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Dead Space used to be a horror series. With Dead Space 3, however, it’s transitioned almost completely into the genre of action shooter.
Is Dead Space 3 a good game? The answer is an emphatic yes. Visceral Games has successfully created a big-budget cooperative action experience that will undoubtedly entertain millions of shooter fans for many, many hours. For Dead Space fans, the verdict might not be so clear, because in order to do what it does so well, Dead Space 3 loses much of what made the first game popular to begin with.
Gameplay changes make the game a strong contender in this fairly bloated genre, like a wide variety of weapons and intense firefights. Even the storytelling has moments of brilliance that occasionally glimmered through the non-stop gun-happy action. It’s just not remotely scary.
Run ‘n’ Gun
Between Dead Space 2 and present time, Isaac appears to have withdrawn from society, despite being in control of himself again (stabbing himself in the eye apparently paid off). Through an unexpected turn of events, he’s thrust back into the whole Marker-Unitology business and falls in with a whole new group – plus Ellie – in an effort to save the universe once and for all from Convergence.
The next 20 or so hours that follow feel like a strange marriage between Gears of War and Lost Planet, topped off with a nod to Halo and its most annoying enemy. Players may now crouch behind cover, or charge fearlessly at enemies with the most ridiculously brutal weapons ever conceptualized, thanks to Dead Space 3’s crafting system. The combat feels great, and the vast array of weapons you can create ensures us there’s really no right or wrong way of playing this game.
Dead Space is now your playground, and the Necromorphs are its dimwitted occupants whose only purpose is to act as your test dummies. Not that Necromorphs are the only obstacles standing in Isaac’s way. With Unitologists also racing toward the same goal, human enemies pop up periodically, armed with some powerful firearms but the same comically simplistic AI as the undead. Honestly, the fights will sometimes feel like you’re stomping on ants with how horrendously unchallenging they can be.
Incidentally, it’s because the combat feels so good that the game loses so much of the horror aspect. Necromorphs no longer feel like a threat, except when they swarm in excessive, borderline annoying numbers. Even then, you’ll likely already have a shotgun or some similar weapon type for handling mobs. The Unitologists, while offering some variety, are merely cannon fodder and can easily be sniped from a distance as they try (and fail at) hiding behind cover. Imagine if the Locusts in Gears just stood in place, waiting to be shot; that’s how the humans in Dead Space 3 act on Normal difficulty.
On the bright side, weapon crafting in Dead Space 3 is a lot of fun, and you could literally lose hours on this new feature. The system is remarkably simple and incredibly well designed as a whole, promoting experimentation and player freedom – both rather unexpected in a game like this. The crafting system is very forgiving, as any weapon can be dismantled and its parts returned for later use. Benches are plentiful, giving players plenty of chances to change out or improve their arsenal. About halfway through the game, I was pretty much set with my sniper-carbine rifle, supplemented by a machine gun with an energy blade. Yes, an energy blade, completely stacked with “Rate of Fire” circuits (read: boosts) until I was hacking and slashing my way through Necromorphs at some inhuman speeds. Not scary, but definitely entertaining.
You can craft additional circuits, health packs, ammo, pre-designed weapons from blueprints, and a load of other items, as well. A number of materials are needed in order to construct weapons and items, but on Normal difficulty, these are fairly easy to find through enemy drops and scavenging (with some adorable scavenger bots). A microtransaction system allows lazy players to buy more materials with real money, but it really isn’t at all necessary if you’re willing to put forth a bit of extra effort while playing.
Space and Planetary Exploration
The environments are fairly varied in Dead Space 3. Your first few hours are spent in outer space amongst derelict ships, before Isaac and his team are dropped onto a frozen alien planet. Toward its final hours, the change in scenery will probably catch most players off guard, though saying any more than that would spoil the surprise. By all accounts, the shifting settings should be enough to keep the game from feeling stale, but Dead Space 3 is apparently oblivious to the fact that it’s no longer a horror title. So what the game ends up doing is taking a page from its predecessors by stuffing in a ton of backtracking.
Sure, this tends to be frowned upon in most games, but horror in general can get away with it because of how the genre utilizes the environment by turning it against the player. Dead Space 3, on the other hand, throws atmosphere completely out the window in favor of action, but still crams in a major helping of backtracking, which feels like a complete waste of time rather than a meaningful part of the experience. For whatever reason, elevators are also liberally dispersed, and you’ll actually have sequences that consist of leaving an elevator, running through a short hallway, and then stepping into another elevator (or lift). Just imagine all the elevators in Mass Effect without the party dialogue or any kind of distraction.
If the game were actually scary, then these quiet moments would be much more tolerable, because the player(s) would be too busy wetting their pants to actually notice they’ve ridden ten elevators in the last five minutes or run through the same area three times already. Sadly, Dead Space 3 completely misses the mark on this front. So when Ellie or whoever else throws a task at you, it all winds up feeling like some tedious fetch quest, the kind large scale RPGs are notorious for.
Dead Space 3’s worst offense might be the recycled warehouses. Whether you’re in space or running around on Tau Volantis, Isaac has plenty of optional missions to explore (even more in co-op). While I wouldn’t normally complain about more content, especially when it entails sweet loot, the extra explorable areas are shamelessly recycled. No matter where in the game you are, the same one or two warehouses will pop up, bringing with them the same ol’ puzzles and events. Even textures are sometimes reused, meaning you’ll be seeing some of the same blood-spattered rooms and chalk-marked walls throughout your playthroughs.
Better with a Friend
What helps the tedium is Dead Space 3’s cooperative campaign, because having a buddy along for the ride can really distract you from all the game’s shortcomings. What better way to pass all that elevator time than by punching each other repeatedly? Okay, in all seriousness, co-op is probably the best selling point for Dead Space 3. The second player steps in as John Carver, an EarthGov soldier with one messed up backstory. Now, aside from providing Isaac some much-needed company in his mission to save the entire universe, having Carver along adds more story and depth to the campaign through a number of extra missions. These missions, though optional, are some the best moments in the game.
The second player gets to see the world through Carver’s Marker-touched mind and witness some rather disturbing hallucinations. Visceral actually manages to tell a pretty interesting story through parallels, juxtaposing what the comparatively more sane Isaac experiences with what Carver goes through. The primary player, as Isaac, doesn’t get to see everything Carver sees, but you’re a part of that story and gaining additional insight into the overarching plot that single-player completely skips over. The cooperative campaign, in some sense, feels like the way Dead Space 3 should be played, just because it adds so much more to the game. This is also pretty disappointing when you consider the lack of split-screen support, meaning an online pass is required for co-op.
At the end of the day, I can’t help but feel single-player gets shafted. All the psychological elements from Dead Space 2 have been removed from Isaac, making him all the more bland as a protagonist, especially when you realize he’s the world’s punching bag; unreasonably compliant, doing what he’s told without question. Perhaps Visceral realized this to some extent, and then tried to add a romantic subplot between Isaac and Ellie in an effort to make him more relatable. Unfortunately, the romance winds up being the worst part of the story, exacerbated by the inconsistent characters.
Dead Space won many people over by giving the horror genre a nice bump up, but all that seems like a lifetime ago. Now the franchise finds itself in that uncomfortable limbo between horror and action, similar to Resident Evil 6, crossing into another genre while stubbornly clinging to remnants of its former self. I will say, however, that Dead Space 3 makes the transition much more successfully than Resident Evil has, meaning that the end product is still solid, even if it’s also unrecognizable.
Dead Space 3 is, without a doubt, a fun action shooter. At the end of the day, that’s really all it is, all the series has become. If you’re looking for a decent co-op shooter to enjoy with a friend, then Dead Space 3 may be worth looking at. Anyone hoping for a good scare, on the other hand, is better off looking elsewhere for a fix.
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