One of the dangers that Dead Space faced was fan familiarity with its formula. Players have been fighting necromorphs since the first game and may immediately feel a sense of déjà vu.
But Dead Space 3 isn't survival horror anymore, and space engineer veterans seeking the same blood-curdling scares are going to be disappointed. Instead, it's now a third-person, sci-fi monster masher that isn't half-bad — but only if you don't think of what it used to be.
One of the biggest criticisms that die-hard fans of the first title leveled against Deus Ex: Invisible War was universal ammo. It's also one of the criticisms that a number of players leveled against Mass Effect 2's use of heat clips. I remember when Call of Duty used to force me to choose whether to pick up an MP40 because I was running low on ammo for my Thompson. Certain design perspectives leveraged that to force players into making choices, layering a new challenge atop the action.
The first two Dead Space games did that. If you wanted to carry a Force gun, you needed to carry the appropriate ammo. I primarily used the plasma cutter in the first two games because I wanted to challenge myself by carefully balancing my need for plasma energy with the heavier stuff that I'd find along the way — stowing the other ammo in my locker "just in case."
Thanks to universal clips in Dead Space 3, you no longer have to deal with the challenge of managing resources unless you want to ratchet up the difficulty. At the same time, it quietly robs newcomers of the survivalist flavor it used to have. If you want to play the game in "Classic" mode, you have to finish the game first to unlock New Game plus mode. If you don't have enough ammo, you can use scrap to make more with the crafting system.
Upgrades have also been simplified in the same way. In the first two games, upgrading your weapons — or the RIG hooked into your health and kinesis powers — required you to follow one path or another. Planning how to use valuable and rare power nodes in filling these paths fostered tough choices that challenged players to wisely use scarce resources. Depending on your favorite weapon, it and your RIG might be the only things to see any real upgrades during the course of the campaign.
Dead Space 3 tosses that notion in favor of streamlining things, but unfortunately, the tension also evaporates. You don't have to worry about poking through corners and rooms for rare power nodes to upgrade your RIG — just whether you have enough salvage to get all armor upgrades at once.
Enemies and boxes drop assortments of scrap ranging from metal to tungsten and even a few electronic odds and ends. Bits and bobs of weapons — such as detonation canisters, gun frames and upgrade chips — are scattered throughout the environment, waiting to be discovered.
This means Isaac Clarke can finally be MacGyver as he cobbles together a variety of weapon configurations as long as he has the parts, the scrap, or the blueprints. He can even create healing items and special handles to open locked storage closets. Special resource-gathering bots can be added to Clarke's arsenal to help out, returning their loot to the bench for you to use. For veterans, this replaces the old store system from the first game, where credits were abundant. At the same time, it's not as hard to end up with a formidable arsenal by the end of the game. Dead Space 3 wants you to see lots of weapons in their full glory — or, at least, most of those that you can build.
Bots also gather ration tickets, which can be exchanged online for "resource packs." If you've played Mass Effect 3's multiplayer, this is derived almost verbatim from there. Three different types of packs, with escalating price tags, are available for purchase, and the more expensive ones offer up random drops of powerful MK5 versions of weapon parts.
If you don't want to spend the time grinding up tickets, you can use real money and purchase them with Microsoft points. It's not mandatory, and after going through the game once while spending time blasting critters with new weapons, my bots eventually returned a bonanza of tickets to provide a slew of top-shelf parts. Once you've made your "dream" weapon, like a combo sniper rifle and rocket launcher, there's really no reason to continue crafting stuff.
What has emerged is a surprisingly solid third-person sci-fi shooter dressed in Dead Space environments and monsters instead of the tension-filled horror show from before. If you go in expecting a bug hunt without worrying about the management that goes into a typical survival-horror title, Dead Space 3 has what you need.
Visceral's artists know how to make some of the best-looking sci-fi sets. The gritty interior spaces bring to mind Ridley Scott's use of the same aesthetic in "Alien" or even James Cameron's follow-up, "Aliens."
The gulf of time separating the colonial ruins on the surface and in orbit over Tau Volantis compared to the tech we see in Dead Space is a lot scarier because of the implication that humanity's technical advancements have stagnated over two centuries. Everything looks a little beaten, but it's mostly in working order.
Story-wise, Isaac's shredding sanity, the terror-inducing pacing, and the victims were perfectly at home in the first two games. In Dead Space 3, Clarke's uninvited guests seem pulled from a book of predictable tropes. There's the jealous boyfriend, the grandfatherly ops guy, and the fanatic. The mythology surrounding the Markers comes across as if it's being made up as Isaac goes along. The surprises are over-the-top instead of subtly needling players as they did in the first two games — although the co-op storytelling in those missions was much more interesting.
The game boldly opens up both halves of the game to exploration. Players can jet between various locations, sometimes to take part in an optional side mission for more resources, using a rocket-powered tram in space or an underground one on Tau Volantis. If you can't get enough of blasting stuff for goodies, this provides a lot of opportunity to do just that. If lore hounds are curious to know what recorded messages may have been left behind, there's that, too, transforming both the space above Tau Volantis and the ruins below into massive haunted houses — if only the potential hadn't been squandered by everything else after a compelling start.
Instead of killing the mood, co-op injects some of the psychological terror of the first two games by hopping into the mind of Isaac Clarke's new partner, John Carver.
Isaac can trudge through the game solo. Doing things in co-op brings in a slew of neat additions that make the most out of the partnership: instanced loot for individual pick-ups, puzzles adjusted to take advantage of two players, and tougher encounters with more monsters. Mechanically, it's mostly seamless, well paced-stuff to be shared with friends online as a two-person extermination team, although some cinematics focusing on Isaac can come off a little awkward when Carver stands there.
Joining another player's game casts you in the role of gun-toting Carver while the host remains in the starring role. That also means that one player sees a lot of weirdness that the other doesn't, ranging from visions of lost loved ones to mocking his self-loathing. It's too bad that the spirit of Dead Space is held captive until you find someone to go through these missions with you. It's as if James Cameron decided to split up "Aliens" into one release with all of the shooting and another with all of the subtle terror elements to be released at a later date.
Dead Space 3 struts its dedication to more dismemberments than delusions as a solo sci-fi gunfest. On that count, it's not a disappointment. On the other hand, it's hard to ignore what it loses when it tries to balance the needs of longtime fans while seeking to broaden its audience. Two years ago, Dead Space 2 ran a controversial, but hilarious, ad campaign proudly proclaiming that your mom would hate the game. Today, hardly any of that maverick attitude can be seen in this third-person blast-'em-up except, perhaps, in the co-op stuff that's behind a multiplayer requirement.
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