Unlike the third game in most other game trilogies, Dead Space 3 is not a conclusion to anything. I have no doubt the series will continue after this; EA reported pre-orders had outpaced Dead Space 2, and the publisher is not one to let a successful franchise die. The question for fans is: do we like the direction the series is headed?
Developer: Visceral Games
Release date: Feb. 5
After the events of Dead Space 2, our hero Isaac Clarke finds himself chasing his heroine, Ellie, to a distant planet that they suspect is the origin of the insanity-inducing, monster-creating monoliths called Markers. The twisted, evil-looking Markers are worshipped by the members of a cult called Unitology, whose grand plot is revealed in the first chapter when they overthrow the galactic government and activate Markers on every human colony.
The Unitologists hope that will cause the ultimate "Convergence" (a common Uni mantra is "Make us whole"), allowing humanity to evolve and achieve its destiny. In reality, every human will transform into the grotesque, violent necromorphs that Isaac's been fighting across three games. Someone's got to stop them by deactivating all the Markers, and I think you know who it's going to be.
Plot-wise, I can draw plenty of parallels—maybe too many—with Halo, whose zealous Covenant enemies sought to undertake a religious "Great Journey" that would actually destroy them. In Halo, a force called The Flood spread throughout the galaxy using sentient life as its host, much like the Markers seem to do. I can't say more without spoiling the plot, but believe me when I say it takes a few turns that gave me major déjá vu.
But what you really want to know about is the gameplay: is it scary? Does the co-op ruin it? The answers might surprise you.
Dead Space 3 is rarely frightening; like Dead Space 2, and unlike the original, it's more unnerving. It's certainly intense, though; the pacing of combat encounters is just so murderously fast that you'll never have time to contemplate what's around the next corner before it's jumped out of a grate or landed on your head. You won't go a minute without shooting something, unless you're solving a puzzle, and even then something usually attacks you partway through. The result is a sci-fi horror game the horror of which is mitigated by a constant buzz of non-surprising surprises. With few lulls, there can be even fewer adrenaline-fueled highs, and though you may remain tense in anticipation of constant attacks, it eventually becomes monotonous.
Thus, worries that co-op would ruin the atmosphere of an otherwise terrifying game are made moot. Even when you're not playing with a partner, the other characters (including Carver, the hardened, haunted soldier whom co-op players control) are a near-constant presence. So there's no reason not to play in co-op—and in fact, it's a much better experience. I use "better" to mean "more fun," not "scarier" or "truer to the original." Playing with a partner makes every second of Dead Space 3 more fun, and even provides a slightly different experience; there are some optional missions, a new addition to 3, that can only be accessed in co-op, and Isaac and Carver have plenty of back-and-forth dialogue that you won't hear playing solo.
Also new to Dead Space 3 is a rather versatile weapon crafting system. You won't find any pre-fab guns; instead, you'll construct them from parts and resources, following blueprints or making it up as you go. Want a flamethrower with a rocket launcher that does acid damage? Done. How about a shotgun and sniper rifle combo that enhances your healing abilities? Easy. The combinations are myriad, and though the game does a shit job of explaining the crafting system, it's easy and fun once you get the hang of it.
It's unfortunate that you can only carry two weapons, though, and that there isn't a single button to swap between them (they're still mapped to the D-pad, which makes no sense). There are plenty of other issues, too. For one thing, the game is scored to death. sections that might otherwise be swimming in tension are ruined by loud, out-of-place music. The weapon crafting, a welcome addition, unfortunately brings with it a needlessly complex economy of resources. A half dozen or so different materials are used for everything from gun construction to upgrading your health, and you can find them lying around the environment, on enemies' corpses, or by deploying scavenger bots that buzz around and gather them for you. It's a grind that you don't actually have to grind, though you'll spend more time than you like collecting and re-deploying those bots. But the entire system seems to have been designed to facilitate the inclusion of microtransactions to buy more resources. It might not be so bad if resources were plentiful, but I spent most of mine upgrading Isaac's health, armor, and enemy-slowing stasis ability, and so had little left to build weapons from the dozens of blueprints I found. It's frustrating to know that those microtransactions really do get in the way of a balanced in-game economy.
Further, the appearance of gun-toting human enemies throughout Dead Space 3 makes little sense, narratively, mechanically or otherwise. The human enemies look, sound and act identical. I know they're supposed to be in a cult, but it's still ridiculous. Even on "impossible" difficulty, they spend most of their time standing around letting you spray bullets into their faces. Besides, the Unitologists were intriguing in past games because they worked in the shadows. Anyone could be a member of the cult, and you'd usually never know until it was too late to counter their inevitable betrayal. To have them suddenly enact a violent, galaxy-wide coup takes all the fun out and injects it with nonsensical bombast. In that way, Dead Space 3 is the Aliens to Dead Space's Alien. It ups the stakes, multiplies the enemies, and applies a liberal coating of hoo-rah. But is that what fans wanted? I doubt it.
MONOTONY OR MEANING?
Dead Space 3 chugs along for 20 hours without any meaningful gameplay or mechanical evolutions; additions like rock-climbing and turret sections are a fun distraction, but others, like an out-of-the-way fast travel system, seem to serve absolutely no purpose. The story is mostly linear, and there's no reason to backtrack. And the amount of padding is absolutely reprehensible; ladders break, doors malfunction, and objectives are spread out so as to fill out the game's considerable length without adding much of substance.
That said, a handful of punishing difficulties open up after your first play-through, tempting you to test your skills by attempting to play through without dying or with ammo more rare than a sane Unitologist. If nothing else, I can say with confidence that Dead Space 3 is a whole lot of game.
The combat at the heart of Dead Space is still tight and engaging—that hasn't changed, particularly now that you can craft your own personal perfect weapon. And that dirty sci-fi aesthetic is still a joy to explore, particularly now that the environments have been expanded considerably. It's enough to carry Dead Space 3 to its conclusion, but just barely; if the core of Dead Space 3 was any less solid, it would collapse under the weight of all its unnecessary padding and quick-time events. I wholeheartedly recommend that fans of the series experience this third entry, especially if you've got a friend to do it with (drag in a second TV if you can—sadly, there's no splitscreen). Just beware that Dead Space 3 may not be the game you want it to be.