There were points in Dead Space 3 where I felt like I was watching a Peter Jackson epic like Lord of the Rings. For instance, toward the end of the game protagonist Isaac Clarke rappels down a series of cliffs while fighting off evil soldiers and Necromorph monsters. It was fun the first time it happened, and the second, maybe even the third, but not so much the fourth, fifth and oh my lord not again. There might not have been any hobbits, but like many of Jackson’s movies, the game could have benefited greatly from some judicious editing and shortening. Dead Space 3 is overlong – even bloated – larded with repetitive quests to fetch keys and alien artifacts, open doors and backtrack over the same terrain, on and on. Much of its 15-hour-or-so single-player campaign feels like a chore.
It ends up making a case for why many shooter games top out at around six to seven hours of action. It’s not impossible to make a longer shooter that’s engrossing all the way through, but it’s also not easy. With no multiplayer component and only an additional two-player co-operative mode, it sure looks like the developers at Visceral Games lost their way under pressure to pad the game out and make it worth its $60 price tag.
The story begins with series hero Isaac living on a lunar colony, morosely ruing his failed relationship with Dead Space 2 love interest Ellie Langford. Before we can really get a sense of how depressing his life has become since the events of that game, Isaac is pressed back into service against the Markers, the semi-sentient alien artifact/beings from the previous game.
In no time at all, he’s suited up – strange-looking visor-helmet and all – exploring abandoned space hulks crawling with Necromorphs, armed with his trusty triple-laser cutter gun. Isaac and his allies inevitably learn the true nature of the Markers and must plod along through several more missions to stop the bad guys, making personal sacrifices along the way.
It has moments of the same thrills and chills from the previous two games, and if you liked those, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Dead Space 3 requires cautious exploration because the monsters can – and do – spring from nowhere with little warning. The fantastic sound design is also back, with Necromorph attacks punctuated by the music shifting from quiet and eerie to loud and frantic. Indeed, the violent sound transitions give the game much of its horror.
If anything, though, this instalment is less scary than its predecessors and more focused on large-scale action. Playing through on medium difficulty, there was more than enough ammo and health packs littered about the environment, to the point where running out and being caught off guard just didn’t happen. And when you’re well stocked against the Necromorph hordes, well, it’s harder to fear them.
The game shifts between big-time Gears of War-like firefights set in open areas to the corridor skirmishes done so well in the first two games. The open fights are generally weaker since Isaac’s slow-reloading weapons aren’t ideal against large numbers of opponents. Dead Space 3 is best when it sticks with claustrophobic combat.
The game also introduces a new weapon crafting system; players collect parts and components which can be assembled into a veritable cornucopia of armaments. While some players will love this endless customizability, I found the sheer number and variety of possibilities daunting and ended up settling on just a handful of weapons.
The biggest new addition, both story-wise and mechanically, is John Carver, another protagonist that can be played by a second player in online co-operative mode. Carver is a soldier with some skeletons in the closet. Helping Isaac is not just about saving the galaxy, it’s also a mission of personal redemption for him.
Playing co-operatively changes the game in several ways. Enemies get tougher, puzzles are more complex and entirely new sections and missions are unlocked. All told, a two-player game accesses three to five hours of extra content.
Carver is still present in the single-player game, although his life lessons happen unseen, in the background. Both protagonists, however, suffer from the same truly clichéd writing. Isaac, for his part, is a grossly unengaging hero; he loves Ellie and is willing to make big sacrifices in the name of humanity, and that’s about it. In some ways, I found the character more intriguing in the first Dead Space, where he didn’t speak. At least then it was possible to imagine there might be something interesting about him.
With Carver, meanwhile, there’s rarely ever any doubt where he’s going to end up. The relationship between the two heroes is summed up near the finale with some particularly terrible dialogue. Carver is wondering if he’s done enough to atone for his past transgressions. Isaac, seeking to reassure him, says, “You’re a good man, Carver. Good men mean well, they just don’t always end up doing well.” Clearly, Isaac has a very low threshold for qualifying as a “good man.”
The Dead Space series started as a fantastically engrossing horror-themed shooter, but some of that critical chemistry is changing as it shifts toward a more run-of-the-mill, big-budget action blockbuster sequel machine.
Many franchises get better as they age, with developers fine tuning the mechanics that made them good in the first place and adding new ideas to enhance and deepen the experience. On the other hand, there are franchises that run out of new things to say and do.
As with many of the tedious sequences in Dead Space 3, a pervading sense of “been there, done that” is starting to settle in.