Video Game Review - Dead Space 3

Dead Space 3 is an example of how crippling compromise can be.

Let me explain. Dead Space (the first installment in the series) was pure minimalist horror. The hero, Isaac Clarke, barely spoke. Partially because of trauma, partially because there were barely any people to speak to. Mostly, though, he stayed quiet because he was scared and alone. Talking to yourself doesn't keep you alive. In Dead Space 2, the guttural, visceral and wonderfully written sequel, Isaac did talk. A lot. Because he had to. And it took his character to a whole new level.

But what made those first two games truly great was the feeling of helplessness they instilled in you. At any moment, control of the camera could be wrested away from you; you'd be battered by relentless, screaming feedback as Isaac was hit by a barrage of genuinely distressing hallucinations. Or you'd emerge from an air vent to be suddenly grabbed by an alien, and you'd find yourself screaming out loud, mashing the keys, wanting more than anything for Isaac (and you) to be safe. If suspense is an art form - and I believe that it truly can be - then every corridor, every air duct, every ladder and every room in Dead Space 1 and 2 was a canvas. Scares would build up at a set rhythm, then suddenly stop, letting you traipse down a corridor unhindered, letting you calm down just long enough to bone you. It felt like being manipulated, and as such, it put you deep, deep down into the head of a scared, helpless, angry man who deserved more than anything to get out alive.

Dead Space 3 doesn't drain you of your goodwill towards Isaac, but it comes perilously close. Gone is any modicum of control by sadistic cinematic overlords, twisting and turning your experience for maximum effect. Gone is the thrill of wandering into a room with one bullet in the chamber and a very real, very palpable sweat on your hands. What we have here is a shooter, pure and simple, riddled with too many bullets, and with holes. Holes punched through an otherwise fine game to make room for a co-op mode and a bevy of micro-transactions. You can, in essence, pay for the best gear in the game. And the co-op mode, featuring new character John Carver, hollows out the single player experience. That's a fact. John and Isaac are together at crucial points, and John stays in radio contact, but he's rarely seen on the field, instead popping up like some figment of Isaac's imagination. It would actually make the game way, way better if that were the case.

The Co-op in Dead Space 3 is billed as "drop in, drop out", making it a Gears of War style experience. But Dead Space was never Gears of War; it's always been a startlingly thoughtful game, with a keen eye for what makes people scared, and loyal, and truly driven towards survival. John has a backstory, but it's confined to the co-op side of the game. There are co-op only missions. It's a compelling game design choice made, I feel, for the wrong reasons. Business reasons. Yes, gaming is a business, blah blah blah, and by no means is Dead Space 3 a bad game. It just doesn't feel like a Dead Space game anymore; more like a spin-off in which Isaac makes a prolonged, violent cameo.

There is a lot to like about the story, however; Clarke and Elly begin the game estranged, as a result of Elly wanting to head out and destroy markers, and Clarke refusing. Clarke is holed up in a dingy apartment, kicking himself, when the action commences. The plot is rich with Unitologists, conspiracies and alien worlds, and Isaac will get to head into some of the most genuinely awesome environments in the series. There's a terrific story in here, there really is. But there's also a sudden, unsatisfying ending, which is a shame given how well the first two wrapped up. Dead Space 3 truly is the Return of the Jedi of the three. Endor would have been awesome, were it not for the frigging ewoks.

There are several other things about the game that I loved: the weapon crafting system is complex and very, very satisfying. The soundtrack, as usual, kicks nine kinds of ass. The new suits are terrific. The voicework is great. The story, when it's not being sidestepped, hits home. But this game could have been so much greater. And, like Return of the Jedi, it's clearly the worst of the three, but, frustratingly, contains some of the best scenes from the entire trilogy. What could have been Isaac. What could have been.

Dead Space 4 had better get back on the horse, dammit.

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