The final installment of a trilogy is always the toughest part to nail. The third part of a trilogy has to close out narrative threads that stretched across two other pieces of media while still creating its own interesting story that doesn’t simply retread old ground already covered by the previous two installments. It has to simultaneously feel familiar and fresh, two sometimes contradictory goals.
Dead Space 3 is a classic conflicted finale to a trilogy. It has moments of blissful mechanical refinement surrounded by a block-headed narrative that undercuts almost all of the mechanical good it does.
Visceral Games has honed the mechanics of Dead Space 3 to a fine point. Series’ protagonist Isaac Clarke moves swiftly and with more precision than ever, and each of the different weapons in his arsenal feel powerful and unique. Speaking of this arsenal, Dead Space 3 boasts a weapon customization that is deep and robust, so much so that it is easy to lose oneself for hours at a workbench, fiddling with this or that, trying to find the perfect combination. Basically, players will collect parts of weapons throughout the game’s 15-hour campaign, and these parts can all be combined in a multitude of ways in order to create new and creative ways to dispatch enemies. Combinations such as a Carbine and Ripper are easily created, and the customization extends further with custom tips, which augment firing capabilities, turning that standard saw into a projectile, or creating a Plasma Cutter Shotgun. The possibilities are almost literally endless, especially once the different buffs are taken into account, which can provide extra ammunition or acid damage. The blueprints for created weapons are easily shared between co-op partners, making it easy to find and unlock new and creative ways to deal punishment.
Dead Space 3 also features more combat against armed enemies than ever before, especially in the first quarter or so of the game. A player would be forgiven for mistaking Dead Space 3 for a conventional shooter at its outset; it’s only until a little bit later that the Necromorphs make their first appearance. Don’t mistake this for a complete radicalization of the way the game plays, however. Dead Space 3 is still Dead Space at its core, with all of the good and bad that comes with. Some segments recall the claustrophobic Ishimura from the first game, while others resemble the more open Sprawl of Dead Space 2. The game still overly relies on jump scares to startle players, and veterans of the series may find themselves not as easily swayed by Visceral’s usual tricks. However, the removal of save points is rather puzzling, and the checkpoint system that replaces them is seriously flawed. There were multiple times where progress was lost due to a miscommunication in terms of saving, and the checkpoints are placed too far apart to be really useful. They also don’t trigger during the lengthy side-missions, making them a tough sell for players who aren’t wholly invested in the combat and encounter design, which takes a step back during these segments.
The narrative takes players through numerous locations and, while the variety is nice, none of the areas feel as robust as the areas in the first two games, which were set in one central location. The progression feels off, and oftentimes it’s easy to lose track of where to go and why. The Ishimura felt like a ship, while The Sprawl felt like a huge community, and Dead Space 3‘s insistence on touring takes away some of the luster of the series.
This galaxy-hopping also seemingly makes the game feel less creepy. There aren’t any locations that really create that tension that areas in Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were able to create. There’s nothing like the Unitology compound in Dead Space 3, for instance. In a lot of ways, Dead Space 3 feels a bit like Dead Space‘s Greatest Hits, with a lot of the same enemy types and encounters as the first two games, interspersed with new and far more interesting situations. The game also has a tendency to repeat itself, making certain situations (such as the multiple Stalker sections) feel more ersatz than the last.
That sense of repetition is also due in part to the game’s script, which is stretched far too thin. It seems like there’s really about 8 hours worth of story here, but it’s stretched to more than twice that length. The various ways that Isaac gets separated from his group became a sort of running gag as the game progressed. Due to the nature of the gameplay, Isaac and company couldn’t be together for longer than a couple of minutes, so it was inevitable that an elevator would malfunction, or a rock face would crumble, separating the group. It just happens so much that it becomes tedious. The first two games partially avoided this problem by creating engineering scenarios for Isaac to participate in. Dead Space 3‘s plot moves in an almost-literal straight line, so the reasons for missions escalate in silliness until the game’s strong finish.
That’s not to speak of the character work, which is also far more straightforward than in previous games. Isaac plays the dutiful hero here, conscripted into action, but generally mentally stable, as opposed to the shaken, broken man that was left after the events of the first two games. It’s hard to figure out why Isaac is suddenly so well-adjusted, and the game makes no effort to explain it. When Isaac gives some reassuring words to a relative stranger in his group, it’s impossible not to notice how different he is as a character. The main villain, Danik, is a one-dimensional faux-Bond construct, full of haughty laughter and snide, mustache-twisting arrogance. There’s no mystery to him, no swerve that changes how players might view his character. He has a one-note introduction, and that one-note plays repeatedly throughout the campaign. The narrative as a whole doesn’t feel as imaginative as in past games of the series, and the series’ rich lore (explored in fantastic transmedia such as the wonderful book, Martyr) goes largely unexplored.
New to the game is cooperative play, and the implementation is full of good ideas but flawed in execution. John Carver, the partner to Isaac Clarke, flits in and out of the single-player campaign, appearing out of thin air to fulfill a plot point. Also, he winds up having a connection with Isaac that seemingly comes out of nowhere. The actual co-operative gameplay is well-implemented, as Carver is everything Isaac is not. He’s a mess emotionally and mentally, and the various co-op missions flesh out his entertaining backstory. However, unless the campaign is played start-to-finish with one player, it’s almost impossible to find anyone who doesn’t want to play as Carver, especially if they are trying to fill in his story. A better decision would have been to allow players to play Carver’s sections of the game as a separate single-player set of missions either interspersed throughout the story or selectable after completion of the game. As it stands, the idea of Dead Space 3‘s co-operative play is a lot better than the actual execution.
Aesthetically, Dead Space 3 is a marvel. The music, composed by the talented Jason Graves, sets a much better mood than the actual narrative. There’s an adventurous feel to the score which highlights the more galaxy-trotting nature of the campaign, but it settles into tense strings when necessary. The sound design during zero-gravity segments is as effective as ever, too, with Isaac’s breathing taking center-stage in the audio, muffling everything else.
The game is also a treat to look at, as each of its various environments have a consistency in art that is quite an accomplishment, considering the nature of Dead Space 3‘s campaign. The snowy Tau Volantis is amazing to behold, with its alien sunsets and foggy tundras. There’s an attention to detail in the visual presentation that hasn’t been there before, it seems. Isaac’s helmet is now a light-source (at least on PC), and its green light is reflected accurately on the environments. The various enemies of Dead Space 3 are appropriately deformed and ugly and are genuinely harrowing up close (especially considering how much faster they seem to move this time around). The facial animation work is top-notch, even if the vocal performances are occasionally flat.
Dead Space 3 is an ambitious game from start to finish. The co-op play and weapon crafting system are totally new directions for the action-horror genre. Yet, Dead Space 3 feels stretched incredibly thin. The absurdity of some of its world elements grate more than they used to (the ubiquity of the RIG being one of them), and the plot cannot sustain itself for the duration of the campaign. The co-op play, while a good idea, suffers from some of the realities of segmenting content, which will frustrate users looking to experience all that Dead Space 3 has to offer. In all, the experience of playing Dead Space 3 far outweighs the storytelling and general ambiance of the game, and that’s a shame. Check out our video companion below, and let us know what you think in the comments!
A copy of Dead Space 3 for the PC was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.