Dead Space 3 – Review

Title   Dead Space 3
Developer  Visceral Games
Publisher  EA
Platform  PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (Reviewed)
Genre  Survival-Horror, Third-Person Shooter
Release Date  8th February 2013
Official Site

There is no denying that there is an elephant in the room. It’s pink, and though it’s not dancing, it’s really tired at this point – because there has been a lot of discussion about it – but there is certainly evidence that it was once dancing, and may have even been wearing a skimpy outfit at some point. The floor is scattered with sequins, and the elephant, at this point, resembles a gaunt, haggard and just about dead horse.  Thankfully though, it seems that this rather laboured metaphor can die in peace (and I can put away my whip), because this is, without a doubt, a Dead Space game.

Moving away from pink leather and whips and looking instead towards walking corpses, dismemberment and, (say this one quietly – some people seem to think it’s a dirty word) horror. I’m sure that by now most people have a rough idea of what the Dead Space franchise is. As GL’s Richie so succinctly puts it you play the role of Isaac Clarke, space janitor. Throughout the series Isaac is sent back and forth on the most banal of errands and is constantly set upon by necromorphs – dead bodies that have been reanimated and mutated by the Markers (alien artifacts of unspeakable power) – who want to rip him into bloody little pieces. The only way to ensure that they do not is to do much the same to them; the more limbs disembodied, the faster they die. In this third instalment, Clarke is trying to end the marker threat once and all, and to that end finds himself on the frozen tundras of Tau Volantis, the source of the Markers.

No time is wasted in introducing the player to Tau Volantis, with a prologue that serves as a tutorial and introduction to the tragic tale of the ice planet by catapulting the player 200 years in the past and into the shoes of some irrelevant soldier in a mad rush to save the S.C.A.F forces who were there to try and, surprise surprise, end the marker threat.  It’s not long before Isaac once again takes centre stage, and has, following in the footsteps of all the great protagonists of our time, come over all dark and brooding. Over the course of however many years it has been since we last saw Isaac he has lost some of that sheer bloody-minded determination that made him somewhat bearable, and has dropped into full-depressive mode. Things get worse though, as it turns out that Isaac is not only a whiny bitch, he is also on the run from a group of cultists who want him dead because he is the only one that knows how to destroy the markers. Luckily – for Isaac at least – he is saved by a couple of mercenaries who force him almost at gunpoint to help their cause in return for ensuring he doesn’t die at the hands of the cultists.

Unfortunately, this devolves into a rather bland succession of cover shooting scenes, reminiscent more of Army of Two than any Dead Space title. On the plus side, it doesn’t last all that long and once you get through the endless procession of plebs that fall to your arsenal things start to get good, as Isaac and his new companions leap into orbit around Hoth. Ooh, I mean EDN-III. No wait, Tau Volantis. That’s the one.

Before the merry band of explorers can do anything, they need to find the rest of their little band, a group that went missing some time ago, and includes Isaac’s ex, Ellie. Cue whiny soul-searching to go with actually searching for people. They do find their lost friends camping out in the remains of the rather battered CMS Roanoke, one of the ships that the S.C.A.F explorers left behind. Before they do, however, they are found by the necromorphs and have to fight their way through swathes of them to make the ship once again safe to inhabit. On top of all the tearing of limbs, Isaac also has to make time to practice his janitorial skills, as he runs back and forth to do menial tasks galore.

“Isaac, turn on the generator.” “Isaac, fix the tram.” “Isaac, fetch the shuttle.” “Isaac, pluck my eyebrows.” “Isaac, clip my toenails.” Poor sod.

The group, now reunited, strive to discover what happened to the S.C.A.F explorers that had visited the planet two decades previously. This quest for answers is the stage of Dead Space 3′s all too-early peak, which comes as Isaac explores the hulking wreckage of the flotilla left drifting in space. This period of the game is classic Dead Space taken to another level, as Isaac tentatively makes his way through cramped, desolate corridors that are lit almost exclusively through the light that he provides. The only sounds that punctuate the corridors are the noises that the ship makes while it slowly disintegrates and the shrieks of the necromorphs as they hunt you. It’s dark, daunting and highly unsettling, fostering a sense of constant paranoia and a very twitchy trigger-finger.

Once you arrive on the planet however, things change. As a change of setting, it’s not the biggest, as rather than the open frozen tundras Isaac is left to once again navigate abandoned, disintegrating corridors. It feels all too familiar at times, and the fringes of the snow do little to change the fact that that the scenery is essentially the same. In fact, the ice planet environment is played upon very little, with the sections that do make use of the gimmick being among the weakest. It seems that the only potential frights that can be mustered in the snow are necromorphs bursting from beneath it and appearing from the fog that rests in a constant layer over the planet’s surface. Things start to get all too familiar quickly, and by the time it’s happened a dozen times there’s not even a flinch when the ground bursts upwards. It’s a symptom of Dead Space 3 at large, because by the time that you’ve slogged your way through all 19 chapters of Isaac’s closing story everything is, well, pretty much a case of “been there, done that”, and though the last few chapters attempt to add some spice it’s too little too late.

It’s a shame that Dead Space falls into familiarity and menial shoot-outs with all too fragile human enemies, because the elements that make up the game are, in isolation, all the ingredients one could ask for in a truly good horror title.  From the get-go it is almost too dark to see what you are doing, with the vast majority of the light stemming from Isaac’s mask and whatever gun that he is wielding. The consequence of this is that you are moving about with your gun focused almost all of the time, making Isaac’s movement awkward and stiff. He moves slowly for the most part, making reacting to the necromorphs that are wildly darting at you a panicky and rushed experience. Swinging wildly with an awkward melee attack suddenly feels like the only recourse, though it almost certainly is not.

On top of that, Isaac is constantly under-equipped, able to carry two weapons at most. Later on it becomes less of an issue thanks to the crafting system, but in the early stages there is the constant feel of nervous vigilance and of maximising the few resources that you have managed to scrounge. There is a huge amount of effort made to make Isaac seem powerless in as many ways possible, including the introduction of an enemy that quite literally cannot be killed. All of a sudden you can’t simply tear your foe limb from limb, but, instead, have to try and work out how to ensure that you can escape the situation with as little health lost as possible. Combined with the dark intensity that the early chapters offer, this encounter made for one of the single most unsettling gaming experiences of my life.

The weapon crafting system is one of the most intelligent and enjoyable facets, as collecting resources to build your perfect weapon and finding the most effective build for your own style of play is both illuminating and enjoyable. Scrounging for items that you need sends you looking deeper into the levels, digging into areas that you would never have gone near otherwise and fighting enemies that you would never have otherwise encountered.

On the other hand, it is the execution of those elements that make Dead Space 3 both hugely frustrating and, in the end, a rather disappointing experience. The worst offender on that front is the horrible story, which is not only weak and forced, but also makes very little sense. Time and again it tears the sensation of immersion that the rest of the title so desperately fosters into little shreds. The equally unfeasible relationships that the writers try to present are genuinely cringeworthy, and swing from wildly over-the-top to ridiculously understated, but remains constant only in the state of faint disbelief it creates.

On top of that, the enemies that they introduce – the Unitoligists – are boring. They are a group of human enemies that are out for your blood, which is hardly original. The problem is, they seem to have been created just for someone to oppose Isaac, to give him someone other than the necromorphs to fight. There is no real reason for them to be there, and when you do have to fight them it is really rather dull. They have no real motivation, and every time they reappear I almost physically flinch. I’d much rather they weren’t part of the experience at all, especially when the game builds up to a climax that features the Unitoligists quite heavily, and which, incidentally, makes absolutely no sense.

There are other problems too, ones that grind quietly on your exposed nerves, including the same canned animations that appear over and over again. Each enemy has a struggle animation that activates at random, putting you through a QTE in order to see off the threat. However, each variety of enemy has only one animation, so as you are getting swarmed you might see and go through the same animation and QTE three or four times, if you’re particularly ineffectual, which I am. In a title that suffers from repetitious gameplay at the best of times, it is a painful chore to go through these sequences repeatedly.

Speaking of repetition and awful segues, the actual design of missions and maps is repetitious in and of itself. Isaac is often sent through the same procedure time and time again, encountering the same issues and traps that he has done in the past. I knew that every time a door button flashed red and squawked that I would soon be facing several waves of enemies that I would have to survive for the door to unlock. Certain actions would consistently spawn enemies, and several design features told me exactly where the next bunch would attack from. Set-pieces were arranged several minutes in advance, but would give themselves away the minute I tried to sabotage them.

Although I shudder to have several awkward segues in succession, the idea of sabotage is just too good to pass up, because that is exactly what Dead Space has done in adding the ability to play with a companion. In my eyes the beauty of the series is that it so effectively creates the feeling of isolation, of being completely and utterly alone, and though there has been an attempt to do the same, despite the presence of co-op play, the fact that there are other people around Isaac gives the game an entirely different tone.  Although there are claims that the story changes depending on whether you play alone or with a friend, the reality is that, to maintain the ability to drop in or out at will, Carver always has to be within speaking distance with Isaac. He is seldom alone, and even when he is Carver inevitably appears in cutscenes before miraculously absconding again at the end, taking whatever immersion you’d managed to dredge with him.

The idea of playing with Carver is that, as the duo get closer to the markers, he becomes more and more affected by them, often in ways that Isaac is not. He is meant to be alone in his suffering, but the constant overarching presence of Isaac means that he seldom is. This means that whatever isolation is intended is never achieved, and if played alone you leave the game feeling like you’ve missed a chunk of Carver’s back-story that is never adequately explained.

The promise that Visceral made was that if you chose to play the game alone, then you would not suffer for choosing to do so, and you would be in no way affected, but that is not the case. There are several side-missions that can only be accessed while playing co-op, however, the entry points to these missions are not only present in the single-player campaign, but prominent, meaning that you inevitably walk away from the locked doors feeling like you are missing out.  Frustratingly, even by the story’s end it still vaguely feels like something is missing, like the game is not quite done. It speaks volumes about the plot that, even as it’s going through its final rites, there is the itching feeling that not everything was resolved, and those things that were resolved left plot-holes large enough to fly a helicopter through.

Story aside, Dead Space 3 is a title that scintillates and frustrates in hugely unequal measures. At first it ridiculed my mediocre expectations for it, born from the hype surrounding the multiplayer and microtransactions, and instead delivered several hours of phenomenally dark and unsettling gameplay. From there on it was a downward spiral that featured lacklustre fire-fights with generic humans, awful plot and transparent set-pieces that highlighted just how ‘by the book’ some of this instalment was. It raised my hopes and then destroyed them utterly, and left me feeling slightly bewildered and hugely irritated. The thing is though, I’ll probably play it again, if only to experience those first few hours again. I just wish they could have kept that quality up.

  • Excellent weapon-crafting system
  • A deeply unsettling experience – for a while at least
  • The limb-removing goodness is just as enjoyable as it ever was
  • Isaac has miraculously become a whiny protagonist
  • The Unitoligists are rubbish and generic enemies
  • The story is bad. Really bad
  • Multiplayer intrudes on the single-player campaign
  • All immersion is consistently wrecked

All rumblings about microtransactions and multiplayer and how Dead Space is forever ruined aside, Dead Space 3 does - for a while - produce an utterly fantastic experience. Unfortunately, it is simply too good to last, and after the merry band of heroes arrive on Tau Volantis everything goes to hell in a hand-basket.

Poor implementation of great gameplay elements hinders the game time and time again, and the recurrence of the bland Unitoligists hammers the final nails into the coffin. If I could score this title in two halves I would, as the first section is light-years ahead of the second in terms of quality. In the end though, as a complete experience, this is a disappointment. Space Janitor he may be, but Isaac Clarke deserved a better end to his story.

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  1. Edward Edward says:

    Even if this review hadn’t put me off buying it, I doubt I’d end up giving this a go because I STILL haven’t finish Space Janitor 1! :(
    Excellent review, Keegs :D

  2. Tom Commissar Tom says:

    Watching you grown increasingly frustrated at this game made me so happy, it was as though it was causing you genuine pain.

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