Plenty of thrills—but lacking in chills
The original Dead Space redefined survival-horror in videogames. As players, we truly felt protagonist Isaac Clarke’s isolation aboard the lifeless, planet-cracking spacecraft known as the Ishimura—and this psychological terror left a lasting impression on gamers, similar to the untold dread the mysterious Red Marker left on Clarke’s broken psyche.
Upon Dead Space 3’s announcement, many fans couldn’t wait to see what depths Clarke would be dragged down to next. But as details emerged about the gameplay—specifically co-op—players started to feel a different kind of fear than they’re used to. Thankfully, Visceral has successfully fulfilled two of their promises here: Co-op seamlessly ties into the story, and the new character, Sgt. John Carver, is more than just an empty vessel for Player Two—he’s a fully fleshed-out cast member in his own right.
The dynamic between Carver and Clarke has all the makings of a classic action duo, and the sergeant’s personal trauma is just as interesting as what we experienced through Isaac’s eyes back in the first Dead Space. Visceral couldn’t have incorporated co-op into the main experience any better—and kudos to them for not playing it safe and making it a separate mode. Plus, the cooperative element doesn’t even destroy the terror, as many expected.
The reason? Co-op can’t kill something that isn’t actually there to begin with. Visceral’s jettisoned the series’ psychological panic like an Ishimura escape pod in favor of a more action-oriented take that borrows from the best shooters of this console generation. 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 the series’ bizarre continuing obsession with thinking that a bunch of tentacles makes something terrifying (that’s only scary if you’re a girl in anime!). But it just doesn’t feel like Dead Space when wave after wave of Necromorphs pop up every time you make a little progress toward your objective.
The broken cover system also introduces several scenarios where frustration overshadows the intended panic. Not only does this change tactics—you’re now aiming for more traditional headshots—but the cover interface uses buttons that already have very specific purposes, so it’s hard to tell if you’re close enough to a box to take cover or if you’ll recharge your stasis by accident.
While the fear factor may be gone, Dead Space 3 still does plenty of good for the franchise. It presents the deepest, most detailed vision of the universe yet, and it also fleshes out the experience with a significant stable of side missions. This removes a lot of the linearity of the first two Dead Space titles by allowing Clarke and Carver to freely explore several facilities on the icy world of Tau Volantis, and this easily adds another five or six hours to the experience. Unfortunately, you’ll start to realize that the side missions, unlike the rest of the game, employ boring, cookie-cutter design. You enter a new offshoot of a facility, fend off waves of Necromorphs, and get a loot chest full of ammo, medicine, and stasis refills.
On the positive side, the returning Bench feature now emphasizes Isaac’s engineer background by letting you jury-rig together whatever materials you can find to use as weapons. This is my personal favorite new element in Dead Space 3: Like some mad scientist, you can create hundreds of different combinations that range from a standard Plasma Cutter to a flamethrower with an acid-tipped rocket launcher attached. You can even craft medicine, stasis refills, and other consumable items should you have enough raw materials.
Of course, you can also buy the necessary materials through a new microtransaction system if you’re too lazy to scavenge. Although I personally don’t like the precedent this sets—considering you’re already dropping $60 on the game to begin with—this is more an issue of personal preference, so I’m not going to knock the feature for existing. I’m sure someone out there will take that shortcut, no matter the cost.
Finally, I could do without the revamped inventory system that only allows you to carry two weapons at a time and the universal ammo that hearkens back to more traditional sci-fi shooters. Part of the fun of the first two games was managing your reserves so that you didn’t end up with nothing more than a handful of bullets while surrounded by Necromorphs. For every great new feature, it feels like Visceral sacrificed several critical elements that helped Dead Space stand out from the crowd.
This isn’t to say Dead Space 3 is a subpar experience. In fact, it’s probably one of the more polished games I’ve played in quite some time. The storytelling, character development, co-op, graphics, and gameplay variety are all top notch. But if you were anticipating a good scare, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This is definitely a game you don’t have to worry about playing in the dark—everything that made Dead Space special before is gone now.
SUMMARY: Dead Space 3 is an enjoyable, highly polished experience that will fill in a lot of story gaps for returning fans. But if you’re looking to get scared, this is anything but survival-horror.
- THE GOOD: Expands on Dead Space lore more than the previous two games combined.
- THE BAD: Doesn’t even try to be scary anymore.
- THE UGLY: Microtransactions introduced via the Bench feature.
Dead Space 3 is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for the Xbox 360.