Review: Dead Space 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Dead Space 3
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: Visceral Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 02/05/13

Two years removed from the release of Dead Space 2, Visceral Games has been hard at work bringing a close to the series (to the extent such a thing is possible in gaming anyway) with Dead Space 3. Much ado has been made about the game going in, thanks to its drop-in, drop-out co-op play, weapon design system, and the idea of microtransactions being added to the game, with each potentially adding or taking away elements of the franchise that made fans interested in the first place to varying degrees. It’s certainly fair to be concerned about this thing, as fans of the Resident Evil franchise found that Resident Evil 5 changed the dynamic of the series notably, and Resident Evil 6 only exacerbated that change to a level that was rather divisive, at the least. Well, the good news is that the changes made to Dead Space 3 don’t hurt the game in the least, as the co-op is largely well implemented, the weapon customization is a strong mechanic and the microtransactions are basically a novelty rather than a mandatory expense. The bad news, on the other hand, is that while the additions don’t hurt the game, the game itself is still good, but doesn’t pay off the promise of Dead Space 2, and in some cases, doesn’t quite manage to measure up to it either. It’s certainly a very good game, make no mistake… it’s just a very good game that could have been better than it ended up being, just not for the reasons everyone feared.

The story of Dead Space 3 focuses once again on primary franchise protagonist Isaac Clarke, who has spent the time between Dead Space 2 and now in a state that appears to be something akin to miserable. Isaac and Ellie Langford, in the time between games, had developed their relationship in a more romantic fashion, but due to disagreements in how to handle the Markers, Ellie left to explore a way to stop them, while Isaac (by all indications) opted to explore the inside of several bottles. Well, this life of hiding out never lasts long for franchise protagonists, and Isaac’s is brought to an abrupt end by EarthGov, as Isaac is drafted back into action due to a combination of Ellie’s disappearance and the Church of Unitology going absolutely insane. This ends up leading Isaac to the planet of Tau Volantis, where he, Ellie and new allies Robert Norton and John Carver team up to find a resolution to the Necromorph problem once and for all or die trying. On one hand, the plot of Dead Space 3 makes a concentrated effort to wrap up a lot of the core elements of the franchise, ties a lot of things together, and ends on a note that’s effect and potentially leaves room for the series to progress further should the developers wish to do so. Carver is also given a decent amount of development in the co-op campaign and the game really brings a lot of elements to a head, like the efforts of the Unitologists, in a way that’s sensible in context, and overall it’s a solid ending to this trilogy, to a point.

That said, a lot of the plot of the game is, frankly, asinine, either because of missed opportunities, poor execution or simple bad writing. There’s absolutely no reason Ellie couldn’t have been the second player character in the game by simply eschewing the “new boyfriend” plot, partly because Carver doesn’t add anything to the game Ellie wouldn’t add by having similar episodes, and partly because the new boyfriend plotline is atrocious. In the first two games, the writing was strong enough that you never really knew who was on your side and who wasn’t; in this game, the writing choreographs the insanely obvious heel turn that comes up so early on that you’ll be waiting for it HOURS before it happens. Further, the events surrounding that event are inane; between the fact that absolutely no one hears the incredibly loud battle that occurs in the wake of that, and the fact that Isaac carries the idiot ball and refuses to explain exactly what happened, the entire fallout from this event is, bluntly, incredibly stupid. You’ll find yourself asking a lot of questions that the game has no interest in answering, as well, like “Why didn’t Isaac notice any psychic feedback in the beginning of the game?” or “Why did Ellie’s crew go to explore a potential Necromorph breeding ground dressed casually?” or “Why doesn’t the jet exhaust destroy this Necromorph like it did in the first game?” or “So, Necromorphs can be cryogenically frozen, but cold doesn’t seem to affect them… how cold does it have to be to hamper their functionality?” among others. This is really a shame, too, as the sequences surrounding Carver are really interesting and well written, but when the writers are tasked to write a normal, non-psychotic story, they fail at it here for God knows what reason, and the end result is a single player plot that fails as often as it doesn’t and a multiplayer plot that’s more interesting for the second player than the first.

Dead Space 3 generally looks technically outstanding, and while it’s slightly less artistically interesting than its predecessors, the loss is quite minor overall. Isaac, Carver, and company are generally rendered very well, with some minor exceptions (Norton looks like Howdy Doody mated with a potato), and most humans you encounter are animated and rendered believably. The Necromorphs are as horrid here as they’ve ever been, and while their designs are redone for the world of Tau Volantis and the specific environmental hazards associated, for the most part you’ll find the designs comparable to prior designs in the series while still being artistically interesting for this specific game. There are a few different environments you’ll explore, including a destroyed space station and a populated city, in addition to the ice planet itself, and each location you’ll visit has its own unique charm and personality. The environments in Dead Space 2 were slightly more interesting than those here, as that represented a lived-in city on a mining platform, whereas this game spends most of its time between “hulked out space station” and “ice planet”, and while these are impressive, they’re not as interesting as they could be. Aurally, all of the voice cast from the prior game have returned to fill in their roles here, and they all do a fantastic job, as one would expect, but the new cast keeps up with them perfectly fine as well, and there’s generally not a bad vocal performance in the bunch. The music fits the game quite well, as always, fading in and out as needed and frequently providing an excellent aural backdrop to the proceedings without ever becoming overbearing or ponderous. The sound effects are also as powerful and well implemented as ever,

Dead Space 3 basically plays like its predecessors, which is to say, it plays like Resident Evil 5 with a few minor differences here and there, and the co-op more or less adds to that assessment well enough. Those who have read my original Dead Space or Dead Space 2 reviews can skip the next three paragraphs, as this is basically a recap of the mechanics of those games. By default, your camera follows closely behind Isaac or Carver, the left stick moves, and the right stick turns the camera around as needed. Combat is set to the “left trigger aims, right trigger fires” style of play, though in this case, the right trigger and bumper act as attacks whether you’re aiming or not; while aiming, they engage your chosen weapon’s primary and secondary attacks, respectively, while when not aiming they allow you to punch and stomp, also respectively. Swinging and stomping not only allow you to melee attack enemies large and small, they also allow you to break open crates and such which may contain items to use, be they ammo, healing packs, and other novelties. Enemies may also drop these things, as well, to make your adventures easier. If all of this sounds a little familiar, well, as mentioned above, a lot of the gameplay elements in this game will seem VERY familiar to survival horror fans, as the third-person combat mechanics feel, if not exactly the same, reminiscent of the recent Resident Evil releases, as well as the last two games in the series.

If the game was a strict carbon copy, however, there would be little to praise, and indeed, it’s the things that Dead Space 3 adds to the concept that makes the game interesting. For one thing, the game is mostly designed to be played without a visible user interface; that is to say, everything you see on-screen to indicate information is a part of the main character, rather than a menu or a display on the screen. This is meant to make the experience more immersive than having displays and such on-screen would do, and for the most part, it’s as successful as it was in the first game, as well as the numerous games that have cribbed the concept since. Your health is displayed by a bar on the back of your rig (body suit), and the ammo for whatever weapon you’re equipped with is displayed on the back of the weapon itself, which you will immediately see when you bring it to the ready. Bringing up data logs and inventory screens is done by way of a hologram display that appears in front of you, which, aside from looking really cool, also allows the game to continue playing in real-time as you listen to logs or look through your inventory. In theory, this could certainly heighten tension as you fumble through your inventory for a needed item, but in practice, your weapons are mapped to the D-pad, and reloading your weapons and using health packs can be done at the press of a button outside of the menu, leaving you to only have to go the inventory in battle in the event of an emergency. As such, the game does a very good job of being both user friendly and immersive, and successfully manages to make sure its interface doesn’t ruin the experience for the player.

Combat with the various necromorphs you encounter is also interesting in its implementation, largely because fighting them isn’t simply a matter of shooting whatever you see. In Dead Space 3, the simplest way to kill monsters isn’t to shoot them, but rather to dismember them. Cutting off a few limbs or tendrils from a monster will often kill a monster far quicker than shooting a few rounds into their chests, which often makes battles a lot more interesting than one might expect; combat quickly becomes more about precision and less about blind firing, making most battles far more strategic than one might expect, which also makes the experience a good bit more interesting as a result. There are several different weapons you’ll come across through the game, from the expected (energy machine guns and flamethrowers) to the outlandish (The Ripper, a device that fires hovering circular saws), and all of the weapons are pretty damn awesome and useful across the board. You also have the ability to use a Kinetic device that allows you to pick things up and move them around (which is useful for a number of purposes, many of them puzzle-based) and Stasis shots that can slow down enemies and environmental objects (which, again, sees plenty of use for puzzles and other purposes). Add to this the odd humongous boss monsters you’ll face, and you’ll quickly come to appreciate the fact that Dead Space 3 is largely its own experience and not simply derivative of other games on its own… in theory anyway.

For those who have played the first two games, welcome back. Let’s talk about what’s new.

There are a few minor changes, to get those out of the way, between Dead Space 2 and this. Anti-gravity navigation is largely unchanged; you launch off of the ground as needed by clicking in the left stick, move around with the left stick to float around, reorient yourself to the ground at the press of a button, and zip around with the left bumper for faster travel. You’ll no longer find oxygen canisters, however, to store in your inventory; instead, in sections where air is a concern, you’ll simply find large canisters mounted or floating around which you can pull to you and use or float to and use, which refill your air almost instantly and generally offer more or less infinite uses. The game doesn’t do nearly as much with zero-g travel and airless space as its predecessors did, mind you, so this isn’t a big deal. You can also crouch by pressing in the right stick briefly, allowing you to take cover behind debris in firefights, since some of your battles will now take place against normal humans or armed Necromorphs, and holding the left trigger allows you to aim over cover as needed, though you don’t stick to cover like with Gears of War or anything like that. You can also dodge roll by double-tapping the right bumper to avoid attacks or dive behind cover when the situation calls for it, and in the odd instances where enemies use grenades you can use telekinesis to toss them back if you’re so inclined.

The bigger changes come not in the combat mechanics, but in the inventory management and weapon systems. Credits are now non-existent; instead of finding money on the dead, you’ll find various resources of different types that are added to your stockpiles as you go. These resources are then used to build usable items, such as health packs and ammo clips, as well as pieces of equipment to customize your guns. Guns are now no longer simple default weapons that can be improved along a set path; rather, you are given basic tools that can be converted into whatever type of gun you want based on the frame and projection equipment you attach. Frames are simple affairs, as light frames are for one-handed guns and heavy frames are for two-handed guns, but you can build guns with top and bottom projection systems and barrels in whatever combination suits your fancy, so long as you have the gear or resources to build it. You can build rifle-shotgun hybrids, line cannon-rocket launcher mixes, force cannon-trip mine mash-ups, or anything else your heart desires, either from your own imagination or from the blueprints the developers and the game provide. Each gun also offers two attachment slots, where you can add things like sniper scopes, damage modifiers, team benefitting add-ons and so on, as well as up to eight slots for improvements (four for the top weapon, four for the bottom weapon) that can be attached via circuits, so you can improve guns by whatever stats are important instead of what the gun demands. Due to the sheer volume of weapon types that exist, ammunition now comes in a one-size-fits-all clip rather than in specific types, allowing you to just carry a bunch of clips instead of a few for each weapon; the trade off, however, is that you can only carry two weapons at one time, period.

You won’t just be finding resources on the bodies of the dead, however. You’ll find a scout robot fairly early on that can be used for digging up resources; you simply hold the robot’s display up and follow the ping it uses to show you where to release the robot, and when it indicates you’re in a good area, you release it, and it digs around and returns later with a bunch of resources later on. You’ll find said robot at your Bench, which is where you can build weapons and items, as well as disassemble weapons into their component pieces and store items in the Safe as needed if you’re low on space. There are now also separate suit stations to use where you can change your suits and upgrade your RIG; suits offer little significant bonuses this time around, but cost nothing to equip, and aside from a section early on where you have to find a thermally insulated suit to survive, you’ll never need to do so. They’re mostly there for the aesthetic amusement until about two-thirds of the way in, though in fairness, the game offers you bonus suits for having played Dead Space 2 and Mass Effect 3, so if you want to run around in an N7 suit, go nuts.

For those who are wondering, the multiplayer component from Dead Space 2 has been removed entirely, and Dead Space 3 instead includes a co-op mechanic that, for the most part, works fine. Co-op offers drop-in, drop-out play so whatever gear you have is immediately brought with you and you can save your inventory (and progress if applicable) at any time should you choose to leave, and if the second player leaves you can generally continue playing without too much hassle. Mechanically, there are some nominal changes; puzzles that can be completed alone now require both players to work together, for example, and should you take critical damage, your partner can revive you instead of the game ending (so long as it’s not death by a boulder or something). Further, there are various side-quests built into the game that offer you extra crafting options and materials for both solo and co-op play, but co-op offers three additional optional missions that mostly explore Carver’s slow descent into Marker insanity. These are especially interesting, not only because of the beneficial items given to you for completing them, but also because only the player playing as Carver will see the maddening effects. As such, having your friend explain how messed up everything is while you clarify what they’re looking at (“Dude, I see a lot of birthday presents!” “…those are coffins.” “…oh.”) adds a new, interesting level to the game you won’t get from playing alone.

The game takes place across nineteen chapters across various locations, and you should be able to blow through the game in around ten to twenty hours, depending on how much time you spend completing optional missions and hunting for parts and such. There are a good amount of items and weapon parts to collect and use, text and audio logs to find, and artifacts of various sorts to collect, so you’ll have plenty to keep you busy if you like to explore a lot. The game also features the old “New Game Plus” option that allows you to start the game from the beginning with all of your inventory intact, in case you want to use your badass upgraded gear to hack through the game a second or third time, but there are also three new specialty difficulty modes to play through: Pure Survival, which restricts you to making all of your gear, Hardcore, which allows you to save as normal but makes you start over entirely if you die once, and Classic, which restricts you to using classic weapon blueprints over custom options. The game also offers some DLC packs to modify your robot effectiveness and download special weapons and suits should you wish, and one expects more DLC is likely incoming. Also, for those who want to do everything with the game, you can now jump between chapters to complete missing objectives as needed, so clearing out all of the Achievements and collecting everything is even easier, and since you unlock new custom options for doing so there are even more reasons to do this thing.

An aside on the microtransaction options for resource purchasing, before we wrap up here: despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth, it’s not really as bad as was implied leading up to the game. Yes, you CAN pay money for resources to upgrade your guns; one dollar will buy you a small resource pack, while two and three dollar packs increase the resource payout and give you rare gun parts along with the resources. That said, however, you can also buy these packages with Ration Seals, which your robots will routinely bring back along with their scavenging hauls. Further, unless you’re starting the game on Zealot, you’ll likely be flush with resources fairly early on, to the extent that you’ll not even need to buy any unless you’re taking on one of the specialty difficulty modes, and even then it’s not likely to be a huge concern. So, while you absolutely can spend money on resources, there’s generally not really a NEED to, the game never FORCES you to, and it’s mostly just a novelty that’s there if you WANT to, so it’s not terribly onerous so much as it is an option for those who are very bad at the game or just want to toss some money into buying early upgrades.

Which is a shame, because the game goes in the complete opposite direction by requiring an online pass to play the game in co-op, which is such an abhorrent idea, given what a huge talking point the online co-op was leading up to the game, that I’m not going to even dignify explaining why this is abominable. Doing something like this with Dead Space 2 when the online was an extra component was one thing; so much of Dead Space 3 is designed around the co-op, including several Achievements and extra missions, that this basically becomes an obvious cash grab by the developer, and it kills a lot of good will one might have had from the start. The game is also excessively more derivative than its predecessors, because every single part of the game from about the halfway point onward screams “THE THING!” in all caps, from the snowy environments to the replacing of the wall-crawling baby monsters with wall-crawling dog monsters and beyond. Nothing about the influences in this game are subtle, and while one could see the aesthetic influences of Resident Evil, Event Horizon and Aliens in the prior two games, this game is heavily in love with John Carpenter’s mutant alien classic (or possibly the recent prequel, and if so, ew), and while that’s fine, it’s also very obvious.

Further, the game also institutes several more annoying minigame sequences to break up the experience. While the “rocket forward and dodge obstacles” sequence from Dead Space 2 makes a return, and isn’t too bad, and the mounted turret sequence is fun, the ship entry minigame is annoying at best, and the ice wall climbing sequence is absolutely atrocious, due to a combination of finicky controls and instant death obstacles. This is especially asinine because there is a difficulty mode that kicks you back to the beginning if you die once, because these sections are hard not to die during, not because of any challenge but because of poor mechanics. Oh, and finally, on the subject of the customizable weaponry: while this is a nice mechanic in theory, in practice, pre-ordering the game gave me the Evangelizer set, which provided a combined rifle and shotgun, and… well, that got me through the entire game with only a couple attachments added on as needed. The idea of custom weapons is nice, but once the novelty of wielding a Ripper/Force Gun hybrid wears off, only so many of the weapons are notably useful, and when you can wield a combined shotgun and machine gun/rifle on one slot, and a combined force gun/rocket launcher on the other, there’s little reason to bother with the customization system from that point onward.

Dead Space 3 ultimately ends up being a very good experience, alone or with a friend, that is mostly very good because the foundation is solid and the mechanics are as fun as ever, but it fails to live up to its predecessor, the new additions aren’t anything exciting, and it’s very much an exercise in what could have been. The plot does manage to resolve the trilogy well enough, the visuals and audio are generally as solid as ever, and the gameplay is still quite strong on its own. The minor additions help to make the game more functional, and the big changes to the upgrade and weapon mechanics, as well as the co-op options, are fun to experience and play with, and there’s a lot to do with the game and unlock for the player who wants to see and do everything available to them. However, the plot is often poorly written and executed (both on its own and in comparison to its predecessors), the game is excessively derivative, the online pass that’s required for the much-touted co-op play is abhorrent, several of the minigame sequences are either annoying or just plain bad, and the weapon customization system is a novelty at best once you find “the gun” that works for you. Dead Space 3, taken on its own devices, is generally enjoyable and well designed for the most part, but it’s a more flawed experience than Dead Space 2 and ultimately feels like a slightly disappointing ending to the series, in that it’s a fine game, but its predecessor was honestly better.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Dead Space 3 is generally enjoyable and should satisfy players well enough overall, and it pulls off much of what it does effectively, but some elements fall flat for one reason or another, leaving it an enjoyable, if disappointing, finale to the series (so far). The plot wraps up what it needs to wrap up adequately enough, the game generally looks excellent and sounds amazing, and the core gameplay is as functional and friendly as it ever was. Some minor add-ons help to make the experience more functional, while the major changes, such as the addition of co-op and the ability to make your own custom weapons, are interesting and well implemented enough, and combined with the extensive depth and content, make the game easy to recommend in theory. That said, though, the plot is not well written and is often poor in execution and general concept, the experience is obviously and patently derivative of The Thing, the online pass that’s needed for the heavily advertised co-op is an insult, some of the new minigame sequences are either annoying or simply poor, and the weapon customization system feels like a novelty you’ll use until you find a gun you like and never touch afterward. Dead Space 3 manages to execute the new things it tries acceptably enough while failing at things it got right in its predecessors, and the end result is a game that’s certainly fun and not regrettable to buy, but is also hard to recommend for reasons it shouldn’t be. If you’re a genre or franchise fan it’s a fine purchase, but compared to Dead Space 2, it’s also something of a disappointment compared to what could have been.


One response to “Review: Dead Space 3 (Microsoft Xbox 360)”

  1. […] GameFAN. We’ve done a review of the new graphic novel Dead Space: Liberation, a review of Dead Space 3, and we even have a contest where you can win a copy of the game. Now it’s time to end for […]

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