- WARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THESE HILLS. Turn back if you don't want to be spoiled.
Dead Space 3 is the third installment of a once new IP that debuted in 2008, inspired by the likes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s “Event Horizon (1997)”, John Carpenter’s “The Thing (1981)” and Irrational Games’ “System Shock 2”. Not unlike Capcom’s “Resident Evil 4 (2005)” or Frictional Games’s “Penumbra: Overture (2007)” (or anything by Frictional Games, really), it was considered as a kind of return to the dying or slumped “Survival Horror” genre to the console. At its core, however, Dead Space is very much like "Resident Evil 4", 5 and 6; a “Third Person Action-Horror Shooter” with “gorror” elements.
There’s something to be said about a game that manages to startle enough people that the commonly confused genres blur together and one end cannot be told from another. It’s not a bad thing necessarily; if Dead Space deserves any kind of credit, it’s not shying away from the salacious mutation of human bodies and flying under the radar enough that it’s never brought up at all as some malignant source of violence bred in children. Its strongest element, however, has always been the question behind what created the enemies of the game: the Necromorphs. Where did the Marker come from and why did it cause so many people to kill each other?
That said, in the wake of the commercial nightmare of “The People vs. EA and BioWare” earlier last year with Mass Effect, gamers were understandably on their guard with the sudden change in gameplay’s dynamics and overall atmosphere. What was an Action-Horror game seemed completely content to discard its fledging horror dress and run naked in the fields with Action and his friends Call of Duty, Gears of War and Halo.
Dead Space 3 got a fair amount of criticisms lauded against it and none of it unwarranted. EA is an open book as far as their arseholery and greed is concerned. From the overhaul of the weapons system (that reeks of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”), the loathsome microtransaction feature into the game as a means to accommodate EA; universal ammo, weapons crafting, the death of the save station and the additional co-op mode that sections off particular parts of the character specific narrative of the story and carters only to the online playing crowd (local players be damned); Dead Space 3 was shaping up to be a corpse on arrival.
However, is it or its ending as abysmal as “Mass Effect 3” or “Assassin’s Creed 3”? No, not by a long shot, but its overall presentation of the game has been heavily affected by the collective publisher/developer desire to attract the audience that is now considered the “standard” to reach for and appease. That, in and of itself, is a problem.
What I liked
THE GOOD – INTERACTIVE:
Tau Volantis, before it overstays its welcome, it’s another wonderfully realized environment whose cold winds and thigh-high snow reverberates straight off the screen into the environment of the home (assuming your house isn’t stone cold already and you’re wearing a blanket over your shoulders to compensate for the lack of a heater). The snow effects are superb, it, alongside with your hand over your face, slows you down as you try to progress.
The unnamed alien city near the end of the game is also another achievement on the books of Dead Space 3. One the best levels to try and traverse or get lost in on the merit that there’s so much to look at and try to poke at, interactive devices or not. My favorite part is undoubtedly the less aggravating “HALO Jump” duplication wherein the player is launched across the way to different points. Unfortunately, you spend a great deal of time playing shoot ‘em up in the environment whenever you encounter Unitologists or the obnoxious waves of Necromorphs.
The soundtrack, now a collaborative effort between James Hannigan and Jason Graves, is a step up from the first two soundtracks. With the exception of “Lacrimosa/Isaac Are You There?”, the previous scores merely sounded like Graves was murdering every instrument and musician he could get his hands on. Dead Space 3, however, has focus. Unfortunately the worse I could say about it is that it’s the derivative Balfe Lorne-esque soundtrack. There are more than a few Zimmer-esque cues in the score to scoff at and its bothersome at times. The strongest theme in the game is its first track, “200 Years Ago, On an Icy Planet...”, which captures the quiet and isolated loneliness the game never really capitalizes outside the prologue. Another thing is that it often reminded me too much of the Daylight soundtrack. If you can remember that one, then kudos to you good man for not even having to use Google or YouTube. Otherwise, James Hannigan offers balance and focus where Graves merely relied on the experimental and fell flat more times than not.
THE GOOD – STORY:
One of the things I continue to believe was Dead Space’s strength was the use of the tried and true “Apocalyptic Log” and the False Protagonist. It was the people you never saw or got to know that ended up delivering what the protagonist, armed to the teeth with so-called unconventional weapons of war, did not. And that, quite simply, is the idea that there is no way you’re getting out of this situation alive or unscathed on any level (mentally, physically). Their doomed recordings are accredited to giving Dead Space 3 some of the atmosphere it wanted to grasp. That these characters were stuck in a situation wherein all levels of luck or fortune left them to die at the hands of their mutilated friends turned into misshapen monsters.
Visceral decides to take a page out of Dead Space: Extraction (Wii/PSN) and throws you into the shoes of a doomed individual named Tim Caufman. Like most stories that are centralized on the “pioneer years” of the future, he is decidedly of a Southern origin, muttering phrases like “dang it” and speaking with a distinct drawl (you know, because we all speak like that in the South). The character is sent to find a mysterious canister known as the “Codex” and for a scientist named Earl Serrano. The prologue, despite its utter briefness, is probably one of the few chapters in the game that doesn’t utterly irritate me as it free of the baggage of the protagonist and the crap that follows him.
That said, the history of the Sovereign Colonies lends the game a great deal of intrigue as well as one of the biggest failings of the game. The precursor of Earth Government and its affiliated groups (Earth Defense Force and CEC, etc.), there was a story that could’ve been divorced from Isaac’s story and made into a completely different or separate game if they were really invested in showing the true nature of the Marker and the Necromorphs, because what little you’re allowed to gleam through the collection of SCAF artifacts, logs, text and the exploration of the planet gets unnecessarily cheated by the narrative of the game.
John Carver is a nice change of pace from Isaac as a man who is militant and focused and incredibly screwed up by the Marker. Part of the character’s distinct lack of charm is that he takes shit from no one, not even the guy he calls his captain (“Try Harder” and “Fuck this day” are quintessential DS3 quotes as far as I’m concerned). Soldier characters ultimately turn out to be better characters in Dead Space (excluding Norton, of course) alongside complete civvies in design. Maybe because I can buy them surviving and shooting their way out of a situation presented in the game, whereas there are so many liberties taken with Isaac to get the audience to believe he would survive through such a harrowing situation that it feels largely disingenuous and a slap to the face.
The gleam into his background, however, often leaves me with an awful taste in my mouth; on one hand I get that we’re meant to sympathize with this man, but on the other, if he abuses his son out of some result of PTSD, then it’s hard to hand over complete sympathy (especially when the wife should be removing herself and her son from that environment). Jennifer Santos is a nice change of pace as well as far as secondary characters are concerned. She carries the brunt of the plot’s expositing and propulsion, because damn if the protagonists can be bothered to. She’s a brainy sort of girl, the sweetheart of a group (obviously), facing the ultimate terror in the same of saving her world.
What I didn't Like
THE BAD - STORY:
That said, Dead Space has never been terribly strong in the narrative department. In fact, what little there was to be called a story in Dead Space was probably one of the reasons it holds up better than Dead Space 2, which goes whole hog on attempting to deliver human drama where it can’t if it’s not in the environment/levels. At its core, as an Action-Horror house of jump scares, the half-hearted attempts to be dramatic where embarrassing most of the time. Apparently, the attempts to be angst-driven in Dead Space 2 with the almost non-existent show of Isaac Clarke mourning his girlfriend (you’d never know he was if it weren’t for the apparition of Nicole that showed up every time to talk about it), gave them the idea we wanted more of this.
One of the biggest things that tipped me off to a bad ride through poor narrative lane was the almost dismissive, “Oh, yeah, btw, the Scientology parody known as Unitology have become the Legion of Doom, somehow toppled the government, killed every military force at our disposal and taken over the world as we know it”.
Me: Yeah, how the does that happen exactly?
Visceral: Oh, don’t worry about it, just go with it.
Me: Yeah, how about, no.
Dead Space 3 effectively removes the largest and proactive proponent and antagonist from its game, the Earth Government, for no reason what so ever. They just hand wave the fact that the Unitologists effectively go from religious zealots with a little pull here and there in the government to full blown terrorists that smack just a tad too much of suicide bombers from the Middle East to even take as natural progression. And considering that most of the lore suggested that the pissing match the two factions were having was a show for the public and that they were in cahoots with each other, is even more irritating.
You really expect me to swallow the idea that a singular religious sect overthrew the government and suddenly rule the world with an iron military fist, led by the nose by Rush Limbaugh’s distant cousin. Yeah, no, try again Visceral and go back to the draft stages and rethink your story. It’s even more hilarious when the finale has Carver tell Ellie Langford to “tell them what we saw” before she escapes. Tell who, moron, you’re freaking government is toppled; there’s no one to tell.
At the beginning, we’re introduced to some downtrodden apartment and Isaac Clarke enjoying his 10-Minute Retirement as Ellie Langford phones him with news that “they’re over” and she’s moved on. For whatever reason, Isaac Clarke goes from guy determined to blowing up Markers to some Grizzly Adams living in the projects of the future, mulling in the past. What past exactly? The game doesn’t care to tell you. Just like everything else, they gloss over it just to introduce us to the current events of the game. The first chapter is one of the worst; random shoot ‘em up with the Unitologist who’ve suddenly become the "Mass Effect"'s Cerberus to Star Wars’ Storm Troopers. And they all shoot as well, too.
Another negative against game is this: The Love Triangle Nobody Asked For or Wanted. Back when the most of what you saw of the character Robert Norton was in the trailers and the announcement for “Dead Space: Liberation”, the impression this man gave you was that he was “Zach Hammond 2.0”; a man dedicated to his mission, whatever it was, and took no shit from anyone, most especially engineers with an attitude problem at any given moment. I was really looking forward to this character. Instead, the potential of the character is wasted for tripe and the lowest kind of tripe in any story. Instead of a hardnosed commander, we get a petulant jealous character full of plot conveniences that lend nothing to the narrative of the game, that dies ranting like a twelve year old that’s been told to wait on the side while their parents are shopping for food. And like a dog gnawing at a bone, Visceral can’t seem to get it through their heads that everyone is tired of the “Betrayal” trope. This time it’s so clumsily handled, words cannot describe the absurd stupidity that befell this character.
How they deal with the aftermath of Norton’s betrayal is probably one of the most uncomfortable moments my ears have ever had to endure. The dialog is awful. Dead Space has never shined in this particular area, but its the worst in this particular situation. Isaac, while justified in his actions by the mere sake of the narrative, comes off as an opportunist that was just waiting for the opportunity to shack up next to Ellie. Ellie’s reaction to it all is hilariously nauseating and more so, contradicting; its painfully obvious that the writers had no idea where they were doing with that entire situation and it shows.
Ellie is made all but irrelevant by the character Jennifer Santos, who provides and does more to progress the story and gets on better with Isaac than she does by miles. (I.E., their interaction, if only by the virtue of the actors, comes off as extremely natural and entertaining to watch.) Naturally, she has to die a ‘horror’-sequelitis death reminiscent of that from “The Matrix Revolutions” and it was a completely preventable death on the basis that there was a third party (Ellie) that could’ve helped, but did nothing but stand around with her thumbs up her nose. The fact that they try to pass it off as some defining moment of angst for Isaac and some necessary evil omitted by Carver makes me want to spit on my screen it’s so deplorable.
Ellie’s presence, more or less, is justified by the Love Triangle and her titillating appearance, not much else. Whatever was good about her character in DS2 (not being romantically involved, headstrong and more or less concerned about saving HER) is gone. She’s nothing more than “The Girlfriend” befit for the dick jousting of Norton and Isaac. The character runs through all the tropes you’ve seen from a poorly done love triangle or even well done one. The writers obviously don’t want her with Norton, so they do as much as they can to exhibit all the usual suspect signs of disinterest in Ellie and assholery in Norton, tearing both characters asunder by way of uselessness. Why we’re expected to care is beyond me.
The antagonists, the Unitologists, are hands down one of the worst parts about this game; not only is their character A.I. atrocious, they appear where the game depends on making the biggest impression on its audience; the first chapter and the finale chapters. Dead Space 3 devolves into some fourth rate third person shooter that doesn’t try to validate the necessity (or lack thereof) of the human enemy with a vocabulary of a thirteen year old that just learned six new swear words and uses them at every opportunity.
These characters are not competent, they are not threatening and moreover, they appear in such volume in the end of the game that the Necromorphs hardly seem necessary anymore (hell, they all seem to disappear to go play cards). Their headmaster, Jacob Danik is quite possibly the worst villain in this entire series. On top of being an on the nose Evil Brit, the writers have no such compulsions to even assure its audience that “oh, yeah, we’re totally aware this guy is such a play on the “People with Accents are Evil”". Moreover, he’s not even good at it. The voice actor, Simon Templeman, phones in a performance like there’s no tomorrow, but at least the character gets a sendoff deserving of his presence. Beneath a rocky spear. Where Tiedemann, Daina, Kendra and Bartlett had motive and a reason to try and justify their madness, however, wrong they was about everything, there’s nothing remotely interesting about Danik (and good God, his character is awful). He's just evil because evil.
The atmosphere that lent itself so well to Dead Space, Dead Space Extraction and Dead Space 2 was put on a bus in favor of playing the exposition card in Dead Space 3. As I’ve stated before, as an “Action-Horror” title, Dead Space lives and dies by the jump scare tactic, so much so that it’s really the only thing it’s got left when you strip away the “gorror” and environmental design. Whatever attempts to scare you have become so routine the developers never tried to put any effort into trying new methods of shaking things up. On top of that, the dementia induced by the Markers has been rendered null and void. Barring Carver’s breakdown, no one suffers the effects of the Markers buried and present on the planet. Not a single character.
And this is where they misuse and miss the point of what made 1982’s “The Thing” and 1997's “Event Horizon” great as horror/sci-fi films. It was isolation, paranoia and mistrust among the group of men in Outpost 31; the hallucinations and madness the crew of the Lewis and Clarke experienced that kept the films so engaging. It wasn’t just the environment, it simply added to the human drama and atmosphere. It was the fact that no one could trust anyone, not even yourself, when working together. Your senses would betray you in a flash and there’d be nothing you could do about it. The reoccurring theme of dementia, the hallucinations and the murderous compulsions of mankind when urged by the Marker is one of the reasons why Dead Space succeeded as a new IP. Outside of the audio and texts logs, Visceral didn’t don’t care to integrate it fully into this game with its protagonists.
Tension and fear is absolutely null and void in the game. Dead Space takes "Resident Evil 5" and 6’s action-oriented mentality to a whole ‘nother level by abandoning its brother element. It fits, because the game is so blasé that it doesn’t try. It’s on autopilot the entire time. The drama of the characters feels incredibly disingenuous. Isaac’s self-righteous indignation for being “pulled back into the game” without the wherewithal setting up the “why?”, is irksome. The love triangle is constantly foisted into the narrative like it was important (and it’s not), characters die unceremoniously without necessity to the plot or the progression of the story. The villain does nothing throughout the entire game besides exposit opinion and information that is largely irrelevant.
The reveal of the Marker’s true nature is probably one of the most baffling things about the game. There’s so much about the plot that asks the audience to suspend disbelief given how many leaps in logic and conclusions it makes to get to that point. Where did they this get this information, who left the paper trail so large that it didn’t take anyone before 200 years of 2514 to discover the planet? It’s not even horrible, it just one of those things that make you react, “Wait, that’s it? Really? What?” I’ll just say this, if you’ve played "Halo: Combat Evolved" sometime in the last twelve years and was surprised by the true nature of the Halo Arrays, you get almost the exact same reveal for the Markers and Convergence in Dead Space 3.
THE BAD – INTERACTIVE:
The attempt to add the Sandbox ("inFamous") or RPG ("Mass Effect") side quests via “Optional Missions” is a clumsy excuse to justify the Co-Op at best, a great example of busy work that goes nowhere and overstretches the game at worst. At least several missions send you on a scavenger hunt for weapons, ship or MacGuffin parts and have add very little to the game. You’ve literally got NPC telling you “Go fix this, go find this, and go do this while I stand around.” You also can’t stop at any given moment in a side quest and continue on; if you don’t complete the optional mission then and there, your progress at whatever point is not saved. Tell me who came up with that bright idea so I can mail him hungry crocodiles as a thank you gift.
Weapons crafting is a complete overhaul of the Bench and weapons system and more of a headache than it is a challenge or entertainment. Where you used weapons supposed used outside (Plasma Cutter) and within (Pulse Rifle) of their elements and simply upgraded them with the use of nodes, Weapons Crafting has you scavenger hunting for weapons parts (that, for whatever reason have handles like “Weller’s so-so” and “Hammond’s [insert weapon piece here]”) to throw together to create some Frankenstein of a weapon. Benches feel as though they’ve been crammed into every corner imaginable, adding on to the thinly-veiled attempt by EA to get you to spend money on cheat codes that should be free. To add to that they implement the use of a scavenger bot, something that reminds me all too much internet bots or spider that come crawling around for information on your IP address. In other words, I absolutely hate it.
That said, I’ve pretty much said my piece on the issue of microtransactions. It's a bad idea and a generally tacky move by any developer, plain and simple. That they've got the gall to ask you upfront to sink more money into a game that costs $60-some dollars at retail price (nevermind the DLC you'll end up paying for eventually or the Online Pass if you buy an EA game used) speaks volumes to their warped POVs. They're going to get a truckload of money from poor souls who drop cash on standard and "Limited, Ultimate, Penultimate, Preorder version 1, 2, 3, 4" Editions of Dead Space 3, why charge people even more for something, by all rights they've already paid for? It’s plain greed dripping from the entrails of suits if I ever saw it. I'm forever baffled by EA's belief that they need more money, let alone that someone will cut them out of a salary by blockading items under the incentive of "pay us more money... in cash".
The apathetic reaction towards things like this is even more troubling. Ignoring problematic material doesn't make anything go away, it allows problems to fester (our society is a literal reflection of that). If EA and other companies continue to receive revenue that dictates that there are those more willing to drop double the cash on in-game content they've paid for already with a costly retail price, in TRIPLE-A game that doesn't need the money like say a free or a $1.00/0.99 priced game, features like this continue to show up in games until they get the 'bright' idea that blockading content for the incentive getting more of your money after the purchase is the right way to go.
And naturally, most people will probably "just ignore" it and fish the cash out of their pockets on the basis that they feel it’s a natural thing they should do, when it’s not. No one should be okay with jumping for a carrot on a string because the developers/publishers say you'll get more out of it. This isn't like a DLC, content typically cut for budgetary reasons, deadlines and etc., it's asking you to pay for the plate you bought you pie with and by all rights the plate was paid for when you bought the pie.
The arrival of Universal Ammo alongside the insufferable levels of enemies you face throw so much material you need to keep your character, rather makes inventory a needless feature. You’re survival is pretty much a guarantee at this point and whatever hopes of Dead Space claiming that “survival” label have been rendered null and void.
Finally, the most baffling thing about the Weapons Crafting system is that, for something I presume is supposed to be a recent in-universe element, people apparently used it in the past when things were apparently the equivalent of the 1940s circa 200 years ago in the Dead Space Universe. Way to break immersion, guys.
Instead of slow suffering creatures that look as though they’re in the throes of a death rattle and pain, you’ve got monsters that move faster than Majini and Ganado of "Resident Evil 4" and 5 and bowl you over. They show up in some volume that you’re bound to spend more time than necessary in a room wasting ammo on horde that comes from nowhere, behind and in front of you. A challenge some say, but it’s more a nuisances that detracts from the atmosphere.
What newer Necromorphs appear in bulk are bland, bordering on the function of Nazi Zombies in appearance and behavior. Feeders and Wasters are more a nuisances than they are a challenge and visually unimaginative even by ugly standards. Everything is so toned down that they might as well not even be Necromorphs. Regenerators are not challenges; they’re attempts to stretch out a level at any given moment. The latter Necromorphs nearest to the end of the game appear in such infrequency it’s hard to even remember they were there at all unless you were killed by them. Weapons also render any challenge null and avoid against enemies as they all just fall over dead from random shots with no sense of precision required at all.
Dead Space 3 also tends to mirror Final "Fantasy XIII-2" in regards to his character models; where the greatest amount of detail appears to have gone into the background environments, characters look less refrained than the world around them and often boarder on the cartoony at any given moment. The worst offenders are definitely Ellie Langford and Robert Norton. Norton’s character model looks like a half-completed creature that never successfully captured the likeness of its voice actor (Robert Gant); Ellie's unique appearance from Dead Space 2 is exchanged for a titillating model who wears an impractical red shirt with the deepest v cut that makes Anna Williams dress in "Tekken" look modest in comparison. She also shares more than a little resemblance to Lara Croft 9.0 (Crystal Dynamics Reboot) and Jade from "Beyond Good and Evil". They basically remove everything that made her character model so great in DS2. The only model that doesn’t look like a complete goof is John Carver as he was built from the ground up using the so-called new and improved engine for Dead Space 3.
The pacing in the game is absolutely horrible. From chapter two to the seventh chapter, the player will spend an arduous amount of time floating around in space playing the errand boy with a vengeance stronger than that experienced in the original Dead Space (the epitome of a fetch quest game, saved only by its initial mystery and atmosphere). As Isaac and/or Carver (depending on your position on the online universe), you will be sent from one derelict ship to another in the name of gathering weapon and ship parts to continue onward through the game. The only saving grace is the backstory elements peppered around the Flotilla of Sovereign Colonies.
Once you get on the planet, Tau Voltanis, the game feels continues to remain content in dragging its feet going from one mundane level covered in snow and rust to the next. Snow and blizzards are more a nuisance than something visually stunning as the game winds down at an agonizing pace. By the end, I was absolutely apathetic towards the insultingly easy boss battle. I chuckled at the fact that game just pulled a page from Ubisoft’s “Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands” with its level design (only this boss battle lacks the incentive of using abilities learned throughout the game… for free).
Co-op is where the game more or less feels like something that was patched together with staples and duct tape. As mentioned before, some story-related elements are co-op exclusives, particularly for the character John Carver. You can’t access them through single player at all. Second player characters disappear and reappear in sequences that were clearly meant for single player only or phased out of the cinematic altogether. Worst of all, they remove Carver from the incidents wherein he was legitimately separate from Isaac and have him tagging along like a dog on a leash. Instead of helping Norton steer the box away from the mines, Carver is tagging behind Isaac. It’s pretty stupid all things considered.
In kind, secondary characters in single player do much of the same on levels that were clearly constructed half-arsedly around the context of co-op. The irony of it all is that co-op was never a necessary implement to enhance the game; Dead Space 3 could’ve easily allowed you to learn about the woeful tale of John Carver without the need of co-op. Sam could’ve accompanied Tim Caufman much in the same way. Co-op is simply another useless mechanic added onto the game to appease to that coveted FPS Crowd.
Overall, Dead Space 3’s attempts to bill itself as a “finale” falls flat; never does the sense of finality and risk its tries to sell ever come across as there was no proper set up beforehand. I doubt I’ll even enjoy the backstory considering where it’ll take me (right back to Dead Space 3).
Dead Space 3 had a lot of potential. There are some great ideas here, unfortunately it’s bogged down with unnecessary additives and changes that do more harm than good. There is a problem with your game when I all I want to do is get to the end of it just so I can go to sleep because you’ve bored me to death. Horror elements in anything are at its best when it doesn’t try to justify or explain its mechanics. Yet, as much as I love to learn about this universe, it’s definitely suffering from the fact that it’s laying its cards bare and in such a poorly scripted manner. [a 3 out of 5].