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It’s space, dead, but not as we know it. Core fans of the Dead Space series probably ran a light year well before its release. The bombshell introduction of coop multiplayer to Dead Space 3 during last year’s E3 was compounded by its justification as a method to increase sales and make the franchise viable (>5 million anyone?). More recently, the introduction of microtransactions (even if instantly exploited) rubbed salt into the wound of fans who were worried enough at the series’ departure from its survival horror roots. This is a bit of an overreaction: The final product is impressive.
Our long-suffering protagonist Isaac Clarke once again finds himself thrust into an abject space-zombie terror experience. He is called on to rescue his one-time love interest Ellie Langford, who he has been simultaneously pining for and ignoring since the conclusions of the events of Dead Space 2. Events quickly spiral out of his control – funny, that – as he teams up with bro-step military types. Enter new environments (eventually, after making it through some familiar dark spaceships), fairly bog-standard Necromorphs, enhanced puzzle mechanics and a whole lotta co-op potential.
First off, you can enjoy Dead Space 3 without playing co-op at all: There is no dumb AI ally hanging around your neck. Although you may miss a small number of co-op-only missions, the single-player experience is largely similar to previous entries in the franchise. The horror experience is pretty much the same: A combination of deep atmosphere, jump-scares and tight, oppressive combat. The signature mechanics of the series – strategic dismemberment for extra damage, stasis to contain fast enemies, and kinesis to control the environment and use the enemies’ razor-sharp appendages against them – work better than ever, and give a satisfying catharsis and euphoric victory to complement the overall dread suffusing the playing experience. All this is as good as it ever was in Dead Space, and there is no loss for those who want more of the same.
At the same time, Visceral has made some radical departures from the traditional formula in an effort to shake things up. The most obvious is the much-maligned cooperative multiplayer. There is no doubt that this changes the experience: The isolation, loneliness, and soul-sickness from ploughing through Dead Space alone is negated entirely. Yes, it is much more of a fist-bumping action shooter experience, but somehow it is still Dead Space. The coop mission design is superb - it never feels like dual fetch-quests, and the support required of each other does its best to underscore (not betray) the horror origins of the game.
Other innovations work with varying levels of success. The over-hyped Kinect voice controls (tested on the demo) are surprisingly accurate, but unsurprisingly useless. I appreciate the effort, but it is almost never going to be quicker or more convenient to speak “weapon reload” than to press the X button. Voice control has real potential (and thankfully it now understands my Aussie accent), but it needs to be properly designed into gameplay rather than tacked on as supplement to a control system that already works perfectly well. “Optional” missions attempt to divert the series’ usual linear mission structure, but doesn’t do much other than make you feel you might be missing something awesome.
On the other hand, the new crafting system is marvellous, and the microtransactions are truly optional. The system makes the search for resources deeply compelling, and introduces a flexibility and player autonomy that enhances tactical play. A huge part of the fun of this game is planning how to combine various elements of resources to optimise your weapons by building them from scratch or with blueprints. The ALT-function of each weapon means so much more when you can define it at every stage, and combine all sorts of different weapon effects with other. There is lots of space for reversibility (weapon upgrades are not final and can be chopped and changed) and experimentation, with a whole gamespace available for trying out different combinations. As enjoyable as it is, however, the crafting system contributes further to the reduction of the survival horror experience: such control over weapons makes them sometimes feel overpowered, which upsets the delicate balance of enemy encounters.
There are a number of other innovations that are broadly positive. More diverse and interesting puzzle mechanics enhance the interest there, and limited vehicle experiences (the re-entry into the atmosphere of Tau Volantis is outstanding) add diversity to the gameplay. The ice-planet exterior environment is refreshing and allows for massive boss fights, and cinematic action scenes add to the sense of threat and danger from all around. Best of all is the hugely enhanced playability: even without coop or new game + mode (which is outstanding), a single playthrough can take 25-30 hours, which means good value for money. All these changes mean that Dead Space 3 is no longer quite what it was, but depending on your perspective it’s all for the best.
Arguably, the original Dead Space never really was survival horror anyway. That genre atrophied with Resident Evil 4 and has only been properly picked up by indie offerings like Amnesia: The Dark Descent. If you were never particularly offended by the integration of action shooter elements into a survival horror framework (read: Dead Space from the beginning), then you will probably forgive much of what this new offering does for the franchise. In any case, there is plenty of flexibility to play as you will, and there’s not much excuse for hating on this game.
Chad Habel likes long walks on an irradiated beach, and surviving deadly test chambers. His favourite dish is hadouken stirfry, and his Achilles Heel is gibbing headshots. In an alternate reality he works at a University.