When following up a successful game or two with a sequel,developers have a tightrope to walk between staying true to a franchise’s established conventions, and changing up the formula to attract new fans and prevent stagnation in the gameplay. Gears of War 3 nailed innovation with new four-player co-op, fortifications in Horde, and the new Beast mode. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, took a horror franchise and turned it into Devil May Cry with guns. Visceral Games has made some interesting innovations with its third entry in the Dead Space series, but like the most recent Resident Evil, it feels like the franchise took two steps forward, and three steps back.
Isaac VS Unitology Part 3
In between the second and third Dead Space, the Unitologists have acquired a staggering amount of power, sufficient to bring the Earth’s government to its knees. As the game opens, only Isaac Clarke remains a threat to immanent Unification, and so the church puts their full might into taking him out. After surviving the Unitologist assault in the intense opening chapters, Isaac sets off for space, as the only way to stop the Necromorph threat permanently involves tracing the marker signal back to its source on the icy world of Tau Volantis. It’s a shame this trilogy of games falls into the same trap of needing a deus ex machina to wrap up its narrative as two other notable trilogy conclusions (Mass Effect 3 and Gears of War 3).
Following the brilliant prologue and first couple chapters, Dead Space 3 s narrative wanders through a sea of drudgery for the middle sixty percent of the game, with few meaningful developments, before rapidly escalating to an epic finale. It’s as if the game’s scribes new their hook for the opening and the explosive finish they wanted, and then had to fit about 9 more hours of gameplay in the middle.Too much weight is put on collectable text logs, audio logs, and artifacts to tell the story here. It’s thanks to those logs that Dead Space 3' s story manages to be the biggest lore expansion the franchise has seen, and yet it's the least compelling of the bunch.
Shooting Is Better Than Ever... It's Just Not Scary
Where the original two Dead Space games felt like modern survival horror, Visceral Games’ newest title feels like a straight-up third person shooter, with inventory management hanging around as a hold over from days past. Players can expect to battle triple to quadruple the number of enemies in this title as the first two, and this is the first game to see Isaac facing living human enemies. Shooting Unitologist soldiers makes perfect sense within the context of the game’s story, but feels out of character for the franchise, and the limited intelligence these soldiers display makes them hard to take seriously as a threat.
The Necromorph menagerie remains largely the same as the past, but some new additions inject spice into a well-known blend of wanton amputations. Feeders, for example, present a risk vs reward decision players must make every time they’re encountered. While these tall, skeletal Necromorphs are individually weak and can be avoided entirely with careful play, they will rush players in swarms by the dozen if provoked. Is the risk of taking them all on worth the resources they will drop? Fodder enemies also introduce welcome unpredictability to the action. These axe-wielding bipeds rush in for melee strikes, but have an unsettling habit of into mutating into monstrosities with three tentacles that can shoot projectiles, turning them into a ranged threat.
To cope with the dramatic increase in enemies, weapons feel more powerful than ever. Dead Space 3 brings a new crafting system to the franchise, replacing the standard weapons of games past with the ability to now craft weapons than can serve two functions at once. It’s possible to combine the fast fire of an assault rifle with a line gun to make a weapon that can sheer off sets of legs, and then clean up Necromorph arms with rapid fire. Or you could make a plasma cutter with a shotgun attachment to blast away enemies that get too close. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of possible weapon combinations, and because all weapon parts are reusable if a weapon is dismantled, the system encourages experimentation. These weapons can be further refined with upgrade circuits that enhance weapon stats like damage or reload time, and special modifiers like electrical damage, or the ability to automatically pick up ammo. Mixing and matching allows each player to approach combat in a manner best suited to their play style, with plenty of options available to try out in future playthroughs.
Plays Better With Friends
Multiplayer returns to Dead Space in its third installment,but not in the form of Humans vs. Necromorphs competitive multiplayer as seen in Dead Space 2. The Dead Space 3 campaign can be played from start to finish in two player co-op, and this may even be the preferred way to enjoy the game, as co-op provides additional bits or story and a few extra side-missions that solo players miss. Player Two controls John Carver, a marine battling his own hallucinations, similar to Isaac’s problems in Dead Space 2. Only the player controlling John gets to see these sequences though, adding incentive to join other people’s games to gain a new perspective on some events. Partners can quickly and easily exchange items with each other to keep each other well prepared. Thankfully, resources found in closets or dropped off Necromorphs spawn individually for each player, so one person cannot be a troll and collect everything, depriving their partner of any ammo or med kits. We noticed no difference in the quantity of enemies when playing cooperatively, so the presence of a second person can make the game significantly easier. Keep that in mind when choosing a difficulty level.
By the third installment, Visceral Games has to know its existing fan base will be familiar with battling Necromorphs, but level design does too little to bring surprise to these encounters. By the 4th chapter, I could walk into a room I’d never seen before and predict when I’d be attacked with about 80% accuracy. Fear and surprise have been replaced with anticipating where the enemies will appear from and which angle will be best for blasting away their limbs. As Necromorphs keep swarming in, there’s too much going on to feel fear. Some of these encounters are excessively long, as if the game is testing the player's patience rather than testing their nerves. Dead Space 2 scared me so badly I had to walk away from the game for a while. It nailed the tension so perfectly that I had to fortify my courage every time I turned off the lights and popped in the disc for another go. Only Condemned 2 has done a better job, this console generation, of instilling raw, primal fear. There is nothing like that in Dead Space 3 -- the most coward-friendly title in the series.
Even as the plot heats up for the game’s grand finale, it starts to look like the team at Visceral just simply ran out of ideas. The rappelling sequences, which have Isaac moving back and forth while ascending or descending a vertical surface, were novel the first few times, but out-lasted their welcome by the final time. Also, while the final area of the game looks stunning, (as does most of the game's presentation) do we need to tread through it three times? It’s all the more annoying to be doing it in yet another “Go to X location to push Y button” mission the franchise as a whole has been over-fond of.
Dead Space 3 represents a crossroads for this franchise. The core action remains as solid as ever, mating solid controls with an excellent crafting system, user-friendly co-op, and exciting new enemy types. It’s unfortunate that for all the game’s triumphs, there are at least as many pitfalls to detract from the experience. We hope Visceral Games takes a critical look at the franchise going forward, and can shake up franchise conventions to bring back the horror, and keep enemy encounters surprising and unpredictable for series veterans. While Dead Space 3 is not a Resident Evil 6 -caliber disappointment, it's also not the horror masterpiece fans were looking for.
This game was reviewed on an Xbox 360 retail copy attained by The Game Effect.
- Excellent Weapon Crafting System
- User-Friendly Co-Op
- Challenging New Necromorphs
- Underdeveloped Story
- Where is the Horror?
- Easy to Predict When Attacks Are Coming