ds3 logo1 Dead Space 3 brings the scary once again

Before we get started, I’m going to preface this review with what it isn’t.  While the presence of a substantial amount of launch DLC that could have easily become a part of the product at large has its implications, I’m not going to focus on that in the course of this review.  Instead, I’m going to look almost exclusively at what is on the disc, eschewing all of the DLC for a look at the product as it stands without augmentation or addition.  While there is certainly a debate to be had on the expansive use of microtransactions, I believe it’s only fair to focus  the work Visceral has presented on the disc instead.

Visceral’s approach was somewhat foreign to the gaming landscape.  When you look at typical sequels, they are more iterative in nature rather than attempting to explore new approaches to a very well received franchise.  Taking a page from their work in the upcoming Army of TWO: Devil’s Cartel, the team at Visceral decided to go all-in; they threw in cooperative play, optional side missions, a crafting system, and even an entirely new setting – ambitious and risky to say the least.  Would the gamble pay off?  It was time to descend back into terror to find out.

Isaac Clarke, the protagonist from the previous two titles, has suffered horrors beyond what any mind should ever endure.  We find him in a run-down apartment, alone, and facing eviction.   His recently-departed girlfriend Ellie has set off towards adventure, leaving the mentally-warped Isaac little to live for.  When opportunity literally knocks down his door to help figure out what happened to Ellie’s now-missing expedition, Isaac must once again put on the RIG and face the undead necromorph scourge to save her.  It certainly sounds like your standard cliché storyline, but after Isaac’s encounter with the Marker, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

Game Mechanics, Old and New

As Isaac soon discovers, his encounters with the necromorph plague  are made worse when he also encounters the Unitologist fanatics that have formed a religion around the undead beasts.  Strategies that work against mindless creatures that rush towards you to try to eat your face don’t work as well when your enemies are pointing firearms at you from cover.  Thankfully, there are some new mechanics to help against both enemy types.  While the dismemberment mechanic is alive and well, as is the ability to take those pieces and throw them via kinesis, environmental damage and augments are now also possible.  This new feature is delivered via the new crafting system.  Replacing the credits we spent in the previous two games, a plethora of materials can now be gathered from the environment as well as slain enemies, giving the player the ability to mix and match them to create weapon components, health kits, stasis rechargers, and more.   Let’s talk about The Bench.

Previous Dead Space titles featured a short list of weapons, but most players stuck to just a handful of them.  Dead Space 3 restricts the player further by only allowing two weapons, but within that choice is an incredible amount of variance.  Each weapon is comprised of anything from 2 to 8 pieces.  With a nod to RPGs, these seem to be split up into the usual gray, green, and yellow power levels.  Given that your weapon components can be broken down and rebuilt at will, this encourages a level of experimentation to discover new blueprints based on the items in your pack.  The game paces this well, giving the player few options in the beginning, but adding things like environmental damage as things progress.  To expand your options, you can also undermount a secondary weapon under the barrel of the primary.  This makes it possible to create a line launcher that dismembers as well as electrocutes while giving the player an undermounted combat shotgun for when things get too close.  A pneumatic hammer that allows players to obliterate enemies at close range can be coupled with a rivet-firing machine gun that sets enemies on fire.  Given that simply changing the tip of the weapon can give it an entirely different function, players will likely end up with a different arsenal each time they play through the game.  When you throw in additional augments through chips that can add to damage, clip size, reload speed and the like (or later +2 of this, -1 of that sort of thing), it further extends this concept.

Materials are scattered throughout the game, but you’ll also get a handful of Scavenger Bots to collect them as well.  Heading off unattended for a period of time, they’ll collect the materials while you focus on the less mundane things.  In here we see an intersection point of DLC.  In the DLC packs you can pay for a bot capacity upgrade, a bot accelerator, resource packs and a bot personality pack.  The others are obvious, but the bot personality pack gives your bot a voice.  It’ll make funny comments on the situation, whether or not you deploy it in a mass of dead bodies or if you launch it into space.  The resources in the game are fairly plentiful, so I’m not sure what the point of these DLC packs are.  Sure, you could get a few items earlier than you otherwise would, but it wouldn’t really change the balance in the game.  Are these DLC packs for affluent suckers?  Honestly, that seems to be the most obvious answer.

The weapons that come from this new crafting engine are coupled with a more refined control and combat system to create a more enjoyable experience.  Rather than fighting the controls, you spend your time taking on the enemies in the game.

Bring a friend…or don’t
Dead Space has, up to this point, been a single player affair.  Approaching the review, I stuck to the roots and ran through the entire game with that approach.  Eschewing cooperative play kept the game squarely focused on horror, making me rely on my own shooting skills and reserving the scary moments just for me.  With that in mind, the single-player experience is a solid one.  Any concerns I had about diluting the experience quickly dissipated and this thankfully held throughout the bulk of the 18 hour campaign.  The final two chapters did push further into the shooter realm than those before it, but it was good given the context of those end-game sequences.   What I was surprised by was how much I enjoyed the game when I added another player.   There are a handful of co-op only side missions scattered throughout the game, and occasionally you’ll see a pair of guns that you can mount instead of just one, but for the most part you won’t notice that this game was built for two.  Given the drop-in, drop-out nature, you’d expect that it’d be Isaac +1, but nothing could be further from the truth. Meet Sergeant John Carter.

Rather than having a faceless add-on tacked onto the solo game, the folks at Visceral built a completely unique experience for the second player.  Not unlike other cooperative shooters, enemies will redouble their efforts to kill you, but unlike those, Dead Space 3 also adjusts everything else.  Puzzles will allow the second player something to do, nearly every machine in the game has two interface inputs, and additional cinematic moments where one player defends while the other handles a challenge are more frequent.  There is an additional 5 hours of content unique to playing with both Isaac and John in the party.  It unveils a side story you’d otherwise miss on how John is dealing with his inner demons, the loss of his family, and just how much being exposed to the Markers has affected him.   While cooperative play is often just a way to let players experience the game together, what Visceral has done here is special – do yourself a favor and play through this as both characters.

The good and the bad

Dead Space veterans will remember the giant foam finger (pew pew!) that you got for beating Dead Space 2 on Insane difficulty.   The same difficulty scale has returned, but with a nod to the more obscenely difficult games that have come out recently, there are some new modes unlocked upon completion.  New Game+ unlocks when you beat the game, letting the player restart the game on any difficulty level with all of their previous weapons and upgrades.  (Completing the game on Normal, I had every RIG upgrade by the end)  Additionally there is a classic mode – a single-player only experience using the classic aiming system and removing the experimentation system for crafting by restricting players to found blueprints.   Pure Survival mode further constricts consumable resources (health, ammo, weapon parts) as they will only drop from enemies.  The final mode, Hardcore, is exactly that.  If you die, you are dead permanently and it is game over for you.  Embrace your inner masochist – survive 20 hours of survival horror with limited ammo and only one life.  Go on, I dare you.

I have to give a special nod to the voice work and sound in this game.  Violins in overdrive help bring the creepy factor to the constricted spaces, and the voice acting is equally top notch.  Simon Templeman turns in a rock-solid performance as Unitologist leader Jacob Danik, Gunner Wright returns to handle Isaac with ease, joined by series newcomer Ricardo Chavira as Carver.  Overall, the voice work kept me immersed and the music does a great job of locking that down.

On the other hand, there are a few things that were kinda odd going on with Dead Space 3 that kill immersion.  There are still plenty of Havok engine twitching that sorta works in the horror genre as critters you just curb-stomped cling to your feet like so much spiderwebs.  On the other hand, I did stumble into a scenario that had me in stitches.  If you go into any of the airlock-type areas that bring you to new set pieces and engage enemies, then retreat back into those same airlocks, the enemies will retreat to their ‘scary entrance spaces’ at a Benny Hill-esque speed.   Once I found this, I used it as an exploit and for comic relief quite a bit.   Beyond that hiccup, there were a few enemies that somehow can evade a shotgun blast to the chest at point blank range.  It’s not frequent, but there were a few moments where I found myself overwhelmed by enemies that should have been in tiny little decomposing pieces.

Line guns, flame glaze, and scary monsters
Third editions of games or movies rarely work.  Jaws 3, Aliens 3, Spider-Man 3, Batman Forever, Godfather III, Matrix Revolutions – none of these were shining examples of taking their product to the next level.  Visceral dodged this bullet while taking serious risks that ultimately paid off.  The new crafting engine is a triumph, but the cooperative multiplayer and the complete storyline that unfolds inside of it sets the bar for how cooperative play should be done.   Balancing the horror between the single player experience and the multiplayer experience without damaging either is impressive.  The more open world structure of the ice planet that was the basis for the demo shouldn’t be how you judge this title – there are plenty of scary dark corners with horrible things waiting for you.