In Space, No One Can Hear Me Yawn
HIGH Dismembering Necromorphs still offers some visceral thrills.
LOW Being forced to fight wave after wave of cannon fodder enemies in the game's multiple kill rooms.
WTF Ellie's romantic interests seem to change pretty easily.
If the original Dead Space was comparable to Ridley Scott's classic film Alien, then Dead Space 3 must be the series's inadvertent homage to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The plot doesn't involve building a hulking monster out of various body parts, but the experience feels as though it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of other games. The result is an unruly (and underwhelming) experience much-removed from the original title.
This third (and possibly final, based on estimated sales) entry in space engineer Isaac Clarke's story is proof positive of any number of unpleasant things; that triple-A survival horror games are becoming a relic of gaming's past, that tampering too much with a good thing is a bad idea, and that the single-player experience has largely become an afterthought in big budget game development. If Dead Space 3 is a glimpse of gaming's future, we should all be a bit concerned—it stands as a perfect example of how the landscape is shifting under our very feet.
As the game opens, Dead Space 3 finds engineer Isaac Clarke once again called upon to fight the evil alien Necromorph menace. Our hero is living in squalor, hiding from the world, and appears to be one step away from living on the street and telling pedestrians that Major League Baseball is trying to steal their thoughts. We're talking total "tinfoil hat" territory. Isaac gets back on his feet when military bro-dudes show up and pull a Princess Leia—"help us Isaac Clarke! You're our only hope!" The next thing we know, our engineer is once again packing heat and crushing alien skulls under his rocket-propelled boot heel.
A serious issue with Dead Space's evolution is how this series has floated away from its roots, and it's debatable if any of the Dead Space games were ever "scary" to begin with. The series has long used "cat through the window" moments to jolt the audience, as opposed to something like pure Lovecraftian terror (which is unfortunate, since the mythology feels Lovecraftian in some aspects) but what really made the original Dead Space click was the way those jump scares worked in unison with Clarke as a character. Isaac is an everyman in the original game—just some engineer forced to use his technical skill to take on an alien menace because there's no one better able to do the job.
The sequels drop that angle in favor of making Isaac feel more like a traditional space marine, and thanks to this change, we don't fear for Isaac much in these subsequent installments. This badass-ification is largely designed to appeal to a broader gamer demographic, but it kills one of the elements that made Dead Space unique in a galaxy of third person shooters. Matters aren't helped by the fact that the game is unconvincing in selling us this character's evolution over the span of three games. There's never a believable reason for Isaac to go from humble engineer to fearsome Necromorph slayer.
Putting disbelief aside for a moment, it must be said that Dead Space 3 is mostly successful at what it does best—shooting things. The game gives the player a multitude of weapon upgrade options and enough ordnance to blast their way through at least three intergalactic wars, and then tosses hordes of baddies at them to gleefully dismember. The only problem is the game's annoying tendency to be cheap. Dead Space 3 loves to force Isaac into a dark and narrow bottleneck, then drops in enemies in front and behind (one more way the game reminds you it wants you to play co-op). It's the most artificial kind of difficulty, and it only gets worse as the game progresses.
Compounding the issue is the inclusion of human enemies—soldiers working for the Unitologist leadership who're hellbent on stopping Isaac from completing his quest. These human enemies are yet another way the title strays from its horror roots and becomes a much more traditional shooter. The thing is, even when the game includes another whole species to blast, there's still not enough variety in the enemies to make any of them feel like anything more than cannon fodder.
I was also disappointed with how uninspired and repetitive the campaign is. The title resuses enemy models and architectural design constantly, making it feel as though the player is wandering around in a very large series of circles. This is particularly true in the latter half of the game, where we leave deep space and spend our time on a snowy planet. It's just one drab set of corridors and rooms after another, with Necromorphs regularly popping in from the air vents. Add in a copious amount of backtracking, and it becomes clear that the design is, frankly, lazy.
Of course, nothing breaks the horror component of the game more than the cooperative play. Shooting with a partner eliminates any element of terror from the story, eradicating it as thoroughly as Isaac does Necromorphs. Even playing solo, it's hard to forget that EA and Visceral really want us to play with a pal—there are two of pretty much everything, including bench terminals inputs, rappel lines, and so on. I prefer my horror games to be solo experiences, but again—it's debatable if Dead Space is even a horror game at this point.
Despite all these issues, Dead Space 3 isn't a bad game—but it's not a particularly good one, either. The focus on co-op, attempts to ditch the horror elements in favor of more mainstream sci-fi shooter aesthetics, and the disjointed, repetitive feeling of the project as a whole prevent it from ever becoming something that pops. Visceral and EA have taken one of the few interesting new IPs to emerge in the current generation of titles and made it just another shooter, and this corporate homogenization is far scarier than anything Dead Space 3 throws at the player.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 18 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed one time) and one hour of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and gore, intense violence, and strong language. Parents will almost assuredly want to keep the little ones away from Dead Space 3. While this latest entry isn't as scary as the original, it's still filled with monsters to dismember, rough language, and loads of gore. The game earns its M rating.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Hearing-impaired players will get the bulk of the Dead Space experience thanks to subtitled dialogue available throughout. However, the scavenging mini-game lets players know they've reached a point where they can deploy their robot with an audio cue—which is not presented as a subtitle. Gathering materials is important to creating better gear, so this is a pretty big issue.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.