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.
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.
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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