The third game in a series is always the toughest planet to crack. If the sequel addressed mistakes and refined ideas of a first entry, and it if was successful, where does that leave the inevitable follow-up? The newly perfected formula won't work twice, and if its elements are altered too drastically it's likely to explode and make a mess. Visceral Games' solution to this volatile problem was to augment, rather than alter, the nature of Dead Space. An emphasis on weapon creation and cooperative play, both firsts for the series, seemed welcome - as long as surviving Dead Space's beloved horror was still in focus.
Employing Isaac Clarke as the chief protagonist is expected, but no less challenging for the player to accept. If Dead Space induced post-traumatic stress, then Dead Space 2 assaulted his psyche so intensely it rendered his scrambled brain a blank slate. Unitology, the ubiquitous cult literally hell bent of improving/destroying mankind through their enigmatic Markers, has obliterated Isaac Clarke. The only narrative thread that could pull him back in was the friendship and relationship forged with fellow Dead Space 2 survivor, Ellie Langford. When she goes missing, Captain Norton and Sergeant John Carver - some of the remaining soldiers from EarthGov - convince Isaac he's her only hope of survival.
This premise is interesting, but it's burdened by poor narrative decisions. The most painful and puzzling is a bizarre love triangle between Isaac, Norton, and Ellie. I suppose Visceral thought of Ellie as Isaac's beacon of hope, or maybe a replacement for Nicole, his deceased girlfriend that drove him through the USG Ishimura in Dead Space. Injecting a third party into this third entry is a provocative idea but it's sabotaged by a colorless, vapid script. Ellie's function is little other than an object of competition between Norton and Isaac, and at one point Isaac actually says, "Just let us fight it out, one of us will win eventually!" implying Ellie has no choice or opinion in the matter.
Worse, Dead Space 3’s cast can’t keep their motivations straight. Norton goes from a hard assed mission-first leader to whiney teenager using Ellie as a turf war. Even Isaac isn't immune to spontaneous inconsistency, at one pointing stating, "The mission is all that matters," but then immediately following it up with, "I'm here for you. I mean that." Couple this with Ellie's choice of attire, a low-cut cleavage-friendly top (you know, perfect for hiding out on a derelict space ship), and we're left with another sad, misguided attempt at female videogame character and the ridiculous things males do to pursue her. I couldn't believe how much time Dead Space 3 wasted on exploring or exploiting this problem.
Unitology, the source of Dead Space's mystery and intrigue, doesn't fare much better. The ambiguous, omnipresent network of nefarious secrecy is condensed into a primary antagonist, Danik. He usually pops up whenever the plot dictates something needs to be taken away from Isaac, but Danik also indulges in mustache-twirling platitudes of Unitology and how wrong Isaac has everything. I can understand Visceral wanting to put a face behind a threat, but Danik submits to cliché more often than he does anything interesting. To be fair the last act boasts more creative, bigger-picture plot implications Dead Space fans will happily devour, but it won't totally excuse the escalating series of MacGuffins that got them there.
Oddly it's the ornamental trimmings that tell Dead Space 3's most interesting stories. Isaac has the opportunity to engage in ten side missions, and these function not unlike the lost vaults in Fallout 3. These optional missions are tangentially related to grand narrative, but most also house their own tale of horror or unintended malevolence. Carver, Isaac's unwilling partner, is also fairly interesting. His side of the story is only exposed through choice sequences when playing cooperatively, and his exposure to madness supplements Isaac’s (expected) lack thereof. The art direction plays a significant role as well, as each ruined environment begs that alluring question; what happened here?
Though cooperative play is being pushed, my first run through Dead Space 3 was a purely solo affair. Here's the good news; it still feels and plays like Dead Space. A sordid variety of Necromorphs remain content to spill out of air ducts at the worst(/best) possible times. The pulsing sounds of unimaginable horror still permeate tight corridors. Brief puzzles that require stasis and kinesis are in no short supply. Zero-g (where Isaac gets to fly around like Iron Man) has actually received the greatest expansion, boasting a couple awesome sequences with Isaac exploring the outside of huge, abandoned space ship yard. And yes, Isaac still has the most gratifying and destructive stomp move in all of videogames. Rest assured, playing Dead Space 3 solo still results in mutually assured Dead Space experience.
You can forgive Visceral for wanting a significant change of pace when it came to combat. We know how to handle Necromorphs, but what about enemies that fire back? In this regard Unitology commandos present an ironically divergent threat. They're used sparingly, only a couple at a time in just a handful of chapters, but popping off the occasional head shot felt great. To even the odds, a button for sticking Isaac to cover and a sluggish dodge roll have been grafted onto the existing control scheme. Poorly. The dodge roll in particular requires a double tap of a trigger button, which isn't a great choice for a move usually done on impulse. In any case the human threat starts busting out stasis grenades and a few other tricks toward the end of the game, and generally serves their purposes as a change of pace.
Necromorph’s capacity for ripping Isaac to shreds sure hasn't been diminished. Dead Space 3 still knows how to funnel Isaac into situations where he's backing away, at the end of his clip, and then an unexpected threat emerges from behind. These perilous encounters are Dead Space's bread and butter, and Visceral was wise to set one up every couple of minutes. New Necromorphs include Feeders, sound activated melee specialists, and Wasters, which are more typical mindless zombie fair. Stalkers, those hide-and-seek pack professionals from Dead Space 2, make a welcomed return - especially when other Necro's are mixed in their tightly packed environments. Speaking of environments, the snowy wasteland of Tau Volantis packs its own frozen surprises – and changes Dead Space 3’s otherwise constant look and feel.
The tools with which you're allowed to obliterate and dismember enemies have seen significant revision. Dead Space 3 makes ammunition universal and completely reworks both the weapon and RIG upgrade system. It also introduces variable loot and the workbench - the weapon creation area where dreams are made. In its most basic form the workbench allows Isaac to customize the primary and…other primary fire of two equipped weapons. You can take a one handed frame, attach a plasma core, and the leave the lower portion alone to create the familiar horizontal/vertical plasma cutter. Or you can opt for a two handed frame that employs a military engine and conic dispersal tip to create an assault rifle shotgun. If that's not enough, each weapon has at most four slots for specific upgrade pieces for damage, rate of fire, reload speed, and clip size - and packing enough of those on a weapon can push it basically wherever you want.
Loot is fuel for the workbench and it's in no short supply. Smaller parts ripe for assembly are always popping out of regular enemies, whereas the more valuable, already assembled cores, frames, and module modifiers are tucked away in obscured areas or rewards for significant accomplishments. Smaller parts accumulate quickly, and can be used to build everything from weapon frames to med-packs and ammo. Dead Space 3 has a healthy economy, and despite the option of paying $5 of real world cash to make your scavenger bot acquire parts faster, I was usually able to make whatever I needed. In my case that wound up being a flamethrower/linegun that also inflicted stasis and complimented it with a contact beam, melee thing with a dose of acid; after that every encounter was a gratifying blood bath.
When I finished Dead Space 3 my clock was around twenty hours, and I probably spent at least two of those tinkering around with different builds at the workbench. Some of the crap I made was pointless and almost funny, but a lot of it was effective and I had a difficult time selecting only two weapons. That's not a knock, any more than two and the balance might be thrown hilariously off-kilter, but rather a testament to how well Visceral nailed their mission of interesting weapon building. The promise of more effective loot in New Game Plus, along with the rather tepid difficulty "Normal" turned out to be, has me itching for another playthrough - even after the significant problems I had with the game’s story. Even when the narrative goes way off the tracks Dead Space 3 is still a hell of a lot of fun to play.
Mechanically speaking, cooperative play is what it is. Enemies have more hit points, are probably in greater supply, and will tear apart players who aren't communicating properly. It’s cool when your buddy shoots a Feeder off your back or revives you when you're down, but it doesn't do much that other games haven't done bigger and better before. Certain puzzles are a little different; literal puzzles that required two analog sticks on a solo run are one apiece in co-op, and environment-based puzzles that Isaac handles alone require two people using kinesis when Carver is around. Co-op is especially advantageous in situations where, for example, two huge god damn regenerating Necromorphs are closing in and you've got to hack a door open - but with a proper use of stasis nothing felt outright impossible in solo play.
The best parts of playing co-op are restricted to three specific, co-op only side missions. These sections are where most of Carver's back story and eventual resolve are fleshed out, and the manner in which Visceral chose to tell his story couldn't have been more perfect for this medium. Carver experiences the horrific delusions and subsequent meltdowns Isaac went through in previous games, but in co-op only the player controlling Carver sees any of it. An elevator for Isaac is a bloodstained mess with horrifying visions for the other player. Similarly, an otherwise normal hallway is populated with Carver's deceased son's toys. When Carver breaks so far down that he explores his own head, Isaac is left to defend his body from Necromorphs until the other player can sort it out. These sequences were exceptional, and left my partner and myself wanting an entire game dedicated to that kind of divergent cooperative play.
Whether or not Carver upsets the balance of Dead Space 3's illicit horror depends on the experience of the player. I've played three (if we're counting Extraction) other games in the series, and Necromorph disposal is now more about weapon proficiency and reload management than jump scares and ghastly appearances. Visceral's sound department remains top notch - I played the entire game with headphones and everything from an Exploder's unmistakable scream to the instant orchestra when Necro’s popped in was excellent - so the game remains unsettling and creepy on a fundamental level, but for an experienced player Dead Space 3 is more about action and carefully controlled set-piece sequences rather than subtle horror and cerebral mind games. New players may very well find Dead Space 3's brand of unnerving gore and creepy hallways just as tense and unsettling as we did with the first game, but it's tough to say from my point of view.
One thing’s for sure, Dead Space 3 knocks it out of the park in the looks department. In an time when so many of our favorite games have an off the shelf feel, whether it be that unmistakable aroma of Unreal Engine 3 or an insipid art department, Dead Space 3 feels custom made. No one makes a ruined space quite like Visceral, and in Dead Space 3 it was great to see them stretch their legs on the frozen wasteland of Tau Volantis or the wonderfully serene outer space segments. Dead Space 3 also looks great on our aging consoles, and doesn't have that comprised feeling that's so pervasive in other games.
Visceral Games' solution to the volatile third-game dilemma was to augment, rather than alter, the nature of Dead Space. Of all their new ideas it's ironic most alluring and promising, a divergent but shared experience for Isaac Clarke and his partner, winds up being the least employed of the bunch. What’s left errs toward enjoyable - an awful story is salvaged and ameliorated through exceptional combat design and an engaging weapon creation system - leaving Dead Space 3 weaker than its predecessors, but still an experience absolutely worth having.