Things were always bound to get messy. After the contained terror of one man alone on a creepy mining cruiser stranded in space, events soon accelerated to encompass other, larger environments and more expansive set-pieces. Corpses were dismembered, needles jabbed in eyes and every loud noise threatened to ruin your underwear but amongst the oppressive atmosphere there was a greater focus placed on explosions, destruction and waves of enemies. Isaac Clarke’s third outing sees this exponential increase in action reach its peak, pitting our ‘regular Joe’ against the Necromorph scourge, ‘taking down the terror’ as the tagline would have you believe. Excising the second title’s multiplayer for a campaign designed with co-op play in mind, Dead Space 3 sends Isaac and new B.F.F. Carver to the icy planet of Tau Volantis in search of the source of the Necromorphs.
Dead Space 3 manages to start pretty well, despite all the death and, you know, decaying corpse-monsters. A brief prologue lays down an intriguing albeit rushed premise and Isaac, recovering from his grim past on a lunar colony, is soon under fire from the Unitologists - that necromorphiliac pseudo-religious group fixated on the ‘Markers’ that caused the whole problem in the first place. Production values are strong, with the lunar colony bathed in light and recalling Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles circa 2019. The action beats of the first levels work well, setting events in motion at breakneck speed. It’s almost easy to ignore the fact that enemies in these first few chapters are actually human, something Dead Space fans won’t have encountered before. So far, so generic third-person shooter, albeit with a glowing health bar strapped to Isaac’s back to remind you that this isn’t actually Gears of War.
The remainder of the game’s beginning is set amongst the eerie remnants of a military fleet, floating in a haphazard debris field that Isaac must navigate. Jetting between these metal death-traps recalls the purest essence of Dead Space – isolation mixed with a grimy, industrial science-fiction. It is also at this juncture that optional missions are introduced, tasking Isaac with investigating an area for info, supplies or survivors. Despite being part of a team, Isaac finds himself doing an awful lot of recon alone, increasing the tension but also revealing some of the clumsy gameplay design. The cycle of ‘fight through creepy hallways, fix big industrial machine, fight more enemies’ is a Dead Space staple but should really have been changed by this third episode – Isaac must be the most overworked, underpaid engineer in the universe. The optional missions can be even less imaginative, recycling the same corridor segments to add length while throwing in waves of enemies at every turn. While they reveal some story tidbits it’s often a lengthy process, made all the worse by the fact that saving mid-mission is often unavailable.
Tau Volantis hosts the bulk of Dead Space 3’s remaining levels, consigning Isaac to snowy forays interrupted by the ever-present Necromorphs in addition to human enemy forces. By this point, familiarity breeds apathy and the move to a blizzard-covered stretch of endless white snow does little to inspire awe. In fact, Dead Space 3’s environments play out like a greatest hits of the franchise – here’s some rusted machinery, here’s a giant enemy with glowing weak points, here’s a spinning turbine to slow down with stasis powers. The enemies themselves will be familiar to those who’ve followed Isaac from the beginning – nearly every enemy encountered so far cameos at some point. The brevity of appearance by some enemies is relief and disappointment combined; certain types will strike dread into your heart but only for their level’s worth of screen time.
Despite little change in the behaviour, demeanour and general horror of the Necromorphs, any residual fear remaining is soon diffused thanks to an overpowered arsenal ready to hand. A new weapon crafting feature – available at the many workbenches scattered throughout a level – allows Isaac to upgrade already powerful weapons to something befitting Rambo’s shooting range. Fancy a shotgun with ANOTHER shotgun strapped to it? Sure thing! Or how about a flamethrower with a bazooka on it? Yup! The weapon included with the Limited Edition – a shotgun/assault rifle combo dubbed the Evangelizer – can dispatch enemies with one well-placed blast and that’s before the clip size, reload time and damage has been increased. In fact, no other weapon was needed during a playthrough on Hard difficulty – the shotgun attachment saw limbs flying left and right.
Thanks to the boosted bravado from carrying such artillery, Dead Space 3 becomes less of a tense, measured tiptoe, twitching at every sound and instead turns into a turkey shoot. No enemy felt overwhelming and Isaac can now dodge out of the way should he become cornered. So, the game is definitely not as scary as any previous entry. This was to be expected with EA pushing for a wider market appeal but it doesn’t just lie with the advertising, it continues into the very fabric of the game. In each previous game, Isaac is a lone human hounded by terrible, nightmarish enemies and little more than his toolkit to fend off attacks. Dead Space 3 changes this – Isaac is now on the offensive, taking it to the Necromorphs directly with assault rifles and shotguns aside from (or duct taped to) his trusty laser cutter. The hunted has become the hunter, constantly seeking out danger in a bid to end the scourge. This sudden characterisation of Isaac is printed all over the marketing for the game and, unfortunately, gets rid of any last vestiges of this being a survival horror game. It’s all action now, baby. The action, however, is frequently thrilling and well-staged although it feels like the developers are throwing everything they can into the mix in order to please everyone. The “Uncharted-ing” of major franchise games is a common occurrence but Dead Space pulls off the big set-pieces with verve.
But then there’s the problem of the final act… not delving into spoiler territory but it’s safe to say that Dead Space encounters the same problem that afflicted Perfect Dark and Half Life, amongst other high-profile games. The last third introduces an abstract, unfamiliar landscape and, when most true horror has a grain of reality to make it all the more disturbing, removing anything recognisable dulls any true scares. A grossly deformed corpse is horrifying against a backdrop of a place of safety, like a medical ward (Dead Space 1) or nursery (Dead Space 2) – the effect is diminished when the backdrop has no point of reference.
Of course, it would be remiss not to mention the much-maligned microtransactions which have been crowbarred into the campaign. Isaac now carries around handheld ‘scavenger robots’ who, once unleashed (or gently placed on the ground), scurry away in search of extremely useful resources. To upgrade your suit or weapons you’ll need a good supply of moon dust or whatever and it’s these robots who can alleviate some of that chore. Or, for a small fee, you can speed them up so that they find more! Or you can double their capacity! Again, though, cough up some moolah if you want this marginal and almost unnecessary perk! Microtransactions have never felt welcome in a single player campaign and with Dead Space 3 it’s no different. Luckily, this nickel-and-dime tactic can be easily ignored and the sheer abundance of upgrades and powerful weapon negates any real need to fork out. Unless, of course, you have lots of money and little time in which case you need only remember that this isn't a huge RPG; it’s a seven-hour campaign. You will be able to complete it without buying your way to success.
The biggest bullet-point on the back of the box is reserved for the online-only co-op mode, featuring Isaac’s newest best buddy Sgt. Carver. The whole campaign is designed for two players to the extent that a single-player playthrough feels strangely awkward. While it’s a blast to play with a friend, playing alone sees a world filled with pairs of items, excess medi-kits and the sudden appearance of Carver at the end of any major event. It’s irksome when, having struggled to defeat a fleshy monstrosity, Isaac will fall to the floor in exhaustion only for Carver to suddenly appear, commenting on a fight in which he didn’t participate. Talk about taking credit for doing nothing! Still, playing through with a friend creates a different mood and atmosphere more akin to an action movie, with Isaac and Carver exchanging barbs and banter amidst the chaos, in a narrative which feels more rounded. The fact that Carver and Isaac experience different hallucinatory visions during co-op adds another level of disorientation, as well as a decent argument against local co-op implementation that would spoil the illusion.
Dead Space 3 therefore feels like a logical albeit slightly unwanted progression of the franchise formula. Finishing a trilogy was always going to need bigger explosions and greater stakes – unfortunately this has come at the sacrifice of true horror. It’s a game that can also look stunning and then confine you to murky blizzards and recycled halls, as if to accentuate the feeling that this is all a re-tread of past tropes. It’s the definition of a third blockbuster sequel – solid but stuck in a rut and with the nagging feeling we’ve seen this all before.