‘Dead Space 3’ review: Game ups the action, loses the scares

Feb. 08, 2013 | 6:00 p.m.

The most powerful weapon in “Dead Space 3” is the music. Though no more than a soundtrack, it’s the sound of violin strings — and not ghastly space creatures — that provide the tension here. The instruments are pulled so tight that at times it feels as if the simple movement of a character might bring the world crashing down.

The music, a scraping, needling sound poking the listener, is constantly asking the player questions:  What’s breathing in that vent? What’s ruffling behind that door? Are you really sure you want to enter that corridor?

The answer is rarely as enthralling as the setup. The thing in the vent is a reanimated corpse, and it maybe has tentacles, or it may have scythe-like arms. You will shoot them and then stomp on them, and then use whatever they were carrying to build better weapons to shoot them and stomp on them more efficiently.

“Dead Space 3” is ultimately trying to do two things. It wants to scare,  but it wants to provide near-relentless thrills – zero-gravity shootouts, disorientating snowstorms, cliff-scaling and death-defying jumps from trains to spaceships. As impressive and well-orchestrated as these scenes are, “Dead Space 3” forgot an important component of what it takes to inspire fright: One must care.

The series, published by Electronic Arts, is a long way removed from where it began in 2008. The first “Dead Space” played out as an “Alien”-inspired survival horror game. A distress call was answered, a ship was boarded and hero Isaac Clarke, who the gamer controlled then and now, suddenly found himself hunted by a creature known as a Necromorph, the results of something akin to an alien virus that manifests itself by reanimating and manipulating dead flesh. Necromorphs are the perfect hybrid between zombies and aliens, and they spring from monolithic-like markers.

A scene from 'Dead Space 3" (Electronic Arts).

A scene from ‘Dead Space 3″ (Electronic Arts).

All of the above turned Clarke’s comfortable universe — a spaceship — into something completely unknown. In “Dead Space 3,” however, Clarke is the universe’s last hope, an action movie star ready for his close-up. This time, Necromorphs are everywhere, a religious cult perplexingly believes the creatures are the future of humanity and Earth is essentially descending into chaos. Clarke is recruited — against his will — to go Necromorph-a-huntin’ and save the world.

And thus, despite the horror film trappings — the creaky-door effects, the alien-zombies crawling ‘Exorcist’-like out of vents — “Dead Space 3” has become primarily an action-heavy shooter. It’s one with landscapes that Ridley Scott fans could appreciate, but a shooter nevertheless. To wit, one of the main additions to “Dead Space 3” is the ability to craft your own weapons from scraps found around the universe. No doubt this will appeal to many who seek customization when it comes to digital guns, but the Boy Scout-like chore of searching every room for junk and then following blueprints to assemble a super-weapon kills some of what “Dead Space” does best, which is set a mood.

As the series has progressed from its survival horror roots, so has the game’s lore. “Dead Space 3” has a central villain, a human cult leader named Jacob Danik. It deeper adds a conspiratorial nature to the sci-fi mystery, but the continued emphasis on Danik’s Church of Unitology, which seems to come and go as missions need to be expanded or given detours, adds complex layers between Clarke and his mission and ultimately desensitizes the gamer to the world and Clarke’s plight.

There’s no shortage of extremists, cult leaders or even brand managers who can seduce people to blindly believe a cause, but as Clarke battles Danik’s men in one of the game’s many plot twists, one can’t help but wonder why all the Unitology faithful — confused humans, mostly — are seemingly OK with corpse-eating-and-inhabiting creatures.  The elements that spawn the Necromorphs, the markers, cause hallucinations and insanity, sure, but brainwashing seems an easy out when so many lives are at stake.

A scene from 'Dead Space 3" (Electronic Arts).

A scene from ‘Dead Space 3″ (Electronic Arts).

This is the point where the question of whether this is any fun becomes more difficult to answer. The controls have never been more refined, Clarke has never been more mobile, and “Dead Space 3” does a good job varying the pace and keeping gamers curious as to what kind of landscape Clarke will forage through next, be it a subway, an icy planet or an assortment of busted spaceships. Technologically, everything is in its proper place here. There’s also a certain amount of empowering joy in blasting apart evil aliens, and the addition of online co-op, while not reviewed here, was done in a clever manner. One player, for instance, will watch his character hallucinate while the the other is in need of a helping hand.

But it’s the development of Clarke, primarily, where “Dead Space 3” comes up cold. As the game opens, he’s a loner facing eviction and sitting in his apartment listening to messages from his ex, Ellie. Soon, a pair of soldiers conscript him into battle, and Clarke makes it clear he’s not interested in world-saving.

He only stops putting up a fight because Ellie is in danger. Yet when she’s finally rescued, and then instantly runs to make out with one of the very soldiers that recruited Clarke, this once seemingly malevolent love-sick gunner essentially shrugs and goes off looking for some ancient inscriptions to, of course, save the world. This big moment for the Ellie-obsessed Clarke essentially arrived with a thud.

There’s a few romantic twists and turns yet to come in “Dead Space 3,” but it’s here where Clarke no longer felt like a fully realized character, and simply a vessel to drop into heavily detailed deep-space missions. In a game that promises a cinematic experience, it’s ultimately only the music that truly feels alive, as if the noises themselves were scurrying across the terrain.

— Todd Martens

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16 Responses to ‘Dead Space 3’ review: Game ups the action, loses the scares

  1. Eric says:

    I had the unique experience of plowing through DS2 on hardcore over the past two days in an attempt to platinum. I made it. Half an hour later I started in on DS3 and the disappointment hasn't stopped yet.

    • @subho9000 says:

      Agreed! There is just something so special about DS2, the scares, the atmosphere, the combat, all felt immaculately balanced. They did everything wrong with DS3. Universal ammo?! Part of the thrill of the previous games was always being on the hunt for ammo and managing ammo wisely, knowing you could die any time you became too complacent. Here, there's no sense of fear or tension. Methodically press the locator button, follow, kill all in your way like a boss, continue. Guess you can always trust EA to ruin our beloved franchises.

  2. Trinity Firestar says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed DS1 and DS2. Played through both on hardcore, logging hundreds of hours. I've played DS3 tonight for the first time, and after the first 5 hours am already drudging along rather bored. The fact that mobs drop components instead of ammo or health is a heavy chore in hard mode, the ability to craft your own guns is less than desired since my goal is to play through with only a mining laser as I did the first two, and the crafting system is not polished. I started to create a weapon, changed my mind, then found I couldn't cancel the weapon.

    Why are we running around trying to gather components to craft things instead of finding ammo to mow things down? The STORY was the selling point of the first two games… Isaac's quest to find his girl. When I saw the plotline for this game during the open credits, my thoughts were…. Again? Didn't we just deal with a whacko religion in DS2?

    Then I find that there is more downloadable content, specially made to make finding those hard-to-find crafting components easier for only a paltry $4.95. More pay to win.

    I feel that the story line is incredibly week. Why is there even a crouch button to hide from mobs when they just charge around the barriers anyway?

    So disappointed. No Dead Space 4 for me. Alas, I don't think I'll find out how Isaac saves the universe this time.

    • Regular Stormy says:

      I have to disagree. I feel like the trilogy has been alot of fun all around, and a main reason is that it's really been homage after homage to classic sci fi and horror tropes. I don't think the narrative hook has EVER been strong with the franchise, because it has always been an obvious catalyst for winks and nods to fans of the genre. DS1 really pulled off the Alien vibe well, but kind of struggled with trying to be Resident Evil 4. DS2 was a rare example of how bigger, badder, and more action can actually help a sequel and not make it ridiculous. Its probably my favorite of the 3. Every level was a different brand of classic scary, from the occult to Arkham Asylum. And that intro! But Dead Space 3 managed to evoke 60's/70's NASA, like a twisted Apollo 13 mission, and then jump into John Carpenter's The Thing, all with incredible atmosphere. Sure the gameplay has changed, but to say it ruined the franchise is simply not true. In some ways, this is the classiest we have seen out Dead Space.

    • Louis says:

      He dies.

      • hector says:

        i don't think so, it seems that at the very end once ellie is gone, you can hear him saying what i i belive sounded like ellie are you there? am in the moon….

  3. Ray says:

    Honestly, this once I really don't understand how everyone is so dissapointed with DS3…. Of course it's not as horror as the first was… neither was DS2. The first experience is always the most profound. But I played through DS3 on hard solo and I found it very exciting, there is more story than just mere survival/escape this time… that actually kept me interested, to see what we will find on the planet… what is behind the markers and such with some small hope of making those fools of unitologists see the truth.

    There also were some high tension moments, especially when the beloved regenerator necromorphs return and more than just one at a time! that was run like crazy moments! and the co-op optional missions with one character hallucinating while the other doesn't is just brilliant!

    Soundtrack wise the game is superior to the other two and that plus the story gave towards the ending a more epic feel than I was expecting from such a game. So for me DS3 was slightly better than DS2, almost as good as DS1 overall.

  4. ali says:

    i want to git it i hope it has a solo mode

  5. Doodiepie says:

    I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about with this game. It’s the third in a series. It’s only natural that Isaac, who has dealt with two earlier Necromorph encounters, is now terribly capable to handle the outbreak? It still has the same elements of horror as the previous two. The isolation on the planet. The dark hallways. The monsters that come from nowhere. The wave after wave of necromorphs in tight spaces while you’re struggling for ammo and can barely see.

    Is it at all possible that you’ve become accustomed to the scares and no longer find it terrifying? Are you still afraid of the boogeyman too? And zombies? Or does it take a truly unique IP to scare you? Remember when everyone loved saw and they made a billion movies without evolving so then everyone started loving paranormal activity and they made a billion movies without evolving? Visceral took a chance and slightly evolved the series. Isaac is now more powerful. He can weapon craft because he knows how to deal with this.

    The other nitpicks associated with this game also have rational explanations. Weapon crafting is easy and it takes someone already looking to hate this game to now figure it out. Universal ammo does make the game considerably easier and that does suck. But as EA wanted to broaden the accessibility of the game, they realized multiple ammo types made the game too difficult for morons. But play on survivalist. You never get ammo or medpacks or weapon parts and have to craft everything out of gathered resources. And compare hardcore on DS2 to DS3. Three saves is way easier than instadeath. I haven’t been that terrified of dying in a long while. Or if you really are gonna complain about crafting, play on retro, or whatever that mode is called. Oh and microtramsactions? Don’t buy them if you don’t like them. This game is about gathering resources in a hostile area, so spend some time, enjoy the isolation and terrifying atmosphere and go pick up some scrap metal yourself.

    Finally, the story is pretty lame and on the nose. But that has never been DS’s strong suit. What did you expect? Even with the terrible story, though, I can’t wait for my next playthrough. I just need to figure out what mode I want to play it on.

  6. Gertrude says:

    So basically , EA messed up yet another game franchise.

    This is the reason why I download pirated games. I’m tired of throwing money away on half @ss games. The gaming industry is becoming like the movie industry, where 75 % of movies are crap.

  7. Tony says:

    I'm about 3/4 of the way thru Dead Space 3 and am having a great time with it. Yes, some areas of the game have a greater emphasis on action but there are also plenty of locales that harken back to the style of the earlier games. As for the crafting system, I think it's a great addition and allows you to tailor the weapons to your style of play, but if you don't like it, don't use it as you come across plenty of regular weapons throughout the course of the game. Likewise with the co-op that some people seem to object to; just go it alone as the game supports that as well.

    I'm also surprised that hardly any of the reviews for the game have touched on all the sidequests that are available; not only do they lengthen the adventure, but they also play more like classic Dead Space as you're exploring derelict ships and abandoned complexes swarming with necromorphs.

    As we have seen with other franchises like Resident Evil, if you don't adapt and evolve you will quickly be kicked to the curb and saddled with adjectives like "tired", "retread", "repetitive" and so on. The Dead Space franchise was in a tough place: if the developers just put out another corridor crawler with monsters jumping out of every vent you can be sure the media would have derided it for not differentiating itself from the prior games – there is just no pleasing some reviewers.

  8. Josh says:

    Oh good lord why do I even look in the comments sections or read reviews? Yes the game has changed, like every blockbuster hit it has to get bigger and more intense with each sequel. Look at John McClane, in the first act walking on broken glass is an obstacle for him, in the latest one he's launching cars at helicopters. Sure it can get ridiculous and overwhelming, but sequels need to build upon their predecessors, and I think dead space does a good job of that without getting too far fetched. It's one of the most beautifully cinematic and atmospheric games I've ever had the joy of playing. Those looking back at nostalgia at dead space 1, saying its… more narrative? Are you kidding? Isaac doesnt even take his helmet off or speak in that one! The second one is a masterful evolution of the franchise. I have to say I think the atmosphere is even more pronounced and creepier in dead space 3, though I've yet to play through half of the game so I cant comment on how it stacks up to the second one yet. But really… the game is amazing, just stop whining about everything and enjoy it, yeah?

  9. Donny says:

    its awesome!

  10. rjhemedes says:

    I played all 3 games and found this one the most challenging. I could not complete the game half way through with one of the giant boss monsters so I relied on the Co-op feature to get past it. This is where I felt the LA Times review by Todd Martens really failed – he completely omitted the co-op feature of Dead Space 3 which I think actually enhances the game. I thought having a partner in the game would make it less scary but I actually found it terrifying when one player's character is dealing with a seizure and the other character has to fight off monsters by himself.

    I don't think the universal ammo makes the game easier. In fact, I found collecting components and not having access to a Store made the DS3 a lot harder to play. I spent more time scavenging and collecting resources than killing necromorphs. I could easily play DS1 and DS2 solo, but DS3 is more challenging than the 1st two games. I find the game is more bearable and more fun if you utilize the co-op feature.

  11. Howard says:

    This game is good, but saving is not what it was in previous games. How do you save and then come back to the same spot that you saved at. The game goes back to the last check point and that may be quite a ways back. If you are at the bench and you upgrade or make a new weapon and save the weapon is saved but you go back to a check point a long way back in the game. How do you correctly save your progress?

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