Dead Space 3 review
Fighting religious fanatics is a staple of Dead Space 3. The intriguing Unitologist sect, which worships the monolith-like Markers, emerges from shadow and conspiracy to offer all-out war. The result is combat against humans for the first time, and an extension of the split that runs down the centre of the game.
"Dead Space 3 manages what the hapless Aliens: Colonial Marines could not - abundant monsters that are also individually deadly."
Combat against the necromorphs is refined and dangerous. It manages what the hapless Aliens: Colonial Marines could not: abundant monsters that are also individually deadly, thanks to Isaac’s accumulated skill set which includes the ability to slow enemies in time, to move and fire small objects with telekinesis, and the need to slice enemies limb by limb in order to despatch them most effectively. It’s a layered, satisfying set of systems.
However it’s also one clearly designed for a game pad – even with options to customise controls, the need to have fingers hovering over four triggers at once makes a mouse and keyboard unwieldy. In contrast, battles against the Unitologist army offer little except variety and gunfire in stereo. They don’t subtract from what might be called the purer Dead Space experience, they just bolt a conventional addition to the side.
The nature of combat is largely determined by the weapons at Isaac’s disposal, which in Dead Space 3 come from the bench. The gun crafting is deep and worthwhile, offering a basic choice of weapon type (plasma, laser cutter, military, explosive) before adding variety (modifiers to these types, the ability to combine any two on larger weapon frames) and stat-tweaking and optimisation.
It rewards experimentation and patience, and is paced sensibly enough that the controversial option to buy raw materials through microtransactions never feels imposing – I always had enough to create weapons that felt suitably powerful, and after one run through the game I had the resources to build pretty much anything.
"The effect of co-op is that some sections are a little strung out and lonely in singleplayer."
It’s possible to make the same cutting, tearing, flaming tools that have been the series’ mainstays, but just as effective now are single-shot weapons with high concentrated damage, and forgiving, spray-and-pray automatic rifles. The basis of Dead Space’s combat is a little undermined; de-limbing enemies is a precise, engineer’s way to kill space zombies. It sits uncomfortably with the game’s own rules that, with damage stats boosted, necromorphs can now be killed with a single sniper shot to the chest.
Also impacting on combat is the addition of co-op. Ironically this makes manifest the split in Isaac’s gaming personality – when present, his co-op partner really is a gruff action soldier type, called Carver, the Tyler Durden to Isaac’s jittery narrator. Co-op is drop-in, drop-out, with cutscenes shifting to reflect Carver’s absence during solo play, the only noticeable effect being that some sections are a little strung out and lonely in singleplayer.
Whether it suits a horror game is a moot point: given Dead Space 3’s efforts to provide both scares and thrills, the impact of co-op is negligible. But it does change the combat, in entirely positive ways. Working together is fun: trapping enemies in stasis for your partner, or rescuing them from pinned execution, and planning what complementary set of weapons to use as a pair. As with the others in the series, Dead Space 3 positively encourages post-completion playthroughs on higher difficulties and with tougher restrictions.
In terms of performance, Dead Space 3 ran without a hitch on an i5 processor-equipped rig with 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia Geforce 560 Ti. Before release, Visceral Games spoke about their aim to create a uniform experience across console and PC, which raised legitimate concerns that the PC version would be a horrendous port. It’s not quite that bad; custom render settings are available from the in-game menu to control various effects like bloom, glow, SSAO, depth of field, and it does look prettier than console versions. I played on 1920 x 1080 with no impact on framerate, which was locked at a steady 30fps – something that can be unlocked with some VSync tweaking.
"It delivers an uncompromised, high-quality horror game."
If this ‘uniform’ approach is slightly disappointing, it’s absolutely in keeping with Dead Space 3’s comprehensive, please-all approach. The game tries hard to be all things to all men (ironic, considering it features a religion with the ultimate objective of making all men into one giant thing). It’s accomplished, it looks wonderful, and delivers an uncompromised, high-quality horror game. It’s just that it’s so big that it delivers a less compelling shooter title as well.
This is perhaps the inevitable reality of creating a searing, stylish new IP – that two sequels down the line, the need to maximise appeal has turned everything great about that game into the still-beating heart of a commercial machine augmented with features, an appealing hero, and explosive moments. Dead Space 3 is still good, and it’s still Dead Space. It’s just lots of other things as well.
An excellent horror game burdened with action pretensions – but it still delivers a fraught, polished experience.