PAR reviews Dead Space 3: the game does everything right except the horror
Dead Space 3
Dead Space 3 is a good game.
Let’s get that out of the way now. The game is well-made, visually attractive, and all the moving pieces work together to create a very enjoyable 15-20 hours of game play. Dead Space 3 also does a good job of concluding the three-game story arc of the existing Dead Space series, although some at EA have gotten upset at me for calling that arc a trilogy. Dead Space 3 makes it very clear that the series will continue in some form.
The problem is that Dead Space 3 is a good game that feels out of place in the Dead Space universe.
A stand up fight
The game picks up some time after the events of Dead Space 2. We find Isaac Clarke trying to hide out and forget the events of the first two games, but of course that doesn’t work out very well. Soon he’s under attack by a group of Unitologists who want to free a series of Markers, the focal point of the religion of Unitology, from the research facilities that are trying to study them.
We all know what happens next. The running, and the screaming.
It feels odd to be fighting other human characters in the world of Dead Space, and there is now the ability to crouch behind cover and design your own guns, two major departures for the series. The crafting system is easy to understand, and fun in practice: You collect or create a series of components that are assembled at the various benches scattered around the game, adjusting your weapon by locking different components, with different buffs and modules, together.
You are given a number of scavenger bots that will collect raw materials for you, although you must search for the best places to release them. It’s a simple thing to experiment with the different types of weapons, and the game doesn’t punish you for dismantling your creations to try something new. This is a great addition to the series, and you’ll be surprised at some of the guns and weapons you can put together. There are also blueprints to be found if you want to cut to the chase and use the weapons the developers designed for you.
This also plays into my issues with the game. I had constructed two very powerful and satisfying machine guns with useful secondary weapons, including a rocket launcher, and I found myself in a series of gun fights against human enemies on an icy planet. It was pure action, and these scenes go on for a long time.
The gunfights are well-paced, even if the AI can be a little simplistic, and the guns look and sound appropriately scary, but so much of what I loved about the prior games is gone. Dead Space was built on the idea that this was a engineer who used tools from his environment to fight back against an unknown enemy. The plasma cutter was improvised, not designed. Isaac Clarke is now more akin to Tony Stark, creating new custom-made killing machines at a moment’s notice. Even the modules that sound like industrial tools look and act like guns. The trappings are here, but the soul has been lost.
The moments of quiet, and the slow escalation of the Necromorph infestation are both handled very well in the first two games. The Ishimura was a floating haunted house, and the original Dead Space could at times feel like all the good parts of the Alien and Aliens films mixed together. Dead Space 2 invited you deeper into the world of Unitology, and the juxtaposition of the church-like environment and the horror of the Necromorphs were handled beautifully.
It was a balance of tension and release, combat and dread. Dead Space 3 merely turns up the intensity. The game begins at a fast-pace and never seems to look back.
The problems of horror as a AAA franchise
That’s not to say that the series has shed its DNA completely. The same gothic design is still evident in many of the environments, and the scenes that take place in space, complete with muted sounds and a sense of isolation, remain effective. There are a few simple puzzle elements, but they never get in the way of the core game mechanics.
Once the game takes you to the icy planet that serves as the story’s second half, things fall apart. There are appropriately eerie touches here and there and hints of what went wrong to the humans that used to live in this environment, but it often feels like a war game, albeit with the addition of monsters. There is a boss that pops up in a few places, complete with glowing orange tentacles and a bug-like design, that seems like a reject from Capcom’s Lost Planet series. The game’s influences now seem muddled and indistinct, where the past games borrowed from the best of horror and action.
You’ll still need to take your enemies apart limb from limb, but the skirmishes of the past game have escalated to open war between Isaac, the Unitologists, and the Necromorphs. In many scenes fighting breaks out between all three, and those moments are thrilling, but they’re too loud and obvious to feel at home in the Dead Space world.
Which is a shame, because you can see the skeleton of a Dead Space game in here. The idea of a game that takes place in a setting evocative of the desolation from John Carpenter’s The Thing is exciting. The problem is that the sense of pacing, terror, and slowly increasing danger have all but left the series. The things that Dead Space 3 does so skillfully, and this is clearly the work of a talented team, are things I can find in other games. What was lost is something that has yet to be replicated in any other series.
When the game gets in the way of the scares.
In practice, the microtransaction model isn’t annoying. Sure, it’s offered at the benches, but I was never tempted to bring in any extra support from outside the game, and I also never felt like I was missing out due to that decision. It was easy to ignore the prompts to download for-pay content. You may not like the system that allows you to pay to become more powerful, but if you don’t like it, don’t use it. I saw little evidence to support the idea that the game was tuned to require the use of outside funds.
The addition of co-op was much more distracting and didn’t fare nearly as well. I played through the game in single-player, because the idea of a co-op Dead Space doesn’t appeal to me, at least not for my first time through the game. Carver, the player controlled by the second player should they join, dutifully stayed out of my way save for the few scenes where he need to be there. Isaac was alone through most of the game, which is the way it should be.
On the other hand, the game has optional side-missions that you can only access if you’re playing with a friend, and the lack of tension was already a problem before screen prompts inviting you to bring in a friend interrupted the action. Yes, I know there is content I’m missing. No, I don’t want to stop my game and bring in someone else. I made the conscious decision to play by myself, so do us both a favor and quit trying to get me to change my mind.
EA and Visceral games added co-op in a way that made adding another player seamless, and it’s a neat trick. The downside is that the game actively tries to push you into the content instead of respecting your wishes. When I’m trying to be scared, I don’t like to be reminded that I’m playing a game.
Imagine watching a horror film that, every so often, flashes words on the screen that ask if you’d like to call a friend. No thank you.
The lack of stakes
The Walking Dead episodic game may be the best example of a modern horror game, due to that fact that the writers were fearless about killing characters. Not only was no one safe, and character deaths were often shocking, but those who died stayed dead. Well, they may turn into zombies, but you get the point. They weren’t coming back as themselves.
The game played for keeps, and this gave each scene a gravity that is rare in video games. Dead Space 3, on the other hand, works hard to undermine its own sense of danger.
Characters die when there needs to be a dramatic moment, but then the game simply undoes it when the plot needs someone to come back. This is the same issue that plagues long-running comic books: We all know that Peter Parker isn’t really going to die, so the world turns into a sort of playground for story where no one is ever in any real danger. Once you begin to see the strings being pulled and you realize that the series is scared to let anyone go, things begin to feel comfortable. It’s like watching a sitcom that is still enjoying high ratings; nothing can ever change. Someone has to hit the reset switch at the end of each episode.
Carver himself acts in a way that seems odd until you play through some of the co-op content and you get a chance to see what’s going on inside his head. In fact, Carver is used to give you a sense of what the Marker does to the mind of those affected by it, but the only way you can see this content is to play with a friend and compare notes when one of you plays as Carver. The single-player campaign offers little of this insight into the mental conditions of those who go through these situations. Isaac Clarke may seem tortured when the game begins, but once the story begins in earnest he simply becomes another superhero who is ready to do the right thing. He’s remarkably okay with everything that’s going on around him, especially considering the hell that he went through in the previous two games.
There is also the feeling that the game was stretched artificially. You’ll spend much time going back over old ground, and the environments begin to look the same. The game is always keen to have you run to a certain area, and then run all the way back, and then return, and then go through an inexplicable amount of elevators. It began to feel like an MMO with all the needless running and repeating textures and environments. You can also expect some punishing battles; I’m not ashamed to admit that I dumped the difficulty down to casual just to finish the game. I didn’t feel challenged, I felt discouraged. Your mileage may vary.
The game does a better job leading up to the finale, and you learn how the series gets its name in the final hours. A few very scary things are revealed, and the game’s aesthetic goes through an interesting shift. That’s all I’ll say for now. Some aspects of the game’s back story are revealed to be much bleaker than originally thought, and the Dead Space series was already pretty damn bleak. There is one extended fetch quest that ends with a grisly pay-off, and a hint at what’s to come for the last section of the game. I won’t ruin it, but you’ll enjoy the name Rosetta before the game is over.
Dead Space 3 is a good game
It’s hard to separate what a game is trying to be and what it does well from what we want it to be. Dead Space 3 fulfills its goals with gusto, it provides an end to a chapter of the Dead Space saga and of course opens a new one. It makes sense for the climax of a three-part story to be so action-oriented and to have trouble recreating the tension and slow burn of the previous games. Things were going to get resolved, and it was going to take guns and large set pieces to do so. All the pieces fit together and they do what they’re expected to do. I don’t think anyone is going to feel cheated out of their $60.
For many fans of the series though, this won’t be the game they want. They may miss some of the subtleties of the story by not playing in co-op, and the single-player campaign does a good job of moving the story from point A to point B, with a few solid moments and jump-scares strewn about, but the third game in the series takes very few risks and delivers exactly what you’d expect from a big-budget action game. No more, no less. Dead Space 3 is a good game, but it’s not the game I hoped for.