Isaac Clarke is about to experience a perpetual free fall, literally and figuratively. His girlfriend Ellie has dumped him for another man, Ellie his only reason to re-enter the war on the Necromorphs. Brought into forceful service, the skittish Clarke is already on edge, jittery yet strong under pressure.
His survival instincts are crossing into the absurd. With luck dwindling and his ship crashing, Clarke is able to acclimate himself to high-scale action and the player via QTEs. If an exploding ship were his only concerns, Clarke would be in the midst of a positive day.
Instead, the home planet of the “Marker” may have been discovered. Driving people insane and calling forth hellacious undead demons, the Marker is an unholy aberration. Dead Space 3 is no longer a rush towards potential, personal survival; this one is for Earth.
It would seem the Marker is hosted on an icy, wind sheared planet. Life used to exist here, before Isaac, and now it is all but lost. Necromorphs have devastated what few objects remain, tattered steel bent in impossible ways by creatures who merely need to feed.
As an engineer and despite his prior encounters, Isaac remains clumsy. His motions are dulled, weapons often indirect in their purpose, and his dim skills leaving him a potential victim. That shines as Dead Space 3 progresses, a protagonist meant for survival horror now shuffled into a realm of action intensity he struggles to cope with.
This is certainly a simpler tale than Dead Space 2. The middle child of this franchise was impeccable at displaying the religion surrounding the Marker, humanity’s undoing, and the ugliest elements of cultism. As the latest entry, the focus here is destruction and salvation, most of the richest narrative details shuffled into hidden corners as text or audio logs. For a story telling device, they fail. Hiding away the deepest elements is not an answer.
What remains is mostly surface level with an often unintentionally funny show of male bravado as two men battle over the same woman, more akin to a daytime soap opera. The second half is much improved, key characters swiped by the vicious, pointy monsters as their reason to be expires. Toned down with less to focus on, Dead Space 3 is able to settle down into a structure.
Also brought into the fray is the cult mastermind, Davik. His beliefs are steadfast, and his introduction means exposing Dead Space to everything it does not need: human fire fights. Davik’s troops are clumsier than Isaac, created with the same lurching AI as the Necromorphs. The mixture fails to gel, lessening the supposed horror and crimping the already (purposefully) sluggish gunplay.
Action in abundance is arguably the final piece of the breakdown. By the end, level design becomes exposed as backtrack-heavy, plopping additional monsters or humans in such numbers, the fear is lost. Horror needs a “less is more” approach, a constant funnel of foes through vents lacking the shock. Dead Space 3′s most terrifying moment is not a cheap pinball machine jump scare or creature lurching through the ductwork. It is a projected video, enclosed in a small backroom that seals the fate of a ship’s crew through accepted suicide. Chilling is only half of it.
In the search for the almighty dollar, Visceral Games introduces co-op via an online pass, dropping the forgotten versus multiplayer of Dead Space 2. John Carver stands alongside Isaac, carrying his own personal demons and visions lost in a single player run. His quickly inserted experiences often come across as illogical in a solo play through, seemingly appearing out of nowhere in his truncated form. This is clearly a game designed around friends bonding, Carver more of an interference if you are not up to heading online.
Carver’s run has his own quirks, including mental images that instill more of the terror aspects the run-and-gun action fails to convey. In some ways, Carver is more like the Isaac of old, just without the internal fear.
Dead Space 3 is certainly imperfect, but it also takes a lot of chances – even outside the introduction of co-op. Impressive is the amount of control afforded to the player during spectacle, including a dramatic crash landing through icy peaks and atmosphere burn. Zipping through zero gravity or utilizing a jet pack to slip through space is fluid if not built for the expected combat. Those elements tend to be overdone or missing all together in the third act as the player supposedly rushes with no tension gained.
Despite the stretched nature of the story, and sometimes weak execution, a spark remains that almost salvages Dead Space 3 completely. The idea and conception of weapon crafting is a smart change of pace. Once the basics are instilled, combinations of the familiar tool set can be slapped together to create physically imposing, limb-slicing monstrosities. Those without the penchant for building can pick up blueprints and have the work done for them.
This is where business and art clash however. Molding new murder delivery systems means finding parts, and finding those parts can be done in one of three ways. You can find them on deceased critters, you can send out a searching robot (once found), or you can pay… real money. In some ways, the system is skewered towards spending money.
The search robots cannot in anyway be upgraded in game. All of their perks must be purchased. Certain elements needed for crafting also go conspicuously missing for wide chunks of gameplay, delivering the idea that a purchase is in order. The whole idea is shady, crass, and offensive to the consumer mindset. It also forever locks Dead Space 3 to a financial system that will not always be around.
Will you need the upgrade to the robots? Not necessarily. Does it help? Certainly. It comes across as a slap in the face to someone who just spent $60, and only serves to cheapen the experience.
What is worse is that it comes back on a talented developer who undoubtedly had no say in the matter. In the midst of scaling up the action, pushing for the dramatic, and keeping the game in new elements peeks in this microtransaction system that is as out of place as some of the action. How not fun.
Thankfully, for the most part, Dead Space 3 is determined fun.