Dead Space 3 review: engineering violence

Game Info
Platform PS3, Win, 360
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer Visceral Games
Release Date 2013-02-05

Dead Space 3 represents a precarious moment for developer Visceral Games.

Visceral has built Dead Space around a solitary, terrifying campaign experience. When it announced last year that Dead Space 3 would see the introduction of co-op to the series for the first time, it seemed like Visceral was losing sight of what made the series special — much like Dead Space 2's well-meaning but ultimately forgettable competitive multiplayer mode.

If Visceral could miscalculate the basic appeal of its own series so badly, what did that mean for the rest of the game? And how could it put in the work to make a great sequel to the previous games, distracted by co-op?

Surprisingly, instead of watering the series down, Visceral has instead strengthened Dead Space's single-player roots with some of the strongest combat design the series has seen. It's also the biggest, most ambitious game Visceral has ever made.

But Visceral's biggest accomplishment is attaining what I thought was impossible — Dead Space 3 avoids the traps of poorly implemented co-op, while capitalizing on all of its strengths.

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Dead Space 3 opens with series protagonist Isaac Clarke in hiding, as he tries to forget the horrors of the Marker, an alien artifact that causes insanity and, later, an awful post-mortem mutation called necromorphism. Isaac is pulled from his hole to help find the origin of the Marker's powerful signal on the forgotten iceball Tau Volantis, but he's on borrowed time — the Marker-inspired religious cult of Unitology has declared Isaac a heretic condemned to death. And at the center of Isaac's search lies Ellie, a fellow survivor — and more to Isaac — who led an expedition to Tau Volantis that's gone silent.

In keeping with the last two games, Dead Space 3 is a third-person action-horror game with a specific mechanical twist. The undead necromorphs don't have traditional anatomical weaknesses — instead, Isaac must cut off their limbs to take them down. Each enemy type is vulnerable in a different way, and Dead Space 3 introduces new wrinkles to that equation over the course of its 18- to 20-hour campaign. The dismemberment-oriented combat is paired with stasis, which slows enemies and environmental hazards, and kinesis, which allows Isaac to grab objects and fling them at enemies with deadly force.

Dead Space 3 further refines this combat trio with more responsive controls and better shooting than the last two games. Combat is more immediately satisfying than it's ever been because of this, which is good, since managing multiple on-screen enemies is more important than it's ever been. Visceral frequently gives in to the kitchen sink approach, throwing what feels like everything in its repertoire at the player.

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The game actually suffers in this regard compared to Dead Space and Dead Space 2. There isn't the same sense of spectacle and fanfare to each new enemy type's introduction, and it's hard to escape a sense of familiarity for players who survived the first two games. There's a new aesthetic sensibility, sure — most of the necromorphs Isaac faces throughout Dead Space 3 are based on creatures that have been dead for more than two centuries, rather than fresh corpses. They're less gooey. Familiar enemies have new looks. But for most of the game, there was a real sense that I'd seen all of them before.

Visceral makes up that ground with a much more interesting game world. The Ishimura and the Sprawl were great environments with bits of visual narrative. Dead Space 3 focuses less on specific setpiece moments than its predecessors and instead spends time telling stories via its environment. Each new place in Dead Space 3 — whether it's the wreckage of a ship orbiting Tau Volantis or a basement storage compound on the planet's surface — has some new, awful history waiting to be unraveled. These stories, told via text and audio logs throughout each area, tend to feature specific characters repeatedly in a successful effort in developing these long-dead people enough to want to know what happened to them.

Power nodes and credits are gone, replaced by raw materials

Isaac can explore and unlock the secrets of that game world via more elaborate versions of the engineering puzzles that have come to define the series. However, there's a more organic sensibility to the puzzle logic in Dead Space 3 — whether you're unlocking the seals on an old engine to tow and mount to a shuttle or building a new guidance computer, Isaac's engineering background is more at the forefront than ever. These puzzles are a great palate cleanser from the more frequent firefights, and they make Isaac a more believable, relatable character. That engineering motif in turn carries over into the revised upgrade and crafting system.

Power nodes are gone, and so are credits. Dead Space 3's economy now revolves around raw materials found throughout the game, which can be used to upgrade Isaac's health, armor and stasis module

The new weapon crafting system urges a sense of experimentation that Dead Space and Dead Space 2 actively avoided. While both games had a plethora of death-dealing industrial equipment, the dismemberment mechanic and a general shortage of ammunition forced most players to make the safe choices and go with the default plasma cutter and one or two other specific use-case tools. Dead Space 3 forgoes the static weapons — everything is now composed of various components in different configurations, even the weapons from previous games, and everything can be broken down and reassembled.

Sure, I almost always had a variation of a plasma cutter with me — though the name would change based on the tip I mounted on the weapon, which changed the way the weapon fired or the shape of its beam — but I had to make the choice to allow it to alternate between a horizontal or vertical line, which requires a specific part, or to mount a second weapon underneath to give myself more options in combat. This can result in some very odd combinations, especially for Dead Space veterans, and I'll admit to being more amused than I should have been when I created a line gun that rotated like a plasma cutter.

You can only carry two weapons now, but this isn't such a bad thing. It forces you to constantly experiment with the new parts you're getting to find an effective solution to enemies whose vulnerabilities change over the course of the game in minor but meaningful ways. Electricity might be your friend early on, but later, I found fire to be a powerful tool. By the end of the game, my primary arsenal consisted of a plasma cutter with an extending saw connected to the undercarriage — both of which did additional fire damage — and a force gun that blasted my enemies off their feet (or appendages, or whatever they were walking on) with a powerful fully automatic rifle, both of which did acid damage as well.

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On Difficulty

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For Dead Space veterans, Dead Space 3 is likely to prove the easiest game in the series — at least on normal difficulty. The new weapon crafting system necessitates an additional change to the equipment system in the form of universal ammunition. On normal, it's more likely than not that you'll find enough ammo and enough raw resources that scarcity is just never a problem.

For more masochistic Dead Space players, there are several difficulty modes available right away, and I would advise setting the game to hard — this makes resources and ammo more scarce, and enemies take less damage and injure Isaac and Carver more severely.

In addition, Dead Space 3 offers a number of modes when you beat the game, including classic mode, which is single-player only and eliminates crafting. Instead, weapons have to be built from raw resources collected throughout the game. Meanwhile, survival mode eliminates health and ammo pickups completely — you'll have to craft all your gear from a scant supply of resources. You can read more about Dead Space 3's difficulty modes here.

There's a greater sense of empowerment than there has been, in large part because you're making more decisions that are personal to you, rather than taking the safest route possible. No weapon upgrade is irreversible, so every piece of loot you find can be reconfigured for maximum potential. There's an almost playful attitude present with gear that makes it easy to get caught up in its systems in a meaningful way.

Visceral compensates for the powerful and versatile equipment by throwing faster, more resilient enemies at you. Dead Space 3 still hinges on dismemberment as its primary combat mechanic. But dismembering enemies seems harder than it has been before and can have unintended consequences, as some enemies will transform into more dangerous forms depending on where you shoot them.

The environment is more ready than ever to kill you

This creates a loop of sorts as you tweak your weapons to deal with escalating threats. The possibility for new gear and new parts is the carrot that Visceral uses to draw you into the various, optional side missions in Dead Space 3 — where they proceed to beat you with the stick. Dead Space 3 successfully convinced me to take missions I knew were going to be more difficult in order to keep expanding my collection of parts, and to gather resources to build more items or upgrade my suit.

Dead Space 3 balances this new power by forcing you to manage multiple threats at once. This isn't always the result of numerous enemies. Many sections present additional environmental challenges too, from blizzard conditions, to zero gravity, to extended vacuum sequences. The environment is more ready than ever to kill you, and this makes for new kinds of nail-biting sequences.

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That I've been able to talk this much about Dead Space 3 without speaking to the introduction of co-op to the series is to Visceral's credit. If you were to ignore co-op completely, you would never know it was there. Dead Space 3 doesn't fall prey to the trap of co-op design. It doesn't feel like something is missing when you're playing by yourself — there's no computer-controlled partner with you all the time to make sure the game functions properly. The only time you'd even notice that you could play the game with a partner is when you come across one of a few co-op-only side missions that can't otherwise be accessed.

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This isn't the start of a backhanded compliment. Dead Space 3's cooperative play is very well implemented. Co-op combat works much better than I would have expected — the weapon-crafting-oriented adjustment in enemy aggression pulls double duty here, as both players have to react quickly or face pulverization. Dead Space 3's co-op combat also often reaches that sort of optimal level of bad-assery that you want when you're playing with your friend, where you become a tight unit that works in tandem to neutralize threats, all of which is further assisted by weapon modification that specifically aids cooperative players.

Even puzzles function differently in co-op than they do in single-player, requiring varying levels of teamwork to accomplish. Whether that means one player will need to cover the puzzle-solving player's back with fire support or that both players will need to operate a different piece of the machinery in question, there's always an interesting, meaningful level of engagement for both players.

But more importantly, Dead Space 3's co-op missions flesh out the character of John Carver as he struggles through the same Marker-inspired psychosis that haunted Isaac in the first two games. More interestingly, only the player using Carver will actually see his waking nightmares.

Wrap Up:

Visceral has successfully added co-op while building on Dead Space's strengths

Dead Space 3 is a monster of a game. Visceral avoided major deviations from the gameplay loop established by the previous games, instead choosing to refine those mechanics. But it has made major, substantive additions to the game's structure that make Dead Space 3 feel much more ambitious. Even more surprisingly, it has successfully executed on all of them. Visceral hasn't just avoided screwing up its game with co-op — it has made it feel natural and at home, and has done it without impacting the single-player experience in any negative way. That alone would be enough to make Dead Space 3 an achievement. But the new crafting system and bigger, more open level structure join co-op to make Dead Space 3 one of the best action games in years.

Dead Space 3 was reviewed using pre-release non-final Xbox 360 code provided by EA, as well as retail copies for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, also provided by EA. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

About Polygon's Reviews
9.5 360
9.5 PS3
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