Developer: Visceral Games / Publisher: Electronic Arts / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language]
For any series veteran, much of Dead Space 3 will feel familiar. You once again play as engineer everyman Isaac Clarke as he finds himself caught up in another futuristic mess of markers and necromorphs. You explore derelict space ships and dismember enemies with the now iconic rotating plasma cutter. But like good horror, Dead Space 3 uses the comfort of familiarity to establish a sense of security that is subsequently abused for your terror enjoyment.
Creating tension with an interactive medium (like videogames) is no easy task, but Dead Space 3’s very deliberate pacing, expertly tuned third-person combat, and shit-your-pants scary sound design are all clearly crafted with this one goal in mind. And Visceral Games continues to get great mileage out of the rugged sci-fi/horror visuals and tone. While relying on story events to act as an unobtrusive vehicle for key gameplay moments works for the most part, some late game narrative set pieces really push the suspension of disbelief. Overall, Dead Space 3 never veers too far from the series’ established path but throws enough curveballs to maintain your engagement.
Whenever Dead Space 3 is in danger of becoming too predictable it throws in a moment to knock you out of your comfort zone. The last four elevators you stepped on were perfectly fine so there certainly won’t be a horribly mutated zombie monster popping out of this fifth one, right? That’s what your brain involuntarily tells itself. Where walking down a long, lonely hallway occurs without a second thought in most games, Dead Space 3 makes it a squirm-inducing trial of nerves because you know something is going to happen. But then again maybe it isn’t? It’s this kind of adrenalin-inducing tension that horror game fans love and no film can deliver.
Almost counter-intuitively, Dead Space 3’s combat is integral to establishing tension. The movement and variety of Necromorphs often makes for unpredictable encounters. Rather than approach you directly they may attempt to flank by jumping into the ventilation system and popping out behind you. They may work in tandem; one will rush from the front while another attacks from the side (clever girl?). It’s because of this that you need to be mindful of not just what’s ahead, but what’s all around. It also means that accuracy is just as important as having a quick trigger finger. A single missed shot can be the difference between a dead necromorph and one gnawing on your face.
“Strategic Dismemberment” is the term EA’s marketing department coined to describe the combat in this series and it’s still a key part of Dead Space 3, with a new wrinkle or two. Blowing off specific limbs to prevents enemies from attacking or running forward is generally a more viable strategy than just going for a headshot. But new enemies can evolve depending on how you kill them. Shoot off a torso and short-range melee tentacles will pop out. Shoot off the legs and tentacles with a ranged attack will be birthed. So it’s important to consider the kind of enemy your weapons and tactics can handle. This kind of split second decision-making is just another source of tension that imbues Dead Space 3 with its unique chills.
However, the game doesn’t always succeed in its combat. At specific story points, Dead Space 3 introduces other human (non-necromorph) enemies. Predictably, they completely lack interesting AI and don’t require the strategic approach of the Necromorphs. To throw some salt in the wound, this is the point when Dead Space 3 reveals its somewhat half-baked cover system, which frequently felt like it was trying to get me killed rather than help me stay alive. These sections are relatively few but just don’t work as well as the Necromorph encounters.
Dead Space 3 demonstrates that Visceral knows exactly how to get into your head, and triggering your response to sound effects sits at the center of the effects. On more than one occasion I opened a door or activated an elevator that mimicked the pitch of a Necromorph’s shout. Most games teach a simple language of its processes, but Dead Space 3 exploits those lessons for its own terrifying amusement.
There’s an increased level of personalization in Dead Space 3 that hasn’t been present in the series before. An entirely new crafting mechanic allows you to build wildly unique weapons. For example, I built a shotgun variant that fired electrical bullets AND added melee damage. Additionally, I eventually took the rotation mechanism off my plasma cutter and added a flamethrower. Each gun you acquire is made up of a few interchangeable parts that can be dismantled or crafted from scrap metal. On one hand, this dramatically opens up the possible strategies with which you can approach the combat. The flip side is that with one type of ammo (surely to accommodate all the crazy gun possibilities) ammo management is a non-factor.
Side missions can send Isaac to check out an ammunitions depot where an additional waypoint will appear. A surprising amount of narrative is jammed into these quests, and this is where the audio and text logs shine. You won’t miss out on the larger Dead Space fiction or the story of Isaac by skipping them but there’s some great one-off, contextual narrative that adds color to the world, like a military bunker on the ice planet of Tau Volantis that ran out of food so it’s residents resorted to cannibalism.
As interesting as the contextual story elements and lore can be, the game’s main line narrative is not as great. Unbelievably petty and melodramatic squabbling in the face of a larger disaster (that makes the Walking Dead TV show look grounded) undermines interest in Isaac’s predicament. And some significant late game reveals occur so abruptly and out of left field that I could have sworn I must have blacked out for a large section of the game.
It becomes more difficult to buy what the game’s narrative is selling as it goes on. How many unexpected explosions or falling ladders can separate Isaac from the rest of his team? It’s a common horror trope to watch as groups separate and bicker, but it becomes painful to watch when these characters are nowhere near being relatable. Even Isaac is as one-dimensional as he’s ever been.
This may have emerged in filling another key character slot for co-op multiplayer requirements, which is a key addition here. Between Kinect voice commands that sorta work if you’re on your own, and playing co-op alongside a buddy, EA has pushed marketing, if not gameplay demands. How far the audience embraces the co-op won’t be clear until a few weeks into the game’s launch. In very early, and very incomplete testing, we found it functional, if not a significant advancement on the core mechanic, though we’ll reserve judgment until the technical and practical issues play out with the audience.
No doubt, Dead Space 3 stumbles—pretty hard—in some spots. But it also feels like this is Visceral honing its craft. The combat and pacing are the best they have ever been and some choices invest you in the experience, even if it’s a bummer the story doesn’t hold up.