We’re over 5 years since the original Dead Space was released, and in that time we’ve seen the vision of Visceral Games and EA for the IP come to fruition. I loved Dead Space’s new approach to survival horror, the marketing campaign that had a trailer edited by James Wan (the director of Saw), the tied in films and novels, and the expectation that they would be creating sequels. Dead Space 2 came about two and a half years later bringing some changes to make the game more action focussed but still keeping the tense atmosphere of the first, and doing a lot to deepen the story and history of the game world. And in between these we’ve had Dead Space: Extraction and Dead Space: Ignition (an on rails shooter and a digital comic/puzzle game, respectively) that are used to tell other characters tales without the need for the main protagonist being present. Now Dead Space 3 has arrived almost two years after the second and has been preceded by a lot of press coverage, and not all of it complimentary, so is it worth your money?
We’re back in the suit of Isaac Clark, the unlucky engineer who survived the original Necromorph incident on the USS Ishimura; was experimented on, tortured and almost driven insane by Earth Gov; then forced to deal with a second Necromorph outbreak on the Titan Sprawl whilst avoiding the Unitologists who seem intent on killing him. This time out is little different with Isaac being coerced in to joining an expedition to rescue his ex-girlfriend Ellie which continues the theme of the “everyman” reluctant hero. The destination is Tau Volantis, the supposed homeworld of the mysterious markers that Clark dealt with in the first two games, and rumoured to hold the secret of destroying them for good. Trying to stop Isaac throughout is the severely misguided Unitologist Jacob Danik (voiced by Simon Templeman, Kain from the Blood Omen series) and adds a set of human enemies in greater numbers than the previous games (and I still can’t shake the feeling Unitology is a thinly veiled dig at Scientology).
The game seems to be running on the same engine as the last two instalments, which does an excellent job. Everything is crisp and clear at all times, the cutscenes are the same quality as the in-game footage, there is no screen tear or slow down, and the environmental details are fantastic with a lot of credit going to the designers who’ve given the locations a visual style that can convey history simply by looking round a room. There are a variety of environments encountered from cities to space, which we’ve seen before, but the biggest addition is the world of Tau Volantis. It is a snow and ice planet and realised very nicely with weather alternating between blizzard conditions with zero visibility and clear, unobstructed impressive vistas of environment, and in contrast to most areas it is usually bright daylight for the outdoor sections. Also like the last two games, the sound is a key piece of the game design and it gets the full Dolby Digital 5.1 treatment so that you can use it to pinpoint when you’re being attacked from multiple directions whilst it builds the right atmosphere for each situation.
So far so good, but what’s new? This is where we get in to the controversial elements that upset the gaming community before the demos were even out. First up is the addition of drop-in/drop-out co-op. Parallel to Isaac’s story is Sergeant John Carver’s who acts as the 2nd player character whenever you have a co-op game. What upset people was the thought of a Sheeva-esque situation from Resident Evil 5 where you were stuck with bad AI unless someone joined and that it would reduce the tension for the whole singleplayer campaign. This isn’t the case, Visceral have delivered on their promise that you can play the game fully on your own without feeling like there are bits missing. If you opt for the co-op game then Carver is present in cutscenes where it was only Isaac before and has pieces of additional dialogue so that you know there’s a companion there, but it doesn’t feel shoe-horned in or forced, it’s a very natural experience either way. I need to throw out a thanks to @FOX8810 for being a willing partner, and the only one on my PSN list who’s also got the game.
There’s the addition of weapon crafting to add to the engineers skill set this time around. You’ve got the usual pickups of health, ammo and stasis packs, but there are also drops for resources that can be used to build items and weapons. Blueprints are available for quite a variety of weapons, most with primary and secondary fire modes, though you can skip this and build them yourself from the components collected, or build these components from raw resources. We’re not on the same scale as Borderlands here for the sheer number of different weapons but it does give you scope to come up with something fairly unique. Once you’ve created you can save it as a blueprint for future construction, and share with your co-op partner. A quick note, the “team favourite” weapons listed under blueprints are powerful and after building Pitch Black 392 I didn’t use anything else, though I was three quarters through the game before I could afford to make it.
Back to the controversy, you can buy additional resources in game with real money from the PS/Xbox/PC networks. Most of the bad press was the result of this announcement and people began slamming EA for forcing micro-transactions and limiting functions unless you pay up, and it’s a definite case of overreaction. If you want to buy more resources and weapon parts it’s entirely up to you, the menu option is unobtrusive, there are no prompts to do it from in the game, and the game even gives you “ration seals” that can be spent on the additional resources instead of real world cash. Ration seals are farmed through sending out scavenger bots that disappear for about ten minutes and return to the work benches with whatever they’ve found. Laying out your own money on the extras is a personal decision for people who don’t want to spend the time collecting, and the learning for all the EA bashers is to actually play a game before flaming the design decisions and features.
The final new feature is the inclusion of optional missions. These pop up occasionally when you pick up certain items or progress through various areas, and are not necessary to complete the game. However, they are definitely worth doing because of the equipment and resources they yield, and the backstory they reveal. There are 6 optional singleplayer and 3 co-op specific missions, and all can be reached through the chapter select screen if you’ve completed the game and want to go back. These are on top of the 19 story chapters that will probably take you 15 hours to get through (I spent 18 hours in total, making sure I did all the optional ones), and then there’s new game +. When you finish the game you’ll get the option to:
- replay with your existing haul and equipment, then pick up anything you missed the first time round;
- play in Classic mode which only lets you use the original Dead Space weapons (obtained by blueprint only) and sets the game to hard;
- play in Pure Survival mode that means all items have to be crafted from resources and on hard difficulty, nothing is dropped by enemies;
- or play in Hardcore mode where the game must be completed on hard without dying, death will reset the game to start at the beginning (though you can save to the menu so you don’t have to do it in one sitting).
What I thought could have been improved is the story itself. I’ve read the books and seen the films and still got a little confused with what the markers are supposed to be, and who created them. This may be a result of several years of gaps between the different pieces of media, but it made me think that if you’ve not experienced the Dead Space universe before you could quite easily get lost. Don’t let this last comment put you off though. If you’re looking for a tight and slick gameplay experience that plays to its strengths then you can’t do much better.
Is it worth the full asking price? Maybe not for me because I’m not going to take advantage of all the new game + modes, and the people on my friends list haven’t bought it so it rules out the co-op gameplay (you can play with random partners but I prefer it to be someone I know so that I can abuse them if they do something stupid). I really liked Dead Space 3, and whilst there have now been enough games to finish the series with this one, I wouldn’t be sad to see another pop up on the next gen systems.