Dead Space 3 review

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Review by Nathan Ditum

On a city street at the start of Dead Space 3, there’s a poster for a film called Tools Of Terror. It features a man in a tuxedo pulling a James Bond pose, but instead of a pistol he’s holding a wrench. He is, it’s fairly obvious, both an action hero and a blue-collar guy, and despite the fact this film is a spoof – or perhaps because of it – he’s also an accurate symbolic representation of Dead Space hero Isaac Clarke as he appears in this latest game.

"Isaac was a high-functioning spanner in a space suit."

Isaac is an engineer. It’s the thing that made him such an unusual protagonist in the original game – he didn’t talk, he fixed things and had weapons that could conceivably have been used to fix things, if they weren’t busy dismembering the reanimated dead. He was a high-functioning spanner in a space suit, but he returned the John McClane of religious hysteria and viral outbreaks in Dead Space 2.

How could the same shit happen to the same guy twice? And how could he suddenly be so good at it?

The question was raised: is Isaac best as the handyman-in-a-tight-spot or as the stomping shooter frontman? Dead Space 3 fixes on the elegant solution of pushing him in both directions at once. Progression is dependent on a series of hardware fix-ups – this shuttle, that tram system, this alien genocide machine.

But at the same time, Isaac fights wave after wave of monsters while saying things like, “I turned my back on the world because I couldn’t face what had to be done,” – and he’s not talking about an oil change or repairing a carburettor.

"Should it be a     lean horror or an explosive shooter? The game opts to be both."

The debate over Isaac-as-engineer versus Isaac-as-action-hero feeds into Dead Space’s genre identity crisis. Should it be a cold, lean horror, or an explosive shooter? The game opts to be both. This is possible because it consists of big, distinct sections: a breathless high-stakes opener (in the James Bond tradition, appropriately enough), a claustrophobic few hours in a debris field of broken ships orbiting a planet, a lengthy action push on the planet’s icy surface, and a climactic section in an ancient city.

The segments feel episodic, as though they were built by different teams and bolted together to create a varied, lengthy whole. The first major stop is a floating scrapheap, with Isaac exploring a series of derelicts looking for a way to reach the planet below. It’s an expanded echo of the original Dead Space – not just repeating the haunted ship routine, but bringing the quiet, tense and considered approach to a frozen flotilla of craft with Isaac shuttling between them.

Dusty airlocks and the grand, muffled spectacle of Isaac drifting through space are the foreground to the game’s hard sci-fi style, and it fruitfully resurrects the old, effective mix of mundane tasks performed amid calamity. The first moment of dread I’ve experienced since crawling through the guts of the Ishimura – “but I don’t want to find out what’s blocking the tram system” – confirms that this is partly the faithful sequel to Dead Space that people who still resent Isaac for learning to talk or daring to display his human face – have been waiting for.

"The game fruitfully resurrects the old, effective mix of mundane tasks performed amid calamity."

A change of pace on the surface of the planet moves Dead Space 3 into more conventional action territory. The snowstorms and wind-battered outposts are a nod to the influence of The Thing on Dead Space, just as surely as the Ishimura paid tribute to the devastation of the Nostromo in Alien, but the combat here introduces elements of cover-based shooting. There are still encounters with skittering necromorphs in corridors and vent-heavy rooms, but there are also more clearings and open spaces, and action set-pieces in the form of cliff-face rappelling (both up and down), boss encounters (tiresome), and an industrial drill that’s transformed into a giant rusty flesh-whisk (loud).

It feels as though Dead Space 3 has settled on volume and value as part of a big-fisted approach to appealing to everybody. The game feels laudably substantial, although sometimes the pacing suffers. The inclusion of any level that requires players to double back through a now-repopulated section justifies a call of shenanigans; Dead Space 3 does it more than once. And while the inclusion of optional side-missions is definitely a good thing, not just for the added content but also the opportunity for resource gathering, they can feel at odds with the urgency of the larger objective at hand. Near the close, I was offered the chance to explore one such cul-de-sac, and declined in order to continue my in-progress race against a religious fanatic to reach a control panel in time to prevent the extinction of mankind.