Review: Dead Space 3

If you've heard of the Dead Space series before, you may be under the hilariously mistaken impression that it's a terrifying horror game.

NameThird-person shooter: Dead Space 3
Summary:It's not horror, but it is a quality shooter with excellent level design and engaging gameplay.
Rating:4/5
Games Info:Developer: Visceral Games; Publisher: Electronic Arts
Classification:R18
Platform:PC,PS3,Xbox 360
Test Platform:PC

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Dead Space 3 is a third-person shooter, following the reluctant and bloody adventures of former spaceship engineer Isaac Clarke.

If you’ve only heard of the Dead Space series rather than playing through the previous installments, you may be under the hilariously mistaken impression the series is a terrifying horror game. You may even have seen it referred to as ‘survival horror’ – a genre defined by early Resident Evil games, and well-served by Silent Hill.

Instead Dead Space 3 is an action game in which you battle Necromorphs: essentially, pseudoscientific space-zombies that grow clusters of tentacles to replace severed torsos. Combat is heavily dependent on what the game calls ‘strategic dismemberment’: like all good zombies, Necromorphs won’t be stopped by such trivialities as a missing arm or leg. Or head. No, you have to go ‘Christmas turkey’ on the screaming meatbags, strategically carving off pieces.

The first two games were set in space, with claustrophobic environments characterised by flickering lights and unrealistic quantities of blood. That environment, combined with main character Isaac’s solitude and the unrelenting vacuum just beyond the hull plating, served to create a truly tense atmosphere. A ‘horror’ setting, certainly.

Necromorphs have an annoying habit of bursting forth from air vents, of which there are plenty on a space-faring vessel or station. The first few times, this is genuinely startling. The problem is, it quickly gets predictable to the point where you stumble into a corridor lined with air vents along each side, sigh, and reload your weapon in preparation for the inevitable game of horizontal whack-a-mole.

This is what defines the Dead Space series as action territory: yes, there's a horror setting and many elements of the genre, but they never manage to be scary. Dead Space can certainly startle, repetitive vents aside. But Isaac Clarke is to engineers what Gordon Freeman is to physicists: the most badass specimen his profession has to offer. He could easily have chosen a career as a mercenary or professional hockey player.

The latest of Isaac’s adventures tosses aside any last pretense of horror, introducing planetside environments, a weapon-crafting system that lets you create ridiculously overpowered weapons, and – to the anger of many long-time fans – jump-in cooperative play.

At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m not overly impressed with Dead Space, as a series or in its latest incarnation. You would be very, very wrong. I love Dead Space. I love its strong story, its sci-fi themes, the novel way it embeds its GUI into the environment for maximum immersion. Its dismemberment combat is highly engaging, without being as gory as it sounds.

The closest game I can think of is Half-Life: another action game with strong elements of horror. It's patently linear, but has environments open enough to encourage exploration and keep the whole thing from feeling like a rail-shooter. Nothing is better for immersion, after all, than creating the illusion of free will.

The wider environments in Dead Space 3 only emphasise that freedom without compromising too much on the atmosphere. If anything, it adds a little more tension when you’re not exactly sure where the next screeching monstrosity will burst in from.

The only complaint I had regarding level design was the way the developers under-used the game’s wonderful open-space, zero-gravity gameplay. It’s emphasised in the earlier chapters, then understandably disappears when Isaac and friends head planetside. Understandably does not mean acceptably, though – to me, this is a sign that perhaps taking the game planetside was not ideal.

Weapon creation is a double-edged sword. Given the resources scavenged from corpses and the environment, there are virtually endless possibilities. From overpowered cutting and welding tools to submachine guns, shotguns and sniper rifles; you name it, you can build it. You can even whip up clever combinations of situational weapons, such as a precision rifle paired with an underbarrel shotgun – you know, for when something pops up directly in front of you and tries to eat your face.

Given the ability to craft an endless variety of high-powered weapons, the opposing force feels a lot less threatening than it did with scrounged engineering tools and shoddy improvisations. Then again, you can happily get through the game with nothing but Isaac’s signature plasma cutter – add a few upgrades to damage and clip capacity, and that doesn’t even pose much of a challenge.

It took me 14 hours to get through the single-player campaign, including all optional missions that didn’t require a co-op partner. Playing on ‘Normal’ difficulty, I died four or five times in that entire period. The first was due to missing an insipid little quicktime event (press E to remain alive), in the rest I was crushed by debris in climbing and flying sequences. Not once did the Necromorphs or infrequent human enemies overcome me. If you’re looking for any kind of challenge, be sure to crank the difficulty right up.

I didn’t play through the game in co-op, for two reasons. First, the established Dead Space fandom is built entirely around a single-player game. Second, I couldn't find anyone willing to play through with me; all of my gaming buddies were under that mistaken notion that the game would be overly frightening. Their loss, I guess.

The introduction of co-op does not ruin the single-player experience. It’s not really even visible, besides the occasional necessary concession: two rappelling stations where you only need one, for instance.

The secondary player-character is Earth Defence Force soldier John Carver, who in single-player appears occasionally as a regular non-player character. Carver reminded me strongly of Mass Effect 3’s James Vega: an everyman soldier serving as an allegory for newcomers to the series. This may make him a little irritating to returning Dead Space players, but like Vega he has a certain charm.

For a game with a fairly strong story, Dead Space just can't do relatable or realistic characters. Isaac is the only character with any depth, and if you convince yourself that he’s drunk for the entire 14 hours of gameplay, he’s a bit more believable. Doesn’t help the rest of the cast, though.

Dead Space 3 is not a perfect game. In some areas, such as characterisation and difficulty, it’s not even a particularly good game. If you’re in it for the horror elements the series is so oddly and disproportionately praised for, you’re likely to be disappointed.

As a quality sci-fi shooter with a solid plot – as long as you can get past the cast’s dead delivery - the weapon crafting system and opened-up environments enliven the combat and really help it shine among the competition.

If you miss games like Half-Life, and want a shooter with a more brains than Call of Duty, Dead Space 3 is highly recommended. Fans of the series, don’t be put off by the changes. Whatever labels drew you to the game in the first place, chances are that what you actually enjoyed is still there.

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Tags visceral gamesdead space 3dead spacegamingelectronic artsgamesEA

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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