Sunday, 24 February 2013

Video Game Review: Dead Space 3

I was struck with a bit of good fortune this week: a couple months ago it occurred to me that my school's reading week coincided with the release date of Dead Space 3. I loved Dead Space, its sequel (which is easily one of my favourite games of this console generation), Extraction and most of the extended universe as well (the Ben Templesmith comic was amazing, the other comics and Martyr were decent, but the animated films kind of sucked) and so clearly I was eagerly anticipating the latest entry in the series. However, as I followed the pre-release info I was getting understandably nervous.
  • "They're adding co-op? Didn't that screw over Resident Evil 5? Isn't it hard to make a horror game with co-op?"
  • "That trailer really didn't scare me at all. It looked like a big shoot-'em-up like Lost Planet."
  • "WTF, there are going to be human enemies this time!?"
Despite my concerns, there was still no way I was going to pass up another excursion to the Dead Space universe. So, were my fears unfounded, or was Dead Space 3 a massive disappointment? Well I suggest you read on to find out... (Note that for my first [and so far only] play through, I played on Hard Mode and did not do any co-op or get any DLC aside from what's bundled with the Limited Edition. Also, there are some spoilers in this review, so be careful.)

Dead Space 3 opens very... dishearteningly. Basically all my worst fears seemed to be confirmed within the first 30 minutes. The prologue is pretty interesting, but it definitely emphasizes action and scripted set-piece moments over the slow-building tension and horror that the series is known for. Things get even worse when it shifts back to poor ol' Isaac Clarke. While I'm a bit dissatisfied with the story at this point (which I'll get to later), what really disappointed me here was the shootouts with Unitologist gunmen. This feature was incredibly ill-advised for a number of reasons. For one thing, the cover system is terrible. Isaac can crouch behind cover, but it doesn't really provide him with much protection at all. There's also very little hit feedback, so you can be taking damage and not know it unless you quickly glance at your RIG's health bar. The enemy AI isn't that smart either - they just sort of make their way to you while firing until you choose to blow their heads off or shotgun them. They don't provide any challenge at all until late in the game when they're attacking you from 2 directions at once or at one particular instance where 2 guys on a balcony are firing rockets at you while you're simultaneously being attacked by Twitchers, which took me almost a dozen tries to overcome. It should also be noted that I was playing the game on Hard Mode on my first play through, so the general lack of challenge is pretty unfortunate and surprising. Finally, the gunplay is simply just not that fun. Dead Space isn't built to accommodate a third-person cover-based shooter, and so throwing one in anyway wasn't a very good idea.

This opening doesn't have the same sort of "oomph" that Dead Space 2 did: in that game, the opening cinematic laid the groundwork for that game very well, and then when the game started in earnest I literally shouted "HOLY SHIT!!!!" All that without having to resort to over-the-top theatrics to try to get your blood pumping. In short, Dead Space 3 has lost most of the sense of subtlety and tension that the previous games fostered, something that the opening hour demonstrates very well to all the people who feared such a thing.

Anyway, once you get beyond the first couple chapters, Dead Space 3 starts to pick up a bit. The chapters spent in space feel largely like classic Dead Space gameplay... with some refinements and new issues of course. One notable difference is the new crafting mechanic, which allows you to customize your weapon, its attachments and upgrades, then add further upgrades in the form of circuits. The crafting benches also allow you to make health and ammo packs, as well as other items. Put simply, the crafting mechanic is very handy and it's fun to put together a super-weapon: I took the DLC Evangelizer Carbine + Shotgun attachment and it lasted me the whole game as my mainstay weapon, just tweaking it with new modifiers as the game went on. The only downsides to this system are that enemy encounters can be a bit of a joke as you blow them away with your super-gun, and that I miss having 4 weapons to switch between for different situations instead of 2... yeah you're technically still running 4 different guns now, but that also means you're down the alternate-fire from the previous guns as well. It also sucks when you're in the middle of an encounter and then suddenly find yourself needing to reload, losing the use of one of those guns. The other issue with crafting is that you're never going to be short on health or ammo packs... not that the game doesn't provide you with tons of them anyway. Health and ammo are ridiculously plentiful in Dead Space 3, even in Hard Mode. I literally never ran out of ammo in this game. In contrast, the last 1/3 of Dead Space 2 was an intense exercise in ammo conservation. I had to get really good at dismemberment, stasis and kinesis if I wanted to survive... in Normal mode, no less. In comparison, Dead Space 3 is a breeze.

Another new feature in Dead Space 3 which I really liked was the addition of optional side-quests. While they're all just a half-dozen Necromorph encounters to get a key to unlock a door, then a couple more encounters to find some epic loot, the developers did a good job ensuring that they stayed interesting... even if they begin to grow stale towards the latter point of the game. Some of these are co-op only, but that didn't bug me too much in all honesty. I hope they were a little more diverse than the single-player ones in any case.

Those disappointed that Dead Space 3 would be on a planet shouldn't be too put-off, since they're actually going to spend quite a few hours in space. However, the action soon switches to Tau Volanis, which is where the game actually manages to wring out a few scares and intensity. In the first 30 minutes or so that you're on the planet, you have to keep your body temperature regulated or you're freeze to death. This makes it pretty dangerous to be outdoors for very long - especially in a fight where you're given another way to die on top of being eviscerated by Necromorphs. The Feeders also will scare the piss out of you the first few times you run into them. They can be dealt with without confrontation, something this game desperately needed. Trying to sneak past and distract them is intense, they're creepy little bastards and if you alert them then it can be hell trying to deal with them coming from all directions. Enemies also occasionally burst out of the snow which can be startling (although not nearly as much as I would have expected it to be).

The stretch on Tau Volanis largely continues the same problems of the rest of the game, however. Enemy encounters are unfortunately still very straight-forward: Stalkers, my favourite enemies from Dead Space 2 for their clever AI, are reduced to simple and predictable foes since they're far more aggressive now. Encounters can also get infuriating as enemies have a tendency to drop in behind you unannounced while you're fighting waves of foes. It's not scary, it's just annoying. The planet setting has some great potential to be just as terrifying (if not more) than space, but the game does not live up to this promise. Just imagine how scary it would be to be in a blizzard with limited visibility, but hear Necromorphs creeping up on you just outside your field of vision. Or how about backtracking through a non-combat area only to discover a fresh set of footprints followed you through that area - OH SHIT, WHAT/WHERE IS IT?!?!

For the purposes of this review, I feel the need to mention the latter chapters since some new issues arise there as well. On the positive side, super-charged kinesis is EPIC. Tearing the limbs off of living Necromorphs never gets old, and throwing whole Markers into the eyes of a giant monster is probably the coolest thing in the entire game. However, the last chapter was a massive piss-off. Ignoring the physics of running and fighting on a giant rock which is flying through the air towards a living moon, the game doesn't tell you that there's a blizzard behind you which is tearing said rock to bits if you don't move fast enough. I literally died here about a dozen times with absolutely no explanation and was understandably frustrated until I just ran through the level. The lack of explanation here just ticked me off, and could have been easily fixed with some dialogue along the lines of "oh shit Isaac, the ground behind us is disappearing! Run!" The final boss fight is also exceptionally easy (although this seems to be a Dead Space hallmark at this point), although it was also very cool at the same time.

Moving on to other notable aspects, the story is a bit of a convoluted let-down in Dead Space 3. The scene is set for Isaac's personal journey, but the game fails to set up the events transpiring in the universe at large. Apparently an army of Unitologists have overthrown EarthGov and are causing Necromorph outbreaks across the galaxy through terrorist actions! Holy shit, that sounds insane! Unfortunately, the game doesn't set-up, elaborate on or provide closure to these events at all, which is a damn shame. Hopefully we get some extended universe pieces which cover these developments, because whoever wrote the script for Dead Space 3 didn't seem to care. The secondary characters are also really throw-away, I couldn't really remember who they were or even really care when they died. Simply, the plot is nowhere near as engaging or coherent as the previous games were, but I'm glad they did not default to the "Necromorph outbreak occurs and character X has to survive it" template which nearly every other Dead Space media falls into.

Other things worth noting are that this game is far less violent than the previous 2 games were. This is surprising and odd, and really just seems like another side-effect of a shift to a mass-market focus. Honestly, there's only 1 really violent on-screen death and the camera jumps away from it after a split-second. On a more positive note though, the co-op mode is very unintrusive and should set the bar for co-op modes in the future in my opinion.

Considering how much bitching you just read through, it probably sounds like I absolutely hated Dead Space 3. However, honestly I did enjoy it: the basic mechanics of the series are very enjoyable and the game adds some fun new elements to the mix. That said, the game does not live up to the expectations that the rest of the series established. Put simply, EA and Visceral sold out with Dead Space 3, toning down the series' horror elements in favour of the lowest common denominator shooter/action market. I can live with that if that's the future of the franchise, but if so then they should build the next game to be action from the ground up, rather than tack it onto a horror framework.

Bottom-line: Dead Space 3 is a lot of fun, but it'll be a disappointment if you're a fan of the series.


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