Two hundred years ago the Sovereign Colonies Armed Forces made a breakthrough on Tau Volantis that had the potential to save everything. However, something went terribly wrong, and everyone involved in the expedition mysteriously died, and with them, these answers became lost forever. What significance did this planet hold for the Necromorph epidemic, and is it now too late for it to make a difference?
It’s been three years since the sprawl incident on Titan Station, and Isaac has been living in hiding from EarthGovt on the Lunar Colony. It’s clear he’s not been doing too well given a failed romance with surviving counterpart Ellie Langford, but no sooner than he receives a message advising that she’s decided to move on with someone else, is he confronted by two men, Carver & Norton, who claim that Ellie and her team have gone missing, and they need his help to rescue her.
It’s understandable that Isaac is not enthusiastic about the idea, but before he even has an opportunity to argue his case, the three men come under fire from a radical group of Unitologists known as the “Inner Circle.” Led by activist Jacob Danik, they have been systematically destroying Marker Test Labs across all the major colonies in an effort to spread the Necromorph infestation. With no choice but to abandon the colony, Isaac escapes and sets course for Tau Volantis, Ellie’s last known location.
It’s going to be apparent from the beginning that this is not a horror game, and this needs to be made clear straight away. However, as with all horror, it becomes increasingly difficult for any direct sequel to inspire the fear of the original. Horror relies heavily on what you don’t know, or can’t see, so any sense of familiarity makes it difficult to keep the player feeling vulnerable. With this in mind, It can be argued that an action-orientated approach was a smart decision by Visceral Games, yet it begs the question of whether they can make it work for Dead Space?
The answer to that question is complicated. It’s clear the developers put a lot of thought into the sequel, and it wasn’t just a streamlined way to sit back and be lazy. However, for all its retained strengths, some things just don’t work. The first and most controversial change to the Dead Space formula is the addition of co-op play, and this one feature alone stands as an excellent representation of how the entire game comes together.
The co-op mode is straightforward and enjoyable. It’s drop in, drop out, and successfully introduces an intuitive shared loot mechanic while embracing many scenarios that legitimately require teamwork. Dead Space 3 clearly sets itself apart as one of the finest co-op experiences available right now, but this doesn’t necessarily make it a terrific game. It’s evident some mechanics have been restructured to accommodate the increased focus on action, but the game still demands your attention in a manner similar to its predecessors, and this is where the first cracks begin to appear.
Between co-op and single-player, it literally feels like you’re playing two different games, and it doesn’t quite work either way. When you are joined by someone else, the action is fast-paced and exciting, but it’s too easy to miss the narrative or focus on some of the finer mechanics of the game. On the other hand, the atmosphere is clearly at its best when venturing alone as the player is free to experiment and embrace the world without constraints. However, the increased focus on action will sometimes overwhelm the gameplay mechanics, and this can quickly get frustrating. Each mode succeeds where the other fails, but neither experience is complete.
It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume additional compromises to the core formula given this new direction, but this is not entirely the case as Dead Space 3 is actually a lot more open than it’s predecessors. The player is often given a generous amount freedom to explore, and even optional side-missions to undertake in both the single-player and co-op campaigns. However, the idea of powering through fast-paced action, then stopping to take your time and explore just does not work well together.
It’s clear the developers were trying to improve the existing formula, and it’s fantastic to see they hadn’t forgotten that Isaac is actually an Engineer, not an action hero. The introduction of crafting makes sense and successfully adds a whole new dynamic layer of depth to the pre-existing upgrade mechanics. This concept might appear overwhelming at first glade, but should you ever need to take some time out to experiment, this is where the Test Bench Arena comes into play. The Test Bench Arena is a dedicated space that allows players to experiment with resources, build weapons and test them in action. There’s no commitment to what you create, but anything you build can be saved to your inventory and bought back to your main game.
With all that being said, there are still sacrifices that had to made to accommodate the new resource economy that’s tied with crafting. Items and resource management don’t hold nearly the same importance as they once did, further removing this entry from the survivalist nature of its predecessors. The player will pick up items consistently where ever they go, and it doesn’t take long before it all starts to become a blur. The inventory will rarely be short of ammo and medpacks, and the player will often be burdened with having too much of something, rather than not enough.
On the other hand, resource commodities essential for building weapons and upgrading your equipment are a lot more difficult to come by. There is the option of repeating chapters or managing devices known as scatterbots that will collect these resources for you, but neither option is very efficient. It became just a little too tempting to investigate upgrade options via micro-transactions, and this was not a good feeling at all as I don’t approve of that business model whatsoever.
The combat of Dead Space has always been joyously brutal, and it has returned to this sequel in full form with few exceptions. The basic mechanics truly empower the player, and it remains relatively easy to access Isaac’s arsenal of abilities. Telekinesis and Stasis make a strong return, and it’s fantastic to see that puzzles were not entirely abandoned in the pursuit of action. There are still a few scripted sequences that border on annoying and the game could have benefitted with the omission of quick time events, but at its core, it’s well-built game.
It’s then with disappointment to learn that the methodical nature of dismembering necromorph limbs does not play such a vital role anymore. There are still well-crafted boss fights that follow in line with what we’ve come to expect, but in general play, there are just too many enemies to deal with at once for this to work. If you shoot anything for long enough, it will eventually die. This streamlined approach to action is even more apparent with the inclusion of human soldiers equipped with firearms, and this simply doesn’t feel right and forces the player to utilise an awkward cover system that is not nearly as organic as the designers talked it up to be.
It’s not surprising that Dead Space 3 is a fantastic looking game as the series has always had a unique gift for capturing tense atmospheres in a remarkable way. While the feeling of vulnerability might not be quite as adamant in this sequel, the increased variety of stunning environments explored throughout the game quickly compromise for the change of scenery. It’s simply a delight to look at and rarely suffers from any performance issues. The sound design is still incredibly dynamic, and the musical score captures the experience well. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be said for the voice performances. While they’re certainly adequate, the issue of poor writing needs to be addressed separately.
It’s not that Dead Space was exploring the most incredible story ever told, but the narrative in this third entry is tedious, predictable and filled with way too much melodrama. The important plot points could literally be summarised in one paragraph, so don’t expect to walk away understanding that much more about the games universe. It blatantly steps away from the clever moments of the previous games, and I can’t imagine many horror fans are overjoyed with the idea of fighting against yet another delusional cult. It is even more unfortunate that the only moment in the story that truly held any emotional resonance was instantly broken by a glitch that had Isaac exchanging in casual dialogue with a particular character that should not have been able to speak.
Dead Space 3 is the perfect example of “you can’t always have your cake and eat it too.” If you were to take two positive magnets aside, individually, they would both work well. However, once you try to push them both together, it’s just not going to work no matter how hard you try. The same principle can be applied here, and it just doesn’t always work when you streamline one mechanic, and then counter those changes by expanding on another. If you were to take out the downright forgettable narrative (which isn’t hard), balance becomes the true enemy of Dead Space 3. This is disappointing as it’s clear the developers went in with good intentions, but as the story didn’t go anywhere, it’s likely they will get to have another shot. For the best experience, bring a friend.