Since its introduction with the first game, we’ve seen the Dead Space universe unfold and expand with a mixture of transmedia releases and a clear eye for detail and narrative foundation. This third in the main line of games -- and continuation of the centre story -- is certainly very much narrative driven -- a standout element of the overall product and one that delivers ten-fold. Not to say that previous releases haven’t been as narrative heavy, as they do a stand up job at delivering an engrossing, overall experience, but it’s with this expansion of story, and a focus on touching all areas of this, that other aspects of a game with such a franchise pedigree can be eclipsed.
There has always been an element of the unknown in this series. It’s a crucial element and gives the overall feel of uncertainty, anxiousness and sometimes frustration. The first game was able to do it through well-balanced elements and the sheer fact that it was a fresh concept. The second game followed it up with all-new, unpredictable scenarios and a much faster pace. So where do you go from there though?
Dead Space 3 combines the previously well-tested environments with an all-new large planetside portion. This first aspect works well on a few levels. Fans of those “old” environments get to revisit the experiences they loved from the previous releases, while being eased into the new terrain, environments and subsequent situations. Newcomers to the series get a glimpse of the past and something of a tutorial. What stands out here is that the epic tale on offer, regardles of your feelings for any of the above, calls for it.
The lunar colony, flotilla of ships -- and space in between -- visited introduce a few new elements. Kinesis plays a bigger role in opening doors along with the expected puzzle-solving portions but at times lacks Isaac’s full participation (requiring a pretty simple holding of the Kinesis button). In co-op this is expanded to involve both players. Many more ladders are included throughout the whole game, putting players in that locked third-person view of Isaac; not knowing what to expect at the end of ascents or descent, similar in feel to the vents of Dead Space 2. Crouch, action roll in all directions and sticky cover are all integrated well into the other controls which remain the same. These new additions to Isaac’s movements, while a welcome incorporation, don’t really add too much to gameplay and are only barely useful in a handful of scenarios involving new human enemies.
With that said, the newly expanded storyline comes replete with a new enemy type in the Unitologist soldiers, as well as the (visually) new Necromorphs. The Unitologists act as you’d expect humans to act, weaving in and out of cover peppering you with assault rifle fire and a few grenades, dropping ammo clips when taken down, allowing space for the new combat moves Isaac packs in his arsenal, albeit small.
Necromorphs are a mixture of those seen previously; tied into the narrative to add diversity both visually and with a few minor variations. Essentially for the most part they behave the same way, with some having slight morphing additions. The frozen Tau Volantis environment brings with it a new satisfaction in landing accurate hits though, as Necromorphs shatter into a thousand satisfying frozen pieces.
The slew of Unitology soldiers taken out and then turned to Necromorphs also give a small upgrade to the Necro team, especially given they’re left holding the weapons they were wiedling before alien reanimation. As expected with any creature that comes across new technology, however, they don’t necessarily have the abilities to aim properly, though their sporadic gunfire does add slightly to the damage taken. It's when Necromorphs start using suits, stasis and kinesis that I will start to actually worry though.
Trudging through corridors, hallways, rooms and snow-covered Tau Volantis terrain delivers a few attempts at suspense and scare-your-pants off moments, but even with new environments it still feels slightly familiar and controlled. After the first few events it becomes a bit of a routine, bearing in mind this was played on “Hard” and may vary played on the top difficulty.
The first thing I wanted to do on completing the first Dead Space game was to play through it again with the confidence of knowing what to expect as well as with upgraded weapons and suits -- essentially familiarity and control. I had to go through all the turmoil of Isaac’s experience to get to that point though, which was certainly key to the game and its first follow-up. At points in both of those games though, I actually didn’t want to venture through some doors or into rooms I was forced to, as I knew there would be situations that would actually scare me.
Once a bit of familiarity is gained, the unknown feeling is obviously lost. Venturing further into the depths of Dead Space 3 had some of that familiar feeling and from a suspense and scare perspective, more like what I expect playing the first two games a second time round would be like. While it is still done extremely well, that visceral
horror is somewhat lost, or at least softened. This could come down to desensitisation on my part though.
Isaac’s desperation is attemptedly built with a ‘monsters-in-numbers’ technique that is revisited regularly. At first this offers some challenge, but once enough weapon upgrades have been unlocked and implemented, this became somewhat of a regular routine to mow down a group of Necros, at least until they level up much later in the game, but by that point Suits, Rigs and weapons have also been upgraded as well. Even Necros that return from previous games such as the chargers in the container rooms of Dead Space 2 don’t require nearly as much tactical recourse and can usually just be waited out, where previously the intricate rooms had trigger sections that would see them charge from an unpredictable point. In fact, a lot of triggered assaults could often be waited out for Necros to basically line up, leaving a healthy unloading of a few clips of ammo a sure fire way to take them out. Or it would be a simple matter of running back to a point, or even walking backwards, to line them all up with shots and stasis. I was definitely able to use a wait-and-shoot technique much more in this game, but that doesn’t mean I was effectively crowd-controlling -- it was more AI manipulation, than anything.
On the flipside to the horde-like AI though, the score and sound effects are again perfect. This is how a lot of suspense in these parts is built, with simple soft murmurs and whispers that have you wondering what it was you just heard, to the loud closing of doors or objects crashing off in the distance at those precious moments where you’re creeping around quietly, to the build up and suspense horror tracks that either warn you to start worrying about what is about to happen or fade away but still had you on edge.
The biggest overall change to the game is the weapons and looting systems. Benches are where most of it happens now, which eliminates the Store seen in previous games and combines the useful elements from these, as well as all the new system requirements, into an overall crafting, upgrading and storage facility. This also now makes the Suit Change and Rig Upgrade the separate station.
Weapons can be crafted at benches from parts looted along the way or crafted at the bench according to a player’s preference as well as from blueprints picked up or shared from co-op partners. Weapon options include those from previous games as well as some new additions and almost any combination. Any weapon can be modified, upgraded and even dismantled for reuse of parts in other creations, just remember to save the blueprint if you want to rebuild it later.
Each weapon has a set number of upgrade circuits slots, usually either two or four, depending on the frame used. Therefore, each circuit used has a unique upgrade, eliminating the Power Nodes from the game. These upgrades start off with Single Reload, Damage, Clip Size and Fire Rate circuits but as the game progresses combinations of these specification are acquired. Plus one of an upgrade, plus two of an upgrade with minus one of another and plus two of an upgrade are a taste of a few combinations. This allows for damage upgrading quite early on, which may be nice but definitely shakes the balance of level pacing, to the detriment of the established flow from the previous two games.
With such an emphasis put on crafting, looting plays a much larger role too. Weapon parts, universal Ammo clips, Health Packs and Stasis Packs are still in the lockers, crates and corpses but now currency is replaced with resources which are used to craft all the previously mentioned items as well as to unlock weapon upgrade circuit slots and Rig upgrades. Separated from the Suite, Rig upgrades carry over with any suite change and are divided into the overall rig, Stasis and Kinesis Module.
Scrap metal, Somatic gel, Transducer, Semiconductor and Tungsten make up what can also be picked up along the way, but can also be acquired by Scavenger Bots found and utilised by Isaac to speed up this process and open up more possibilities. The Bench brings back a Safe for storage of everything mentioned.
Weapon crafting is engaging and offers an immense amount of diversity. Once enough parts and attachments are unlocked so many options open up for variety of engine combinations, tips and attachments. Better experimented on individually, I will say that attachments really change the the possibilities, with some attachments aiding health and stasis use, some offering scopes -- which don’t really seem appropriate but may be relevant in Unitologist battle -- and others offering elemental upgrades such as fire, electricity and acid; very satisfying to use on any enemy.
Recordings, audio logs and text logs are scattered throughout the universe along with artifacts from EarthGov, S.C.A.F., Unitologists as well as Aliens, all helping Isaac piece together events leading up to his circumstances.
Completion of the overall game involves at least some co-op, with Carver, who has his own background and his own demons. In single-player there are optional missions, which usually result in copious amounts of loot, but the co-op only sections are clearly marked and off limits solo.
Playing in co-op will most likely soften the overall horror a little more, if you’re anything like me at least. It has really become a dividing issue. Firstly, to maintain any of the horror that is present it would be great to be able to play the entire game in co-op to experience it wholly, but that will obviously take away from the isolated single-player experience. Adding to this is the overall rich narrative across the board, piquing interest in Carver’s story, only accessible in co-op.
Gameplay does change somewhat in co-op, Necromorphs are ramped up and increase in numbers, Kinesis use (doors) and puzzles require the cooperation you’d expect but cover is also required from one player while the other completes tasks within the game. As well as the aforementioned story of Carver coming into the way the story unfolds. Playing through the game, my initial inclination to avoid co-op has now been replaced with an intrigue of more sides of the story as well as how each and every chapter plays out both ways.
A change that wasn’t helpful and worth a mention is the exclusion of Save Stations. Having played through an optional mission all but through the final room, even after saving the game, upon returning none of the mission progress was saved and had to be completely redone. The options for loading and saving are now either last save, which are autosave points and didn’t work in my optional mission, or replaying the whole chapter.
An incredibly deep and expanding story and much of the Dead Space feel returning, albeit turned down a little, as well as all the new systems and elements will definitely divide fans, but may be more accessible to newcomers, which is always welcomed with such a rich franchise. Even with the familiarity this delivers a monstrous amount of satisfaction.