Dead Space 3
Dead Space 3 is a multiplayer game. You can play the game on your own, as I did, start to finish, but Visceral’s co-operative foundation permeates the experience throughout. In mid 2012 Ben Kuchera of the Penny Arcade Report did a nice feature on Dead Space 3, where the developer claimed to be solving the co-op/singleplayer disconnect the “expensive way”. Having dragged Isaac Clarke through his third round of near death experience via necromorph, I’m not sure they spent nearly enough.
The biggest difference in Dead Space 3 compared to its predecessors is in combat design. Before crucifying EA for making an action game, understand that Dead Space 3 isn’t just the over-the-top vertical slice they initially showed the game as. Yes there are now humans to periodically shoot at, story permitting, and sure there’s a wider variety of artillery, but the meat and potatoes is still severing limbs from the alien undead.
What often leaves combat annoying is a combination of level design and the frequently exhaustive amount of necromorphs spawned. Though a large percentage of the game takes place on the surface of an ice planet, a lot of encounters are still restricted to derelict metallic hallways, or small arenas populated by a few staircases and the slightest hint of verticality. If it sounds a bit like standard Dead Space fare, it is, but the difference is the unnecessary glut of enemies that spew from each and every vent, vents that can be found in each and every corner of the entire game.
Necromorph slashers and vomiters spring from these vents like it’s some sort of twisted clown car. They spawn in front of you and behind you, constantly, and if that isn’t enough, Visceral is happy to drop slashers from the ceiling on Isaac’s head. This means combat almost always devolves into finding a relatively safe corner, or backing yourself into a wall, and proceeding to dismember limb after limb, as one necromorph’s limp corpse is quickly replaced with a fresh one. You’ll take your share of damage, administering health packs and using stasis liberally to slow the waves but it’s never especially challenging or strategic; just tedious.
Combat in singleplayer practically begs for a wing man. In the previous games you needed to be aware of your back, but now you should expect to be attacked from the rear repeatedly, which often leads to attempted execution animations and QTEs assigned to each individual enemy type. With a partner to watch your back – and interrupt executions – these issues tend to fade to the background. The camaraderie and excitement of pealing a face-hugger off your friend usually overshadows the lackadaisical combat design.
The other defining feature is the new emphasis on resource collection and weapon crafting. In a nutshell, players should expect to build all of the series’ staple weapons, and then proceed to tape them to one another for admittedly satisfying results. Specific weapons can be crafted via blue prints scattered throughout the game, or the more adventurous types are free to throw seemingly random parts together and see what sticks. Fortunately, Visceral allows for weapons to be broken down if the results aren’t to your liking, encouraging us to experiment rather than horde, which is still what I wound up doing.
Not to beat a dead horse further, but the perpetual march of flailing necromorphs never really requires fancy weaponry. You’re only allowed to carry two weapons, plus a resource collecting robot, which leaves you a surprisingly limited arsenal… without the benefit of a second player to round out your active cache of weapons. For 90% of the game I carried the Plasma Cutter and a custom-built electrified revolver, which had a bayonet-like attachment for its secondary function. I carried the Cutter to sever limbs; I carried the revolver to cap humans; and I packed the bayonet to swat at low-health swarming enemies. I found what worked and was satisfied with the results of the weapons I carried, but I was never challenged enough to feel like I needed new weaponry, nor was I ever enamored enough with combat to think I might enjoy mixing up my choice of weapons.
What did enamor me, occasionally, was Visceral’s continued ability to awe. There are a handful of individual chapters and sequences where Dead Space 3 stands head-and-shoulders with its siblings, offering a captivating sci-fi experience that feels all its own in the ‘AAA’ retail space. These moments embody what the series was about up until this point, the dread of the necromorph outbreak and the isolation of space, all embodying a stark contrast to our formerly humble hero, space engineer extraordinaire Isaac Clarke. Not surprisingly, these segments are also where the game’s uneven pacing levels out, offering much needed breaks in long slogs of combat, or catapulting the narrative – and player – into higher gear.
The Church of Unitology once again plays a prominent role, bringing a battalion of meat bags just itching to get (clumsily) shot. There’s a thematic justification for human enemies, and although they’re not as fun to dispatch as the necromorphs, they do draw you into the story’s events. And as a bonus, they provide a humorous distraction time and time again towards the end of the game, when the necromorphs decide they’re easier prey than Mr. Clarke. Beyond setting the stage and justifying the various pieces of Dead Space 3‘s fiction, the writing runs the full gamut from hackneyed to unexpectedly thoughtful. Obvious plot twists make way for forced romances which provide a functional, though not wholly impressive backbone. However, like those few segments of great Dead Space scattered throughout, all it takes is a single line of great dialogue to get you re-invested.
Taken as a whole, Dead Space 3 is far more infuriating than it is bad. There are bits and pieces of a great sequel littered across the lengthy campaign, teasing the game that might have been; it just never seems to gel when played as a party of one. Two-paneled workbenches and hacking computers and repelling stations continually spin the story of a multiplayer game, reminding you to make a friend, and ask them to please buy Dead Space. With all the money Visceral supposedly spent to elegantly write John Carver in and out of the story, it’s somewhat bewildering they couldn’t even model and substitute a few singleplayer specific kiosks.