We’ve already talked quite extensively about Dead Space 3 on Big Head Mode. We’ve had a hands-on preview, we’ve discussed the merits of co-op in the horror genre, we even reviewed it live on air on our show last week, (even in the face of numerous technological failings that resulted in Tom and I sharing one microphone in a darkened room). However, I suppose it speaks volumes of the type of experience that Visceral Games has given us with Dead Space 3 that not only do I want to keep talking about it but I want to keep playing it.
We’ve covered the story elements and the first three hours of Dead Space in our hands on preview but to give you a brief overview, after the events of Dead Space 3 Isaac Clarke has withdrawn from the world to wallow in horrific memories of the lethal grotesque creatures known as Necromorphs and the powerful, alien shrines that created them, The Markers. He is drawn back into the conflict to save Ellie, a fellow survivor who is quite dear to Isaac and before you know it you’re once again on a space bound adventure to stop the madness and above all, survive.
Now, there is something I would like to get out of the way very early. A lot of people have been crying foul that this game has failed to follow its survival horror roots. I have some bad news for those people. Dead Space 3 is most definitely NOT a survival horror, just like Dead Space 2 wasn’t and dare I say, Dead Space 1 wasn’t. Simply having a game in a horror setting does not make it ‘survival horror’. Dead Space was never just like classic Resident Evil or Silent Hill. It was a great sci-fi horror, sure, but the solution to every problem was generally a violent and loud weapon. It always felt more action oriented than other horror games, less restricted in its movement, and that is what made it great. You weren’t limited from being able to walk and shoot, you could melee bash with a simple button tap and the game still managed to be scary.
Dead Space 3 is the perfect evolution of that style of game design. The story is much larger in scope, the atmosphere and environments more elaborate and as a result, the pace of the gameplay is expanded, giving you the freedom needed to fully enjoy the new scale of this game. Is it as relentlessly scary as Dead Space 1? No, but you know what? It was never going to be. After 3 games, we know how to kill Necromorphs by cutting off the limbs, we’re used to the ‘visceral’ displays of gore and violence that will confront us, quite simply we’ve evolved because we’ve survived it all before. So instead of throwing the old formula out the window to try to expand the ‘scares’ Visceral Games have instead expanded upon the story, letting us see more of the Dead Space universe and it’s characters, and as a huge science fiction fan I think the game is all the better for it.
The game still has great moments of horror but it also has some fantastically thrilling action moments including probably the greatest depiction of space in a video game ever. The freedom you are given to glide around in zero gravity in the silence of space, dodging floating debris and mutant aliens, is simply breathtaking. In fact, if you didn’t have a limited oxygen supply, I probably would have spent most of my time out there. The story also has some very engaging moments. You’re not on your own this time, you have a crew of survivors (including your potential co-op partner, John Carver) and I very much enjoyed trying to pick which characters will not only survive the journey but who could become a potential threat to you and your mission (much one may do in any horror film, might I add).
The only downside with the story is the games size. There are so many side-missions, each rewarding weapon parts and loot, that you can go hours at a time without any story influence at all. This can make you feel disengaged from the main narrative and it’s these moments when you find your attention drifting as you question why you’re doing any of this. It doesn’t help that most of these side missions involve little story direction of their own and often feature the same set of events; Enter a base, work your way to the top, survive an onslaught of necromorphs and then leave. However, whenever you rejoin the main story, I found it didn’t take long before I was engaged in the characters and their plight.
While the previously mentioned side-missions might be a drag in single player, they can be one of the highlights in one the games most controversial new additions, co-operative play. For two players, Isaac Clarke is joined by soldier John Carver, a no-nonsense guy who doesn’t care much for Isaac and his ‘selfish’ motives. Carver simply wants to destroy the markers and he’ll do so at any cost. But are his motives as pure as he lets on? He has some demons of his own and this is what makes him such a great addition to the series. Plagued by guilt and despair, Carver will suffer frequent delusions that only the second player will be able to see. So in one cutscene while Isaac might simply see Carver get distracted and wander away, the second player is actually following a blood covered, ghostly figure. This is where the horror of the game came alive for me. When I was playing as Carver, I found myself never fully trusting my co-op partner. I knew he couldn’t see what I could see or hear what I would hear, and while it was a novelty at first and I relayed every little detail, after a while I began to keep it to myself. It felt like my experiences were a lot more personal and I didn’t need to involve my friend. So just like that, the game had created a wedge between me and a friend. Similarly, there were instances where I would be seeing hallucinations like giant birthday cakes and toy soldiers while listening to Carver’s wife taunting me. Meanwhile, my friend was getting ambushed by dozens of necromorphs and yelling for help. Did I care? Of course not. I just wanted to make sense of what was in front of me.
This is what makes the co-op one of the most unique campaign experiences of my life. Because while you are sharing ammo and helping each other kill enemies, you never truly feel like you’re on the same side. You both have your own goals and your own motives and while the longer you spend together the more you might understand or respect each other, it never changes the fact that you’re in it for your own reasons. But hey, if that’s not your cup of tea, then Visceral Games have the perfect solution for you. If you hate the idea of John Carver and 2 player, then in single player you never have to deal with him. You’re not given a forced AI partner and you get slightly different cutscenes. This is the way I think every game should tackle co-op and I’m hoping the success of this idea means we will start to see more narrative driven co-op experiences.
The gameplay is still a lot of fun. With the addition of taking cover and dodging, movement is easier than ever. There is a huge expanse of weapons thanks to a truly great crafting system which makes killing things a delight and lets you add your own personal touch to the gameplay. Want to feel like Ripley with your Pulse Rifle and flamethrower combo? Go for it. Want a rocket launching chainsaw? Be my guest, the world is your oyster and you can explode, dismember and incinerate it to your heart’s content.
The star of this game though is the presentation. Dead Space 3 features some of the best sound and lighting design I’ve seen in any game. Every echoed bang or scratching metal will set you on edge with your weapon at the ready, most of the time for no reason. You’ll slowly creep through a hallway, butt cheeks firmly clenched, waiting for a beastie to jump out only to be met by an empty hallway. You breathe a sigh of relief, turn around and OHMYFUCKINGODHE’SRIGHTTHERE. DEAD. Now you’re just a limbless torso with nothing but regrets.
The lighting is also superb. I was constantly impressed with how the game utilised darkness without you ever feeling like you couldn’t see anything. The level of detail in each environment is nothing short of impressive. At one point, I stopped to admire several green shards of light on a wall but when I turned around they followed me. That was when I realised it was actually the reflected light from Isaac’s own visor, an image that changes in shape and colour depending on what suit or character you’re playing with. Very cool. Shadows or flickers of light can prove just as terrifying as any sound which just reinforces what Visceral Games nails once again, the suspense. It’s the anticipation of the conflict or horror that makes this game shine and it kept me thrilled from minute to minute, largely due to the Visceral’s attention to every little detail. No element of production is wasted when it comes to trying evoke a particular feeling out of the player.
My complaints with this game, though minor, still deserve to be pointed out. The save system feels very stripped down. While I initially relished the new autosave system and how it saves your inventory and weapon across any character, the lack of ‘hard saves’ can be responsible for a substantial loss of game progress. If you’re not keeping an eye out for the little checkpoint icon in the top corner, you can sometimes lose an hour or so of progress without even realising it. Being at the whims of an auto checkpoint system seems to be a step backwards in terms of player control. Also, as great as the co-op was, I found it frustrating when playing as Carver that every cutscene would put the focus back on Isaac. If I’m playing as Carver, why do I need to see Isaac fall off a bridge when I know I fell with him? It feels like corner cutting for the cutscenes and while I understand it from a design perspective it really is a shame when the game has so much polish in so many areas.
Overall this is a tremendously enjoyable game. For all those skeptics our there, try not to view this as a watered down horror game because it’s really not, it’s so much more than that. That’s like saying ‘Firefly’ is a watered down Western. If Dead Space 1 was ‘Alien’ and Dead Space 2 was ‘Aliens’ I would say Dead Space 3 is much more like Prometheus (although obviously not a scrambled mess). Instead of simply being a horror game or an action game, it is a wonderful blend of genres, a sci-fi epic with snippets of horror and thrills punctuated by exciting action. Sure there are problems here and there but if you just keep your arms and legs in the carriage and enjoy the rollercoaster ride, you’ll barely notice them. Besides, what are a few missing limbs in the Dead Space universe?
Ben O’Brien hosts a weekly radio show on 2rrr 88.5fm called ‘Big Head Mode’. You can stream the show every friday, at 9pm on www.2rrr.org.au and you can follow the show on facebook for updates, news and gaming reviews at www.facebook.com/bigheadmode2rrr