Make no mistake, the original Dead Space was a big deal. Initial reports that EA were taking steps into the realm of survival horror were met with no small amount of skepticism – this, after all, was the mega publisher responsible for endless minor iterations of annual sports franchises and soulless, licensed drivel. Then the previews and hands on sessions started, and people started to take Dead Space seriously.
The release of the original coincided with EA’s transformation from much maligned conglomerate to a publisher with a reputation for high quality products and a company willing to invest in strong new IPs. Dead Space was a sign that EA were ready to be taken seriously. Arguably, the original game did more for survival horror than any game since Resident Evil 4. Its marriage of the oppressive claustrophobia of Alien with the disturbing, paranoid nightmare of Event Horizon, held together by its central conceit of limb dismemberment ensured one very important thing – the game was scary. Critics and consumers alike were quick to sing its praises, and a quality new IP was born.
Fast forward a couple of years and Dead Space 2 was the Aliens to the original’s Alien. Whilst still able to drum up the scares when needed, the game was far more action and set-piece orientated. Formerly silent protagonist Isaac Clarke now found himself with a voice and a personality. A larger, louder, more bombastic game than the first, Dead Space 2 nonetheless maintained a consistently high quality, managing to be a more varied experience than the identikit corridors of the first game’s Ishimura. Some lamented its new found sense of scale, but for the most part it was well received.
Dead Space 3 finds both the franchise and EA in very different positions from a few years ago. The publisher’s unpopular pioneering of the now ubiquitous Online Pass and aggressive Day One DLC policies have strained the goodwill of consumers, and initial impressions of this third installment were full of trepidation to say the least. Opinions have remained muted throughout the hype cycle – but now finally, the gamers can make up their minds.
To stay with the sci fi film metaphor, if Dead Space 1 and 2 were the first two Alien movies, then developer Visceral Games has gone off on a tangent and created the franchise’s answer to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The icy planet of Tau Volantis is very different thematically to the previous installments, all billowing blizzards and blinding white tundras.
The prologue sets the tone, giving the obligatory tutorial section, and ending with an enormous explosion and clearly Uncharted-inspired set-piece on the planet’s surface. It plays like Dead Space, sure, but does it feel like it? Not quite initially, but to the audible relief of thousands of die hard fans, the game then immediately throws you back into the dingy confines of the derelict spaceships the series is known for. It does beg the question as to whether Visceral was totally confident in its new setting – the opening quarter of the game feels like a greatest hits collection of locations and moments, complete with the slightly unwelcome return of dogsbody Isaac’s endless quests to fix this; move that; restore power to those. It does introduce the new concept of weapon crafting, an initially overwhelming and slightly baffling system that soon becomes immensely rewarding and enjoyable. In addition to the usual ammo and medpack supplies looted from the ever present Necromorphs, Isaac now finds various conductors, circuits and electronic parts that can be used to upgrade existing weapons and even craft completely new ones from scratch. This opens up myriad offensive options that are a welcome change; although we found ourselves returning time and again to the trusty plasma cutter. You will also be presented with a first for the series; optional side quests. While it could be asked if a linear, cinematic shooter such as this really needs them, their presence is a welcome diversion and helps provide a reason to explore and even replay the game.
After a spectacularly abrasive arrival on the planet proper, the real game begins in earnest. There are still scares to be had, but the brightness of the environments can feel at odds with the whole Dead Space ethos. At times the game treats the player to stunning vistas and dazzling set-pieces, but once again the issue of player agency rears its ugly head. Its rare to go too long without control being wrested from the player, albeit to afford some truly impressive sights but the thorny point remains: does the game want to be a game or is it content to play at being an interactive movie? Uncharted certainly has a lot to answer for. Your tolerance of cinematics and the ever-present QTEs will be tested, but ultimately it comes down to personal taste. The plot and characters can also grate a bit; the story was never really Dead Space‘s strong point despite EA’s insistence on shoehorning the franchise into every media format going. The love triangle between Isaac, Ellie and her cock of a new boyfriend is particularly annoying.
You will find yourself up against more than Necromorphs this time around; Isaac will finally be confronted in combat by the fanatical Unitologists, the franchise’s religious freaks who are hunting Isaac to force him to collude with their plans to activate the Markers. Combat against these human foes isn’t nearly as satisfying as dismembering alien creatures and can feel too much like a generic shooting gallery for comfort. You will soon be longing for some necrotic flesh to rend asunder once more.
This all being said, do not get the impression that the game is no good. Far from it; Visceral have created another polished, unbelievably slick and enjoyable entry in the franchise. As always a special nod must be made towards the sound department; the Dead Space games really are second to none when it comes to audio, both the sound effects and musical score are exemplary. The game is also stunningly beautiful to behold, if not as impressive third time around. Indeed; the only real negative feelings come from the inevitable law of diminishing returns – this is fun, at times scary, but you’ve seen it all before twice already and nothing here will surprise you.
A lengthy campaign, collectibles, side quests and co-op that actually adds quests and experiences all add up to create another solid and thrilling game. If you are a die hard fan of the first two then rest easy, you will certainly get enjoyment from Dead Space 3 and its glacial charms.
And with that, the arctic wind is calling to us, carrying the distant screams of the Necromorphs to us once again. To paraphrase Antarctic explorer Lawrence Oates; ‘We are just going outside and may be some time…’.
– Matt Reynolds