For its third entry, EA's popular Dead Space saga has broadened its canvas. Where the previous two games took place on a drifting spaceship and a stricken colony, Dead Space 3 mixes up its traditional claustrophobic horror with big action movie sequences, a larger cast and a story that hops from a city on the moon to the ruins of a space fleet to the surface of a frozen planet. Those moments of skin-crawling terror are still there - there's just so much more to do this time.
In Space, Snowman Can Hear You Scream
The game opens with a playable flashback to two hundred years ago, as Earth soldiers on the ice planet Tau Volantis go to great lengths to recover a mysterious codex. Inside is a secret that might - just might - hold the key to halting the Necromorph menace.
Necromorphs, for anyone joining us without prior Dead Space experience, are corpses that have been reanimated and mutated by an alien force contained in gnarled and etched "Markers". These creepy monoliths have been the cause of much pain and loss for our hero, spaceship engineer Isaac Clarke, to the extent that when we finally rejoin him he's hiding out in a Blade Runner-style lunar city, ditched by his girlfriend and at a very low ebb.
He's forced back into action when military men burst into his apartment. His girlfriend has continued to battle the Markers without him, and now she's gone missing - near the ice planet Tau Volantis, no less. Extremist terrorists who worship the Markers, led by the snootily charismatic Danik, want Isaac's blood so he reluctantly sets off once more into the heart of darkness, hoping this time to put an end to the Necromorphs forever.
Meating Of The Minds
That's easily the most complex and involved storyline of the Dead Space series, and the gameplay has evolved to match. The basics are still the same - Isaac clomps around in third-person view, wielding weapons and tools to get to where he needs to be - but the pace is much more varied. You'll engage in blazing gunfights with the fevered cultists who want to unleash, rather than crush, the Markers. You'll steer a shuttle through the atmosphere and navigate tortuous chasms. You'll abseil down cliffs and take long spacewalks, ferreting out the parts needed to fix many, many machines.
But whenever it feels like the game is drifting too far from its roots, there's always some ominous location that must be explored. Dank metal corridors, gloomy derelict buildings, sinister caverns - all crank the creep factor back up again, as you stalk cautiously forwards, gun raised and torch at the ready, waiting for the flicker of movement or skittering sound that means a rotting puppet of meat and bone is about to lunge after you.
There's food for thought alongside the viscera as well, with plenty of puzzles that range from the clumsy and obvious to the fiendish and ingenious. You may grow tired of the numerous bypass routines needed to open locked doors, but the highlights - such as a fairly epic quest to find and reassemble the missing segments of a fossil - are well worth the wait.
Stay Together, Slay Together
Dead Space 3 deviates from the past in other ways as well. Most obviously in the addition of co-op play, which sees a second player join in as Carver, a bullish grunt whose prickly relationship with Clarke is a nice antidote to the sort of fist-bumping camaraderie usually found in co-operative shooters. The story also adapts to the presence of two players in a clever and seamless way, altering cut-scenes and even offering different experiences of the same level for each player. Having a buddy mowing down monsters alongside you does diminish the horror almost completely, but provided you're not too precious about a series playing outside its genre, a full co-op playthrough is well worth the effort.
Also new is crafting, an RPG concept that brings both good and bad ideas to the Dead Space table. Or rather, the workbench. It's here that you'll use the various resources found during the game - smashed out of crates or stomped from dead foes - to create and enhance a variety of weapons and items. The freedom to build your own weapon is, frankly, brilliant. You have two weapon slots, but each weapon can offer two fire modes. If you want an assault rifle that also shoots grenades, or a pistol that doubles as a flamethrower, you can make it happen. Once you find the perfect combination for your playing style, it can be hard to go back to the restrictive loadouts of previous games.
But crafting also means grinding, and here Dead Space 3 stumbles most obviously. For one thing, the need to constantly grab junk from every room means that too much time is spent breaking open boxes and hacking up defeated foes in search of scrap metal or "transducers". It also brings in the spectre of micro-payments, as any shortfall in the stuff you need can be topped up using a real money purchase. Greedy contrivance? Lazy cheat? Or just a handy convenience for those who can't be bothered playing Space Womble? You certainly don't need to spend any more money - if anything the game is overly generous with the stuff you find - but whether paying or foraging, it's the only element that never quite clicks with Dead Space's tone.
Ice To See You
There's a sense that sometimes Dead Space 3 is trying to cram a little too much in, with its optional missions and co-op missions and crafting and puzzles and shoot-outs and boss fights and... you get the picture. For a series best known for its tight, claustrophobic focus, Dead Space 3 does sprawl a little and risks losing its best features in the process. It always manages to reel itself in, however, and for all its weird pacing there's rarely a dull moment. Whether you play it as a beefy co-op action game or a disturbing single player horror adventure, it's a rare AAA game that falls over itself to give you more than you asked for.
- A truly epic 15 hour story
- Freedom to create your own perfect arsenal
- Co-op play is very cleverly handled
- Not as scary as previous Dead Space games
- Hunting around for crafting resources is annoying
- Some repetitive mission design