As I’ve repeated several times before, Dead Space is a godsend for fans of sci-fi horror. The series channels the best elements of movies like The Thing (1982), Aliens, and Event Horizon, but manages to create a combination of terror that not only feels fresh and unique, but also meets (and sometimes exceeds) the quality of its source material. As some people would have you believe, the series has progressively moved away from pure scares towards a more action oriented package. Personally, I feel that Dead Space has always placed just as much emphasis on combat as on horror, and it’s the perfect blend of the two that makes the games so much fun to play. Contrary to popular opinion, the combat, which revolves around dismembering enemies, hasn’t changed a whole lot since the first game was released in 2006. The major difference between the first game and the last two entries is that there are now substantially more characters involved. Dead Space was about isolation, whereas Dead Space 3 is about isolation interspersed with character interaction. The point I’m trying to make is that Dead Space 3 is not a survival horror game, but in its defense, Dead Space has never been a pure survival horror series. Anyone who tries to trick you into thinking that the original Dead Space was pure survival horror has never played the early Resident Evils or Silent Hills. In those two series, resources were extremely scarce, and it was often advantageous to avoid combat rather than confront it head-on. Dead Space, on the other hand, is extremely upfront with its combat. Many sections force you to kill every oncoming enemy before you can proceed onwards. Resources in DS games are fairly abundant, and terminals allow you to purchase ammunition and health should you find yourself short on supplies. Real survival horror games never present you with such luxuries. So does it matter that Dead Space 3, just like DS1 and DS2, is more about combat than pure survival? Hell no. The movie Aliens took the original Alien formula and soaked it in action, but last I checked people on message boards didn’t have a massive hissy fit and boycott the series. Unfortunately, this is what seems to have happened with Dead Space 3. Forgive me if this review spends too much time challenging the backlash that Dead Space 3 has been receiving since it was first announced. As a big fan of the series, Dead Space 3 does not disappoint.
Dead Space 3
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Featured), PS3, PC
Release Date: February 5, 2013
Dead Space 2 concluded with Isaac Clarke destroying a marker on the Sprawl, a space station orbiting one of Saturn’s moons. The resulting carnage destroyed the Sprawl, but Isaac managed to escape with his love interest Ellie. DS3 starts with an interesting prologue sequence that takes place 200 years before the start of the first game, and then promptly fast forwards to two months after the events on the Sprawl. We find Isaac in a small apartment in the midst of a small city on the surface of a moon. As we discovered at the end of DS2, there are numerous marker projects, many of which are found in urban locations. Unfortunately for Isaac, this urban location happens to have one. We find out through an old phone message that Ellie has left Isaac because he had become too detached and self-absorbed as a result of the marker incidents. Soon after our introduction to Isaac, several people burst into his apartment and hold him at gunpoint. It turns out they’re “the last battalion” of EarthGov, and that they know the whereabouts of Ellie, who works with their group but has gone missing. Long story short, Isaac joins the EarthGov party, but not until after being chased by an extreme sect of unitilogists led by a man named Danik. Danik, an somewhat harmless looking man in a park, serves as the main antagonist in DS3. Unsurprisingly, the major subplot in DS3 revolves around Isaac trying to win Ellie back, all while battling necros and Danik’s army of unitologists. DS3 does an excellent job of weaving the storyline into the gameplay, which means there are few moments where you don’t have some level of control over Isaac. In fact, for those people who were worried that DS3 would be too heavy on scripted action sequences (myself included), there are actually fewer scripted sequences per hour of gameplay than in DS2.
The story is just as engaging as in the previous games, and becomes progressively more captivating as Isaac and crew explore the remnants of an old marker conspiracy on a snow planet called Tau Volantis. One of my favorite themes in science fiction is the exploration of an unknown environment. On this front, Dead Space 3 delivers in spades. The snowy environments of Tau Volantis are reminiscent of the locales in the first Lost Planet. In addition to the snow planet, the game is still rife with “traditional” space station-style environments. The combination of tight corridors with the occasional outdoor section is a refreshing addition to the series. Back to the story, the element that I find the most difficult to grasp is the fact that EarthGov has apparently dissolved, seemingly overnight. Only 2 months before the events of DS3, EarthGov was a massive evil bureaucracy. Although it’s barely addressed, I think it’s implied that the unitilogists have overthrown EarthGov, which doesn’t really make any sense because the two entities were supposed to be incredibly intertwined. As a whole, it’s a little disappointing that DS3 makes so little reference to the events and players of the previous games; it seems that Visceral opted for a more contained story this time around.
Aesthetically, Dead Space 3 is easily the most visually interesting game in the series. Tau Volantis was previously explored by a contingent of scientists and soldiers from the Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces (SCAF), the central human government that was eventually dethroned by EarthGov. This “older” culture gave Visceral the opportunity to design a brand new human aesthetic. The SCAF settlements look like they were patterned after old nuclear submarines and soviet-era accoutrements. This creates an interesting juxtaposition with the ultra-slick stylings of the 26th century. Furthermore, there are now many new necromorph models, each of which is patterned after the look of its deceased host. The radical unitologists sect also has its own unique look, incorporating elements of Mad Max-style punk design into the typical heavy clothing and armor of the future. In addition to the clothing, Dead Space 3 has more environments than ever, and presents no fewer than three different styles of spaceship interior, each of which looks fantastic. As always with the series, DS3 is a game that can be enjoyed thanks to pretty eye-candy alone.
As I mentioned earlier in the post, Dead Space 3 has plenty of combat, which is even more fun than usual thanks to the inclusion of a new weapon crafting system. Weapons are now fully customizable, meaning that you’re free to create weapons that suit you’re particular style of play. Essentially, you’re combining parts that are found scattered around the game world to create weapons that (usually) have two modes of fire. For example, you can craft an assault rifle that has a shotgun attachment, or a flamethrower, or a buzzsaw, or a line cutter, etc. The weapon crafting is extremely fun, and adds an extra layer of depth to the typical DS combat. I probably spent several hours just crafting guns; you could say I was pretty addicted.
Almost as awesome as the new weapon crafting, the inclusion of optional side-missions in DS3 is my second favorite new feature. These essentially play out as optional “dungeons”, and add quite a bit of meat to the main storyline. For anyone looking for the isolated, spooky Dead Space 3 experience, the optional dungeons should keep you entertained. Generally they’re more difficult and more scary than the regular story sequences. Each optional area tells its own story, meaning that you’re missing out on a lot of interesting fiction if you skip these sections. In fact, my favorite narrative in DS3 was a small side-story told in one of these optional areas. If you’re hooked on the crafting system, the obvious reason to explore these areas is for the promise of unique weapons parts. The combination of the new crafting system and optional areas mean that DS3 feels like a mini version of a loot based RPG (think Diablo or Borderlands). I personally love this new direction, and would kill to see the loot-based RPG elements explored further in subsequent DS games.
An inordinate amount of internet rage has been fueled by the inclusion of microtransactions and human enemies in DS3. Firstly, the microtransactions are really not a big deal. In fact, I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t specifically been looking. When in the weapon crafting menu, you can press a (fairly hidden) button to pull up the online storefront. In this storefront, you can spend real cash to get in-game resources or weapon parts. Alternatively, you can spend credits that you acquire throughout the campaign to buy these same virtual packages. By the end of my first playthrough, I was able to buy three of the most expensive packages using in-game credits that I’d acquired. These purchases were the equivalent of a few dollars of real cash. Truth be told, you acquire so many resources throughout the game that I can’t imagine why you’d bother to spend actual money. In fact, a friend of mine couldn’t even figure out how to access the online storefront without my help; the microtransactions are that unobtrusive. I actually feel stupid spending so much time writing about the microtransactions, because they’re really not a big deal.
The introduction of human enemies in DS3 serve to add some extra flavor to the tried and true necro dismemberment. It almost feels novel to be able to shoot an enemy in the head, and subsequently expect it to die. The segments where you fight humans are actually fairly rare, and I actually wished there had been more of them. Most importantly, these sections do not turn DS3 into a mindless cover based shooter, as certain gamers hypothesized. I can’t tell you how many times I heard DS3 being referred to as “Call of Dead Space”. For anyone who follows the story in DS games, it makes absolute sense to fight humans. As anyone knows, the humans are the main antagonists, at least plot-wise. Because these segments were so uncommon, it’s difficult to comment on the quality of the human AI. It definitely wasn’t noticeably bad, although these sections are somewhat easier than the typical scuffles with necromorphs. It was almost a tad bit disturbing when I dismembered my first human opponent… Let’s just say they dismember just as easily as any necro, which is satisfying, albeit in a way that makes you feel a little icky afterwards.
Perhaps one of DS3’s strongest points: the sound design is incredible. When you meet one of the first necros, it slowly peels itself off the ceiling, all while the sounds of bones breaking echo off the walls. The sonic atmosphere is incredibly creepy, and you’ll often find yourself on-edge because you think you may have heard a nearby enemy. Complimenting the sound effects, the music also adds the perfect atmosphere to the experience. There are many subtle nods to songs from the game’s source material. For example, there’s a track that sounds uncannily similar to the main theme from The Thing.
As it should be clear from the tone of this review, I really enjoyed DS3. The gameplay, art design and music are all really high calibre. Just like in the previous games, DS3 is crammed with a ton of replay value. After beating the game, you unlock the typical New Game+ mode, which allows you to start a new game with all your items and weapons from the previous play-through, as well several new “throwback” modes that alter your available weapons and control styles. I must admit, I’ve played very little of the brand new co-op mode, which is the major new selling point of the franchise. What little I did play was really fun. Players are free to drop in and out as they desire, and there are bonus areas that can only be accessed in co-op. This is co-op done right, and doesn’t feel like a tacked on afterthought. All that being said, the game is still excellent when played alone, so if you prefer playing solo, co-op is definitely not mandatory.
The most important thing about Dead Space 3 is that it’s just really fun to play, and feels polished as hell. Anyone who has even a passing interest in sci-fi horror should really check it out.
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