Dead Space 3 is an interesting beast of the game. In spite of corporate meddling, the core experience remains refined. At the same time, one could say the core experience is tarnished by meddlesome microtransactions and half-hearted attempts to appeal to a more mainstream audience. It's certainly multi-faceted, so I wanted to cover as much I can, both the good and the bad.
For the first few hours, I was both impressed and confused. The prologue was very well done, and served as a great introduction to the story. Soon after however, much like Isaac's life and the rest of humanity, the plot dropped off and went to shit. Suddenly, we're expected to believe that the Earth Government has been overthrown (or at least crippled) by Unitologists. When, and more importantly, how did this happen? When did Unitology go from an insidious cult gone mad to an armed paramilitary force capable of toppling the government and taking out entire colonies? In Dead Space 2, I felt trapped betwixt three threats: the insane Unis, the virulent necromoprhs and the insidious and shadowy EarthGov. Then, out of nowhere, the latter is suddenly stripped down, and the only human antagonists we have left can be summed up as "they're a cult". I'm not saying it's impossible, it just felt jarring.
This feels as though the writers wanted a stakes-raising sequel, but could only do it artificially. Instead of a natural progression of events, we get a jarring raise in stakes that doesn't make much sense, and ends up baffling us more than anything. In many ways, it's a lot like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, with its inane and childish over the top "plot".
Exploring Isaac's apartment gave some insight into events between games. Apparently, he and Ellie got together and subsequently split up, and have hit some hard times. One thing I did find odd was the wording in Isaac's journal: "...at least she can feel whole again." Also, I really appreciate how Isaac still uses a Plasma Cutter for self-defence instead of standard hardware. In the course of one game, Isaac went from badass hero to washed zero. Come to think of it actually, Isaac's predicament in the begining of Dead Space 3 reminded me a lot of Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain. And the writing is nearly as sloppy, too.
The first chapter was pretty heavy on shooting, but it was sparse enough, and enough cover was given to make it tolerable, although extremely it was as bland and generic as third-person shooters go. Unfortunately, it didn't stay this way for the entirety of the campaign, much to my chagrin. But more on that later.
Another thing that impressed me, at least initally, was Jacob Danik, the main human antagonist this time around. He was well-animated and relentlessly threatening, but never really went beyond "evil dude with an accent". that isn't to say he's a terrible villain, he's just not that deep. He's your typical insane, self-assured villain. Then again, I wouldn't expect less from the guy who portrayed Loghain Mac Tir and Gabrial Roman. Come to think of it, his role as an antagonist is more like the latter, though the former is also a self-absorbed madman. At the very least, he's something to motive the player.
Later on however, I was a little off-put by a couple of things when you finally reunite with Ellie. First, the forced love-triangle. It just comes off as extremely out-of-place. Like I said earlier, it feels as though they wanted to create drama by raising the stakes even higher, but could only do it artificially. Speaking of artificial....
Ellie. I really didn't care for her low cut shirt. She's not exactly wearing a space bikini, but they've certainly sexualised her more. The thing I loved about Ellie in Dead Space 2 was how respectable and independent she was. Here it feels like she's there simply for Isaac and Norton to butt heads, and for the contrived love triangle. Jennifer Santos adds much more to the narrative, whilst Ellie sits around doing... whatever it is Ellie does. I did like the fact that she has heterochromia now, though I think she looked pretty sexy with her improvised eyepatch.
Another I noticed in the first few hours was Austin Buckell, and more specifically, how downright likeable and awesome he was. It's good to see hearty Texan folk still exist in the dark, icy depths of space.
Odd Implications of a Silly Story
There were other things that irked me throughout the campaign as well. First of all, it just seems unlikely that no one would have uncovered these things in over 200 years. How exactly were these planets restricted, if the only people who would enforce such restricions all killed themselves? If EarthGov opposed the S.C.A.F., how are entire systems being safeguarded? What exactly was their plan?
I distinctly remember reading a text log saying "if just one ship, person or scrap of paper survives...." (I'm paraphrasing). Well, there's some odd implications to this. First, just to be cheeky, why would they say "scrap of paper" in the 23rd century? We're using paper less and less already. The only handwritten things I can remember seeing in Dead Space 3 were on the walls. In blood.
Second, they didn't do a very good job, did they? Maybe before offing himself, Mahad shouldn't have left all those ships floating around, most of them with working life support. And since they were doing a cover-up job, why are there so many audio logs lying around? Did Mahad do anything except kill people?
The store has been removed, and the entire weapon system have been completely overhauled, and for the better. Benches are now your one-stop hub for everything you need (and a few things you don't). From here, you can access your safe, craft new items and materials, and create your own custom arsenal. Despite being very overwhelming at first, I really appreciate its depth, and I feel very rewarded and encouraged to explore now that I fully understand the crafting system. It offers a lot in the way of variety, and enhances the game's biggest strength: it's visceral and satisfying combat.
In addition, scavenging for spare parts to create better weapons fits the atmosphere (I don’t expect to go on any Tau Volantis shopping sprees), and suits Isaac’s abilities. Just wish we could name our guns!
The benefits of this become even more apparent when starting New Game+ mode. This franchise has never shied away from giving players a surplus of different modes and extra-campaign goodies, giving you good reason to play through again. In New Game Plus, extra circuits, suits, and weapon parts are unlocked for you to build bigger and better toys. Honestly, it's one of those games that's even more fun to play through the second time.
Despite still being a linear game, Dead Space 3 boasts quite a bit of backtrackign and exploration. Dead Space did this as well, and was the closest the series came to being like System Shock 2/BioShock. Dead Space 2 on the other hand, was a tense, action-packed roller coaster ride. The latest title in the franchise is a good amalgam of the two. Here, it doesn't feel so much like backtracking as it does open-ended exploration.
Most of the first act takes place within the floatilla above Tau Volantis, a setting that very much echoes the horrible halls of the USG Ishimura. There are entire ships you don't have to explore, but you'd be missing out if you don't. The side stories found here are really interesting, and arguably better than most of the main plot. These stories are rewarding in themselves, but for those who appreciate more tangible rewards, there's still plenty of loot. Considering that this is a linear game, there's no real reason not to do these, as it only expands the game.
Sadly, some missions are unavailable to those who play solo. Co-op missions can only be played with an online partner (split screen is once again shafted), so you won't be able to see everything the game has to offer unless you have some friends on the line.
DLC Done Wrong
Of course, it's hard not to wonder if the awesome crafting system and adorable scavenger bots (although they stop being adorable if you download the personality pack) is simply in the game to facilitate EA's microtransactions system. From the constant reminders that we can pay real money to make the game easier, to offers of downloadable content at every turn, these practices feel like unwanted intrusions into an otherwise immersive game.
Add to that eleven pieces of day-one downloadable content, an atrocious cover, and PR that admits the publisher is pandering to "mobile phone gamers", and you've done a pretty bang up job of alienating the fans that made your game a cult hit to begin with. It also doesn't help that in order to even play co-op, you need an online pass.
Here's how it should have been done. Instead of taking something away, they should have simply made it so those who bought the game new got those two suits, and included co-op in the game. The difference here is that by giving us those two extra suits with your voucher, you're encouraging, not punishing. By taking away those suits, nothing is really lost. By taking away the entire co-op campaign, you've taken away a huge chunk of the game. See the difference? One rewards customer loyalty, and the other punishes the player and strong arms them into spending more money. Which do you think will attract more customers?
For the Sake of Simplicity
In Dead Space 3, conventional ammo has been discarded in favour of universal ammo. Now, from a gameplay point-of-view, I understand why this decision was made. I don't think this was necessarily done in the name of streamlining for the sake of reaching the FPS crowd, but rather to complement the crafting system. I can understand how having different kinds of bullets for each gun could easily become a headache, so for the sake of simplicity, I see why the made this change.
That said, this does open up a huge retcon in the Dead Space universe, not unlike the one seen in Mass Effect 2. The implications of universal ammunition raises some serious questions. Because universal ammo is being used on the New Horizons Lunar Colony as well as an Earth Gov military vessel, we can assume they're seeing wide usage. At the same time however, they were used 200 years prior to the events of Dead Space 3 by S.C.A.F. soldiers. As a result, we get two equally unlikely scenarios.
- Universal ammo cartridges were all the rage in the 23rd century, but were phased out by the 26th century.
- A few months after the events of Dead Space 2, everyone realises how superior the technology is, and decide to go with conventional ammo.
- Universal ammo was never phased out; P-Sec, Sprawl security and the Concordance Extraction Corporation are using inferior technology that was outdated well over 200 years ago.
Either way, there isn't really any explanation as to how the universe suddenly re-discovered a way to convert a single unit of energy into plasma and voltaic projectiles, along with bullets and javelins, when it wasn't used for years. I understand why this was added, but unfortunately, it leads to a segregation of story and gameplay. So, was it worth it?
Whilst the shooting in the opening levels of the game were bearable, it later becomes a nuisance. This game is clearly not designed to be a third person shooter, and it shows. Isaac doesn't take cover behind chest-high walls; he half crouches next to them. There isn't a button to quickly snap to cover; you have to aim near a low wall. And of course, you can't stick to a wall and aim around it, either. Even worse, there's no way to swap shoulders, making aiming around corners hell. There are some fights where getting hit is simply unavoidable, and it can get agitating. In one instance, I was fighting two Twitchers and two rocket launcher-toting crazies simultaneously. That's not challenging. That's irritating.
Isaac's slow, clunky movements weren't designed for this new kind of game they are half-heartedly jamming into this one. Hell, at one point, I knocked my cover over by reloading. It simply doesn't work. Thankfully, the shooting doesn't crop up too often, but when it does rear its ugly head, it's generally unwelcome. In the same way Adam Jensen isn't equipped to fight sprinting bullet sponges, Isaac Clarke isn't designed for complex shootouts.
At its best, it's generic and derived. At its worst, it's an intolerable and annoying mess.
The Little Things
Like most games, the thing I like the most about Dead Space 3 are the little things. Inversely, they're the things that bug me the most. Here are the all the little things I loved and hated about this game.
- I like how the camera blurs when you melee something. It's a cool effect.
- Health packs heal you if you are hurt and can’t hold any more. This is really convenient, and saves you time.
- Chapters spell something out, again. This was something I really liked in the original and in Dead Space: Extraction that was oddly absent in the sequel.
- More puzzles. In addition to quick little minigames, there were a lot more puzzles this time around. I especially liked the Rosetta puzzle.
- Keith Szarabajka plays multiple roles here. Look, I LOVE Keith Szarabajka. I do. But it takes me out of the experience when I hear his voice, and he already had a major role in Dead Space and Dead Space: Downfall.
- You can't listen to music on your hard drive like you could in Dead Space 2. I really loved making a playlist to slay necros to, and it saddens me that I can't any more. Please note that I am on the PS3, so I don't know about Xbox 360.
- Isaac can clearly fit through the door in chapter 11 but you have to go around. The optional mission in the armoury during the same chapter has three Benches one right after another and two suit kiosks in a row. Seems a bit sporadic, doesn't it?
- The journal switches to third person when Isaac reaches Buckell, whereas the first of the journal entries are from Isaac's point-of-view.
- At the last chapter, Isaac tells Ellie to tell them what they saw. Tell who? The government is gone, and the only people to tell are likely going to take that knowledge and HELP the moons.
Dead Space 3 wasn't nearly the disaster I was afraid it would be. With Resident Evil 6 being considered a financial failure (for good reason) it's hard not to worry about the future of this franchise. In spite of these intrusions, developer Visceral has managed to mitigate these missteps. I wouldn't say it's my favourite, but it's certainly not a horrible game. It's just not all it can be, which is a shame, because this IP has a lot of potential. Here's hoping it lives to see another sequel.