Dead Space 3 review: EA's horror series abandons its roots - and suffers for it
5th Feb 2013 | 14:01
With the exception of Shattered Memories, Silent Hill's been subjected to rotten remakes and ineffective sequels. Resident Evil's transformed from the survival horror daddy to a flailing granddaddy wondering how it grew so old, so quickly. Alone in the Dark? For that we reserve the right to use squelching noises - and not the good kind.
It's no longer a horror series, for starters. The opening hour of Dead Space contained more scares than the entire eighteen-hour running time of Dead Space 3. Yes, Necromorphs burst through air ducts and out of snow drifts on a regular basis in this third game, but they do so with little craft or and even less surprise. With the emphasis placed on set pieces and all-out action moments, there's little time set aside for slow-burning tension and stage-managed scares. In the third 'Space, at least, no one will hear you scream.
The big new weapon and item customisation system plays a hand in this unwelcome evolution. The idea for custom weapons was born out of Visceral's dismay at seeing gamers shun the majority of higher-powered weapons in favour of Isaac's iconic Plasma Cutter, the classic weapon around which much of Dead Space's unique combat and puzzles were designed.
Well, you can now carry two bespoke weapons of your design, each with two different tools for different firing modes. Rather than hefting around separate grenade launchers and shotguns you can make a tool that has both welded together for instance - maybe with auto-ammo-pick-up modules and fire-imbued munitions bolted on for good measure. In and of itself it's not a bad system, but the two major knock-on effects are detrimental to Dead Space 3's atmosphere.
First up is Visceral's notion that, for the gamer, juggling different types of ammunition for all these potential gun parts is too much to handle. The developers' work around is the introduction of a unified ammo system. No longer will you have to panic about running low on Ripper blades or emptying your final canister of flamethrower fuel.
You'll never have to make the tough decisions about which ammo types to collect and which ones to discard to make room; decisions, remember, that we've sweated over in past horror games. Now, each and every weapon, no matter the projectile type, draws ammunition from the same generic Ammo Clip pool.
The second consequence of the weapon building is even worse. Because you're now able to tool Isaac and co-op partner Carver up with crazy combinations and deadly gun mods, the usual mix and numbers of Necromorphs would have been far too easy to deal with.
So, to ensure you never settle into a comfort zone, Dead Space 3 bombards you with giant hordes of enemies, all at once, each one boasting Lucozade blood and running shoes judging by how fast they rush you. The enjoyment of hanging back and strategically dismembering Necromorphs is replaced by a frantic grab for the loudest, punchiest weapons. And, right from the off, most enemies are sporting some kind of armour, meaning multiple hits are needed to sever even a solitary limb.
In a blow to all single-player fans, the combat has clearly been balanced with co-op in mind (Visceral even confirmed as much in interviews). During our first play-through we were unable to access the online portion to see how the game fares with a second player in the snow shoes of Isaac's new buddy John Carver, so keep reading after this review for our separate take on online play - and how the three co-op-only Optional Missions and Insanity effects stack up.
Stasis and telekinesis remain great powers to play with but they're poorly utilised. Stasis is needed just to slow down the sprinting gaggles of Necromorphs to give you a fighting chance, while you'll always have too much ammo and not enough time to worry about TK-ing bits of scenery and mashed-up alien at your attackers. (Not that there's any sign of the handy poles and circular saw blades that made the original game's TK ability a powerful weapon to harness.) We're even deprived of much of the ritualistic post-battle slumgullion stomping: in most areas all but a few of the corpses will vanish in front of your eyes, leaving little in the way of carcasses to play with.
MARKER AND EXECUTE
Running out of supplies is a non-issue too unless you're playing on some of the tougher New Game+ settings. As you explore Tau Volantis, you can set down scavenger bots in resource-rich environments. Ten minutes later these bots will return to the BENCH machines to deposit their wares, and all this extra scrap metal and somatic gel can be used to build more health packs and more universal ammunition than the entirety of EarthGov could ever get through, let alone a lone engineer taking on a planet full of monsters.
And when humans show up, things take a turn for the even-worse. Fighting Unitologists may make sense from a story perspective, but - as feared - the change in dynamic feels like a betrayal of the series' roots. Crouch-jogging behind bits of low cover is
So far, so disappointing, but unlike many of its fellow horror-betraying peers,
Take the second of the game's ten Optional Missions. The Optional Missions are all small self-contained asides from the story that offer twenty-to-forty minutes of previously sealed areas to explore with the promise of much-needed equipment and information in the buildings' darkest recesses.
In the second one, you're exploring the den of a crazed country music fan who pipes songs through his ship's speaker systems, rigs vent covers with remote mines to set up ambushes, and leaves bloody messages over the walls especially for you. Very Fort Frolic, if you ask us, in what's arguably the game's atmospheric high-point. The final level is truly an epic sight to behold too - and one that, in the greatest of ironies, manages to avoid the overwhelming enemy-rush madness that plagued Dead Space 2's conclusions.
The trouble is, Dead Space 3 has a habit of undoing its good work.
After the first two Optional Missions, the game begins to rely on environments reused wholesale from the main questline, while three of the OM's are hidden behind doors marked 'co-op', forever locked to those wanting to keep Dead Space 3 a solo affair. No wonder they're labelled as optional - it's to avoid accusations of cut-and-paste level design through the central storyline.
The same's true with the Feeder, a freaky new emaciated enemy type that you can just about sneak past if you're very careful and extremely quiet. One foot wrong, though, and you'll be besieged by a squealing pack of starved humanoids. These enemies are brilliant additions until you realise that the health and ammunition you'll kiss goodbye to if you fight through their onslaught are but a tiny fraction of the pick-ups you'll recoup after the battle - given that each and every Feeder will drop one item.
So, while there are good, isolated moments, nothing comes close to turning the 18-hour adventure - all Optional Missions included - into the kind of masterpiece the original was.
Dead Space had real personality. Its combat mechanics and enemy types were genuinely different from everybody else's. Its puzzles were smart. It had plenty of scares. And even though it was primarily set on one ship, every level had a unique flavour, whether it was the bio-infested Hydroponics Deck with its giant space anus boss battle, or the Medical Deck and its unsettling remodelling later in the game - complete with its regenerating stalking patient.
Three exclusive missions and insanity effects are the highs - but not everything's as good...
First up, don't expect an entirely separate campaign. Apart from a handful of co-op-exclusive missions, puzzles and two-man switch sequences, these are, for the most part, the same hallways and mission objectives from the solo story, only with a second character - EarthGov Sergeant John Carver - tagging along for the ride. Because of that, co-op play comes with the same high and lows as single-player.
The higher numbers of tougher, sprint-happy Necromorphs ensure that combat is challenging and communication is important; spotting and firing stasis at a monster about to lob your mate's head off can save both of you a frustrating rewind to the last checkpoint. Plus, the lack of friendly fire let's you get stuck into the more intense battles without too much concern about stray bullets.
However, it's the three co-op-exclusive missions that are the high point of the two-player experience, alongside the 'insanity effects', where Isaac and Carver each suffer their own, unique hallucinations. (At one point, during one particularly tricky brain-fart, the Carver player will break down and venture inside his own head to, quite literally, battle demons.) To talk too much more about either would be to spoil one of the game's real highlights; moments that recall the scary smarts of the first
Cut scenes, for example, are exactly the same for both players, regardless of which character you've suited up as. Having player two being forced to sit and watch what happens to Isaac from the sidelines destroys the flow of the game, the immersion too, something that again comes to the fore with BENCH and suit upgrade stations; very much designed with the lone player in mind, these lead to irritating situations where players have to stand and wait their turn while the other player customises their gear. (Would it have been difficult to put in two stations?)
In the end, Dead Space 3's co-op mode ends up mirroring the single-player experience: slick, entertaining, with the occasional moment of brilliance, marred by a lack of tension, pacing and pant-filling scares. CS