The Dead Space series has always been emblematic of that precarious balance between action and horror, but with Dead Space 3, the series has finally found its proper footing. It strikes a nice balance between the horror roots that it wants to respect and the blockbuster action that it has to embrace for commercial success.
The story picks up a while after the events of Dead Space 2. Our hero, Isaac Clarke, is now a burnt-out drunk trying to forget the past, when he gets roped into an expedition to the Marker homeworld in hopes of saving his ex, Dead Space 2 alum Ellie Langford. Parts of this story work well and parts don’t work at all.
What doesn’t work is the forced love triangle between Isaac, Ellie, and some other guy whose name I’ve already forgotten. Its not that romance is inherently out of place in Dead Space. I really like the idea that Isaac and Ellie’s relationship continued to grow after the credits rolled following the previous game. It’s that this particular romance is so poorly developed that you’ll roll your eyes whenever Isaac and Other Guy start arguing about their seriously misplaced priorities. Ellie seems to be the only one capable of recognizing the dire nature of their situation.
What does work about the story is the mystery of the Markers. Their true purpose is revealed, and like the best season finale, that answer only leads to more questions. The answer is both intriguing and terrifying, expanding the scope of the danger to every vast corner of the universe. This is where Dead Space 3 still feels like a horror game. Its story highlights the insignificance of mankind when confronted with a great unfathomable evil. It’s horror in theme, if not in plot or setting.
In fact, Dead Space 3 makes no obvious pretense about being a horror game, and the whole experience is better for it. You still fight against scary looking monsters and wander through creepy environments, but you’re so constantly empowered that neither of these are actually scary. The game knows this. thus, there is no standout horror moment in Dead Space 3, no “return to the Ishimura” moment like in Dead Space 2. Instead, this game is filled with moments that emphasize the disaster movie that is Isaac’s life.
Dead Space 3 takes its inspiration from movies like Vertical Limit and Flight of the Phoenix rather than Alien or Event Horizon. Everything Isaac touches seems to break at the worst possible moment, which makes him a terrible engineer, but makes for several exciting disaster-themed set pieces: fires reminiscent of The Towering Inferno, upside down ships reminiscent of The Poseidon Adventure, and the highlight of the entire game is a sequence that has you fixing a ship that’s literally falling apart as it enters the atmosphere.
These disaster moments are truly great because they feel fresh. Fighting mechanical failures is just as exciting as fighting monsters, if not more so. By now, the necromorphs are a familiar enemy, they don’t have the same pure repulsiveness that they once did, and Visceral doesn’t try to up the ante in that regard. None of the new creatures are as disturbing as the monster children of Dead Space 2. Instead, the developers chose to focus on making Dead Space 3 a more tonally cohesive game than its predecessor. This is sci-fi action interspersed with some of the most memorable disaster sequences ever seen in a game. There’s little to no horror, and that’s a good thing.
Unfortunately, the sci-fi action that makes up the bulk of gameplay is not exciting at all. Combat in Dead Space has always revolved around effectively managing your opponent’s speed. It’s always safest to attack from a distance, but three creatures are running at you, so how do you best maintain that distance? This is core combat puzzle of Dead Space, it’s what sets these games apart from other third-person shooters, and it’s rarely found in Dead Space 3.
The game loves to spawn enemies behind you, and since the camera is pulled in so close to Isaac’s shoulder, you won’t know about these other enemies until they attack your back. Isaac himself moves pretty fast compared to previous games, but he still moves like a snail compared to the necromorphs that charge at you like Olympic sprinters. By the time that you turn to shoot the monster behind you, the two from the front are inches away. You also can’t stasis them and escape because you can’t push past an enemy in stasis. The body just hovers in the air like an unmovable wall. Finally, since the camera is pulled in so tight and the enemies are so close, you can’t accurately shoot off their limbs, which is the most efficient method of killing monsters. At that point, all you can do is waste ammo shooting into the torso until they die, waste time cursing them out until you die, or just stop playing because this is stupid. The combat puzzle is broken.
In the beginning of the game, combat is fine since the narrow corridors of derelict space ships naturally funnel the enemies, but once you get to the planet and the levels open up, every encounter will have you spinning in circles trying in vain to keep the monsters at bay. This ceases to be entertaining. The tension of combat disappears when the whole game feels unfair.
What brought about this change in combat? The game is clearly designed for co-op. You’re meant to have someone watching your back at all times. Playing co-op is thus a completely different experience: Those frustrating fights are a cake walk when you have an extra pair of eyes and an extra set of guns. That’s fine in theory, but the single-player mode shouldn’t suffer in favor of cooperative play. Going through Dead Space 3 solo is just a slog from one annoying enemy sandwich to another. The only thing that pushes you forwards is the anticipation of what new disaster spectacle will befall Isaac next.
Weapon crafting is a better new feature. It’s a deep system, but not overly complex. There are two central components to every gun, a module that determines the ammo type and a tip that determines the projectile type. Mix and match these two parts to get different guns, augment them with acid or electricity or stasis, and upgrade them with special circuits. Every gun can be dismantled and rebuilt without consequence; no part is ever lost or destroyed in the construction/destruction, which allows for endless experimentation. The whole system is clever, robust, but also extraneous.
For one, you won’t have enough resources to actually experiment with crafting until about a third of the way through the game. By then, you’ll probably have found a weapon combination that works for you, and you’ll have little reason to switch, especially since going into battle with a crappy gun can spell your doom. The same thing happened with the shop in previous Dead Space games. By the time you get the opportunity to buy a flamethrower, you don’t want it. The crafting system is great on its own, and it doesn’t detract from the game. However, iit also doesn’t add anything to the game except an economy that EA can use to justify microtransactions.
Despite all its frustrations, Dead Space 3 ends on a high note with a bat shit crazy final boss pulled straight from the best Lovecraftian horror—a gonzo sci-fi twist on ancient gods and Great Old Ones.
Dead Space 3 does so much right, it’s sad that its one major misstep is also its most disastrous: As a solo experience, the game is irritatingly inconsistent, swinging between frustrating enemy encounters that punish you for playing alone and incredible disaster sequences that never fail to renew your excitement. I’m still on board with the series, I’m still excited to see what happens next, but I’m not all that excited to play it.