I don’t get scared very easily. That’s not machismo talking, it’s just the truth; while I enjoy scary movies, survival horror games, and even ghost stories, but my enjoyment comes from allowing myself to be drawn in and spooked. I don’t experience nightmares or sit up listening to things go bump in the night afterwards. So I always consider it a testament to a title’s terror credibility when it gets under my skin: Dan Simmons’ historically engrossing novel Drood, John Carpenter’s hopeless tale of survival The Thing, and the genre re-defining Resident Evil 4 all have places on that list.
I say all that to give you a foundation for the following statement: I could not play Dead Space 3 for more than a few hours at a time before my anxiety levels became unbearable. I’m going to talk a lot here about the series’ evolution into an action game, but I wanted to establish that no matter how much the balance of power might have shifted in Isaac Clarke’s favor, this game will still scare the Hell out of you if you let it. It accomplishes this task the same way the first two did:
Necromorphs are $*^-ing terrifying.
For me, at least, that has always been the core concept of Dead Space. These aren’t just zombies that a headshot will put down, or Flood that drop after a few shotgun blasts, or even the mutation-capable Plaga. We’re talking about civilians whose ribs are now talons used to crawl along the ground; workers whose legs rotted off and their spinal column is now a scorpion tail; toddlers on all fours with barbed tentacles growing from their backs; and finally, crab walking infants with their torsos swollen into exploding sacs of acid.
As if those creature designs weren’t enough, the persistent gameplay mechanic is that shooting them is never enough. You have to dismember them, take them apart piece-by-piece, and even that just slows them down at first. The standard necro has four limbs and a head, and can lose two of those things and still survive; three if one piece is the head and it still has both arm appendages. Body shots might eventually cut them in two, but that doesn’t always stop the upper half from dragging itself after you.
One of the new enemy types is mutated researchers in arctic gear dual-wielding climbing axes. Taking off their upper half results in their legs sprouting three tentacles and continuing to attack, and you have to take off two tentacles to finally drop them. Late in the game I missed the tentacles on one with a shotgun blast and got the legs instead; I mistakenly though it dead as the force knocked it away, only to be horrified as the intact tentacles began crawling after me, dragging the now-useless legs behind them.
The Binding of Isaac
With that image now firmly in your mind, we can continue on to a more extensive look at the game as a whole: Dead Space 3 continues the tale of Isaac Clarke and his seemingly inevitable fight against the alien artifacts known as Markers, the Necromorphs they create, and the Church of Unitology whose members seem to think that becoming an undead nightmare is some sort of transcendence. I’m not big one reviews that spend too much time on the past; if you want to know what happened before, there are two excellent games that can fill you in. The only really important bit is that Isaac was previously imprinted with the “gift” of being able to decode, create, and destroy Markers.
After the events of DS and DS 2, Isaac understandably decided he was done getting involved in situations where he had to perform combat amputations on entire populations using jacked-up power tools. Unfortunately, both the forces of EarthGov and Unitology fell differently, and have small armies to back them up. A small squad of EG troops has located what they believe to be the Marker “homeworld” and they want Isaac’s help to possibly eradicate the necro threat for good. Just as they arrive on the lunar colony to enlist him, the Unitologist leader Dannick launches a massive coup that culminates in him activating Markers that had been secretly installed in an unknown number of locations.
From there, things get all sci-fi horror as crap just starts falling to pieces around Isaac and the rest of the team. You eventually make it to the Marker homeworld, and once there you uncover evidence that “all of this has happened before,” etc. The planet itself, known as Tau Volantis, has been visited by more than one group of people (and more than one species) trying to understand, control, eliminate or activate the Markers over the millennia. Its frozen plains and canyons make for an interesting change from the usual deserted corridors Isaac finds himself in, and allows for new necros to do things like pop up out of the snow or blindside you in a white-out blizzard. A late game environment shift puts you back in corridors for good, but the change is part of a plot reveal that makes those sections more interesting than you’d think.
A Fistful of Stasis
Attractive environments aren’t your only reason to pay attention to your surrounds, as DS 3 ups the ante in terms of the series’ weapon crafting / upgrading system. For those unfamiliar with previous installments, each weapon came pre-built and used a unique type of ammo; upgrading was accomplished by using a universal resource to unlock new stats via a branching research tree specific to each gun. Most players eventually settled on two weapons that they just couldn’t live without for upgrading, and used the rest of them as circumstances dictated.
The new system breaks each weapon down into core components: the basic frame, a top tool, a bottom tool, a tip for each tool, and two attachment slots. These parts can either be found in the world or constructed as you need them from scrap; there are also blueprints that can be constructed from scratch if you have enough resources. Ammo is also universal this time around, so you don’t have to micro-manage how much you have for each weapon or worry about equipping something and forgetting to change out your clips.
The end result is combat that can be significantly more varied than previous outings, if you want to put in the effort. I won’t go into all the variations, or even a fraction of them, because even I only scratched the surface. Suffice to say that if you’ve ever wanted a high-tech beam rifle that fires acid-coated saw blades from its lower half, or a dual-stream flamethrower / cryo gun that also puts enemies in brief suspended animation, you’ll probably find the crafting system to your liking. Upgrading has also been streamlined into “circuits” that affect damage, reload speed, clip size, and fire rate; these can also be found / crafted and are freely interchangeable between weapons.
I beat the first DS using only my plasma cutter, not because I wanted the “One Gun” achievement (though that was a nice bonus) but because none of the other weapons felt as solid to me. I quickly realized in DS 2 that such tactics were unadvisable, and DS 3 only builds on those changes. Crafting and equipping weapons suited to your play style is essential, because you’re going to be using those weapons at every turn. Make no mistake; this is an action game where the enemies just happen to be horrible monstrosities. You will have to fight off necros in most rooms, and as the game progresses they only become more frequent in both numbers and variety; it’s these large-scale, multi-wave fights that provide biggest test of your loadouts and resource management.
This installment introduces human enemies for the first time in the form of Unitologist soldiers that attack in squads. I had heard these segments praised as a nice break from necro hordes, but to be honest they fell kind of flat for me for one reason: headshots. I’ve spent two full DS games learning to pick limbs off charging necros from twenty yards out; I’m Sheldon Pendergrass with a plasma cutter. So when you give me enemies that can be dropped with a single shot, and combine that with the ability to craft a weapon whose sole purpose is damage and accuracy, I’m left with a lot of corpses just waiting to be infected. Supposedly the soldier AI is capable of impressive tactical maneuvering, but again, I didn’t sit around waiting for them to start flanking me in two-man teams or whatever.
The designers must have recognized this fact, because there is an enemy type that consists of a head that crawls around on tentacles and attaches itself only to enemies who already don’t have heads; said enemies then get back up and either fire wildly in your general direction or try to club you if you get too close. I haven’t decided if I’m impressed that they tried to make the soldiers a dual-threat or annoyed that they didn’t just have them immediately get ambushed and reanimated every time you encountered them. Hell, about half the time you encounter them toward the end of the game that is exactly what happens, and often on a large scale that makes you feel pretty awesome as you sprint through the chaos.
Now Entering Zero Gravity
If I have one major complaint about the game, it would be that it contains several half-developed concepts such as this one. The zero-gravity sections have finally been perfected, but now there are bits where Isaac is rappelling up and down cliff faces while fighting enemies and dodging avalanches; the idea is solid, but the execution – especially when it comes to the collision detection for dodging chasms and debris – is so maddening I almost threw my controller on more than one occasion. There’s a new type of hacking mini-game that uses the analog sticks to control the interface, but very early on it introduces diagonal movement, which it can only accurately detect about half the time.
The weapon crafting is great, as I said, but weapon parts, upgrades circuits, and spare part boxes all take up space in your inventory until you can get to a bench and store them. This wouldn’t be as aggravating if there weren’t a full nine slots for “key items” down in one corner, which I swear I never had more than three of in the entire campaign. Finally, several missions that do use those slots involve you running about and collecting parts that then need to be assembled at a bench to make some gizmo or another. As if fetch-quests weren’t bad enough, the benches are often in areas where enemies constantly spawn, meaning you have to clear the area and then hope the doo-dad assembles faster than they can respawn.
The majority of them fall far short of this ideal, and serve to do little more than lengthen the game in infuriating ways. You’re led somewhere you believe will be important, yet there are no indications of this via audio logs, text logs, or the collectible artifacts scattered throughout the game. You wander through four generic rooms, go down an elevator, and come out on another level where the rooms are essentially the same. The only distinguishing feature of these rooms is that each one has at least four vent shafts, which means a constant stream of necros. This all culminates in a room where you press a button and then have to fight some insane number of foes, and then open a resource crate that contains little more than resentment.
Too Many Engineers in the Drive Room
My final complaint with single-player is simply that I didn’t really care much about this story this time around. DS and DS 2 survived on the Alien / Aliens dynamic. The first game was driven largely by a mixture of Isaac’s survival against an unknown enemy, his reliance upon questionable allies, and his investigation of where it all went wrong for the Ishimura; the second one thrust us into a situation that was just starting to go wrong, as Isaac – the sole survivor of a previous outbreak – tried desperately to get someone to listen to him while everyone above him manipulated his experiences for their own purposes. There were some questions along the way: “What are Markers?”; “How are Markers and necros related?”; “Why would anyone ever want to be a Unitologist?”; etc. We got some answers, too, but the real focus was on Isaac (i.e. the player) and his personal journey through this madness.
Dead Space 3, while certainly better than Alien3 in my book, suffers from some of the same missteps in terms of changing focus away from the main character in favor of the “bigger picture.” We’re suddenly expected to care about the balance of power between EarthGov and the Unitologists; questions about the why and where and how of Markers / necros are too central to the plot; enormous answers to those questions are overshadowed in favor of keeping the plot going; the plot see-saws between focal points to the point where nothing seems to have any substance. The low point for me was when the only emotional impact I had felt was overturned to give more heft to act three’s maguffin, of all things. I’ve got some more story elements to talk about, but they’ll make more sense after we talk about the cooperative play mode.
Butch Clarke and the Teslacoil Kid
Of all the things that I’ve ever seen gamers up-in-arms about, the inclusion of co-op in DS 3 has to be fairly close to the top of the list. Citing examples like Resident Evil 5 & 6, general consensus was that you can’t make a genuinely intense survival horror experience if there’s someone tagging along for the ride. I think RE 5 and DS 3 both have intense moments that go beyond the number of players, but I will admit that the former got one thing right: When you’re not in a co-op game, the second protagonist – John Carver – simply isn’t there. The game arranges for him and Isaac to have to “take separate paths,” and this works well for the most part. Carver will still communicate with you over the radio, and you can sometimes see him on cameras or off in the distance. In co-op play, the game actually features separate dialogue that takes Carver’s sudden proximity into account; the developers even went so far as to alter some of the scripted action sequences so that both characters have to participate.
Yet in a few key cutscenes and scripted events spread throughout the game, it fails repeatedly and always in the same way: Carver simply appears somewhere near Isaac in a way that makes absolutely no sense. The worst co-op example of this I can find is a scripted event early on that has Isaac leaping onto a ship from a platform. In single-player, Carver was already on the ship, and the player just button-presses to help Isaac climb; but in co-op, regardless of where the Carver was when the event is triggered, he is suddenly on the ship already and both players have to button-mash. Single-player wise, there is a scene where Isaac has fallen behind the group and is ambushed as he tries to catch up with them; despite the fact that you are alone and having a conversation with Carver over the radio, when you get ambushed the camera pans around to show him coming out of the corridor behind you.
The only substantial change to content between the two modes are side missions that can only be accessed through co-op; the reasons for Isaac not getting into these places alone is actually part of the story these missions tell. They follow the same formula as the other side-missions, but don’t fall as flat as often due to the aforementioned story significance. Without revealing too much, the driving force here is that Carver, unlike Isaac and others, has not yet become as… resistive to the Marker signal. Suffice to say that arguing with your co-op partner about things that may or may not be real and should or should not be killed right now or else you’re going to die adds something to the experience.
As a gameplay experience, co-op is handled almost flawlessly: Areas where you have to do something like climb feature two grapple stations, and vehicles feature two seats; benches feature an activation panel at each end so neither of you has to wait, and previously hidden suit kiosks power up in some areas; each of you sees and can collect standard resources independently, and unique crafting items are automatically put in both inventories. You can also share blueprints and upgrade circuits at a bench, and either drop or directly give ammo and med kits to your partner.
Unfortunately, I’m not going to pretend that these latter features don’t drastically reduce the difficulty, especially if you’re playing with someone who has significant playtime under their belt. I opted to play the game through solo at first, as did my brother, and we started a co-op venture after the fact. If you want a true Dead Space experience, I would suggest doing it that way, as well as playing the game on at least Hard. For the record, one of my friends cares more about experiencing the full story and all possible content, so it actually worked out for him to start in co-op. In that regard, the addition of this mode does become a boon to less hardcore players who prefer entertainment to having a re-animated mound of nightmare flesh rip their head off and spew acid bile down their throat on the first date.
Dead Space 3 is not a perfect game. To be honest, in writing this review I have come across qualms I wasn’t even aware of while playing it; others were so obvious that they had me seeing red as I reloaded a checkpoint for the eighth time. The characters are mostly bland, except for Dannick, whose hipster glasses and tiny ponytail are grade-A tv villian reject material. The most interesting character in the bunch is a scientest who’s been dead for over 200 years and the rest of his doomed expedition, but audio logs are infrequent and have been replaced with text logs that you have to read on your tiny, holographic HUD. The gameplay whiplashes from survival horror to horror action to cover-based action to Uncharted-esq climbing and scripted events. It veers a little far from its roots, both in terms of gameplay and story, and the end result is a game that isn’t as memorable as either of its predecessors. Knowing that, keep an open mind going into my final score.
Because my final score has almost nothing to do with those qualms, and everything to do with how I felt playing the game. The rush of adrenaline I felt at finally being able to mow through familiar necros only to have my bowels constrict at the sight of some new form; the elation at decimating Unitologist zealots replaced by the despairing thought that convergence might be Isaac’s ultimate fate; the confidence of having someone watching your back shattered by the realization that he might be your biggest threat. The final level design and setpiece are jaw-dropping, and the mechanic used to kill the final boss is a massively satisfactory middle finger to Markers and the hell-spawn they generate.
Then, like you could in Dead Space, you can go online and look up the chapter titles and put the first letter of each one together into a sentence.
And you will share my fear.
Altman be praised.
NERD RATING – 9.5/10
Author’s Note:[amazon_link id=”B0050SWVIQ” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ] I reviewed the game on Xbox 360. It is also available on PS3 and PC.[/amazon_link]