Does Visceral's latest effort suffer from difficult third album syndrome or will it carve out a new space for the series' future?
Published on Feb 4, 2013
Dead Space is not dead. But Dead Space 3 is not Dead Space, either. Not strictly, anyway.
While Visceral Games’ third effort may try to convince you it’s another scary slice of what is arguably this generation’s finest horror franchise using dark corridor sections and a big ‘3’ on the box, it’s much more complicated than that.
Dead Space 3 has become infected with other elements; diluted by COD-lite soldier shooting, open-world blizzard sections and rappelling. Loads and loads of rappelling.
Of course, EA’s flagship horror franchise has to try new things. At the tail-end of a generation, to put out another straightforward horror title without trying to do too much new would fall flat, lacking innovation. This is Visceral’s difficult third album, and it has to experiment or risk stagnation.
Lore Unto Itself
But it also risks the alienation of its core fanbase, right from the off. After a quick whiz through Dead Space lore in the opening clipscene (a vehicle which feels designed to attract new players who don’t know anything about the series’ history), you’re suddenly hurtling down an icy cliff-face, jumping around breaking ice floes and trying to avoid being squashed by a giant plane engine hurtling down the slope behind you.
It’s a far cry from the tense, claustrophobic fare the series is famed for. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that this first prologue section doesn't even see you controlling Isaac, but a Texas-accented soldier 200 years before the events of the rest of the game (don't worry, it does tie-in to the game's later story).
The next chapter is a similar affair in terms of its experimentation with the new. A few minutes in, we’re told Isaac is ‘heading to an uncharted planet’.
This doesn’t come off as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the series’ new direction. It’s an unfortunately, ironically-serious slice of dialogue.
Well, considering that certain parts of the game see you mashing X to make dramatic jumps and clamber inside trucks as they’re about to fall off cliffs, gameplay and clipscene melting into one like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series.
It’s telling that one of the game’s most enjoyable and memorable moments comes not when it’s trying to impress with flash-bang ‘look at me’ newness, but is just being Dead Space.
We’re traipsing through a dark, abandoned spacecraft, carefully managing health and ammo while screaming necromorphs burst from the walls, maniacally pushing us back into corners as we scrabble to reload.
The game lets us catch our breath on a quick (dull) puzzle section, before we’re running back towards the escape tram, necros jumping from every corner.
During this desperate run, just as it feels Isaac has regained control, a massive scythe-armed necro-beast bursts from a box, while Ellie quips into your ear that it’s unkillable.
Ten minutes of blasting its limbs off and watching them grow back, time and again, the realisation hits that she’s probably right.
We then run, blasting and dodging necros in equal measure while we desperately open doors and try to reach the tram that’ll take us to safety.
But the tram needs to be called and waited for. Cue running around in circles stasis-ing unkillable necros and ripping the limbs off others, trying to buy time and avoid death (watch us play the whole section here).
It’s set pieces like this that really work: sections fraught with real tension, Isaac seeming genuinely vulnerable, the dark claustrophobic environment working to raise the stakes.
Story-wise, the game focuses on a battle between human characters – with Isaac and his crew attempting to stop posh English baddie Danik from destroying the universe.
This allows the game to build on the relationships between its main characters and craft a more human tale.
After all, nothing is more compelling than the battle of wits and motivations between real people, rather than vomit-spewing aliens.
Gunning For Cover
One of the new additions which really does work and feels like it fits into the Dead Space universe is the weapon crafting system.
Using materials scrounged from corpses, storage lockers and scavenger bots (sent into the wild with the d-pad), you can build entirely new weapons from scratch at work benches peppered throughout each level.
These weapons can be built to blueprints, meaning you just need enough materials and parts to construct them, ready-made.
Or, you can craft every last element of a gun – choosing a core, a top and bottom firing chamber, a two-handed or one-handed handle, etc, picking and mixing until you’ve birthed your dream firearm.
It’s a system packing a lot of depth and nuance, but which is very easy to get to grips with. By about a third of the way into the game, we’d gathered enough parts to construct a badass plasma-electro shotgun.
Its top weapon blasted enemies in the face with a wide radius of plasma, its bottom shot a whirling blade of electricity which hooked onto enemies, slowed them down and blew them up.
Some parts of the game feel almost Alien-esque, with Isaac rounding a corner to be greeted by the sight of a group of soldiers shooting at aliens which are trying to rip their faces off – do you shoot the men, or the aliens? They’ll both round on you, whichever one you shoot first.
Other soldier-only sections see Isaac taking cover behind boxes, shooting rifle-toting baddies stood on ledges and trying to clear a courtyard of gunner goons.
It feels like COD: Very Very Lite and doesn’t add much to the game other than weave in a co-op friendly section (the game tells you this section is available to play in co-op with a cheery pop-up notification midway through the action).
Leaving Fans Cold
A lot of pre-release attention has been focused on the snowy sections. These only make up about a third of the game, with a couple of chapters in the game’s middle dedicated to this brisk planet, while the rest of it is set across a handful of spacecraft.
Of course, the snowy setting comes after Isaac crash-lands the spaceship you’ve spent the previous entire chapter floating about in space on a zero-gravity fetch quest gathering parts for.
The crash itself is packed with oversized set-piece zeal; taking the helm, you’re tasked with piloting the ship through a minefield, dodging chunks of metal scrap and attempting to stay on a set course (i.e. fly through the squares).
Suddenly, a chunk of unavoidable (read: scripted) metal slams into the ship’s side, forcing you to run to the back of the ship to repair the engine with kinesis.
Returning to the ship's controls, gameplay blends with clipscene as you attempt to dodge or shoot jagged rocks and spikes which fly ever more quickly towards the ship.
Eventually, no matter how sharp your shooting, the craft is ripped in two and you plummet to the ground, separated from the rest of the crew. It’s a slick, balls-out set-piece which neatly segues the game to its icy core: the freezing Tau Volantis planet.
As soon as Clarke clambers from the now-ruined craft, you’re tasked with battling through the blizzard to find survivors in a level which feels a lot like Lost Planet, mixed with the dynamic cut-scenes (and snow trudging) of Uncharted 2.
Here, the only tension comes from trying to keep Isaac’s body temperature up. Every plodding step in the snow sees his gauge drop a few centigrade.
You’re forced to huddle beside flaming bits of wreckage every few hundred feed to keep alive.
Later, you have to dispatch aliens which burst forth from the ice quickly enough to move back towards the heat again without being ripped to pieces.
It has a certain tension to it, especially when aliens jump from behind crates in the whipping snow, limiting your line of sight. But it’s just not that scary.
As soon as you have the right suit for the temperatures, the body heat mechanic disappears, never to return again.
A Rappell A Day
Unfortunately, the rappelling doesn’t. Scaling up and down cliff-faces is often fun, with some parts calling on the use of stasis to slow down falling rocks and moving sawblades and others requiring Isaac to shoot at soldiers on a descending lift or aliens as they scuttle towards you.
Each one demands a different solution, and they work pretty well. The only downside is the sheer number of them – in one late chapter, it felt like all we did was shoot a couple of necros, scale a cliff-face, shoot, scale, scale, shoot, scale, repeat ad nauseum.
Bosses, thankfully, are better rationed. A battle with a tarantula on an ice planet feels large-scale and dynamic, with Isaac desperately shooting at the glowing orange tentacles while scrabbling through the snow.
A later, much bigger baddie actually takes Isaac into its stomach, forcing him to shoot at its intestines, Story Of Jonah style.
But, unlike the rappelling, these bosses are enjoyable enough and rare enough not to feel tiresome.
Speaking of tiresome, puzzles rarely inspire and are almost always base trial and error affairs, ranging from slotting together spaceship jigsaw pieces, to moving power blocks from left to right to balance a machine’s voltage.
One puzzle section left us baffled as to how it even qualifies as a puzzle. An alien door-unlock machine required three correctly-aligned symbols to open it.
A quick look to the right, and it becomes clear the three symbols are written on the floor, in the correct order, two feet from the machine. It’s not exactly Zelda, is it?
Dead Space fans may not like the new elements, but the game at least sticks to its guns and continues to introduce them.
Towards the end of the game, you’re introduced to ‘amp pads’. Stand on them, and your stasis lasts much longer, while kinesis becomes powerful enough to rip off enemies’ limbs while they’re still using them.
It’s also a great excuse for the game to throw wave after wave of enemies at you, knowing you’ve got the extra power to take them down, if used wisely.
There’s a lot of new stuff here, some of which works well (weapon crafting), some of which is overused (rappelling) and some which just feels completely at odds (soldier-shooting sections and dynamic QTEs).
Graphically, it’s also one of the most beautiful games EA have yet published. The title has a clear contrast between the dark, foreboding murky black levels and the sections of blinding white.
Other sections see hues of orange cast an amber ambience across open courtyards, while space-floating bits pack in plenty of visual punch, recalling (though not quite matching) Halo 4 in terms of scale and spectacle.
None of the new gameplay elements are bad either, and in fact Visceral’s third effort has clearly been polished and feels incredibly varied, with decent pacing and new mechanics spread fairly evenly throughout the 12-hour(ish) campaign.
Dead Space 3 is at its best, though, when it’s not trying to appeal only to action-adventure fans or ram in countless badass Hollywood set-pieces, but when it strips the gameplay down: dark corridor, gun, alien. In fact, these more traditional sections feel as good as ever, perhaps because they’re spread thinly between the new stuff.
Dead Space 3 will upset some series veterans, but its variety, slick set-pieces and the inclusion of co-op will undoubtedly see it find a lot of new ones, too.
The game may be a 'sell-out', and doesn't succeed at everything it tries, but it’s still very much a journey worth buying into. Even if it will leave some fans horrified for all the wrong reasons.
NB: Our review code wouldn’t let us try the co-op out, though we’ve been told the co-op is online-only, not split-screen.
Version Tested: PS3
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Horror fans might be scared of Dead Space 3's new mechanics, but they mostly work well, even if some open sections, rappelling and snow feel at odds.