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Dead Space 3 is a disturbing ride from beginning to end (review)

Dead Space 3 starts with a break up. You might think that’s weird for a game that involves meticulously cutting off the limbs of alien zombies who want to kill you. But the Dead Space series has seen more unusual changes over the last few years.

Available today for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, Visceral Game’s third entry of its sci-fi themed survival-horror franchise takes hero Isaac Clarke through a galaxy-hopping adventure as he tries to stop undead creatures known as Necromorphs once and for all. Fighting alongside him in the optional cooperative mode is John Carver, a soldier who has his own reasons for hunting down the origin of the Markers, spiraling structures that create the monsters out of corpses.

Much like with Capcom’s Resident Evil games, many fans mourn the transition of Dead Space from a slow-paced and eerie tale to a heavy emphasis on action and leaning on large, scripted sequences to tell its story. So I’ll make this simple: If you didn’t enjoy this change in Dead Space 2 at all, you won’t find a lot to like in Dead Space 3. But if you’re willing to dig in, you’ll find an entertaining shooter that will scare the pants off you.

What you’ll like

Addicting loot hunt

The limb-chopping combat receives a facelift with the new workbenches, which you can use to craft your own weapons. You start by picking a compact frame (one-handed) or a heavy frame (two-handed) and choosing an upper tool and a lower tool. These tools dictate what kind of firepower you’re using. If you attach the military engine, you can create standard weapons like machine guns, revolvers, and a sniper rifle. One of my favorite combinations early on was a rivet-shooting chain gun that I placed on top of a shotgun.

Different barrel tips, a variety of attachments, and modifiers known as circuits can alter the way your gun behaves — a generic plasma cutter can become a lethal killing machine by adding a few damage circuits to its frame. Or you can add an ammo-box attachment that’ll automatically reload your gun once you reach the bottom of the clip. You have a lot of flexibility in tweaking these weapons anyway you want.

The best way to find components is through exploration. Hidden containers and secret rooms contain the rarer stuff, but Necromorphs often drop resources (which acts as a type of in-game currency) that you can use to build other tools and items. Gathering these resources and looking for the nearest workbench to put them together is like a minigame of its own, as it encourages you to keep an eye out for more loot.

Dead Space 3 has a lengthy campaign — it took me close to 24 hours on my first solo playthrough — and I’m sure that at least a few of those hours came from tinkering around with the workbench. You can always recover any parts you’ve added to a gun, so it’s easy to test out your crazy weapon ideas.

If you’re impatient, you can buy more resources, space suits, and weapons through the optional microtransactions menu with real-world money. But I don’t know why  anyone would even consider that. By the end, I had a huge pile of resources, and I never had to worry about running out.

An evolving threat

The Marker-corrupted creatures, many of whom we’ve seen before in Isaac’s previous quests, pack a few new skills that make sure you never really feel comfortable around them — no matter how much ammo you may have. They still love to pop out of air vents when you least expect it, with their scythe-like arms rapidly moving to greet you. But it’s their appearance on the planet of Tau Volantis, and the way they adapt to attacking you outdoors, that reminds you how deadly they can really be.

Only a small ripple of snow — as if they were swimming — will signal their presence before they suddenly emerge to attack you from the planet’s icy depths. The visibility outside isn’t always clear, especially with strong torrents of snow and sleet raining down. It’s typical to find yourself alone one second and then surrounded by Necromorphs the next. It’s unsettling.

Playing in the dark with headphones on accentuates this threat: The most dangerous Necromorphs are those you can hear but can’t see. Their guttural, animal-like roars and shrill high-pitched screams serve as a prelude to their inevitable anxiety-inducing appearance. The addition of new monsters toward the end — like the Twitcher, an extremely fast Necromorph that you have to slow down with your Stasis ability first — keeps the combat from being anything but routine.

Dead Space 3 Isaac in space

Resolution

As we’ve learned with Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed III, it’s tricky to come up with an ending to an ambitious trilogy that’ll please everyone. The Dead Space plot isn’t convoluted, but it’s large enough to get lost in the details. To Visceral Games’ credit, it has managed to tie up many loose ends in Dead Space 3, whether through cutscenes or text and audio logs scattered throughout the levels.

I have a few issues (some being too spoilery to discuss here) with the direction it took the story in — such as the dumb romance subplot — but it was a satisfying ending. The developers do leave some room for future games or other forms of media to explore, but that’s also handled in a way that feels natural and convincing.

Dead Space 3 Tau Volantis

What you won’t like

It feels a bit bloated

Dead Space 3 is a meaty experience. You travel to colonies, fly around abandoned spaceships, and search through 200-year-old facilities in the frozen tundra of Tau Volantis before the end. The size and scope of your adventure is bigger than any other Dead Space, but this not necessarily a good thing.

Backtracking through levels has long been a part of the series, but in Dead Space 3 it’s starting to feel a little tiring. It wouldn’t be so bad if Visceral Games could add a better way to move from one place to another without relying on the same crutches — I lost count of the number of elevators, lifts, and other entrances I had to pass through just to arrive to a new area. Though it makes sense in the fiction — you are inside of massive, multifloor structures, after all — the rusty interiors become an eyesore after seeing them over and over.

The new optional quests, which usually end in finding a huge stash of loot, also suffers from repetitive design. These missions come in pairs: One you can do on your own, and another that’s specifically for co-op (locking out solo players). If you go through both sets back-to-back in co-op, you’ll immediately realize the similarities. Each pair share the same layout and have minor implications overall on the story. Except for those that focus on Carver (see below), all of them lead to a type of arena battle where you’re stuck in a room and have to kill all the Necromorphs before you can leave.

As beautiful as Dead Space 3 looks with its snow-covered cliffs and grotesque cast of monsters, the dreary indoor settings feel like you’re running through generic hallway A to get to generic hallway B. The narrative always has a sense of urgency, but its momentum languishes when you have to trek through these sprawling levels. I’d rather have a shorter, leaner experience over the massive and slightly unfocused one in Dead Space 3.

Dead Space 3 Waster #2

Locking content to a specific character
John Carver is the lucky winner in this latest round of psychological madness. Optional co-op-only missions delve into Carver’s reaction to the alien Markers, which includes some fun visual tricks that the other player (controlling Isaac) cannot see. Phantom voices, family portraits, and assorted objects from Carver’s past show up during these segments as his perception of reality slowly unravels.

At times, the contrast between what I saw — Carver lost in an imaginary world influenced by the Markers — and what my co-op partner saw was drastic. To him, Carver was shaking uncontrollably and speaking to himself in weird fits. This descent into dementia works well in a co-op environment, especially when trying to describe to your partner what you’re seeing over your headset.

Unless you find someone to play with, however, you will not have access to Carver’s side of the story. Isaac still interacts with the Markers, but he no longer experiences the hallucinatory visions responsible for part of the tension and scares of the first two games. It’s unfortunate to see one of the more promising (though brief) parts of Dead Space 3 locked to a co-op only character.

Cover shooting

With a throng of religious extremists hunting Isaac and Carver down, you’ll eventually have to face them head-on, complete with carefully positioned pieces of cover. These segments just feel bland, clunky, and uninteresting. This would make more sense if it was just Isaac, who’s an engineer by trade, but it’s not an excuse for EarthGov soldier John Carver. The battles only happen a handful of times, but I dreaded every moment leading up to the next one.

Conclusion

Dead Space 3 is wrapping up a trilogy that started with a silent Isaac Clarke stranded on a spooky spaceship, took us through the torturous mental aftermath as he dealt with the Markers and his dead girlfriend, and then presents a final showdown on a mysterious planet. The story keeps getting bigger and bigger, and the developers seem to have trouble making sure the game can keep up.

Of the new additions, the weapon crafting feature makes it worthwhile to stick around. Even the cooperative mode injects some fresh blood (and sorely missed horror elements) back into the formula. The essential ingredients of what makes a Dead Space game great keeps changing from one iteration to the next, but at least Visceral Games always finds a way to make it enjoyable.

Score: 79/100

Dead Space 3 released on Feb. 5, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a Xbox 360 copy of the game for the purpose of this review. 

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