Chills but no thrills

When the original Dead Space broke onto the scene, it was one of the most horrifying new IPs to come out in a long time. Its isolation of protagonist Isaac Clarke aboard the lifeless, planet-cracking spacecraft that was the Ishimura left a lasting impression on gamers as much as the Marker left aboard Clarke’s broken psyche. Not to mention the hallucinations that Clarke experienced blurred the lines of what you were experiencing to the point that you were questioning yourself as you turned every corner.

This terror was quickly ingrained in the DNA of the franchise as it provided some of the most legitimately fear-inducing moments we’ve had in games in quite some time. Then we moved onto Dead Space 2, and although Isaac’s isolation had been diminished and the action aspects ramped up, his hallucinations were stronger than ever and some of the most haunting instances of the series, surpassing even the best of the first game, were had in the nursery and during the sequence where Isaac returned to the Ishimura’s husk.

Now we have Dead Space 3. When this game had been announced, many were thrilled at the idea of what new depths Isaac might fall to. But, then we were informed that the versus multiplayer had been scrapped and in its place was a co-op campaign. The removal of versus multiplayer was not a huge loss, but gamers everywhere were filled with a new and very palpable fear by this news as the terror aspects of Dead Space could be a thing of the past due to the inclusion of a friend serving as a ground to reality in co-op.

Well, the good news is that the co-op was worked in seamlessly to the campaign so that John Carver fits right in with Isaac and the two have the making of a classic duo as they played off each other magnificently. His own unique story only helps flesh out the Dead Space universe and having a buddy there does not ruin any of the game’s major moments. Visceral could not have incorporated the co-op into the main experience any better and kudos to them for not making it a separate mode. The only real problem he may pose is for completionists with no friends out there as you need to play the game through co-op at least once to get one hundred percent. And no, he does not destroy the terror potential of the game as he has his own demons to deal with.

The bad news, however, is that Carver couldn’t destroy the horror of Dead Space 3 because there is no horror there for him to destroy. Yes, it seems that fans of the series’ worst nightmare has come true and they didn’t need to come into contact with an alien artifact for it to happen. Dead Space 3 completely abandons the idea of survival horror and immerses itself in action sci-fi. Only a few cheap scare tactics remain, like Necromorphs randomly popping out of the snow, and a continuing obsession with the thought that a bunch of tentacles makes something terrifying (only scary if you’re a girl in an anime).

Part of the diluted fear factor I felt came from the human cult enemies you sometimes must fight against. Not only do your tactics change as you are now going after more traditional headshots, but you are forced into trying to use cover with one of the most busted cover systems I’ve ever seen because cover functions are added to buttons that already have very specific purposes and it’s hard to tell if you’re close enough to a box to take cover or if you’re going to recharge your stasis by accident. This frustration during these moments took away from any of the frantic feel the game may have been going for. The only good that comes from the human enemies is their leader who gives off a classic Gary Oldman villain vibe that I was really able to get behind the more I saw him.

Contrary to how it may sound, however, Dead Space 3 isn’t a bad game. Not by any means. My desire to be scared half to death and to shoot only undead masses aside; Dead Space 3 is actually probably the most impressive game of the series from a technical standpoint. From the look of the characters and environments to the smoothness of the previously mentioned co-op, Dead Space 3 is an accomplishment in terms of what this game puts on your TV screen. And there is a lot to put on your screen.

One of several major additions to the game this go around is side missions. This removes a lot of the linearity of the first two Dead Space games by allowing Isaac and John to freely explore several of the facilities on Tau Volantis and other places you’ll end up, and easily add another five or six hours to the game should you choose to do them all. Unfortunately, after the first couple, you’ll start to realize that the side missions, unlike the rest of the game, were very cookie-cutter in their design. You enter a new offshoot of a facility, fend off a few waves of Necromorphs, and get a loot chest full of ammo, medicine, stasis refills, and new items to put together at the Bench (more on that in a bit).

So, the action during the side missions may be somewhat one dimensional but at least one other reward you get besides loot is the side missions help expand on the story. More so than the previous two games combined, Dead Space 3 explains so much more about not only the areas you’ll explore in the game, as each main and side mission have their own special story behind them, but also of the universe that Isaac and John occupy. In fact, you learn so much that Dead Space 3 actually could serve as a fine entry point for newcomers to the series, should they be so inclined.

Another great wrinkle in the story and game play this go around is how there is a clear focus on Isaac’s engineering background. It is still lost during most action sequences when he is mowing down Necromorphs, but at least now with the larger array of puzzles and obstacles put before him, Isaac puts his engineering skills to use to come up with solutions that make sense for his character.

We also see the engineer in Isaac come out with probably my favorite new addition to the game, the Bench. Whenever Isaac comes across a workbench, he can take tools and parts he finds scattered about the world to make new or improve existing weapons. Like some mad scientist, you can create hundreds of different combinations that range from just your standard plasma cutter to a flamethrower with an acid tipped rocket launcher attached. You can also craft medicine, stasis refills, and other consumable items at Benches should you have enough raw materials that can also be found throughout the game.

Of course, you can also buy the materials you need for certain weapons through a micro-transaction system if you really need more or are too lazy to scavenge. Although I personally don’t enjoy the precedent that sets considering you’re already dropping $60 on the game to begin with, that becomes an issue of personal preference of how a player plays and I’m not going to knock the game for it being there because I’m sure someone out there will take that shortcut, no matter the costs.

As much as I love the Bench, though, it also created some problems in regards to your inventory system and how much you hold onto at one time. To solve this, Isaac can no longer carry as many weapons as he wants. He is constantly limited to two on his person at any given moment. Weapon specific ammo has also been replaced with universal ammo clips for all your weapons in the game. This is a double-edged sword as it makes sense since you will more than likely create such a hodgepodge of weaponry that it might be harder to find and carry specific ammo for each one. On the other hand, part of the fun of the first two games I felt was managing your inventory and keeping track of everything so you didn’t end up with nothing but a handful of bullets left while surrounded by Necromorphs. It feels like a cheap solution to something that might not have been thought all the way through when created.

When all is said and done, Dead Space 3 is a very highly polished game and there are many great things here to applaud. The storytelling, character development, co-op, graphics, and game play variety are top notch. Several new features like the side missions and the Bench all add unique nuances to the game play not seen in the series before, but also create their own set of problems that don’t seem to have been fully thought through. Dead Space 3’s biggest flaw though is that if you were looking for a good scare, this game will not provide it for you. Whether or not this is a trend the series will follow, we will have to wait and see. But for this particular title for sure, you won’t even have to turn the lights on.

SUMMARY: An enjoyable, highly polished experience that will fill in a lot of the story gaps for returning fans, but if you’re looking to be scared, Dead Space 3 is anything but survival horror.

  • THE GOOD: Expands on the lore of the Dead Space universe more than the previous two games combined
  • THE BAD: Doesn’t even try to be scary anymore
  • THE UGLY: Micro-transactions introduced via the new Bench feature

SCORE: 7.5

Dead Space 3 is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for the Xbox 360.