series, we expect unmitigated gore, epic boss battles and epic storytelling.

As for the Awakened DLC, well, it likely won’t change your mind about whether co-op is a natural fit for the series, Matt, but it totally satisfies the itch for those psychological head trips you were missing—so much so that you have to openly wonder why Visceral didn’t sprinkle more of it into Dead Space 3. (SPOILER ALERT) In order to escape Tau Volantis, Carver and Isaac—shockingly, they survived– have to tangle with a fanatical fringe group of Unitarians who crawl from the cracks to fill the void left by Carr. These cats are convinced that transmutation equals salvation, so they do what the now nonfunctional black markers didn’t, mutilating themselves to the point of cutting off their own hands and replacing them with blades. Anybody want to try to argue that this series still isn’t about horror?

With its gruesome/creepy vibe and tight storytelling, the DLC is an absolute must-buy for anyone who invested in the full game. Even though it only amounts to a three-chapter coda to Isaac Clarke’s Worst Mid-life Crisis Ever, it stands right up there with some of the best sequences in the series.

Aaron-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Smart integration of new co-op play mode
+ Weapon crafting is a welcome and overdue addition. Javelin grenade incoming!
+ Awakening DLC is a gruesome must-buy

Cons:
– Blasting brain-dead Unitarian soldiers? Please.
– Not enough head-trip hallucinations
– Characterization is flatter than an Oklahoma highway

Matt: Putting my distaste for the co-op and the cooperative mission invites during solo play aside (sorry, being notified that you can’t play a mission without a friend is way different here than invites in a game like LittleBigPlanet), I fully appreciate how much effort Visceral put into broadening the Dead Space experience. Optional side missions, weapon and item crafting, and resource harvesting take Dead Space 3 ever so slightly into Mass Effect territory, adding just the right amount of RPG-like depth to push the series farther than it’s previously been, without making it feel like less of a Dead Space game. These new elements also make the experience far larger in scope – completing all side missions available to a single player, it took me nearly 18 hours to complete the campaign. Compare that to the two previous games, which didn’t take that long to complete combined (both were around 8 hours long for me), and Dead Space 3 adds another feather to its gore-stained cap.

With some of these newer systems in place, Visceral did have to re-balance certain commonalities between the first two games. Since firearms can now be crafted from scratch, in most cases with two firing methods in a single build, Isaac is only allowed to tote around a pair of his favorite necromorph de-limbers. Ammo is now also a universal omni-clip, so instead of having to manage inventory to maintain ammo supply for each weapon, one clip now fits all. Smartly, though, different guns require varying amounts of ammo depending on the level of firepower. Even though you may have a stack of clips in stock, you’ll burn through supply in a hurry if you rely too much on high-damage weaponry or veer away from the series’ dismemberment-focused tradition in favor of running and gunning.

The only knock against weapon customization is the somewhat clumsy interface. It’s awesome being able to create a shotgun with a hydraulic blade or a flamethrower that can also lob out grenades, and I like being able to add an acid or stasis modifier to bullets or pop on a scope attachment, but the mod menu isn’t so easy on the eyes, making it so that you may even miss out on upgrading every possible slot. From personal experience, I was probably three-quarters of the way through the game before I stumbled onto one of the smaller attachment slots. The interface isn’t terrible, but it could have been tighter and easier to decipher.

As someone who enjoys hunting collectibles and replaying games on higher difficulties, I was pleased by how the game provides detailed completion stats. From the progress menu, you can see the completion percentage for each chapter, including an itemized list of how many of each collectible you have discovered. This way, if there’s a weapon blueprint or artifact still out there somewhere, you know exactly which chapter it’s in, and what you need to keep an eye out for the next time around.

Evolution is a tricky thing in the games business. Most folks seem to like their favorite games to stay exactly the same year after year, which is why the Maddens, Halos and Call of Duties of the world evolve very little yet still sell by the millions. Then there are games like Resident Evil 6 and now Dead Space 3 that break the yearly iteration rut by growing out of older mechanics and actually advancing in design, and yet they come under fire from the internet crazies. I just don’t get it.

Dead Space’s evolution as a series has been both natural and necessary. All three games (four if you want to count the excellent Extraction light gun shooter) are great in their own way. The original had the dark, lonely atmosphere and the fear of the necromorph unknown. The sequel grew the environment and was less terrifying in a physical sense, but tormented the player’s mind more with psychological tricks. Entry number three doesn’t have near as many of the jump-out “boo!” moments or any of the trippy head games (unless you’re Carver in co-op), but it does generate fear and tension in different yet equally effective ways, overwhelming the player with swarms of necromorphs from all angles and using whiteout conditions to create a sense of claustrophobia, with brightness rather than the dark. Even though it may stray away from familiar ground in spots, Dead Space 3 is a Dead Space game through and through. Lose the hate and come along for the corpse-stomping, limb-dismembering ride.

Matt-BuyIt

Pros:
+ Tense, well-paced campaign
+ Side missions, weapon crafting and resource gathering add a touch of RPG depth
+ Clipping and stomping necromorphs is as satisfying as ever
+ Per-chapter completion percentage and collectible tracking

Cons:
– Vapid characters
– Weak final boss and ending
– Sorry, co-op just feels out of place on this planet

Game Info:
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Publisher: EA
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: 2/5/2013
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copies provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!