After a dearth of horror games, Dead Space was not only what survival horror fans had been hoping for, but a game that delivered an experience that reinvigorated the genre (somewhat.) Then Dead Space 2 hit, and the horror aspect was pushed a little to the wayside in favour of a few more action scenes; but the spirit remained. Now Dead Space 3 has arrived. Initially, fans were a little worried by what had been shown off pre-release: enemies that fire back, a cover system, and - what may have disturbed some more than others - microtransactions. Did they mess it up?
Let's start at the beginning. Dead Space follows the story of Isaac Clarke, an engineer who stumbled upon the horror that is the Necromorphs upon the spaceship Ishimura. He eventually destroys a "Marker"; an object that “evolves” organic matter into its next state - in this case, Necromorphs. Three years later, Isaac wakes up on the Sprawl, a densely populated space-station surrounding a shard of Titan - one of Saturn’s moons. Another breakout of Necromorphs causes Isaac to pick up his engineering tools once more and destroy the threat, and yet another Marker.
Now Isaac Clarke is back, this time on Tau Volantis to lay waste to another breakout of Necromorphs and to destroy... you guessed it... a Marker. To be fair, the story is actually pretty great, it just wouldn’t be good etiquette to spoil what is hopefully the final chapter of the series. For as captivating the story is, the gameplay is starting to feel stale - especially when every second goal is to get back to your group of comrades. More often than not, cutscenes show Isaac being separated from his group and doing what he can to get back to them. Chuck in the typical “find three of these things to progress” missions and you have the bulk of Dead Space 3.
Dead Space 3 starts out great; you play a soldier on Tau Volantis and you’re introduced to what is more of a shooter than previous iterations. This could have worked well had the game revolved around this new character, but it’s short-lived and you’re soon back in control of our favourite engineer. What this ends up introducing, however, is a strange imbalance of what could have been versus what actually is.
A new character and an evolution of the gameplay could have hooked new gamers and allowed the developers to push the final fight of the story as a more action-packed scenario. Instead, we’re given Isaac, and the first part of the game is in space in metal corridors; suddenly we’ve pushed aside the action aspect we were introduced to and start expecting the tension and scares we know and love. But it never really gets to where it wants to be, sitting squarely in between third person shooter and survival horror.
Since we’ve gone through two outbreaks with Isaac and we know the Necromorphs intimately, Visceral Games needed to do something new to bring tension and scares back. Instead the game plays as though Isaac is merely put off by the return of the monstrous creatures that have haunted his past. This, mixed with the fact that we already know how to dispose of them, makes the game less tense and more about just wiping out the annoying waves of reanimated dead.
Where Dead Space played with isolation and limited health and ammo, Dead Space 3 plays with overwhelming you. You’ll be given plenty of health and ammo to take on anything that comes your way, and they do this because they expect you to be injured a lot and to go through as much ammo as possible. Another change here is that ammo clips can be used in any gun at any time, so instead of running out of energy for your stronger weapon and having to switch over to your weaker one, you can change at will between the two guns currently in your loadout. It’s another step towards removing tension, but for the purposes of the swarms you’ll be encountering, it had to be done.
As mentioned, Dead Space 3 has a completely different outlook on throwing enemies at you. Instead of hearing something, somewhere nearby, and being unsure when a Necromorph will come at you, the enemies in Dead Space 3 are laughably predictable. All too often you need to press a button, but there’s a malfunction or a long wait that won’t fix itself until you’ve killed the next five waves of enemies. This is especially frustrating in side missions, as the difficulty ramps up to a butt-clenching level.
This is just another reason that the game doesn’t hold up to the previous titles when it comes to tension. You’re stocked up with plenty of ammo and health, you already know there’s going to be a lot of monsters, and you can see all the vents they’ll be pouring out of. So it should be fun to just open fire and destroy everything coming your way, right? Sadly, Isaac is an engineer, not a soldier, and unless you’ve spent your time only upgrading the reload speeds of guns, and stasis (the ability to slow your enemies to a crawl for a few seconds), you’ll find more frustration than fun.
What’s worse is that if you die and have to do that section again - and you will - every attempt is slightly different to the one before it. Enemies drop different pick-ups, so you can’t rely on that health pack you got last time. The specific type that crawled out of that vent five attempts in a row now falls onto you from above while you line up that original vent, or maybe now there’s that explosive guy that hasn’t shown up at all before, but has decided to enter the game right when you’re backed up against a wall. It’s this mess of AI and design that stops you from being able to organise a strategy and fumble through until you best it. Here’s hoping you didn’t hit the auto-save with next to no health, cos that’s how you’ll start each time.
Something that has stayed true to the previous iterations is that the music gives you clues as to what’s going on in the environment around you. A sound effect followed by some dramatic music means you’re about to come head to head with something that won't be good for Isaac’s health. Once the final creature is killed, the music fades away and you know it’s safe to progress. While the fading of the music gave players the chance to catch their breaths in Dead Space, the feeling in Dead Space 3 is vastly different. It’s not about having a moment to collect oneself and it isn’t about taking a deep breath with the controller on your lap; it’s just a signal to continue on Isaac’s path.
Unlike the previous two titles, Dead Space 3 doesn’t use save stations to ensure your progress. Instead the game uses an auto-save feature, much like most other games these days. While it works for the most part, there are also moments where the game looks like it’s saving your progress but upon closer inspection is only saving your inventory progress, which is actually quite weird. You’ll be forgiven for seeing the save animation and switching it off without a further thought only to find you have to redo a section of the game you were glad to see the back of.
One aspect of Dead Space 3 that you might be expecting to hear some hatred about is one of the least disappointing aspects of the game: microtransactions. In Dead Space 3, everything can be upgraded or built using random material found in the world. There are a multitude of things to spend the bits and pieces on and there are only a few ways to find them. Enemies and boxes sometime house them, you can send a companion bot out to find them, side-missions have a lot of them, and, of course, you can buy boxes of them with real money.
The big fear here is that the regular drop-rate has been tampered with to force you into purchasing things instead, and that’s a legitimate fear after what has been seen with the mobile market. To be honest, when you first get to a weapon/item bench and see the list of things you can spend material on, it’s easy to think that’s exactly what has been put in place. Unlike other games in the series, you have every gun and item available to make from the get-go, so what you see is a giant list of stuff you don’t have but that sounds cool.
Try and forget what you see and just play; by mid-way you’ll have enough stuff to upgrade your armour, health, and even put together a few of the bigger guns. In the end the upgrade system is paced similarly to that seen in the previous games - it’s just a little off putting to see everything from the start of the game. While the microtransactions could have been implemented better, you won’t ever be pushed to use them.
In the end, Dead Space 3 is a combination of an average shooter (that won’t appeal to shooter fans) and a (tension and atmosphere barren) survival horror game. Because of the changes and experiences that Isaac and the player have gone through since the first attack on the Ishimura, Visceral Games needed to do something new to bring that same sense of fear and tension to the game. For those wanting to finish Isaac’s story it’s good to know you’ll at least have a beautiful game to look at - when it isn’t just snow and metal corridors - and a great backstory found in text and audio logs. For those looking for a good shooter or an online experience, be sure to play this in co-op mode.