Game: Dead Space 3
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Available On: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows PC
Reviewed On: PlayStation 3
At times, it feels as though the Dead Space series has been a little overlooked. Where so many games profess to be “horror” but really, deep down, they’re just action games with jump scares, Dead Space was unique in that it truly was a horror game amidst pretenders – and Dead Space 2 continued along the same path as the first, with such unbridled tension that I could only play the game a few chapters at a time.
The horror was – for the most part – evoked through the audio design, which is an aspect of game design I’ve always felt is under-loved, reduced to being a bit-part player when in reality, the difference between great and average audio design can genuinely make or break a game. Implementing co-op must have been a huge decision on Visceral’s part, because the debilitating, scary moments were part of what initially made the Dead Space series so tense, and all of that stress and suspense could so easily be broken by a friend screaming into his headset over the internet. Moreover, though, how does the co-op partner integrate into the story if you want to play alone?
STORY: As you’d expect, Dead Space 3 is the continuation of Isaac Clarke’s story. He’s still in a bad place, and the Unitologists are still banging the same drum they have from the beginning. Wanton destruction of the human race, to start a new life as the Necromorphs, the natural evolution – it’s creepy how obsessive the bad guys are; borderline dead-eyed psychopaths hell-bent on ending the human race. But poor Isaac, wanting nothing more to do with markers, beasties and crazies, is somehow pulled back into these horrible doings simply because he has the knowledge and power to destroy or create markers, and before you know it he’s being introduced to John Carver, the playable co-op partner for Dead Space 3.
At first, John appears to be a slightly by-the-numbers character. He’s brash toward Isaac from the very get-go, bordering on aggressive, and even when there’s a moment to sit down and talk about his back story (Unitologists killed his wife and child) he retains that character, remarking to Isaac that he needn’t be sorry for his loss, because they aren’t friends. It’s vital to note that the story changes based on whether it is being played in single player or co-op. It’s not a case of John just appearing next to you all the time if you play single player; he exists and is a part of the story, but the co-op changes the way the story plays out, although sometimes there are sections that remind you co-op played heavily on the developer’s minds – for example finding two suit-changing machines, instead of one.
For the most part, Isaac’s character is a likeable, world-weary foil for the story. He’s the traditional down and out anti-hero who doesn’t want to be a part of it all, but has to, in this case because of his ex-girlfriend, Ellie, who his new-found colleagues have lost contact with. Quite why she’s wearing such a low-cut top when you meet her in-game is beyond me, and the love-triangle between Isaac, Ellie and her new love interest isn’t exactly the height of storytelling and plays out exactly as you’d imagine – though Ellie does put more clothes on later.
With this being the third title in the series, obviously there has to be a way to allow new players to catch up, and Visceral have included a five-minute opening movie that explains all the major points of the series – some of which I’d missed the finer details of, even having played the games – in a succinct, understandable manner.
GRAPHICS: You could never accuse Visceral of designing poor visuals, and Dead Space 3 continues with some tremendously well-rendered environments, with special attention lavished upon the lighting. A slight overuse of certain ideas means that some may find diminishing returns when the umpteenth blinding light hits the camera, but you can’t fault the actual effect itself. Likewise, the scares that cause you to flail the camera around like a madman are intentional, yet another way to disorientate the player. The derelict space crafts feel wonderful, and the sense of isolation as you explore deep space, travelling from one ship to another thanks to the thrusters in your boots, is truly grandiose. Later in the game some environments aren’t as much fun to look at and feel a little generic, which is a shame.
Once upon a time, lavish cut-scenes would show up the lacklustre visuals of in-game action but, ironically, in Dead Space 3 this role is actually reversed. At times, the cut-scene action that focuses on character interaction looks worse than the moment-to-moment gameplay. That’s not to say that Dead Space 3 ever looks bad, because it’s a beautiful game, but it’s refreshingly nice to see that Visceral really value the experience of actually playing the game over looking at it. There are a few issues where some of the Necromorph textures look slightly low-res, which makes it a real shame there isn’t a dedicated PC version, because Dead Space 3 could look absolutely incredible on a high-end computer.
SOUND: So much of Dead Space 3 still revolves around tension, which is a huge relief. The audio design is beyond stellar, and with a good surround setup or 7.1 headset, you’ll be soiling your pants on a regular basis. Visceral (pardon the pun) screams that sound like they are erupting from the depths of hell pierce dark corridors, before you battle the evil Necromorphs, your booming weapons eviscerating their limbs. Even three games deep, it’s slightly odd that you can stamp on the lifeless “body” of an enemy to find more weapons, but the almost explosive sound of your space-boot stomping through your fleshy foe is enormous, and you’ll feel every stomp.
The score is beautiful in places, terrifying in others, yet also sparse when it needs to be. There’s never a moment that feels like the audio design has been forced, and the sounds of space are still as good as you remember them. The audio team for Dead Space 3 (as with the last two games) deserve a huge amount of praise for creating a soundscape that is as vital to the game experience as the gameplay itself. You can’t ignore the fact that Isaac is now a fully fleshed -out character who talks, who emotes – but the world of Dead Space is littered with characters, some good, some bad.
GAMEPLAY: In terms of how Isaac’s story plays out, there’s not a huge amount that has actually changed between games. You’ll still use strategic dismemberment, and it’s still a lot of fun. In fact, most everything has returned from the previous games. Holding the right stick down will show you the objective location, holding the left trigger still makes you run, each weapon has an alternate fire mode again; you’ll still use the Plasma Cutter more often than not.
But there are new additions to Dead Space 3, most noticeably the weapon customisation. Isaac can still visit the upgrade bench, but now not only can he upgrade his existing weapons, but he can create entirely new ones with scrap found along his journey. You can add to your pile of crafting materials with the use of a handy bot that will find and return things to the bench for you. Blueprints still exist, but each part of a gun is split into sections, and each section is itself customisable. What this means is that there are potentially a lot of different creatable weapons, meaning you’ll have to experiment to find what works for you. It’s fairly tricky to know exactly what weapon you’ll get when crafting, as the terminology isn’t as clear as it could be. It’s a good idea in principle, and newcomers may get mileage out of it, but most returning players will probably revert to the Plasma Cutter. It’s not a sleight on the game, as such, but that original weapon is just such a lot of fun to use, and upgrading it makes it even better.
Creating and upgrading weapons also plays into the co-op design, because some upgrades will allow for what can only be described as buffs. A good example would be the ability to heal both yourself and your partner when using one solitary health pack. The same can also be done with stasis packs: use one on yourself and your partner will get the benefit too. It’s a little weird, and not actually explained in any narrative way, it’s just there. Micro-transactions are also present in Dead Space 3, but you can happily play the game without ever buying a thing – as it should be – with most of the purchases amounting to extra crafting materials, or upgrading your kit earlier than normal. I suppose its closest comparison would be to the freemium model on an iOS game: you can grab them if you want, but you’ll miss nothing if you don’t, and it’s really not aggressive at all, just a footnote on a screen here and there.
Co-op is the major new inclusion though, with one person playing as Isaac and the other playing as John Carver. If you listed the games that you’d never expect to see co-op in, Dead Space would probably be high on the list. Mechanically, it does work – there’re no complaints with the actual game design. But with such a heavy emphasis on tension and horror, adding another player into the game environment will reduce that emotion. Suddenly a game that is all about affecting and assaulting the heightened senses you feel when playing, is about blasting enemies with your buddy over Xbox LIVE or the PlayStation Network. But hell, I sound like a spoilt child here, because the campaign is absolutely fine if you ignore the co-op, and ultimately it offers you an extra reason to play the game repeatedly with new game+ options, with John’s experiences differing to Isaac’s throughout the game, even extending to the point that you’ll only see some missions as John. It’s actually quite cleverly done, and playing online with no headset on might be great fun.
A lot of the difficulty comes from disorientating the player. An onslaught of monsters may come at you from one angle, drawing your concentration toward them, all while another sneaks up behind you, and just as you finish the first wave you’ll get a nasty surprise from behind. There are also areas where enemies appear to spawn from nowhere. They don’t literally appear out of thin air, but they do seem to just be there, even when you’re fighting in an enclosed space. In a way it’s the evolution of monster closets; they still appear from ventilation shafts, but you won’t always see it happen, that’s not the scary part.
There are flaws within the game. The return of Quick-Time Events won’t please everyone, though the marriage between QTE and horror moments is well done, and will have players bashing the X button as though it’s their own life they are saving. That said, at first the purposeful lack of a UI hinders these QTEs, as they aren’t as obvious as they could be. Puzzle elements return, but most are simple and won’t require too much thought, amounting to little more than matching things, or timing things, correctly. Some feel specifically designed for co-op and, like the suit kiosks, some have a pair of controls for co-op partners to solve the puzzle with, instead of one.
A huge flaw is the inclusion of human enemies. It feels like a misstep, just as it did with Resident Evil, to remove the formidable monster foes and replace them with humans with guns. Put simply, the sequences featuring human enemies aren’t as good as the times you’ll face Necromorphs. They aren’t bad, but for these moments Dead Space 3 completely loses what makes it stand out from other third-person shooters, which is a shame. In fact, after the human enemies are properly introduced (you fight some very early on, too) a lot of the tension that is prevalent prior to that moment dissipates for good. This, combined with the speed at which the story accelerates, means that despite a strong opening half, the second half of Dead Space 3 isn’t as full of genuine scares. The player begins to expect the scare and has seen most of what Dead Space 3 has to offer in that department. The increased movement speed of some enemies means that the new roll mechanic for Isaac is welcome, but its placement on the left trigger (requiring a double tap) means that it’s often forgotten in the heat of combat. The cover mechanic is also rather awkward, a simple click of the right stick makes Isaac duck so he can get behind a crate, but in truth it feels a little out of place, and rather unnecessary.
LONGEVITY: New to the series, there are reasonably large diversions within some chapters, offering the player optional side-quests. These allow for yet more exposition and, although not essential, you’ll end up doing them just to experience more of the tense survival horror. There are 19 chapters to play (which feels like a few too many; the last few levels feel painfully long and require some back-tracking), and you’d be rushing if you finished the majority of them in under 30-40 minutes, so there’s a substantial campaign here with plenty to come back to thanks to the inclusion of co-op and the new game+ mode, which itself has multiple versions to experience. Most people will clock their first play-through in between 12 and 15 hours, which isn’t bad at all, but if you’re not a co-op player it’s unlikely you’ll play it more than twice unless you fall in love with the game.
VERDICT: Despite concerns, Dead Space 3 is at least on par with its predecessor. Taking out the standard multiplayer and replacing it with a fully fleshed-out co-op mode was a wise move, even if most players will probably play through the story alone the first time. Developers keen to take on the survival-horror genre could learn a lot from Visceral as they do it so masterfully, yet when shooting human enemies, it feels like Visceral could have learnt from themselves.
Tense and unsettling, yet fun to play, Dead Space 3 is another winner in the series despite the missteps, and manages to provide fun gameplay whilst staying true to the horror mantra for most of the time. It might start out with a few too many explosions, and there’s a little too much bombast overall (especially in the second half), but during its best moments, this is still Dead Space at is core – dark, horrifyingly scary Dead Space.