Visceral Games’ third installment in the Dead Space series is finally here. With it, came a lot of controversy and expectations. This isn’t their first rodeo and many, including me, had high hopes for Dead Space 3. For good reason too. Visceral Games has hit home runs on both of their previous horror titles and thus it begs the question: How does the third chapter of Isaac Clarke stack up?
Dead Space 3 is quite possibly the most beautiful and majestic endeavor into the grotesque and disgusting realm of science fiction horror. The stunning snow covered vistas on the giant ice cube that is Tau Volantis are marred by the gruesome necromorph creatures that feature as the predominant enemy in Dead Space. It is simply gorgeous. Snow will stick to and collect on Isaac’s suit as he walks around on the frozen and hostile surface of the planet. In darker areas, the light from his visor is actually rendered on the surfaces of walls and floors. The sharp visual fidelity of Dead Space 3 helps to create a great level of immersion into the universe, which is further enhanced by the clean and elegant user interface. Visceral maintains the best heads-up-display in the business by placing all of the necessary and relevant information on the screen in such a clever way that it never feels like a HUD. Isaac’s stasis meter and life bar are built into his suits and the ammo counter displayed as a holographic projection from his weapons. It’s a brilliant design decision that began with the original game and been maintained through the course of the trilogy.
As spectacular as the visuals are, so are the controls. The gunplay feels more refined and overall the game plays tight and responsive. Isaac is the most agile he has ever been, with the ability now to combat roll in four directions with a double-tap of the left trigger. It isn’t just the best looking Dead Space game, it is also the best to play with impeccable input mechanics. Quick and accurate controls are a must in Isaac’s latest adventure. Not only has the variety of enemies increased, so have their numbers and their lethality. Slow, lumbering necromorphs are faster than ever when they sprint and charge. The quicker and more agile necromorphs are even faster. These new, elusive enemies are far more difficult to target critical limbs in order to dismember and neutralize them. They will jump in and out of vents to attack from different angles, trying to catch Isaac off guard.
To help combat these deadly adversaries, Visceral has presented an all new workbench. Rather than relying on power nodes to upgrade items based on a circuit-board type layout, the new bench features the ability to fully customize and even craft items and weapons tailored to each player’s needs and wants. The sky is the limit when it comes to putting together the deadliest necro-killer. A frame or chassis can be outfitted with two weapons in an over/under configuration. Want to mate a Line Gun with a Ripper? Go for it. How about an assault rifle with a rocket launcher? Explain to me why you wouldn’t. Once you’ve assembled your death-dealer, it can be upgraded using 8 slots where computer chips can be used to boost stats like damage, reload, capacity and rate of fire. Basic chips will only boost one stat, like +1 damage. More advanced chips will boost two (+2 reload/+2 rate of fire). Weapons also feature two attachment points that can modify a weapons characteristics. Build and add “acid bath” to the Javelin to fire acid coated spears into enemies that will suffer damage over time. Tack on an ammo box that will automatically reload an empty weapon, terminating the reload animation. The new weapon crafting system is incredibly deep and creates different decision dillemma’s regarding resource allocation.
Throughout the journey, Isaac will find scavenger bots that will gather resources, making life easier on the player. One of the resources they provide are “ration seals.” Ration seals are the in-game currency of Dead Space 3. When logged into a workbench, the online store can be accessed to purchase resource packs and DLC. Resource packs can be purchased with real money or with ration seals. The resource packs will provide materials vital to craft new parts and supplies but also special “mk.V” (mark five) parts that will boost a weapon’s performance. The mk.V parts which range from frames, to attachments, to parts, will offer improved stat boosts over the standard variety found throughout the single player and cooperative campaigns.
The campaign itself can be played solo or cooperatively and features drop-in/drop-out matchmaking. When playing alone, the cooperative protagonist (John Carver) is absent and will mainly appear during story scenes. If a friend jumps into the game, Carver will join Isaac at the next available checkpoint. The way that Visceral executed the cooperative aspect of the game is impressive to say the least. Not only can the entire game be played cooperatively, there are actual side missions that can only be accessed when playing with a friend. Some of these coop exclusive missions are real mind-benders, causing players to question what exactly they are seeing and/or hearing. I was shocked at the quality of the presentation in these optional objectives and how perfectly they fit into, and expanded upon the entire campaign. The only real negative thing I found with the campaign is that it starts off a bit shaky. The story seems weak and forced at the outset but as it progresses and details are explored further, the story develops and becomes a lot more interesting. The environments explored, however, are more varied then ever and they really shake things up. In space, the familiar level design of ships is prevalent with the addition of space walks. The surface of Tau Volantis is a lot more dramatic. Winds will kick up and create a whiteout that can severely hamper sense of direction. Visibility is reduced so much that it becomes easy to lose a coop partner. The only other problem I have is the game’s netcode and online stability. While I have yet to experience a situation where I have been booted or unable to connect to EA’s servers, there are many instances while playing where the connection between the host and guest is interrupted. That can be extremely nerve wracking and frustrating when it happens in the middle of an attack from a mob of necromorphs.
Dead Space 3 is an intense and exciting experience. While veterans of the series will expect many of the scripted scares, Visceral have added in a few surprises that will make even the most seasoned engineer jump a few times. The intensity is also jacked up as the difficulty climbs so those looking for more of a challenge will be able to find that. The replay value is also extremely high. Once the campaign is completed, New Game+ is unlocked which allows access to multiple modes including “Pure Survival” and “Hardcore Mode.” Dead Space 3 had extremely high expectations to meet and I think it is a testament to the effort Visceral has put forth when I say that it has exceeded mine. Rather than play it safe, the development team have made a concerted effort to evolve the way Dead Space 3 plays. In doing so Visceral has thrown down the gauntlet and set the bar for which other games will be judged against. Considering the line up of releases this year, I’m sure you’ll understand how much of a statement that really is. Dead Space 3 is already a game of the year contender.