The Dead Space franchise has become one of my favorite original IPs created this generation. Visceral Games has done an impeccable job of reinvigorating a genre that most thought had grown stale. The deep, empty reaches of space can be terrifying when done right; and Visceral has nailed it. Dead Space 2 built upon the original’s creative spark, adding interesting new locales and enemies. The third game takes on a more big-budget scale, giving players a more complete package overall, but fans have been left wondering if EA pushed the franchise too far from its roots.
The story once again focuses on Isaac Clarke and his escapades with the Necromorphs, Unitologists and Markers. The fiction surrounding the Dead Space series has always been more interesting than the narratives found within the games. DS3 continues that tradition, as Isaac teams back up with his ex-girlfriend Ellie to travel to a remote ice planet and somehow put an end to the Markers once and for all. There are a plethora of new characters, none of which really stand out, and the dialogue falls flat early and often. I wish Visceral would delve more into the lore.
The game runs 19 chapters and definitely rides like an amusement park attraction. There are pure moments of brilliance, mixed in with traditional narrow corridors painted with the usual dark tones. It is an uneven ride, with fantastic moments that are starkly juxtaposed with those that are more mundane. Much of the experience doesn’t reach the heights of the space walks, or the early moments on the frozen planet. Hearing enemies surround you in the whiteout of a blizzard, is equally as terrifying as hearing them lurking just out of view in a dimly lit corridor.
In addition to the 19 chapters, there are a bevy of side missions you can opt to take on along the way. Not all of them are obvious, which is why it is nice that the devs have given you an option to go back to any chapter upon completion. One normal play through will run you anywhere from 15-20 hours depending on how long you linger. Toss in an additional three to five hours for the cooperative portion of the game, and you have a solid package all around. Removing the online competitive in favor of co-op was a great move, and one that will reward players who take part in it.
You might be thinking that co-op in a game like Dead Space is a true abomination. How can you possibly have the same level of tension when you have backup? It is true that the anxiety seems lower at first, but Visceral has done a great job of scaling the game when a second player enters the mix. There are branching missions not available when flying solo, and these give way to some of the better pieces of the story. New dialogue is also added, as John Carver (Isaac’s partner) lends well to the universe. He has a dark past, and uncovering it is definitely worth the effort. Sadly, you do have to do this with another player, as these missions and story are not available to players flying completely solo.
Atmosphere remains DS3’s strongest attribute, and it continues to be accompanied by a range of variables. For starters, the set pieces are genuinely interesting. While not on the same level of impact that DS2 delivered, the ones that do stand out are unforgettable. I will remember shifting back and forth between satellites and pushing through blizzards for a while. Probably the most impactful piece though, is the sound design. From the tension-filled score composed by Jason Graves and James Hannigan, to the gut-wrenching sound effects, DS3 leaves a mark. The screams coming from the Necromorphs are fear-inducing to say the least. This game continues to stress me out, but only in the best of ways.
Combat continues to handle nicely. On the surface, this is a third-person shooter, now complete with a cover system. Isaac can now duck behind objects as he slices enemies to pieces. This is the staple of Dead Space combat. Isaac has a plethora of weapons handy that can tear enemies limb from limb, quite literally. Isaac also still has telekinesis that can grab objects and even use them to impale enemies, and his stasis module that slows down certain enemies. Despite the tools at Isaac’s disposal and the addition of a cover mechanic, Dead Space 3 does managed to amp up the stress. There is nothing more intense than being cornered by necromorphs, with an empty weapon in hand.
The upgrade system returns, allowing you to equip your suit with more armor, give yourself more hit points and increase things like kinetic damage and air supply. Combine that with the newly introduced weapon crafting system, and you can easily get lost in the deep, plentiful creative elements of the game. Isaac now collects pieces to craft new weapons, and collecting materials becomes its own metagame. You can even find bots that will collect resources for you while you are progressing the game. It is also worth noting that you can simply buy what you need with real money through downloadable transactions. While not necessary, I can understand why some are unhappy with this practice. I have no problem with people deciding to spend money above and beyond the purchase price. The content is only there for those that wish to pursue it, and Visceral has even built in a back door for material collection for those that would rather invest time than money.
There are a lot of things that DS3 does right, but that doesn’t mean it is without setbacks. One of the biggest is the abundance of claustrophobic, dark corridors. Funneling players through narrow areas delivering cheap thrills works for a while, but Visceral abuses the practice with ever-diminishing effect. These feel like filler, stringing me along between the great moments. There are also some tedious and frustrating vehicle segments that drove me up a wall. The save system also feels botched. The game has numerous checkpoints, but progress isn’t saved often enough. There are instances where you can go well over an hour without the game saving anything but the inventory. It pays to save, and save often. Finally, my biggest gripe is the return of enemies that simply cannot die. Being trapped in a room, waiting for an elevator with an immortal enemy isn’t scary, it is increasingly annoying, especially after the third time.
While not running on the oft-rumored Frostbite 2 engine, this game still has visual moments that are simply stunning. Lighting plays a large role. Watching the illuminations from the helmet shine off the environment is amazing. We are truly seeing the end-of-generation prowess these developers can create. The frame rate remains solid throughout, and some of the locales are simply incredible. Enemy design remains solid, though I really wish there were fewer dark, narrow corridors as it truly does the bigger crescendos a disservice. DS3 is one damn fine looking game, and even on consoles it will be hard not to be impressed.
Dead Space 3 is a fantastic game, but one that players should go into with eyes open. The series has evolved beyond simply being a horror title, and moved on to being more akin to a large, AAA game. The passion and level of care Visceral has always displayed is still here, even if the focus feels more on intense encounters and action, rather than simply scaring the crap out of the player. I recommend not passing this game up if you have enjoyed the previous entries. It wraps up the trilogy nicely, and still remains one of the best IPs to come out of this generation.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.