Isaac Clarke is not a lucky man, but what is to be expected from the protagonist of the leading horror series out right now. Tight corridors, gruesome ship decks and oozing fleshy walls set-up oppressive atmospheres that had players stuck to their seats in both Dead Space 1 and 2. Dead Space 3 is now out, but does this new chapter that evolves many of the series core mechanics take the series to deeper reaches of horror or leave the series stranded in space?
Dead Space 3 wastes no time before throwing necromorphs and religious terrorists into the story. After a short introduction sequence set 200 years previously, Isaac Clarke is once again thrust centre-stage. The dogmatic Unitologist’s attempt to track Isaac as he is forced to find previous love interest Ellie, who has gone missing on a mission to stop the necromorph spawning markers. The core story is remarkably simple but becomes convoluted quickly once players reach the half-way mark and events start gathering pace.
The script is very schlock horror. The characters usually stay within the confines of single tropes that forbid to give them any depth. It will be forgiven to think they walk around with numbers on there heads for the order they will be killed off. This makes it nearly impossible to attach to any of them past the core characters Isaac and Ellie due to their role in the over-arcing narrative. While the script is lacking the performances are well done, giving a little much needed credence to the hollow dialogue. The characters emote and animate well, giving more personality than the characters of previous games. Being part of a team of characters this time around makes the narrative feel more immediately effecting, rather than the events that happened around Isaac in the first two games instead of to him.
Co-op character John Carver plays the role of Isaac’s companion with a troubled family life throughout the story. Multi-player designed puzzles and player specific hallucinations while interesting, fail to hit the mark more often than not. Puzzles are overly simplistic feeling like minor road blocks, and the illusions fail to add depth to a character that plays to the stereotype of an angry soldier with a troubled past. While it is enjoyable to have another player to do the co-op specific side-missions with, the campaign is still a solid 15-20 hours in solo play.
Being an unspeakable horror is a lonely lifestyle
Dead Space’s brand of horror took inspiration from the restrictive controls and the feeling of dis-empowerment against an enemy that was more powerful and agile than Isaac. Controls had him control like a tank and the lack of any advanced motion made him vulnerable against a menace that could crawl walls and vastly out-numbered him. This sense of tension has now mostly evaporated as Isaac can fling himself out the way and run around the battle field with improved controls. New weapons further compound this problem as they shred through enemies at a much faster pace, making it less important to dismember the enemy as long as shots consistently hit their target. Any sense of tension during battle is taken from the fact that necromorphs now spawn in much larger numbers that aim to quickly swarm Isaac into a corner. It is hard to feel scared of the enemies though when they can be quickly levelled with over-powered weapons that aren’t indicative to the genre.
Weapon crafting is one of Dead Space 3’s new draws. Gone are the days of finding and buying blueprints for a gruesome tool, replaced with the ability to customise guns from the ground up. Personalised death-dealers are made from the ground up with weapon frames, basic weapon cores, tips that change the firing type and other enhancements and specialities. It takes some time to understand it all as the series of menus and options isn’t well explained. It is not long though till the variety of weapon types and combinations is apparent and ready to be experimented with.
Isacc’s engineering degree finally comes in use
Almost all weapon are made up of two guns, the primary and an under-slung second. A Shotgun with and assault rifles can seem rather blasé though when electrified bolas mixed with a rail-gun enter the fray. The gives the game a great feeling of empowerment, but quickly takes away tension in combat as enemies can be murdered with a single blast of a shotgun or a round from an electrified grenade launcher. The game tries to compensate for this with larger swarms of enemies, but med-packs drop with such an alarming even on higher difficulties that death is rarely an issue. A universal ammo system however acts as a disincentive for swapping weapons out though if a favourable weapon set-up is discovered which can then become tiresome. The gameplay is still fun and crafting new guns is a rewarding experience, but the changes cause the game to go from a horror game to a shooter with a higher than average amount of jump scares.
From the dark recess of the wrecked fleer to the icy climate of Tau Tolantis Dead Space 3’s environments look great with careful use of colour and contrast. Moving from the silent abyss of space to the constant blizzard of the planets surface, the game is filled with memorable locations that show off a great use of contrasting colours and lighting. Darkness is interrupted by small rays of light through broken roofs or Isaac’s shining visor as he casts his vision around a deserted room. Many interiors though begin to feel repetitive by the half-way mark, leading to over-use of the games objective finder. One ship in space looks the same as the other, inside and out. Interiors feel cramped and cluttered with the games dirty cyberpunk aesthetic and exteriors show of grand vistas across vast landscapes. More time to slowly explore these areas and discover the horror that lies beneath the immediate appearance. It is during these moments the game is most tense and creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the series other games. Apocalyptic logs that scatter rooms describe the downfalls of the world and its people tell a more convincing and captivating story than the main campaign. The best stories are told in the side-missions, which work as self-contained short stories, and are rewarded with numerous valuable upgrades for seeking them out.
Enemies love popping out of the snow like they were caught making demonic snow angels
The game sounds great from top to bottom. Necromorphs gargle and scream with harrowing frequency and guns pop and fire satisfyingly. The squelching noises of bullet and laser ripping through a body are still as disgusting. Sounds muffle in the muted vacuum of space and the wind howls on the planets icy surface. The soundtrack while rarely appearing mixes a sense of wonder and terror while exploring until a sudden screech of violin indicates an attack. There are even a few hidden licensed tracks used in the background of some locations that fit perfectly into the games tone.
Necromorphs still scream and shout with sick horror as they charge towards the barrel of a gun. New additions are few with most monsters being returning series staples. Bosses are towering, grotesque lumps of biomass and appear at an uncommon frequency to threaten and terrorize. While the human unitologist’s that hound the protagonists give a welcome change of pace the game forgets they exist for a large portion of the story. They return later in greater numbers to quickly become boring and stale. The simple AI prevents them from even taking cover properly most of the time makes them almost laughably bad as they stand still waiting for an inevitable head-shot. Interplay between the two enemy types is more interesting though, as dead humans stand back up as necromorphs ready for another round. While these fights are rare it adds an interesting new dimension to the later game.
Kiss him, I dare you
It would be wrong to refer to the new Dead Space as a horror. While the number of eldtrich style creatures is high, and the atmosphere may try its best to sell it the focus on heavy action and gun customisation take away what made Dead Space a frightening experience. Combat itself is a fun and frantic experience, especially when two players are firing personalised laser cannons. Dead Space 3 while a worthy continuation to the series changes the direction it is taking, from a tense horror experience to monster blaster.