Trying to figure out just how to judge Dead Space 3 has been an infuriatingly binary process. On one hand, I- and I’d wager not I alone -am an avowed fan of the series, and in its capacity as a worthy follow-up to the formidable first two adventures, Dead Space 3 wields all the consequence of a D-List celebrity’s tweet from the middle of a fast-food drive thru. On the other hand, when I account for the new weapon crafting system, the new cooperative mode that works beautifully with Dead Space’s dismemberment-focused 3rd-person combat, and the awesome talent of Visceral’s art team, I can’t say in good conscience that it’s a bad game. Dead Space 3’s critical path is replete with loathsome plot turns, abandoned themes, underwritten characters, and uninspired, risk-averse storytelling, but it plays great, and the raw creative ability and attention to detail of its dev-team is still apparent at every turn. Where to fall?
Dead Space 3 opens with a chilling and mysterious prologue, introducing the audience to new characters and a new setting, the icy Tau Volantis. However, the early intrigue is quickly supplanted with protagonist Isaac Clarke’s reintroduction as a soused layabout, drinking his madness away from the comfort of a Lunar colony. His ennui doesn’t last long, and he’s quickly pressed into service to find his estranged girlfriend Ellie, who has gone missing while investigating a ship graveyard in orbit over Tau Volantis. The two men who shephard Clarke back into the necromorph killing business are Robert Norton and John Carver, the latter of which serves as Dead Space 3’s secondary co-op character. With Ellie in potential danger, and the zealous threat of the growing Church of Unitology, Isaac has no choice but to get out of Dodge and back to hunting the Markers.
While it’s a baffling and seriously disappointing choice to see Isaac cured of his insanity- thereby undoing one of the most powerful and intriguing aspects of Dead Space 2 -via little more than a protracted bender, he quickly encounters plenty of scenarios in which to apply his talents as an engineer. Dead Space 3’s first half takes place in the aforementioned ship graveyard, which perfectly sets up the balance between what Simon Pegg once called, “a subtle blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence.” As is often the case in this series, Isaac is uniquely equipped to repair certain problems with machinery, be they turning off artificial gravity drives by slowing them down with Stasis, or rewiring power generators to open up new areas. Dead Space has never had trouble making its environmental puzzles feel at home within the same game mechanics that allow Isaac to freeze and eviscerate his foes, and DS3 builds off this by often forcing Isaac to juggle enemies and solve puzzles in the same sequence.
This puts the combat front and center for much of the game, and that’s not a complaint. While there are definitely some pacing issues with prolonged firefights, and a dearth of new, substantive enemies to fight, Dead Space’s combat has never felt better. Much of this is the fruit of the weapon crafting, which eschews the old weapon designs and power node upgrades for a freeform, “design your own death-machine” system, using raw materials and collectable parts scattered around the world. As Isaac gathers more components, his options for approaching and managing his assailants become exponentially more outlandish and experimental. At one point I was using a javelin gun with an underslung mine launcher, to trap and pin enemies from a distance, and a gun that fired acidic force fields as my backup. The flexibility is immense, and the unpredictable attack patterns of the necromorphs justify even the most indulgent designs, making for a perfect intersection between creativity and mechanics.
Adding a second player to this madness is ideal, not only because it expands the breadth of combat tactics, but also because it’s a narratively richer experience. The new face of Dead Space is John Carver, a bodyguard with a tragic past and an eagerness to forget about it. Itchy cliches aside, Carver elevates the story in co-op because he’s simply not around when playing alone. In single-player, he has a role in the story, but it’s diminished to the point of irrelevance, and his presence in and out of certain scenes makes his sudden appearances distracting. Carver rarely appears in the single-player mode without raising questions as to where he’s been the whole time or why he’s just now decided to show up. His contribution to co-op, however, enlivens- if not improves -the story at hand by bringing back the Marker hallucinations that once tortured Clarke.
Unfortunately, the descent into madness that made Dead Space 2 so compelling is only given lip-service here. So too, are many of the story threads from the first two installments treated with a similar lack of grace. Without spoiling, there’s simply no more mystery to the Dead Space universe. This third entry goes out of its way to explain and rationalize nearly every unanswered question from the series, but it makes those answers either so convoluted or so clean that they deflate all the excitement put into revealing their nature. Amidst all this, there’s a terribly forced love-triangle between Isaac, Ellie, and Norton that’s resolved as tritely as it’s introduced, and the primary antagonist is absent for long stretches of the game. Frankly, it’s a dog’s breakfast of a plot.
But there is light. In spite of its ineffective tale, Dead Space 3 features a significant amount of side-missions that function as alternate stories. These little one-offs occur every few chapters, and provide more information about the characters introduced in the prologue. The smaller, closed loop nature of these missions makes them more coherent than anything that happens in the overarching story, and they provide brief glimpses of the Dead Space that once was.
It’s strange to admit that the ancillary features (depending on how interested one is in co-op) take center stage in Dead Space 3, but ultimately, it’s the aesthetics that rise to the top of its achievements. Without question, Visceral’s art direction and attention to small, believable details do more to make Tau Volantis a compelling game world than any of its mechanics. Animations like characters hopping up and down to keep their heart rate elevated in cold weather, and the way Isaac’s helmet illuminates dark surroundings like a projected Rorschach Test go a long way towards communicating the danger and mental frailty that besets these characters. If the story was half as good we’d have an instant classic in our hands.
What threatens to kill Dead Space 3 is that it’s so much easier to talk about what it isn’t rather than what it is. It’s not scary, it’s not difficult, and it’s not especially memorable; however, its artistry is lush, its action is proven, and its co-op is strong. Those accolades don't mean much given DS3's genre company, and even it's own lineage, but they deserve acknowledgment. Put simply, Dead Space 1&2 are stories that have embedded themselves in my thoughts and kept me thinking for literal years after the fact, whereas Dead Space 3 is just a game. It’s a let-down, to be sure, but it’s not a total waste of time.
PC Specs: Core i5 3570k, GeForce 660ti, 16GB DDR3 RAM, Seagate Hybrid HD/SSD, Win8 OS
The PC Difference: Dead Space 3 is functionally identical to its console counterparts on PC, almost to a fault. While it supports a number of advanced graphics options, hardcore players might be disappointed by the lack of Direct X 11 or PhysX support. Regardless, the game is gorgeous in motion, as long as V-Sync is disabled (it locks 30FPS), and the only real shortcoming of this PC port is its inability to quick-save and quick-load.