Things That Make You Go “Hmm…”
Platform Reviewed: X-Box 360 / Price: £39.99 / Time Played: 20+ Hours
I loved Dead Space, and didn’t like Dead Space 2.
I’ve already said my piece about the way that horror has shifted in recent years, and much like Silent Hill: Downpour and Resident Evil 6, I come to the end of Dead Space 3 with an air of confusion. Something is niggling at me, and it’s hard to put my finger on it.
Look, many have criticised EA’s DLC arrangements and Micro-transactions. Some savagely so, I can’t possibly repeat some of them because they are scathing and harsh, but thing is, I didn’t bother. Not only were there plenty of resources, medipacks and upgrades about the place but plenty more very good places to farm, or clone, items for future use. EA can claim this was intentional all they want but then why add micro-transactions in the first place? John Riccitiello must have a thing for Pinocchio, if you catch my drift, because the amount of bare-faced lies and cheek coming from EA these days wouldn’t be that amiss from a brothel. There is something rather seedy and dirty about EA and what it does these days and it is getting increasingly more difficult to approach it without feeling the need to wear latex gloves and a face mask in order to not catch anything.
But I digress, I’m not going to judge EA’s business arrangements (although I might have just done that. Whoops!), I want to talk about Dead Space 3 as a game.
It’s business as usual for poor Isaac Clarke; as the only man to survive interaction with the mysterious Markers, he’s now a wanted man. His now-ex girlfriend of a couple weeks is getting the Jig on with the guy who comes to demand you go and save her backside (what?!), whilst the now not-so-laid-back Unitologists are gunning to kill Isaac as he is a threat to their plans to spread the Necromorph love across the universe. For you see, the Markers are not transmitters; they are receivers, they are receiving the signal that it emits to turn everyone into horrible multi-limbed monstrosities. Very early on there’s betrayal, there’s love triangles and there’s jealousy and all of it rather expected. You’ll do lots of interesting stuff; but the majority of it comes from Chapter 8 onwards, when you hit the planet in full force.
The first few hours treads the familiar far too often for it to be interesting however; the trundling through spaceships feels predictable and delivers some breathtaking scenery from the outside, with a noticeable sense of scale but the charm wears thin after a while, as the necromorphs turn up to deliver their own rough justice. The necromorphs are much more grotesque in their design this time around, but considering you won’t be taking the time to appreciate them, the design feels terribly over-engineered, and there is no difference in each separate entity which lends to a cut-and-paste feeling. The game revels too much in its traditional framework; malfunctioning doors lock you in a room as a bunch of necromorphs end up crawling out of the vents wanting a piece of you, with frontal assaults married with cheap-shot back attacks and timed events requiring you to use your stasis on regenerating enemies that you can’t kill, which inevitably ends up with you running around the room in circles as the stasis begins to run dry. Optional missions turn up but are very linear, A-to-B style affairs which overuse the aforementioned tactics in the notion of providing a challenge, to reward you with a variety of resources to use for modifying your equipment, which can also be found by deploying scavenger bots to hunt around for any spare materials.
Resources lead you into the crafting system, and this is one place where Dead Space 3 shines. It still feels tremendously restrictive but it does allow for a customisation of your arsenal of weapons that few games feel happy to provide. Of course, it’s a real pity that you can focus on heavily modifying one weapon (usually the Plasma Cutter) and that it carries you pretty much through the whole game on its own accord, but that you can settle into one weapon of choice without worrying too heavily about tactical advantage is certainly going to lend a more dependable air to the proceedings. As combat itself is a little clunky (and alt-functions are disabled as you attach clips to other parts of the weapons) it makes sense to allow someone to get familiar and comfortable with a weapon of their own choice; it’s just a bit of a shame that the combat hasn’t really evolved far from the first game. There’s no sense of urgency or consistency to it, and for all the emphasis on hitting limbs, with a few modifications even this slightly tactical edge is blunted in the face of such overwhelming force. The combat and the pace of action never quite gel together to make a consistent whole, where eventually you just go for more spread, point in the direction of a moving enemy and fire.
It must also be said that I was bemused beyond belief that as I progressed, necromorphs were accompanied by, of all things, zombie-like creatures. And it’s not interesting zombie fare, but your a-typical expected zombie fare; from heavies dual-wielding axes to goo-spewing bloaters and nimble, fast-paced skinless wonders, I smiled sometimes as we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. You start learning these things can – or did – talk, which is a novel idea, not often used since Return of the Living Dead Part II, but again it dulls the impact somewhat for me. I’m very much overdosed on zombies of late – Resident Evil 6 and Zombi-U and a host of other games last year, and little of the Dead Space 3 versions feel much of a step above them.
The planet is where the game moves on, inevitably leading you into a cheapened sense of padding of the first few space-hours, and it’s on the planet that things take a decidedly The Thing turn. It’s not that Dead Space was ever not aping John Carpenter’s seminal classic, but having been playing The Thing for next weeks retro review, it’s almost amusing to see how similar the two games are in their approach, from dropping body temperature and the desperation to hidden enemies in the snow and powering up generators. It is so predictable and because the game tends to repeat its typical enemy approach, you learn very quickly what it intends to do. If there’s a small branching path, or a shiny object somewhere, you can guarantee it’s a lore artifact. You enter a space and there’s a small jumble of snow, reminding you that you’re about to be swarmed. Puzzles aren’t very complicated or puzzling. Everything is very predictable, everything is very… safe.
It wouldn’t be nice to not talk about the lack of true scares in Dead Space 3, but the reason is NOT because the game wants a more action-orientated approach for me; it’s that it is so addicted to the same old means and methods, it’s so keen to show you its cards, that there is no sense of suspense, there is no feeling of surprise. Horror is about balancing showing the monsters with not showing them; Dead Space 3 revels in throwing them at you with a reckless abandon that borders on the depraved, so desperate is it for you to feel something, and you never really do. There’s an optional section where you’re in the spaceship and someone is throwing obstacles in your way. Considering the NPCs involved have reminded you these wrecks are meant to be over two hundred years old, the inevitable conclusion that this was all automated and the bloke is very much dead just makes a dull clang, rather than a subtle bell ring. The game very easily forgets its own rules and story at times, which leads to plenty of strange conversations and events.
That said, the co-op is nice albeit deeply flawed. Doing things with a companion is very enjoyable but waiting around can be a pain, and the inelegant checkpointing system coupled with some very odd lag and disconnect issues can render progress with a partner entirely moot; this can often feel discouraging for people who want to play together, which is a shame because the game does in places feel very much designed for two players, but ends up rather worryingly doable by just the one person. The lack of real distinguishing detail in this manner is very frustrating and I completely understand why it is becoming harder to find people; simply because it can be more of a pain in the ass than a viable, interesting optional extra.
The problem isn’t however that Dead Space 3 is bad – it’s so very, very far from that. For the most part, it is completely entertaining and enjoyable, the plot – as daft as it gets at times – is more engaging than I perhaps have given it credit for, and despite the micro-transactions and DLC it does feel like a very packed, richly-featured game. The problem for me is that Dead Space 2 was so slick it felt superficial, whilst Dead Space 3 seems to have understood that and done its best to add more in the vein of. “More is more.” By doing so much, it never polishes off any of the rough edges. It’s so focused on this that it never evolves from what it has always done, which is both nice to see and invariably frustrating in equal measure, because the predictability it provides completely negates any actual horror to be found within. The crafting is nice, but ultimately feels like an afterthought than a meaningful addition to proceedings. And when things get tougher for it, it stops being Dead Space and retreats far too far into being The Thing, where its sense of identity (what it has) is ultimately lost in the comparison.
Is it better than Resident Evil 6? I would say yes on that, but not by much. Dead Space 3 isn’t nearly as reckless or as schizophrenic as Capcom’s ‘magnum opus’, but it does suffer from just being too safe for its own good. Resident Evil 6 took risks and no, not all of those risks paid off. Dead Space 3 takes no real risks, no real pleasure in change and therefore feels somewhat behind the times. If this had come out two years ago, I’m sure we’d be much less picky. But we’ve had Zombi-U, we’ve had Resident Evil: Revelations and I’ve had a £2 copy of The Thing on the go. Dead Space 3 therefore ends up feeling like more of a relic than a game at the end of a generational cycle; its inability to move on in anything but visuals lends it a Doom 3-style air.
Still, at £39.99 rrp, I’ve played far worse and far shorter titles. Get past the whole EA thing and ignore the micro-transactions and just play it as a game on its own merit and there’s plenty of content and plenty of entertainment to be had. But it’s not a classic, it’s just a game stuck in a rut; a series which has run aground because it has no-where left to go but the one thing it has always been aping, and unfortunately for it, that ‘Thing’ already exists and still holds up favourably in comparison today.
The future for Dead Space looks bleak, but this is still enjoyable enough. It just in the future needs to try and find a way to be itself, and forge its own destiny rather than be trapped in the gravitational orbit of one of the Horror genre’s finest.
Maybe then the game can evolve, rather than feel like it is being assimilated…
- Very healthy campaign time.
- Interesting crafting system.
- Silly but still engaging story.
- Some truly breathtaking visuals and scenery.
- Co-op play really needs some patching.
- Predictable scares aren’t scares.
- The first few hours feel like after-thought filler material.
- Zombies? Seriously?!
- Micro-transactions aren’t necessary at all. Don’t bother.
- Some of the DLC is completely asinine.
- Puzzles aren’t puzzling at all.
- This game cost HOW MUCH to make EA?!
OVERALL CONCLUSION – Recommended (just)
Dead Space 3 is an enjoyable but deeply flawed piece of work. If you can live with the predictable scares, the plot-twists that can be seen a mile off and constantly being encouraged to buy stuff for real money when it’s completely unnecessary, there’s a solid, lengthy core game in here that will delight and entertain. But it has finally ended up being too much of anything and not enough of itself; it’s confused. A game that does feel more of a rental job than a real quality stand-alone piece, but it does enough right to just about stand on its own, in spite of the hand of EA looming over its most pernicious excesses…