Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dead Space 3 review – thrills through experiment

If the first Dead Space is a survival-horror game, and Dead Space 2 was all about its sense of dread, then Dead Space 3 tends to lean the side of action-horror. You won’t be guns blazing all the time like in a Call of Duty campaign, but the action does kick up whenever human enemies are involved. Despite this, Visceral manages to balance the tension and action with environments that look amazing and sound design matching what set the first Dead Space apart.

Dead Space 3 is a redemption story. Since Dead Space 2, Isaac Clarke has become isolated from not only everyday life, but also his now ex-girlfriend Ellie Langford, who he met during the events outbreak on Titan station Sprawl. It’s clear the markers left him in a state of detachment as evidenced by his long stares out windows and at pictures him and Ellie together. However, it’s not until Ellie goes missing that Isaac comes to face his dissolution, finding her while discovering the source of the markers. The insanity and hallucinations of the series vacate from single-player, sidelining them for co-op where Isaac teams up with soldier John Carver, who faces the guilt of his own family problems.

On the surface, some of the top-level designs of Dead Space 3 can hinder its enjoyment. Backtracking, while usually kept to a minimum, is unconfined near the very end, tasking you with trekking over the same area four times before moving on. Progress and inventory saving are severed, with progress tied to specific checkpoints and inventory tied to manually saving and quitting. Traditionally the Dead Space used explicit save stations, allowing you to save at only certain points, something akin to save crystals from the PlayStation 1 version of Tomb Raider. It was an old way of doing it but worked to increase the tension while wandering the halls of the Ishamura, hoping to find a save station on the other side of the next door. Dead Space 3 forgoes those in favor of checkpoints, which wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so infrequent. There were times when 45 minutes to an hour passed without reaching a checkpoint. Optional side missions only compound the problem as no checkpoints appear during those missions.

For all of the focus on the ice planet of Tau Volantis, it doesn’t actually appear until the second half. The first half of Dead Space 3 spends its time in a ship graveyard orbiting around the planet. This is where the Dead Space series makes use of its unique zero gravity movement, traveling from ship to ship in an effort to piece together an escape shuttle. It also opens up optional side missions, visiting some of the non-essential derelict ships to find new schematics and salvage to build new weapons.

That’s right, Dead Space 3 changes the formula from a straight-forward weapon and armor upgrade system to a resource-based crafting system. Isaac can only carry two weapons this time, but each weapon can have an upper and lower engine, enabling him literally to stack weapons on top of each other. Mixing in different tips and attachments can put a spin on classic weapons like adding a rotator module to a line gun, essentially creating a giant-sized plasma cutter, or concocting entirely new weapons like an electrified bola cutter that coats each shot with acid.

leftnexusrightnexusIt’s here where salvage parts and weapon pieces are purchasable through microtranstions. However, at no point during my 18-hour playthrough did I feel low on salvage parts. The rate at which salvage is acquired in Dead Space 3 feels meticulously paced, giving the sense of desperation as supplies and ammunition are low in the first third and overflowing with items, to the point of dropping or selling supplies for more inventory room, near the end. Using the newly added scavenger bots to help gather salvage parts will also net ration seals, used to purchase higher-level weapon parts that otherwise could only be acquired through the DLC menu at a workbench.

When you do aim the sights of weapons at the limbs of necromorphs, it’s fast and frantic. Dead Space 3 isn’t afraid of using monster closets to push enemies out in front, behind, or above you, but it’s the number of necromorphs charging you that makes the combat rattling, and precise. It’s not out of the ordinary for seven necromorphs to charge head-on, barreling down on you from different areas of a room. Stasis plays a larger role in combat with more charges from a fully-upgraded module to slow down the horde and take out limbs one by one.

It’s unfortunate the same polish through iteration of combat didn’t translate to bosses as well. While the Dead Space series has always toyed with boss design, not all hit the mark, and that doesn’t change in Dead Space 3. Only three boss encounters pop up and they feel mostly derivative of the standard boss fight: combat roll away from the tentacles, shoot the weak yellow spots, and use stasis or telekinesis when appropriate. It’s one area that desperately feels antiquated when compared with how everything else has evolved over the course of the series. Some games work well without bosses, while others feel archaic with bosses wedged in because it’s a video game. Dead Space is a series I feel would benefit greatly from having a heavily developed boss fight only at the end.

Maybe it’s the result of being the third game in a series, but the necromorphs of Dead Space 3 lose their grotesque, ominous presence that left an impression in the previous two games. Most of the same types of necromorphs return with a few new or mutated visuals, but they feel under-appreciated and don’t carry the same gravitas. Regenerators appear in one chapter and never return, despite the tension and haste they cause. I only ever saw two Pregnant necromorphs during the entire game. Wasters, the human-necromorph hybrid, appear in abundance and morph depending on which limbs are dismembered. Stalkers return and still feel as awesome and scary as they did when they first appeared in the unitology church in Dead Space 2.

But necromorphs aren’t the only enemies this time around. Occasionally you’ll run into unitology soldiers trying to stop Isaac, labeled a heretic by their leader Jacob Danik. The Dead Space engine clearly didn’t have human combat in mind when created, as evidenced by the additions of a combat roll, crouch, and a cover mechanic. Thankfully, these human combat encounters are rare, appearing primarily at the beginning and end of the campaign, with a few moments in between.

Despite its aged engine, Dead Space 3 still looks amazing. With few exceptions, lighting is still top-notch in creating a creepy atmosphere in the halls of abandoned ships, while also highlighting the design of Tau Volantis. When roaming around in zero gravity, the vastness of space looks unlimited with details of specks of debris tousling about. When on the surface of the planet, the fierce snowstorms limit visibility making the exhibition of necromorphs all the more startling when they don’t appear until a few inches in front of you. Combined with great sound design, like making the roar of the wind and the sound of a skittering necromorph indistinguishable, it’s all that much more satisfying.

Dead Space 3, while a great game, doesn’t have the same impact the original did, but it doesn’t need to. After two games and hundreds of slain necromorphs, Isaac knows what he’s in for is willing to take it to the end. With numerous weapon combinations and a new setting, Dead Space 3 is a canvas ready to be painted through experimentation. That experimentation doesn’t always result in scares, but it does deliver thrills.

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