First off, let me say I have nothing but respect for EA for consistently putting their weight behind the “Dead Space” series. What other publisher is throwing spending time and money on horror games in this era of big-budget shooters? Okay, so the second and third games in the series (as well as the Wii prequel, are more on the shooter-y side of things, but still, fair effort. The first game, while it struggled, ultimately found an audience for its cramped dark corridors, sometimes only filled with sounds of series protagonist Isaac Clark’s heavy, wet breathing.
The problem is that between “Dead Space 2″ and “Dead Space 3,” developer Visceral Games set out to give their universe a mythos. Whereas before, we had a silent protagonist, grimly plodding along in a psychologically-fraught nightmare space aboard an abandoned spaceship, his hope of survival only second to his desperate need to see his girlfriend. That’s all been smoothed away to a blandly accessible hero tale, and by the third game, the series is now generically a third-person shooter complete with effete Eurotrash villain (he’s got a ponytail and a script’s worth of monologues), and a co-op partner to help your chatty, emotional fragile hero save the galaxy.
The game opens 200 years before the events of the first game, a young soldier on the frozen planet of Tau Volantis on the run from Marker-infected, hoping to deliver a package which might stop the mysterious signal which has afflicted the rest of the base and its inhabitants with madness and mutation. This first sequence is endemic of the roller coaster ride “Dead Space” has become, with the faceless, gun-toting grunt doing a hard slide down an icy hill, blasting away oncoming enemies with his pistol.
It’s not a spoiler to say that two centuries later, this young soldier won’t be part of our tale, but the package he was carrying will be.
Flash to the series’ present, with the hard-luck Isaac surviving a sudden attack by the Marker-worshipping cult of Unitoligists, led by Danik (said Eurotrash villain). He and his cult, for some reason, think the Markers are in some way a path to advancing human evolution (in spite of every sign to the contrary–one of the worst elements of the fiction to be injected into the series with the second game). An unwilling Isaac is drafted by soldiers Carver and Norton to go with them to head to Tau Volantis in the hopes of disrupting the signal that causes the madness and ultimate mutation unleashed by the signals. From the there, the campaign ostensibly sees Isaac and troubled soldier Carver teaming up to survive the perils of space, the icy wastes of the planet below, Unitologist henchmen with guns, and their own damaged psyches.
In practice, “Dead Space 3″ becomes an occasional cover-based shooter with increasingly clever monster designs offset by mostly dim AI for the human enemies (at least on Normal difficulty). Allow me to say it again: any pretension of being a horror game have been abandoned and this is squarely in kill and upgrade shooter territory. The majority of environments are expansive enough, though, that it’s easy to get away from the Necromorphs or duck the Unitologist goons for long enough to reload, catch your breath, and pick your next target (who’ll typically go down without too many bullets wasted).
The ample ammo caches and supplies left by downed enemies guarantees that the only thing threatening your survival is occasionally allowing yourself to get cornered or being crushed by falling debris in one of several unfortunate climbing sequences. Along the way, the 16 or so hour campaign will offer up opportunities for loot side quests, standoffs in locked rooms, and massive boss battles that will remind you of a strange hybrid of “Resident Evil 4″ and the first “Lost Planet” (a sequence that explicitly brings the latter game to mind with its heat management is one of the most memorable and perhaps tense in the entirety of “Dead Space 3″). The cold confines up a space ship give way to the utilitarian corridors of a facility that’s been abandoned for 200 years, but seemingly looks no different than the metropolitan environments of the moon colony.
The structure of the campaign is geared towards the solo experience, although the drop-in/drop-out co-op will tailor the experience somewhat, adding more enemies as well as delving into Carver’s story. While the challenge bump is welcome, it does leave Carver’s experience as something of a mystery if you don’t play the entire game through with a co-op partner–his unique character beats are only explored if there’s a second player joining Isaac, meaning you might miss some of Carver’s tortured musings about his life as a soldier (it actually makes a moment in the climax kind of odd and out-of-left field if you didn’t have another player along to explore his story). Oh, and speaking of stories that really go nowhere, Isaac has maybe one of the worst in-game romances I’ve had the displeasure of having to listen to as his girlfriend Ellie puts him through the emotional wringer for a bully straight out of “The Karate Kid.”
Isaac (and Carver, let’s not forget Carver) can outfit their RIGs–their ponderous space suits–with upgrades as in previous games, but the real addition to “Dead Space 3″ is the deep crafting system which allows you to create weapons from scratch or modify presets based on blueprints with ability-enhancing circuits. Each weapon is made of a combination of eight components, starting with the frame/stock which determines if it’s a one or two-handed type, a pair of “tools” which assigns the firing type which can be mounted on the top and bottom of the weapon, and tips which modify the mode of fire. Each of these weapons can then have an added attachment like scopes or even one that coats your ammo with acid effects.
The generosity of the in-game economy (you can typically find the parts you need) means that you’ll have a lot of latitude in experimenting with the various types of weapons you want to create. If, on the other hand, you want to really spec out your gear and try combinations beyond what the in-game resources will allow, you can always buy resource packs in microtransactions.
But it’s in this that “Dead Space 3″ really shows itself as a failed horror series: the tension of each encounter is no longer the terror of what’s in the shadows, hiding in the vents, or waiting around the corner. In fact, terror, dread of what’s next, and fear in general have no place in this game. You’re a chosen one superman, a bullet-soaking hero who can simply use a handy health pack and wade into a moshing crowd of the omnipresent, brightly-lit enemies before combat rolling out of the way to take your next shot.
“Dead Space 3″ is an awful horror game but an okay shooter. At any given point in time, it’s never really clear what type of game Visceral set out to make, or who “Dead Space 3″ was targeting. It’s obviously well-produced, but like a any slick blockbuster horror movie, the artifice–the noise, the spectacle–gets in the way of actually allowing the player to feel anything moment to moment. With every loud music cue, every boilerplate crazy person speech from Danik, the things that made the first “Dead Space” so compulsively playable drifted farther and farther out of reach. Given the finality of the ending (minus the expected post-credits stinger), here’s hoping Visceral can revisit this universe in a fresh way, unfettered by the constraints of delivering an epic saga.
“Dead Space 3″ is available now on the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.
Follow @MTVMultiplayer on Twitter and be sure to “like” us on Facebook for the best geek news about comics, toys, gaming and more! And don’t forget to follow our video gaming and TV writer @TheCharlesWebb.