Dead Space 3: Limited Edition – Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Visceral Games
Release Date: Feb 5, 2013
Genre: Action
Reviewed by Mark Smith
Review Score: 4 of 5

Dead Space is without a doubt one of my favorite next-gen game franchises. I love survival horror, especially when it’s set in the solitude of outer space, and Visceral Games has consistently delivered on that formula for two games and is now attempting a third, as they wrap up this bold trilogy of terror. The developers have taken an interesting direction for this latest installment, not only integrating a heavy dose of cooperative campaign play but also taking the adventure planetside. That’s right…no more derelict space ships or abandoned space stations. Most of Dead Space 3 will be taking place on a planet so bone-chillingly cold it’s like having Lost Planet, Hoth, and Kurt Russell’s, The Thing, all rolled into one.

Isaac Clarke is back once again as the ultimate survivor of two horrific stories involving ancient alien Markers that radiate some power that turns the living insane and the dead into grotesque necromorphs. The power of the Markers has been infused into Isaac’s mind, which makes him the prime target of the Unitology cult; religious fanatics that see necromorphism as the next stage of our evolution, but it also makes Isaac Earth’s only hope. Teaming up with fellow survivor, Ellie and a group of scientists, Isaac goes in search of the Marker’s home world, a distant planet lying just beyond a massive space minefield that has turned the area into a ship graveyard.

Dead Space 3 is quite cinematic in its presentation, starting with a brief tutorial on Tau Volantis, just to tease you with the icy adventure ahead, then its back to Earth for a few levels that looks like something taken from Blade Runner meets Fifth Element. Then you have a substantial portion of the game that takes place in space as you explore the various ships floating around the minefield before heading down to the planet for the rest of the game. Dead Space 3 is long…prohibitively long in my opinion. The story starts dragging around the 15-hour mark, there is excessive backtracking through previously explored areas, and new sections of the game are blatantly using cookie-cutter room and passage configurations with minor set redressing. If you are playing the co-op campaign there will be even more co-op exclusive areas and missions to complete, and when you factor in all of the optional secondary missions you could easily spend 35-40 hours finishing this game. My solo pass through the game took 26 hours, although much of that was from dying and retrying certain areas.

This leads to my second major complaint; the overwhelming difficult. When you reach the final few hours of the story (around the time you are collecting slices of frozen alien) the game starts throwing impossible numbers of enemies at you in an endless series of repetitious room battles. You walk into a room and cross some invisible trip wire or push a button or perform some random act and necromorphs start materializing from broken air shafts or erupting from the ground if you are outside. And these aren’t your necromorphs from the previous games. Their limbs don’t come off so easily, if at all, and they are much faster and will frequently rush you and trigger a rapid button tapping sequence to kick them off. I ultimately had to drop the difficulty down to Casual level near the very end before my frustration prohibited me from even finishing the game.

I don’t like to think that I suck at these games (I typically start and finish most on Hard) so maybe it’s just that I never found the optimum set of weapons. Unlike the first two Dead Space titles, you now have unprecedented freedom in creating the weapons of your dreams. Before, you could find standard issue weapons and trick them out with various plug-in modules to enhance their various attributes. Now, you get to build your weapons from the stock up, installing upper and lower components, various attachments, and upgrade chips to tweak reload and firing speeds, ammo capacity, and overall damage. You can install mods to infuse your ammo with stasis ability,acid, electricity, or even fire. You can create a repulse cannon with a flamethrower attachment, a machine gun with a spike launcher, or a shotgun with a grenade launcher. Basically, if you can imagine it and you have the parts you can design and build it, and you can even create blueprints of your designs and share them with your friends.

You can only carry two weapons now, although if properly configured that could equate to four, but you really have to make some smart choices on designs and which two to take into any area of the game, as certain weapons and mods have a greater impact on certain creatures. Sadly, the game gives no clues as to what works best so you are left to the mercy of trial and error or community game forums. While benches (the only place to switch weapons as well as modify them) seem to be more plentiful in Dead Space 3, you don’t want to get caught in the wrong area with the wrong weapon. Thankfully, you can tear down any assembled weapons and reuse their parts to build new weapons or upgrade existing ones.

Much like the weapons, your space suit (or Rig) is back and there are numerous models to choose from including a slick N7 Rig loyalty bonus if your Xbox detects a save file from Mass Effect 3. You can change these suits out at various Rig stations and perform upgrades to health, armor, stasis, and kinetic mods. Both weapons and suit upgrades are now handled through a new resource system that means you’ll be looting more boxes and bodies than a game of Diablo III. You can even send out these little resource bots to collect the stuff for you, and if you drop them in just the right spot (as noted on your deployment sensor) you can get some pretty good hauls. All of these items tally up to create a list of ingredients that are used to create new items or replenish existing supplies like health, ammo, stasis modules and Rig upgrades.

I have to confess; the new Rigs look awesome and are loaded with detail. As always, your health and other important meters are all visually integrated into the suit and your menus, mission logs, and inventory all pop-up on a transparent HUD and move with you in the game, which makes the game entirely seamless, but also very real-time in that you will still get attacked while you’re navigating the interface. I really love the way the patterned glow from your helmet is often the only light in an area until you sight down your weapon to activate the flashlight.

Graphically, Dead Space 3 sets the bar extremely high as we enter what is likely the final year of the Xbox 360. I took several matched screenshots from both a high-end PC and 360 versions of the game and asked ten random people which were which and all ten confused the 360 shots for the PC. The PC offers a few niceties, mostly in the way of improved textures and lighting effects, but overall you’d be hard to tell the difference when the lights go out and the monsters show up. I really enjoyed the three unique looks to the game, even if the opening city levels were over in less than an hour. The section in space provided that smooth transition from the first two games before dumping me on one of the most hostile frozen planets in the galaxy where (just like Lost Planet) you had to stay near fire just to stay alive until you got the right suit. And make no mistake; if you have ever seen the movie, The Thing, you are going to definitely get that same vibe as you explore abandoned camps and research sites with tarps flapping in the howling wind and near white-out conditions that will have you straining to see the next glowing flair on the horizon.

There is a certain solitude and feeling of abandonment you get, both from the visuals and the haunting text messages and audio playbacks from random terminals scattered about the planet. All too often it is easy to dismiss these messages and move on to the next fight, but for those with the diligence to reads the text and listen to the audio logs, there are some compelling stories being told and perhaps even a clue or two. The rest of the audio experience is just as impressive with a haunting score, great voice acting from all the major characters, and some of the most haunting sound effects since…well…the last Dead Space game. Play this game in the dark on a good surround sound system and you won’t sleep for days.

Dead Space 3 offers many more puzzle opportunities in this adventure with cool hacking puzzles that have you swiveling the analog stick looking for three sweet spots before the timer expires or these twin-stick positional puzzles that having you moving both sticks to a sequence of highlighted areas on a grid. You’ll also have plenty of puzzles involving your kinesis module to relocate power cores or manipulate alien artifacts. Near the end they even mix puzzles and combat by having you freeze some regenerating enemies then hacking a door before they thaw out. The tension is non-stop, especially in some of the new vertical scaling portions of the game where you attach to a grapple and climb up or race down vertical walls dodging incoming obstacles and enemy fire. And yes, for fans of zero-g action, there are plenty of no-gravity sections, both in space and on the planet including a couple of sequences that have you steering Isaac through air/space corridors much like a ship through an asteroid field.

The co-op experience in Dead Space 3 is just as good as anything you’d expect in a dedicated co-op game like Army of Two or Kane and Lynch, but it’s just as surprisingly transparent in that with the exception of one spot in the game where it actually said, “Invite a friend to experience this co-op mission”, you’d never know you could play this game with a friend. It’s not like you have an AI buddy tagging along for the ride that is waiting for a human controller. If anything, the co-op experience is even better than playing alone. First, you “feel” a bit safer just by having a friend along, but then you start factoring in the various weapon combinations and standoff tactics you can employ, and many of the weapon upgrades affect both you and your partner. Even the puzzles require a fresh take when approached from a co-op perspective. But the best thing about playing with John Carver is playing as John Carver. His story is just as gripping and unique as Isaac’s, and the person playing as John will be privy to exclusive flashbacks and visions, which means this may be the first game since Gears of War that you’ll want to play from both sides.

Dead Space 3 is a good game with moments of greatness that continues to offer up the best in scary moments and the ultimate in survival horror tension, and while I admire Visceral Games’ attempt to offer something beyond the traditional experience, they may have gone just a bit too far. I enjoyed the crafting for the first few hours but by the time I was actually starting to get the cooler stuff I was burned out and just wanted to finish the game, and even though my weapons had awesome specs, most with max damage, I seemed impotent in combat, which led to numerous deaths and at least 3-4 hours of replaying parts of the game or even just racing through doors in hopes of reaching the next checkpoint. And while there was a compelling narrative being told, both in the logs and the main script, the path through that story was overly complicated with excessive backtracking in an obvious attempt to pad out an already lengthy game. I’ll definitely take away some great memories from the Dead Space trilogy but regrettably, most of them will be from the first two games where everything just seemed a bit more fresh and refined.