The real horror of Dead Space 3 isn't the necromorph hiding in the vent right above Isaac's head. It's all the concerns and preemptive criticisms fans had heaped on the game as it neared release last week.
Dead Space 3 is a departure for the series in a number of ways, and many of the concerns fans had are valid; co-op added to a game like this is almost never good, micro transactions are usually a bad idea, and moving away from horror seems to go against the very idea of the original concept.
With so many of the series' core pillars at stake, how could Visceral possibly get it right, or at least right enough that it still feels like Dead Space? Incredibly, they did. Just about everything new to the game works, while the stuff we're used to is as good as ever.
Dead Space 3 returns us to protagonist Isaac Clarke's side (or just behind his shoulder) as he has holed himself up in a colony somewhere, avoiding outside contact, shutting out the world to protect himself from any possibility of contact with the Markers that scarred him so thoroughly before. Word of his ex-girlfriend Ellie (of Dead Space 2) disappearing on a mission to locate the origin point of the insanity-inciting and necromorph-spawning Markers yanks him from his isolation and back behind the trigger of a plasma cutter.
Well Engineered Gameplay
As soon as that plasma cutter went off, I knew I was home. The combat in Dead Space 3 is as good as ever. The core of the series has always been tightly tuned third-person action that doesn't ever feel like a battle against the controller instead of the monsters. Aiming and dismembering are fast and satisfying. Stasis has been tweaked to give it an area of effect, making it useful tool for enemy management.
Combat isn't all there is to the gameplay, though. The Zero-G sequences are better than they've ever been. Instead of being cooped up in tight corridors, Isaac spends a good chunk of the game in outer space in the wreckage surrounding the ice planet introduced in the game's prologue. Navigating these open areas is a refreshing change from the tight corridors of the various ships.
Isaac spends more time engineering things as well. Sure we can all joke about engineers lining up analog sticks to match colors and the like, but Visceral does a good job giving Isaac a ton of things to do other than severing limbs. Instead of simply pressing the "Go" button on the many broken machines populating the game, Isaac will have to balance power input, direct current, sequence generators and other things that bring his engineering background to bear more often than ever before.
Crafting Your Death Machine
The other – and more significant – display of Isaac's skill is the addition of weapon crafting. The ability to create and customize (rather than simply power up) weapons changes just about everything.
Gone are credits and power nodes, the currencies of the first two games. In their place are parts and raw materials, used in the creation of weapons, ammunition, medical supplies and almost anything else disposable.
Weapons are no longer simply blueprints to find and turn into purchases. With the right parts, any number of powerful, satisfying, and amusing arms is at Isaac's disposal. Better yet, every part used in the creation of a weapon is later reclaimable to allow committed players to maximize the return on the loot they pick up. While blueprints are available, the satisfaction that comes from creating and using your own weapons far outweighs the potential gain of using one of the weapons provided. At best they are suggestions for potential combinations, of which there are many.
It also introduces one of the potential problems with Dead Space 3: micro transactions. The short version of the story is that if someone hadn't told me the option was there, I might not have even noticed. Raw materials and weapon parts are plentiful and renewable, making micro transactions unnecessary for all but the few who want to save some time and jump ahead. Further, the micro transaction items-in-game resources and parts-can be purchased with Ration Seals, the closest thing Dead Space 3 has to any sort of currency. Traditional DLC items like new outfits still require real-world cash, but finding enough Ration Seals to pick up an Epic Resource Pack isn't tough at all.
The only change that really falls flat in Dead Space 3 is in progress saving. Past games used save points to store progress; hard core difficulty revolved around having very limited saves. Instead of save points, Dead Space 3 uses checkpointing, one of those lovely tools that, when done right, is hardly noticed by the player. It's rarely complimented because it's largely invisible.
Dead Space 3's checkpointing is the other kind. The more open nature of the game makes the checkpoints sometimes disorienting. The worst part, though, is that some of the checkpoints just don't make sense. After finishing one of the game's more impressive sequences, I paused, selected "Save and Quit," and went to go eat dinner with my wife. I resumed afterward only to find myself just outside the boss arena; the wrong side. I'm not the only one who has run across this, and it's one of those things that probably doesn't come up in development when testers are playing at long stretches through the same part of a game.
…the satisfaction that comes from creating and using your own weapons far outweighs the potential gain of using one of the weapons provided.
In Space, Someone Can Hear You Scream
Where Dead Space 3 was expected to fall flat, though, it doesn't. "Co-op" was probably the scariest word you could say to a Dead Space fan before release. Amazingly, Dead Space 3 makes use of the best of co-op while avoiding the pitfalls.
Games like Resident Evil 5 are co-op games with single player concessions. You can play it single player, but the computer-controlled character is always with you, in your way, yammering in your ear. Dead Space 3 isn't a co-op game that begrudgingly lets you play single player. If one of the other characters hadn't introduced Isaac to co-op buddy John Carver, I might've thought he was a hallucination. When you play single player, he's with other characters for most of the game and is never at your heels.
When he's with you, though, everything changes. Conversations are local instead of over communicators. Puzzles that required one character often require two (or require one to fend off a horde of necromorphs while the other works the puzzle). Then there are the co-op missions, missions only playable when Isaac and John are together. These are some of the game's best moments.
While Isaac seems to have figured out how to keep his demons mostly in check, Carver is dealing with them for the first time. He's never been close to Markers like Isaac has. In one early mission, playing as Carver, I accompanied my friend to one of these missions. Outside I heard a transmission and assumed my friend did too, so I didn't say anything. When I heard it a second time, Carver asked Isaac about the transmission and he responded with confusion. As I walked to pick up something, my friend asks me what the hell I'm doing. And that's just the beginning.
As a worried Dead Space fan (but unabashed lover of Resident Evil 5), I was concerned about how a cooperative mode could compromise Dead Space's core, but curious how it would turn out. I never would've imagined it could be one of the game's best features without totally ruining the single player.
Staying True to the Terror
The other part of Dead Space 3 that worried fans was the game's turn away from its roots in horror. The change is more akin to the change from Alien to Aliens than it is from say, Evil Dead to Army of Darkness. The comparison to Aliens seems especially appropriate. Isaac has become the hunter and expert, and the other characters that might be stronger in other situations are at a loss without him. The shift away from horror is a bit disappointing but it mostly feels like an evolution of the story.
The comparisons to Aliens should stop there, though. One gripe with the game comes in the form of Ellie Langford. In Dead Space 2, she could've given Aliens' Ellen Ripley a run for her money. In Dead Space 3 she suffers from somewhat of the same fate as Uncharted's Elena; an overhauled character design makes her look strange (you're going to show that much cleavage on a horrific space mission?), while the previously strong woman is often relegated to playing the part of awkward love interest, as two of the male characters fight over her. She's still strong, but her role is minimal and could've been more interesting.
Some more cosmetic issues include the fact that Isaac is supposed to be on ships and in buildings a couple centuries old and yet the construction style is largely unchanged from the newer vessels (aside from a nice coat of rust) while the game's wall art still has that retro SF look to it. Some of the names the writers picked out for things are a bit too on the nose as well; the space station you visit early in the game, a deserted colonial station, has been named Roanoke. It's a silly nitpick, but it's not the only case and it causes an eye-roll in an otherwise well-thought out-story.
And that's all those issues are, really: silly nitpicks. Dead Space is somewhat of an H.P. Lovecraft story at heart, about a man of science encountering unimaginable horrors from space, fighting his own sanity as much as the beasts themselves and Dead Space 3 is a great conclusion to Isaac's fight against the markers.
A Successful Experiment
Things that, by all odds, shouldn't have worked. Not only is the game worth playing through as a single player game, it's worth a second play through on cooperative mode for story and game alike.
The weapon experimentation and resulting combat is enough to stay fresh at least a few times through. As a Dead Space fan, it's hard to imagine a Dead Space 3 that I'd be happier with.