You won’t find a better snapshot of big-budget video games right now than Dead Space 3.
As sequels to sequels often do, Dead Space 3 delivers a most palatable sci-fi action dish, having smoothed away all the rough edges of its predecessors. It’s pretty to look at, delivers the requisite number of thrills, and stays mostly interesting from the first hour to the 20th.
Yet Dead Space 3 is also a constant reminder of the gloomy business that surrounds this wonderful pastime. Dead Space 3 makes several subtle efforts to sell you in-game resources for real money, and carves out a gaping hole in its story for online cooperative play (which, incidentally, requires an “Online Pass” that costs $10 if you buy the game used). Even if you don’t think of these efforts as offensive money grabs, there’s no escaping the fact that they change the game–and not for the better.
There was a time when the series’ mantra, “shoot for the limbs,” held more meaning, back when Dead Space used to be about scarcity. When you looked in your inventory and saw only a clip-and-a-half of ammo and a tiny health pack, you experienced genuine terror at what the next darkened corridor might bring.
That kind of scarcity can’t exist in Dead Space 3. Just imagine the backlash that publisher Electronic Arts would face if the game didn’t scatter a healthy supply of ammo and weapons throughout, but then asked players to buy those materials with real money. EA doesn’t need that stress, so instead Dead Space 3 goes the other way: By the midway point, you’re so overstuffed with weapons and ammo that you have to start selling off your surplus just to make room for more. Don’t worry about emptying your chamber on a single Necromorph; there’s plenty of ammo to go around.
The spooky atmosphere that was once a hallmark of Dead Space is further diminished through the addition of cooperative multiplayer, regardless of whether you partake. EA wants you to believe you can have your cake and eat it too–that by playing alone, you can get the same solitary chills that the series has always offered. But even in single player, it’s hard not to notice the void where your coop partner is supposed to be. Isaac Clark, the game’s protagonist, and his combat buddy John Carver, appear together at critical junctures in the story, and they often stay in radio contact when separated. The game never offers convincing explanations for why they don’t stick together all the time; you’re left to ponder the cognitive dissonance on your own, while enjoying the comfort of never truly feeling alone in Dead Space’s world.
Even if you wanted to dabble in multiplayer, it’s hard to know where to jump in. The game’s handful of coop-only missions are scattered randomly throughout the game, so you’ll need to have an online friend in waiting just to play them. Multiplayer is best experienced by people who have a long list of friends to rely on at all times, or don’t mind playing with a revolving cast of complete strangers. If neither of those scenarios work for you, a significant facet of Dead Space 3’s story is withheld.
There’s still a lot to like about Dead Space 3. Seeing a horde of monsters fast approaching, with pointy limbs flailing, as an orchestra of horns and violins rises to cacophony, is guaranteed to get the heart pumping, even if you can carelessly let the bullets fly now. As always, you’ll be pointing your gun-mounted flashlight at every corner, and listening closely to localize the growls of your attackers. The terror is dulled, but the thrill at Dead Space’s core remains intact.
I also welcome the new weapon system, which lets you cobble together an arsenal from assorted parts. Maybe you’ll craft a rather pedestrian machine gun with mounted rocket launcher, but perhaps you’ll get creative and make a dual-bladed, acid-enhanced razor launcher. It’s up to you, and from a narrative angle the system ties in nicely with Isaac’s engineering background. Unlike the game’s superfluous resource economy, the weapons are something you can actually obsess over.
The storyline treads some interesting waters as well, as the fictional religion of Unitology takes center stage. Dead Space 3 even breaks away from the series’ desolate spaceships for once, taking players to a frozen planet where the Unitologists try to cause the “rebirth” (read: mass extinction) of humanity. While several critics have drawn parallels to Scientology, it’s clear now that Dead Space is taking an ax to messianic thinking in general. In the event of a world-threatening disaster, how many of us would embrace it as Rapture, and how many of us would try to survive it? How far will blind faith take us? Sci-fi has an interesting way of putting those cosmic questions on the table. I only wish Dead Space 3 didn’t drag down the better parts of its story with a predictable love triangle subplot in its first half.
The end result of all this is a game that I found equal parts enjoyable and agitating. I hate that microtransactions and shoehorned multiplayer conspire to make Dead Space 3 worse. I hate that the review copy EA sent to me included bonus weapons that feel like overpowered cheats when used at the outset. I hate bonus weapons as a concept. In many ways, I hate what big budget gaming has become.
But I still liked Dead Space 3. You probably will too, if you just don’t let it get to you.
Score: 3 out of 5
Version reviewed: Xbox 360