I’m usually optimistic and upbeat in regards to my role as a video game critic. I am more than willing to recognize and acknowledge inherent quality, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. But with Dead Space 3 , I have to draw a line in the sand: While I will say it’s worth playing and that it can be lots of fun, and that the production values are high, and that there are no glaring flaws, I will also say this—
It’s simply more evidence of an industry – and an era of our civilization – that is unabashedly more interested in flash over substance. The latest Dead Space opts to sacrifice a certain amount of fear in favor of in-your-face gore, gives us a convoluted and ultimately insignificant story, and appears to feature a bunch of “fetch” quests simply for the sake of killing more things. But this truth is hidden, veiled. It’s even occasionally lost beneath a flurry of admittedly fantastic action. We’re having a blast when playing, while something in the back of our minds is going, “…hmm…seems kinda brainless.”
To expand on my point, let’s consider the great visual presentation in the game. The artistic merit is undeniable, as the enemy and boss designs are excellent and the environment is immersive and highly detailed. The special effects are indeed special, there’s obviously a ton of technical proficiency on display, and the game runs smoothly at all times. As I said, the production values really are high and one must appreciate that level of effort and achievement. They even manage to infuse a bit more color and vibrancy than we’ve found in the past two iterations, and I salute Visceral for that, too. No, I have no problem with the graphics; in fact, I’m impressed.
The sound excels as well, as we get some great voice performances, top-notch sound effects, and a fittingly freaky soundtrack that enhances most all nightmarish encounters. The balancing isn’t perfect and not all spoken lines are delivered with the same amount of convincing skill, but these are minor drawbacks. The effects absolutely sparkle in some cases, especially when engaged in massive firefights, where the visual effects also leap right off the screen. The technical elements are very good, even great. There are a few small inconsistencies and eccentricities, but nothing to get in a twist about. And this is why it’s so easy to just say, “Yep, Dead Space 3 is awesome.”
And in some ways, it is. I get that. There’s so much to like and yet, a nagging part of me kept telling me that something felt…wrong. But first, let’s start with the story that tries to be complex but ends up being a little confusing and in the end, almost unimportant. Isaac Clarke reprises his role as the fearless protagonist and this time, he’s part of what could’ve been a really interesting love triangle. Plus, he’s stranded on the icy tundra of mysterious Tau Volantis and although the story does cite past plots, those who don’t remember the first two games might be somewhat baffled by what they see and hear.
But that’s all right because in truth, the focus is squarely on the gameplay, which is amped up with loud and in-your-face set pieces, huge, terrifying bosses, and yes, even a subtle sense of fear. Visceral opts to dissolve much of that growing fear with ceaseless swarms of Necromorphs, though, which is a shame. There was so much potential there, and they just didn’t let it build enough. Anyway, with the great technical components adding to the urgency and intensity, you’re almost always on the edge of your seat. It’s just not a Resident Evil edge of your seat feeling, which may irk those seeking a more Hitchcockian adventure.
Then you have the greatly enhanced weapon crafting mechanic, which is surprisingly deep. In fact, it’s deep enough to be somewhat disconcerting because I found that it didn’t necessarily fit with the theme of the game. Weapon crafting and customization is intricate enough to be considered borderline intelligent, while the flow and style of Dead Space 3 seems anything but intelligent. However, such a robust system adds some strategy to the experience because if you end up creating something perfectly useless, you could be in big trouble. Plus, it’s cool to experiment and collecting the requisite parts can be quite entertaining for all the meticulous gamers out there.
So after you’ve combined a flamethrower with a grenade launcher or turned your plasma cutter into something totally outlandish, you continue on your merry way, tearing through some of the most absurdly freakish creatures you’ve ever seen. Your foes don’t seem to present the same challenge they did in past series entries, but I think that’s just because Isaac’s strength and firepower is superior now. The enemies are diverse and force you to adapt on the fly, which is always a bonus. On top of which, I happen to like feeling powerful in my games, so I’m not about to complain that Isaac isn’t quite so vulnerable or fragile this time around.
Lastly, much has been made of the cooperative element, and there’s a good reason for that: If you only choose to play the game solo, you will miss Carver’s side of the story. And of course, there’s always the added fun of playing with a friend, where you will find puzzles tweaked to allow both players to participate, and crazy sequences where one of you loses his mind…and the other just watches, confused and a little frightened. It does indeed add another dimension to what is a decidedly straightforward experience but like the main plot, Carver’s story isn’t exactly memorable. It’s emotional but also clichéd and just feels empty.
The developer does try to mix things up with unique gameplay segments that give you a break from the third-person shooting. Some of these ideas work, some don’t. The core combat is fine; it works well, the enemies are some of the wackiest you’ll ever see, the environment is really well designed, and the control is nigh-on rock solid. So in that, there’s little to complain about. But as I said above, one must look past this; compare this to the original Dead Space for example, and the differences are clear. They’re not bad differences, per se, but they do reek of a concerted effort to cater to the casual and to the “twitchy.”
Look, I’m all for games that present you with a formidable, interesting atmosphere and launch you into a hellish adventure that will keep you up nights. But that’s just the thing: This game hasn’t kept me up nights. It just isn’t scary. At least, it isn’t consistently scary; the Necromorphs and other opponents (especially bosses) are intimidating, but the basis of this adventure is gore and nastiness and grossness, not indefinable fear or crawling skin or spine-tingling sensations. In short, it’s less about being frightened and more about tearing sh** up.
Granted, Dead Space 3 does a darn good job of letting you tear sh** up. That’s a fact. The environment is continually interesting and involving, the character and enemy designs are highly accomplished, the third-person action is reliable and responsive, and the deep weapon crafting system adds intricacy. But the subtler aspects, the slightly more artistic elements, the more cerebral parts of the production; they take a back seat to the insanity. Hence, the epitome of flash over substance. Just to be clear, however, that flash is of an elite quality and doesn’t deserved to be insulted. If that’s what you want, you’re good to go. If not…well…
The Good: Great design and atmosphere. Blistering effects and decent voice acting. Good control. Weapon crafting adds depth and strategy. A well-paced, lengthy campaign. Co-op makes it feel like a new experience.
The Bad: Unsatisfying, seemingly insignificant story. Not enough done with concepts of fear and trepidation. A few original gameplay segments don’t work well enough.
The Ugly: “‘Ugly’ is a dominating factor. Kinda need it.”