Dead Space 3 Review
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On 05/09/2013 at 12:00 PM by Daniel Iverson
First it giveth, then it taketh away.
Dead Space 3 is a disappointing action game, horror game, and sequel. Unless you're already a fan of the series and worried about missing important plot points, you're safe to skip it.
Last June, EA Labels President Frank Gibeau said the publisher's objective for Dead Space 3 was to increase accessibility without upsetting established fans. To give credit where it's due, EA was half successful—the first half. But with its compromised and uninspired design, Dead Space 3 is streamlined almost beyond recognition. And I'm upset.
Alone and clearly traumatized after Dead Space 2, Isaac Clarke is abruptly called back into action to rescue Dead Space 2 survivor and ex-girlfriend, Ellie Langford, from her investigative mission on frozen planet, Tau Volantis, home world of the marker and origin of the necromorph phenomenon. Isaac is antagonized by Jacob Danik, Alfred Molina doppelgänger and leader of a militant Unitologist branch. If you’ve played any of the previous Dead Space games you’ll remember the Unitologists as the fanatics that believe the mutated necromorphs are actually the next step in human evolution.
The story crawls along with little urgency and is full of one-dimensional characters. Isaac himself is unrealistically patient with the supporting cast, which stands idly by while he completes incredibly dangerous tasks and then criticizes him after he returns. For the single player mode, ostensible deuteragonist and multiplayer co-op partner John Carver appears only a handful of times as if to convince us he's still important. The story is the weakest of the trilogy, but to its credit, it does expand upon Dead Space lore by explaining a lot about the history and true nature of the markers.
With its whiteout blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and icy crags, Tau Volantis is at least as hostile as the Ishimura or the Sprawl. It's a setting rife with potential for creative gameplay mechanics and terrifying set pieces the game rarely capitalizes on.
Since you’re no longer in space for the majority of the game, you’ll rarely think about things like gravity and oxygen (although the game courteously still allows you to upgrade the air module you'll almost never use). That'd be fine, were there other new mechanics to replace them with. Temperature is a problem for about 15 minutes, after which Isaac circumvents it entirely by switching to a suit which, to me, appears to be identical except for a line of fur. Other than a couple parts where you scale a cliff and avoid falling debris, the environment is criminally underused for gameplay purposes.
Failure to use the setting effectively would be easier to forgive if Dead Space 3 at least delivered the quality stage design for which the series is known, but even environmental puzzles are few and far between. Instead of requiring logic, observation, and Isaac’s abilities, puzzles are largely reduced to occasional mini-games with uninteresting objectives such as rotating gears to match symbols. By the penultimate chapter, the game all but stops trying to impress you and instead forces you through identical corridors while the same door puzzle punctuates wave after wave of necromorphs.
Oh, yes: the necromorphs. They're faster, a lot faster, than before—plus less diverse and more durable. Should you get bored with rotating gears, there are always more of them to kill. While the older games evoked fear and required strategy by deliberately presenting different enemies utilizing varying attacks from multiple directions at different speeds, Dead Space 3 sloppily swarms you with hordes of mostly the same thing. Even with fully upgraded weapons and dismemberment tactics, necromorphs still often require more than a whole clip to kill. Add the fact you're often pushed into a corner with no defense except to spam health packs and continue shooting, and you'll probably be too damn irritated to even notice you're not scared.
After the fight, you're rewarded with loads of universal ammo, health packs, and upgrade components, which you'll immediately use trying to survive the next wave. Other genres would call it "loot." (Can you imagine how awful a formerly well respected horror franchise trying to be a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler would be?)
Necromorphs are one-trick ponies. By the 10th time one bursts from the ice below you, it's no longer scary. If you're acquainted with the Alien films, you'll appreciate how simply throwing more necromorphs at you isn't necessarily scary, either. With too little downtime between encounters, Dead Space 3 struggles to build up any significant tension.
Although rare, the brilliance of the first two games occasionally shines through to the third. The exposition set orbiting Tau Volantis really struck me with its chilling music and scenes of debris floating above the icy planet below, foreshadowing events to come. The following descent to the surface is an excellent set piece, but I'll stop there to avoid spoiling it. The new optional side missions often featuring their own self-contained stories are a welcome addition. While it’s light on scares, the game is still highly immersive with its minimalist HUD and effective use of doors and elevators to obscure loading times.
The new crafting system adds a lot of customization by allowing you to create, modify, and upgrade weapons with components you've collected. It's a refreshing improvement from the linear upgrades of the previous games, but it's also a bit imbalanced. I never topped the first gun I created (an assault rifle with stasis-coated bullets and flamethrower attachment) and ended up using it for the majority of the game, which sort of negated the variety the system otherwise adds.
Even if you're a more talented crafter than I (or following a guide), Isaac is now restricted to holding two weapons instead of four. So although you're able to create hundreds of nifty arms, you're only able to carry two. Considered with the universal ammo, it's another area where streamlining pushes Dead Space closer and closer to generic action.
Although it's a perfectly functional game with high production values, Dead Space 3 is also a paragon of bad design choices and worse execution with just enough of its heritage intact to remind you of how disappointing it is. It doesn't only fail to advance the series (let alone the genre) but actually regresses by replacing the core experience with something far less engaging, less innovative, and less scary.