Dead Space is one of the more respected new series to come out of this hardware generation. The original released in 2008 and netted itself a wide fan base thanks to the fact that it was a new IP in a genre that was (and largely still is) sorely neglected. The survival horror had become synonymous with series like Silent Hill so it was refreshing for an entirely new franchise to join the ranks. But Dead Space did more than simply provide “just another” offering in an underutilised genre; it showed the competition how to make truly a terrifying gaming experience.
With an entirely in-game HUD that was way ahead of its time for 2008, as well as a combat mechanic that both empowered and restricted your odds of survival, Dead Space asserted itself in the minds of horror fans. Less than three years after the series debuted, Dead Space 2 was released to extremely positive critical reception. EA and Visceral’s survival horror lived on and continued to impress audiences and win new followers.
Then Dead Space 3 was revealed, and with it came a bevy of marketing buzzwords that left many fans questioning EA’s intentions. Microtransactions, integrated co-op, wider audience appeal and cover-based shooting were all issues that irate fans pointed towards when they proclaimed the death of the Dead Space franchise. Adding to this damning judgement was the fact that Visceral and EA looked to be taking the series in a more action-oriented direction, thereby forsaking the series’ survival horror roots.
Have EA and Visceral dismembered their own series in favour of wider accessibility? Or is Dead Space 3 a worthy entry into this highly respected franchise?
Let’s just get this out of the way early: Dead Space 3 is an unquestionably worthy entry into the series. Everything that has made the franchise popular is still there, with some minor nips and tucks to the benefit of the overall experience. The combat is still weighty and grotesquely satisfying; the enemy dismemberment mechanic continues to please; the in-game HUD (that HUD!) still completely outclasses other games that insist on having archaic, overlaid mini maps and numerical health gauges obscuring the gaming window; the controls continue to be responsive but constricting enough to create that all-important horror genre tension during enemy encounters.
And then there are the new features, such as the surprisingly robust weapon crafting mechanic. Feel like making a suspended buzz saw gun that electrifies the blades post firing, and that automatically sweeps the area for ammunition? You can do that. What about an assault rifle that adds a layer of acid to every round fired? What about adding a flame thrower to that acid assault rifle? All possible.
Combinations are vast and each weapon can be further enhanced through dozens of circuit upgrades that add to rate of fire, clip size etc. While the level of customisation is fantastic, the caveat is that the workbench mechanic for assembling weapons takes some getting used to. The game attempts to explain how the whole thing works, but you’ll still likely be confused for at least the first couple of times you try to manufacture a new weapon. Luckily Dead Space 3 includes weapon blueprints that are hidden throughout the levels; so if the customisation seems too daunting, or you’re just way too lazy, you can always make use of the blueprints to instantly create a new weapon. But the fun really lies in experimenting with outlandish combinations. Sometimes you create pure gold and other times you’re left wondering what the hell you were thinking combining a scoped sniper rifle with a suspended buzz saw attachment.
This is probably the part when you start wondering about the microtransactions. Yes, EA has included an option for you to pay real money in order to access the required components to make high-end weapons. A massive song and dance was made about this prior to the game releasing, but I was left wondering what all the fuss was about as I made my way through the game. There’s a tiny, unobtrusive prompt at the bottom of the screen telling you to press Y (or your platform equivalent) in order to access downloadable content. It didn’t detract from my experience and by the time the credits rolled, I still hadn’t managed to try out every combination of the weapon parts I’d found while playing the game.
So far so good, but Dead Space 3 does have shortcomings. For a start I experienced two game freezes on the Xbox 360, which surprised me because I can count the amount of times that’s happened over the years on one hand.
Sadly, the game’s plot is utter, convoluted rubbish, so fans hoping for a third entry that meaningfully expands on the series’ canon are going to be disappointed. Characters are woefully clichéd such as the contrived antagonist Danik who minces about subterranean caverns wearing sunglasses; honestly he feels like comic relief in a game that takes its role in the horror genre rather seriously. Then there’s the gruff but damaged Carver who acts as the co-op partner should you and a friend decide to tackle the game together; he’s you’re typical career military type who has caused irreparable damage to the family he can’t seem to reconnect with because “I’ve seen things, man”. But the disappointing character portrayal isn’t the only negative side of the integrated co-op option. Throughout the course of the campaign you’ll encounter rooms that are blocked off; signs flashing that this area is only accessible if you’re playing co-op. For a game that tries so hard to be immersive in almost every aspect of its design, this sudden and intrusive reminder does break that fourth-wall rather violently. Furthermore, in certain cut-scenes Carver will just suddenly appear as if he’s been with you all along – even though you’ve spent the last two hours alone in a derelict space vessel. It’s silly and should have been handled better.
Then there’s the fact that Dead Space 3 has morphed into an action game rather than remaining the survival horror it started out as. That’s not to say that you won’t encounter moments of utter terror (the unnerving encounters with Stalkers were among the most chilling moments for me) but it’s definitely not as scary as previous entries.
Overall the game’s level design is top-notch stuff, but the later chapters break from that and throw in some dull backtracking before you hit the game’s climax. It’s a pity, because up to that point everything flows incredibly well. Speaking of climax, the game’s final boss encounter falls flat in its obligatory OTT-ness; and you’ll feel like you’ve played this particular encounter in every third-person action game to date.
One of the perks of the game straying from the horror genre is that there are some really exciting action sequences played out against memorable set pieces; the whole crash-landing scenario on the ice planet Tau Volantis immediately springs to mind. Yes, most of the things that jaded fans balked at are there to broaden the audience appeal, but they’ve been added in a mostly unobtrusive fashion; it’s entirely possible to play the game from beginning to end without even a second glance at all of those “new features” fans were concerned about. And if you can do that, you jaded Dead Space fan you, then I can pretty much guarantee you’ll have a blast.