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Dead Space 3 review: The only thing to fear is a lack of fear itself

Dead Space 3 Review

In one of the more ironic developments in recent years, it appears that game developers are afraid of fear. The once-healthy survival horror genre is dying a slow death, as even the perennial powerhouses in the genre – like the Resident Evil franchise – shift from fear-based-gaming to a more traditional, action-rich style that just happens to use the same trappings. There is plenty of gore, but a diminishing return on tension. This is the road Dead Space 3 has decided to walk.

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The first Dead Space was a claustrophobic game with distinctive sections that put combat behind survival as a choice. Even the controls were made with a creeping motion in mind, and you did not want to get cornered. Dead Space 2 embraced more combat, but at the cost of diminished tension. Dead Space 3 goes even further in that direction, and pays the same price.

Dead Space 3 lacks both fear and tension in almost any real sense. There are a few moments when the game tries to startle you, but its the equivalent of someone shouting “boo.” You can typically expect to be attacked in every single room you enter, and the combat never stops. It breeds a predictability that soon makes the solo campaign feel a bit stale after numerous, similar combat scenarios – but it actually works well for the co-op mode, even if it creates other problems. 

Now with 100 percent less crazy!  Well, 95 percent less

The story of Dead Space 3 is far less disturbing than the last two games in the series, and far less compelling as well. The game begins with a reclusive, but otherwise well-preserved Isaac Clarke doing his thing. The bouts of hallucinations have mostly left him, and he’s relatively well adjusted for having dismembered hundreds of creeping horrors, and having had an evil shade of his dead girlfriend nag him for years. When his totally alive ex-girlfriend Ellie reports that she was on to something major and then disappears, he is once again neck deep in dismembered necromorph limbs.

The search takes him to the frozen wasteland of Tau Volantis and an orbiting graveyard of ships, home to a colony that died out two centuries earlier after stopping a Marker. Naturally, things go poorly.

The game set in two locations: in orbit around the planet, and on the planet itself. Isaac bounces between derelict ships completing objectives and optional missions – a first for the series – while trying to solve the mystery of Tau Volantis. When the action shifts to the ground, Isaac is left to explore an abandoned research facility that may hold the key to stopping the spread of the Markers.

None of these characters deliver any surprises. Isaac is a more traditional hero than before, Carver (the co-op avatar) is a stereotypical gruff military guy with a dark past, Ellie is the love interest. The others are incidental and forgettable, and tend to make the story more ridiculous – including the inclusion of a completely unnecessary and generic love triangle. It’s never bad, just bland. 

Familiarity breeds contempt 

The different areas, both on and off planet, are remarkably similar. Once you enter one derelict ship in orbit you’ve seen most of what there is to see. Designer sprinkled in a handful of standout visuals – including some very cool-looking moments in space – but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Even when the game tees it up and sends you to somewhere ripe for creativity like a biology lab, the result is just one more area with some biology-themed décor. You can’t escape the feeling of wasted potential. Like the story, the lacks the creative spark that set the first two games apart.

The shift to more combat dramatically changes the game’s environments as well. The first game wanted dark and claustrophobic areas, and worked by putting you in sections that kept you guessing what was around the corner. The second game tried to do the same while giving you a bit more room for combat. The third game is designed to funnel combat towards you. 

Rather than slowly creeping around corners preparing for a battle, you’ll want to find an area you can defend and let the necromorphs attack you, virtually shouting “come at me, bro!” while the necromorphs charge and shout back, “There he is, let’s go eat his face!”

Without being able to maneuver as fast or as gracefully as the necromorphs, you’ll inevitably end up in a corner firing away until the area is clear, then casually moving on to the next area unmolested. 

The original Dead Space was a constant battle for resources, intertwined with enemies that would wait to jump you when you least expected it. That is totally absent in Dead Space 3Plentiful ammo and health drops prevent you from every having to play too tactically. Once you complete the 15+ hour game, you then can replay the campaign under “Classic mode.” This gives you fewer resources, tougher enemies, and the original weapons. It sounds like a good compromise for the original fans of the series, but it underestimates the impact of a clever level design and playing with convention. Sometimes less is more, and a few less enemies that teased their presence and made you wait for an attack would have been more fun than a stream of enemies, regardless of how tough they are.  

Weapons: Because you can never have too many saw blades

One area that does excel in Dead Space 3 is the weapon crafting. The guns from the previous games are gone and have been replaced with a customizable weapon that you design yourself. As before, each gun has two modes of fire, but unlike the previous games, these two weapons can be anything you want.

Throughout the game, you earn pieces of weapons for construction. Each weapon then has a slot for an upper and a lower power type that defines the type of weapon it is. A tesla coil will produce an electric beam, a plasma core will create fire, a rip cord makes saw blades – there are several options. Once you have your power source, you then select the tip of that weapon. A narrow tip can turn a machine gun into a sniper rifle, a line tip can turn an electric weapon into a spread gun, and a pulse tip can create a shotgun-like blast. You can even double up and have dual saw blades or two flame throwers. It’s almost unfair to the necromorphs.

On top of that, you can add attributes like additional damage or clip size, which are determined by the type of frame. Attachments add modifiers like a scope or electrical damage, while others are specifically made for co-op and add bonuses like healing your partner when you heal yourself, or sharing stasis charges. 

It may take a while to earn the pieces to create the gun you want, but when you do you should be able to construct your ideal loadout tailored to your style of play. You can change your weapons at any of the game’s numerous bench stations, or head to the weapons lab accessible from the main menu and experiment. There are hundreds, if not thousands of options to tinker with. The game has no shortage of resources to scavenge, and that is partly due to the fact that the game is made for two people.

Bring a friend

Dead Space 3 is designed as a co-op game first and foremost, and here the game actually shines. Adding another person doesn’t rob you of any frights because there are none there to begin with. Instead, the plot is actually more complete with the dialogue between Isaac and EarthGov Sergeant John Carver, who has his own backstory and reasons for being there. He also has his own objectives. The game offers several co-op missions that help tell more of Carver’s story, and they are only accessible with a partner.

While the game has its share of problems, the co-op makes up for it to a degree. Stomping necromorphs with a buddy rarely gets old, and it’s fun to work with someone, select the right weapons that compliment each other, and then mercilessly attack anything that moves.That might be a bit of a let down to those that were hoping for a more survival-horror slant as in the previous titles, but if you can overlook that Dead Space 3‘s co-op is the highlight of the game. 

Conclusion

Dead Space 3 has issues with the level design, pacing, and story, but its biggest sin is simply not being able to live up to its predecessors. It may not even be in the same genre anymore. If you can divorce yourself of your preconceived notions formed from  the experience playing the previous games, Dead Space 3 is still average, but doesn’t carry the crushing weight of the missed opportunities hanging onto it. 

If you can put that aside, the co-op makes up for the bland single player, and is fun almost despite itself. But it came at the cost of the franchise’s identity.

Score: 7.5 out of 10

(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 courtesy of a copy provided by the publisher)