Every second counts as you systematically dismember the Necromorph front line, using your Jedi-like kinesis to impale enemies with their own torn off limbs. You stomp their corpses, loot the precious resources, and quickly reload in preparation for the next wave.
It’s in frantic moments like this that Dead Space 3 truly shines - its superb combat and addictive new collection and upgrade system brought to life by the game’s crackling production design. The same can’t be said about the frequent errand-running, poor story and overwhelming sense of deja vu that marks much of the 19 chapter adventure. Dead Space 3 consequently becomes caught in the dissonance of the extreme glory of its combat and presentation, and the pervasive tedium of almost everything else it does. Despite its problems, one fact remains: I can’t stop playing it.
Dead Space 3 follows the galaxy’s unluckiest engineer, Isaac Clarke, as he takes up the fight to protect the human race from the mysterious Markers and its Necrospawn. This begins with Isaac heading off to rescue Ellie, his missing girlfriend who returns from Dead Space 2 with barely a mention about her missing eye. Isaac is joined by John Carver, the first playable co-op character in the series.
Few games boast as rich an atmosphere as Dead Space 3. The haunting depths of space stretch out indifferently in a solar haze, channeling the spirit of ‘80s matte paintings and pulpy sci-fi and horror movies, while the ice-driven snowscapes of Tau Volantis reimagine the Antarctic terror from John Carpenter’s The Thing. The music and sound design are top-notch as well, supporting the world class visuals with crunchy, unsettling noises.
The addition of co-op moves the franchise from the fringes of core survival horror onto the mainstream stage of action thriller. Playing in co-op erodes the sense of isolation, but the scares and the persistent sense of dread the series is known for remain intact (single-player purists can still play alone and enjoy a relatively faithful Dead Space experience). The game responds well to the addition of a second player, and in some of the tougher encounters the help is welcome, especially on higher difficulties. Carver’s presence introduces new lines of dialogue and a bunch of great optional co-op missions that explore his tragic past. These are actually some of the best parts of the story. It’s odd that these missions require an extra person in co-op to access. It would've been ideal if Carver’s side quests were also available as separate single player missions.
Combat reigns supreme in Dead Space 3 - physical, viscous, feral combat. The dismemberment mechanic is the equivalent of Dead Space’s headshot. Severing enemy appendages slows them down and kills them faster than a bullet to the brain. Other tools like the slow-mo inducing stasis and gravity-manipulating kinesis put a fresh spin on typical shooter fare. Even if you played the first two games, Dead Space 3’s combat is still some of the most unique and satisfying of this console generation.
The new weapon crafting and upgrading systems really adds to the combat experience. You’re constantly on the hunt for materials and resources to build a new weapon, to modify a favorite stand-by, or tune-up the performance of your RIG suit, but everything comes at a cost. This makes for tough decisions and creates a terrific tension all its own. These systems work together powerfully to create a reward structure you’ll want to come back to. This is especially evident in New Game+ mode. Focusing solely on combat, collection and upgrades, the thrill of the fight and Visceral’s exquisite world had me hooked, despite the game’s shortcomings - of which there are plenty.
First and foremost, Dead Space 3’s story feels forced. Isaac has retreated from society, left his girlfriend, and turned his back on the fight against the Markers, but then he sets off to find Ellie when she’s in trouble? Why now, and not the other dozens of times earlier when she called and left messages for him? This leads to a fairly unbelievable love triangle and a long series of increasingly far-fetched events. In addition to the stumbling story, much of Dead Space 3’s progression involves a list of chores and errands. Poor Isaac. Anything bad that can possibly happen does, and the solution is almost always finding some lost thing in a building on the other side of wherever you are. This routine feels so similar to the structure (and weaknesses) of the first game, at times Dead Space 3 feels more like Dead Space Again.
This makes it appear that Visceral had nothing really new of substance to say. Isaac is a broken shell of his former self, and as a result he's flat throughout the majority of the game with very little arc. And instead of some of the clever subversive gameplay we saw in Dead Space 2, like the straightjacket intro or the grueling eyeball needle sequences, we’re instead treated to a bunch of middling mini-games and fetch quests. Other nagging issues include a reoccurring boss fight with a creature you must face three separate times, a terrible fight against an angry drill, and a truly generic final boss fight that makes the giant Terminator encounter from Mass Effect 2’s finale feel fresh. Considering the elegance and sophistication of the world, combat and upgrade design, it’s a shame everything else seems so bad.
The combat system and the world Visceral has crafted in Dead Space 3 is so expertly built and well-wrought, I found myself consciously overlooking my main criticisms, because I love playing it. This is an important distinction to make: loving a game while being fully aware of its faults. Dead Space 3, when played the way I've been playing it, on New Game+, is an engrossing and satisfying experience. But it requires ignoring the bad story and the numbing to-do lists. It then becomes all about building up the most powerful, best outfitted Isaac you can imagine. It’s here and here alone that Dead Space 3 succeeds, mostly in spite of itself.