February 13, 2013 by Paul Curtin
With big budget games pulling in higher grosses than Hollywood blockbusters, gamers have been spoiled over the past few years with amazing Triple-A titles from talented developers. The Dead Space series has been one of the best examples of brilliant new ideas emerging during the current Golden Age of gaming. But has the latest sequel in the popular horror series become a perfect example of how this Golden Age is dying as games become more expensive to produce and more publishers try to nickel and dime consumers in an effort to keep the sequel train running as long as possible?
Dead Space 1 & 2 were masterpieces that helped revive the survival-horror genre, so when publisher EA said that Dead Space 3 would need to sell around five million copies to survive after the first two only sold around two million each, it was a foreboding sign for the continuation of the series. It’s usually never good when a publisher and/or developer of any media wants to broaden its appeal and usually ends up just alienating the fans who were supporters from the start.
The series has begun creeping closer to the action genre with the option to play through all of Dead Space 3 online with another person, a move that enraged fans who feared the franchise could lose its roots. And when producer John Calhoun explained that the game’s new use of micro-transactions was actually part of a strategy to attract the “smartphone generation” who haven’t played any of the previous games, it only added fuel to the fire and worried fans more.
So with Dead Space 3 finally arriving in stores, have the developers betrayed their loyal fanbase and ruined the iconic series similar to what has happened with Resident Evil? The answer to that question is a bit tricky. Dead Space has certainly not gotten as out of hand as Resident Evil had, and Dead Space 3 actually even does some things better than the previous two games, despite not being as good overall. Let me explain…
The first Dead Space treated gamers to a unique experience where they controlled an ordinary engineer who on the surface might have seemed similar to other bad-ass silent protagonists like Master Chief from Halo, but underneath all the armor was just as scared and alone as everyone playing the game for the first time.
In Dead Space 2, players got to see more of Isaac Clarke out of the suit and experience firsthand his mental struggle from the horrors experienced in the first game all while struggling to survive yet again during another Necromorph outbreak.
In Dead Space 3, Isaac is back this time to save the girl and the world by stopping an evil villain’s plan of ending all of human civilization. It’s a generic format like what you might find in other sci-fi action games and movies, and because of the generic format of the story, the characters too have become dull in order to raise the stakes and fill the typical action character tropes.
The new main villain’s motives are stupid and lack any sort of logical reason. Humanity’s next step in the evolutionary chain is to morph into unintelligent freaks and try to kill off all other humans? You’d have to be beyond stupid to drink that Kool-Aid. While society has been collapsing, allowing the religious Unitologist nuts to take over, Isaac has regained his sanity for the most part so that he can become a depressing shell of a man who lives in a rundown apartment like every other down-on-their-luck action star who has already saved the world once and gets no respect or recognition.
Busting Isaac out of his slump to come save the world, similar to Dom from Gears of War in more ways than one, the only interesting character is oddly Isaac’s new sidekick, John Carver. Dead Space 3’s biggest new feature is the addition of co-op that allows two players to go through the entire campaign together online as Isaac and Carver. Shamefully, Dead Space 3 doesn’t actually feature a split-screen mode. Instead, if you want to play with a friend, it’ll have to be online, and it’ll cost you $10 if you rented the game or a one-time use code that comes included with the game.
As you could guess, playing in the Dead Space universe with a friend instantly makes it less scary. Having a friend to watch your back takes away from the fear of getting ambushed, and if you actually want to have fun and talk with your friend while playing, you can miss out on important extra dialog between the characters and subtle sounds that would otherwise have you creeped out and paranoid of another Necromorph popping out behind you.
Surprisingly, although the co-op greatly hurts the survival horror aspect that helped build the house of Dead Space, Visceral has implemented some unique co-op features that make it worthwhile to play. Dead Space 3’s co-op is unique in the sense that while the campaign tells the same story whether you play it alone or with a friend, the Carver character is only present during gameplay in co-op, and Isaac is still by himself if you want to play singleplayer alone. So if you go solo, Carver goes from being the game’s most interesting character to just another worthless stand-in who randomly shows up during cutscenes that you won’t care about.
Because Carver actually accompanies Clarke in co-op, there’s additional dialog and banter between the two during gameplay, puzzles require different tactics as one player solves and another fends off impending attackers, and there are even a couple extra side-missions only available in co-op where Carver hallucinates like Isaac in Dead Space 2, causing what the player sees as Carver to be different than what Isaac sees. The hallucinations are a great co-op mechanic that fit perfectly into the horror theme; unfortunately, Carver’s craziness is not utilized anywhere near as much as it should have been, and the game still plays out too similarly whether alone or with a friend.
The lack of tension can’t solely be blamed on the addition of co-op considering the campaign can be played alone without an AI assuming the role of Carver. Dead Space 3’s main problem is that the developers seem to already be out of new ideas for the Necomorphs, so they’ve decided to follow the same Bigger Is Always Better sequel format that many other games and movies have mistakenly done.
In some ways the side missions (which can bring the total playtime to around 20 hours if you want to get you your money’s worth), open zero gravity areas of space, and massive play areas on the frozen planet Tau Volantis help expand the Dead Space universe and really show off the improvements in graphics since the last game — which were already some of the best of any game ever of this console generation. But while Dead Space 3 looks better than previous games, the side missions that give a break between missions and larger play areas only take away from the sense of claustrophobia and helplessness that the first two more linear games exhibited so well.
There’s still plenty of poorly lit narrow corridors, but the game focuses too much on trying to be something it isn’t. A lot of the interiors throughout the campaign look and feel too similar to garner an uncomfortable sense of being somewhere you’ve never been before, and the overuse of Necromorphs popping out of vents once everything gets a little too quiet has greatly hampered the surprise when it does randomly happen and catches you off guard. Instead of trying to scare players by creating a general fear of the unknown around each corner, Dead Space 3 focuses more on trying to create bigger and bigger action set pieces and relies too heavily on the occasional random loud noise jump scares to frighten players.
That’s not to say that Dead Space 3 isn’t still a little scary and won’t make you jump a couple times, because it is, and it will. But it fails to really make you scared to play it or think twice before going around a corner or walking past a vent like the last two games. The over-the-top action at times is amazing, but again, does little to scare you in a trade-off to try and wow you. Throw in a weak boss who you have to fight multiple times, new Necromorphs that are basically still humans with weapons, shootouts with generic human soldiers using the game’s new poorly implemented cover system, and you have something that feels like a weird Resident Evil, Gears of War, and Lost Planet mash-up rather than a true Dead Space sequel — which is ironic considering that Dead Space has been used for years as an example of getting everything right that Resident Evil gets wrong.
With so many slight changes for the worse, Dead Space 3’s new weapon crafting and upgrade system is its standout new improvement for the better. In previous games, Isaac could carry four guns. Now, Isaac can only carry two. Sounds worse, right? Wrong! The new crafting system allows players to scavenge materials throughout the game to upgrade their suit and weapons. The old power node system has been completely replaced, and players can now make their own weapons.
The new weapon crafting system seems a bit complex at first, but after a few hours with the game and making a few guns, everything begins to make sense. Instead of finding new weapons as they progress through the story as Isaac and/or Carver, players find new blueprints and frames that allow them to create classic guns from the series or their own Franken-weapon. Each gun can still have a primary and secondary fire, but different weapons can be mixed and matched, such as a Plasma Cutter that no longer rotates because its bottom weapon attachment has been replaced with a flamethrower. Weapons can also have special effects applied to them, for example a double-layer Rocket Launcher with no knockdown effect or a double saw that ignites enemies on fire as it rips through them — my personal favorite.
One of the big controversies with Dead Space 3 was that microtransactions were going to be added to allow players to spend real money to purchase in-game items. Personally, I could care less if developers want to allow people to spend their hard-earned money to get items that could take hours or days to farm. As the gaming community’s demographic widens to include older gamers with full-time jobs who no longer have the time to play as much as they did when they were younger, there doesn’t seem to be much harm in allowing them to save their time and have just as much fun with certain items they might otherwise never get – especially if it helps the publishers pull in more money at the same time and improve the chances of a sequel. Paying to win in multiplayer on the other hand, well now that’s a whole ‘nother story…
But a story that Viseral seemed to not even want to get into by scrapping the multiplayer altogether. With a more agile Isaac and greater emphasis on shootouts with human foes and custom weaponry, it’s very odd that Visceral decided to take the multiplayer component out of Dead Space 3. Unlike the new co-op, multiplayer in Dead Space 2 had almost nothing to do with the story and no effect on the campaign. It was just pure fun that made for some of the most pulse-pounding moments I can remember of any multiplayer game I’ve ever played. It’s a shame that Dead Space 3 doesn’t have multiplayer because after seeing how well it was implemented in Dead Space 2, I was excited to see how it could further evolve and had high hopes that it would be like a better version of the underrated multiplayer in Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City.
Despite all the changes, Dead Space 3 is anything but a bad game. Even with its transformation from survival horror to sci-fi action, it still manages to be entertaining from beginning to end. The new weapon crafting system encourages exploration and replaying the campaign, while the sights and sounds are all up to the standards of previous games in the series. Other than the subpar cover system, the controls work better than ever. Microtransactions never get in the way of gameplay, but the lack of multiplayer and local split-screen for co-op that forces players to use an online pass or plunk down $10 just to experience the full game is very disappointing and something the developers should be ashamed of for doing.
It’s hard to understand how the quality of the story has gotten worse with the developers not being torn between working on multiplayer at the same time. Overall Dead Space 3 is the worst of the three main games in the series that seems to be having an identity crisis similar to what the Resident Evil franchise has been going through. If the series is to continue after this down-the-same-co-op-action-based path, it’d probably be best to just rename the next game Lost Planet 4. Still, Dead Space 3 is one of the best games of this generation and a sign that even when a niche game has to change things up a bit to try and please a wider audience, it can still be a whole hell of a lot of fun to play. Hopefully if Visceral gets one more shot with the series, they’ll get more time developing on a next-gen console and be able to go back to the drawing board to redetermine what they did right with the first two games that made them so original and scary, yet entertaining and fun to play. Dead Space 3 gets 4 out of 5 stars (Great).
- Still plays like Dead Space despite the lack of scares
- One of the best and most unique uses of co-op in any game
- New crafting system encourages replaying the game and crafting crazy new weapons
- Visually stunning graphics and superb sound effects with plenty of big action sequences
- Solid voice acting and character animations
- Controls have been improved to make gameplay even smoother
- Story, levels, and characters are becoming generic, repetitive, and boring
- Tries less to scare you and more to wow you
- Competitive multiplayer removed
- Co-op kills any sort of tension and paranoia aside from two side missions