Dead Space 3 only has one real, fundamental problem, but it’s a big one, and it’s one that vastly exacerbates the smaller annoyances that normally wouldn’t matter much. Its problem is this: it’s not scary.
And that’s me saying this. I’ve gone on record before as saying that I’m a gigantic wuss. I’m scared of literally everything: spiders, text messages, whatever. It’s part of the reason why I love horror as much as I do – it has a big impact on me, and that’s fun. And, despite all of this, even I don’t think that Dead Space 3 is scary.
So if you’re eager to go into Dead Space 3 – and there are plenty of reasons you might want to do so – you need to understand one thing. It’s not a survival horror game. It’s not an action horror game. It’s an action game in a horror universe.
Let’s start with the basics: we are still Isaac Clarke. We are once again on a mission to save humanity from the Necromorphs. The mentally broken Isaac of Dead Space 2 is gone, replaced by an Isaac who is frankly unsurprised and untraumatised by the reappearance of those flesh-rending monstrosities that like to leap out of ventilation ducts.
Those flesh-rending monstrosities aren’t the only foes, though, as the Unitologists – led by a gleefully villainous chap named Danik, who’s a strong contender for Worst Ponytail In A Videogame – are actual enemies for once. Their appearances are irregular and uncommon, and you have to wonder about just how big their militant wing is, but it does make a nice change to be fighting foes who keep their distance, fire back, and (unlike the Necromorphs) will actually die if shot in the head. It also sets up a few interesting three-way battles, should Necromorphs pop up while Unitologist soldiers are trying to gun you down.
Fears that this has turned Dead Space 3 into a cover-shooter are unfounded. While you can use cover, it’s simply a case of pressing the crouch button and moving behind something waist-high; aiming always causes Isaac to stand, so… that’s it. No sticking to cover, or anything. Not unless I somehow missed an entire mechanic, anyway, and if I did then it clearly couldn’t have been crucial to success.
The other Big New Things – primarily weapon-crafting and side-quests – impact the game a lot more, in both positive and negative ways. For instance: you’re now only able to carry two weapons at a time, but you can create them from scratch. Pick a one-handed or two-handed frame, select what sort of thing it should fire, and then select a tip. As an example, a two-handed military engine with a standard tip is an assault rifle, but replace the tip and it’s a shotgun. Want a flamethrower? Then you’ll want to swap out the military engine for something flammable. Each frame lets you attach two tools, so – to take both of those examples – if you want an assault rifle with an underslung flamethrower, it’s probably possible. If nothing else, it’s cool.
So that’s a neat touch, not least because it’s one that turns Isaac’s engineering prowess into something that actually has an impact on gameplay. Of course, only having the two weapon slots (even if they roughly equate to four, thanks to the altfire) does also mean that you might be a bit more reticent to swap weapons out once you have a decent set, particularly when you factor in that ammo is universal so you’re never forced to swap because you’re running low on something. Which probably explains why I stuck to my guns (pun absolutely intended) from about the halfway point on.
On the plus side, the dreaded microtransactions haven’t unbalanced this at all. They’re fairly innocuous on PC – there’s a keybinding to bring them up when you’re in shop menus, but you’re never hounded, and I was never tempted.
No, the game unbalanced this enough without them. I’ll concede that some of this blame might lie at my feet because I wasn’t constantly buying new guns, but I had maximum health and high armour by the halfway point of the game, and for almost the entire game I was carting around an industrial-sized bin bag full of ammunition and health packs. It’s hard to be afraid of the encroaching Necromorph menace when you’re practically invincible and have enough ammo to do your best Rambo impersonation every time a writhing mass of tentacles bursts out of the nearest crevice. Number of times I died to Necromorphs in my Normal difficulty playthrough: zero. Which is pretty far from either of the previous games.
Perhaps this also explains why I wasn’t that fussed about the side-quests. You’ll periodically find a keycard, or get a message from someone on your team telling you that you might want to investigate a supply depot/barracks/derelict ship/ice-cream factory if you get a chance. Do so, and you’ll find a unique location which will usually contain a couple of decent set-pieces and a big box of loot, probably featuring a few interesting weapon parts. These absolutely aren’t throwaway locations; they feature unique dialogue and settings, and have some neat moments. On the other hand, they’re side-quests. They don’t have any real relevance or offer any more information on what’s going on in the main game, barring adding some extra context. If you don’t need the materials, then, well…
This sense of invincibility is a big part of why the game lacks any sense of tension, horror, or creeping dread, but it’s far from the only one. Even the game’s script mostly treats the Necromorphs as annoying obstacles rather than horrifying, implacable killers, and when even side characters don’t have the good grace to be scared, why should I? With this level of bravado, the characters might as well be space marines. Although in the game’s defence, several of the characters are space marines.
Carver – the other playable character in the game’s co-op mode – is one such space marine. I haven’t been able to check out the co-op mode yet (though I will write up my thoughts on that should the chance arise), but I will say that his inclusion leads to some oddities in single-player. For much of the game he appears in cutscenes and then vanishes when out of shot, although the plot usually believes he’s been accompanying Isaac and cutscenes will usually reference him too. His character development is almost entirely non-existent when playing solo, leading to some very odd scenes near the end when he and Isaac have presumably grown closer and bonded. So, in single-player at least, his arc is rather disjointed.
Where was I? Oh. The horror’s gone, and this is now more of an action game than it ever has been before. Truthfully, it’s not too bad at being an action game – the weapons are fun to use, dismembering Necromorphs is still rather enjoyable even without any real sense of threat, the variety of enemies require a variety of tactics, and Stasis and Kinesis powers still allow for some nice variety – although it’s still paced like a horror game. This means that the gun-based bloodletting is divided up by dark, empty corridors and rooms with flickering lights, which you inevitably move through slowly. It still feels claustrophobic, but without tension, the slow pace just makes things feel like a slog. It’s probably the longest game in the series, but – despite some excellent moments – a lot of this feels like padding, particularly when it drags out sections by asking you to find three different things in three different locations. For a slow-paced game, feeling overlong is not a good thing.
It’s not all ghost ships with dark, empty corridors and rooms with flickering lights, though; once you reach the icy world of Tau Volantis, you’ve also got wide-open outdoor areas with snow. Mostly, this means that Necromorphs are bursting out of the ground instead of out of the walls, but it does also give rise to a few new mechanic-based set-pieces. Early on, for instance, you don’t have the gear to deal with the cold, and have to move from heat source to heat source in the middle of a howling blizzard that kills your visibility. It’s intensely atmospheric and adds a lot to the sense of the planet itself being hostile, and the game has a lot of neat little set-pieces like this.
But that’s nothing new for this series, and the truth is that the things Dead Space 3 does right are the things the series has generally done right: the combat is fun, scavenging and exploring the environments is generally atmospheric and enjoyable, the set-pieces (particularly the regular stints into zero-gravity) are breathtaking, there are some stunning vistas on display, and the characters and plot are decent enough. But because of the lack of horror none of these are as good as they have been, and much of the game falls flatter than expected. The combat doesn’t have the same tension because there’s no fear. Exploring isn’t as atmospheric because you’re not worried about things leaping out at you. Scavenging isn’t as crucial because the gun-making mechanic means you’re not reliant on rare power cores. The new mechanics are interesting and fresh, but don’t mesh cohesively with the rest of the game.
Dead Space 3 is probably worth a buy regardless, though. If you’re new to the series, none of this is likely to bother you overmuch because you won’t have the past games to compare, and if you’re an old hand, then there’s enough here to enjoy that it’s probably worth the asking price anyway. But only just, and I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to wait for a price drop.