Written by Brittany Vincent, @MolotovCupcake
In space, no one can hear you scream. Luckily, they can’t hear you cursing out a puzzle while your human partner fends off waves of bloodthirsty monsters, either. Dead Space 3 ensures you’ll do one or both of these things — sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of frustration. The third installment of EA’s blockbuster franchise is strikingly different from the previous two entries, introducing a slicker, more streamlined iteration of the fantastic third-person horror the franchise has become synonymous with, but it’s not without flaws. Terror takes a backseat to frenetic shootouts, some frustrating cooperative puzzles, and a few bizarre design decisions surrounding a narrative that barely makes it all worth trudging through. And yet, somehow, it manages to remain a bone-shattering good time.
Isaac Clarke, engineer extraordinaire, returns once again to the fray in order to keep the rampant Unitology cultists from overrunning society. He’s all but shut himself off from everything, living out his days on a lunar colony secluded from the insanity of the past two games. Former love interest Ellie has long since left him on a sojourn to uncover the origin of the mysterious Markers and their true purpose — you know, beyond turning normal human beings into grotesque mutations of their former selves. After practically being torn from his home Isaac accompanies Captain Robert Norton and Sergeant John Carver to find Ellie, her team, and try to make sense of it all before EarthGov and all of civilization meets their doom. Oh, and Ellie’s got a new boyfriend — as if Isaac hadn’t suffered enough psychological trauma already.
The stretch of space you’re tasked with exploring is just as desolate as ever, punctuated by unsettling, atmospheric orchestral arrangements and the oppressive steeliness of abandoned ships. It’s a veritable melting pot of classic genre conventions, amplified further by the spreading Necromorph infection and hallucinations Isaac and co-op partner character Carver are intermittently plagued by. Yes, this time around you can bring a friend along for a cooperative experience that for the most part works itself in seamlessly to the solo campaign.
While several missions are reserved strictly for those of us with willing accomplices, playing it solo is the way to go for those looking for a more faithful Dead Space adventure. Should you bring a partner into the fold, you should expect tougher enemies, more plentiful encounters, and additional dialogue and story sequences to further flesh out your newfound friend’s back story. He may seem like just a stoic militaristic type, but he’s a fiery balance to Isaac’s detached, numb personality this time around.
Unfortunately, some of the areas within the game designed with co-op in mind detract from the experience and break the immersion factor quicker than you’d hit the B button for a quick health boost after a pop-up Necromorph attack. There are entire areas of Dead Space 3 that force one partner to stave off advancing hordes of monsters while keeping the other safe, and the other is asked to solve a puzzle. These sequences happen much more often than is actually fun, and in many areas reduce the game to little more than an exercise in frustration.
But while these sections of play can be easily overcome with trial and error, a more obnoxious design decision cannot: ladders. Yes, ladders. Time and time again Isaac and Carver will need to ascend or descend one in order to advance, and unless timed perfectly, one player will have to wait until the other has completed the action before they can do it as well. It matters not if Isaac is a few feet away from the top while a partner is trying to ascend it, as the game still will not allow you to climb. When you’re clearly nowhere near the top of the ladder and still cannot ascend and there are droves of Necromorphs on your tail, you can imagine this quickly becomes a nightmare. Not only does it detract from the experience, but it looks and feels lazy.
Additionally, the inventory cannot be manually sorted — you’ll go to quickly heal yourself and since a Large Med Pack is the first in line, consume that rather than a Small Med Pack to regain a tiny bit of health. In the same vein, only one player can change suits at a time while both can work at a Bench station to edit weapons. Why couldn’t it sport two stations? Quirks like these and more begin to add up, and fast, making some cooperative sessions more like homework than a deliciously tense thrill ride.
Luckily the combat is there to keep things interesting, and the singular way Dead Space 3 becomes a game you simply can’t keep from enjoying, even if to a lesser extent to its predecessors. Though “strategic dismemberment” has become little more than a footnote (carving off legs and arms is a no-brainer by now) it’s still as satisfying as ever to have the odds stacked against you while you and a friend eliminate a room full of the disfigured creatures. Most of the joy stems from the new crafting system, where you can customize weapons to your own satisfaction rather than upgrading the simple premade forms readily available. Want a ripper-cum-line gun? That’s up to you, as long as you have the materials.
Components and other packages are readily available through microtransactions, but unless you’re entirely too impatient normal play will unlock an abundance of supplies for you to create the gun of your dreams. Combined with RIG augments that make Isaac’s already superpowered suit even stronger (and a variety of new ones for all you fashionistas) and the useful bots that can be sent out to scavenge for supplies, grinding out each chapter by way of mopping the floor with Necromorphs is the meatiest part of the game. Just try and tell yourself that stomping on a de-limbed flesh eater that bested you one respawn ago isn’t satisfying. You’d be wrong if you said otherwise.
Solo players can enjoy an easily 15-20 hour first playthrough, with co-op players looking at a bit shorter runthrough, though most of the game finds you running back and forth to fuel something, picking up parts, or backtracking through frustrating sections to pick up a puzzle piece that could easily have been lifted from an earlier section should the need arise. Isaac the Errand Boy’s adventures aren’t exactly entertaining in the context of the story, but as Visceral once stated, they certainly weren’t aiming to make this game scary, unless you happen to think piecing together two parts of machinery so they fit together a certain way is terrifying, in which case you should prepare to soil your underwear.
Dead Space 3 is more about the journey than the actual destination, which arrives so suddenly and so unbelievably that it feels forced. Boss fights are little more than longer combat endeavors unlike the spectacles of the last two games, and there’s little reward for all the times you risk running out of air to nab a part from space or to research a ship Ellie’s nuts for you to explore. Thankfully the gore, additional cooperative missions that house some intriguing effects, and the tension of hallways filled with enemies keep you coming back for more. It’s nowhere near as ambitious or engaging as the past few efforts, but it’s still a great weekend play for you and a friend who feel like taking some excess anger out on some disgusting aliens. Especially if you hate ladders.
The Final Word: Dead Space 3 is rife with enemies to annihilate and loot to hoard, but the rough narrative and more sanitized action-oriented adventure may not appeal to the same audiences who enjoyed the first game. Elements of cooperative play are clumsy and break the immersion factor – not to mention the fact that Isaac is a glorified errand boy. The kills come easily though, and making a souped-up Isaac or Carver is ultimately while you’ll boot up your system again and again. Just don’t expect to be scared out of your wits. Not anymore.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 3.