I can't believe I'm about to say this, but....
Dead Space 3 is boring.
Let's rewind a bit. In 2008 we were graced with EA's first Dead Space title. This was a claustrophobic horror game, filled with mystery and an obviously grander, more complex universe than we, as players during that first go, could comprehend. There was clearly more to this infestation of Necromorphs than Isaac could grasp. He only scratched at the surface of what was an increasingly interesting scandal of questionable research, an emerging religion, and a dark power that we had barely any information on. It's all very fascinating and scary. Dead Space introduced me to some of my favorite video game moments, too. Curb stomping corpses is something that is inexplicably pleasurable to me.
Jump to 2011 when Visceral and EA released Dead Space 2. The series made a transition that I thoroughly enjoyed. The level where we (Dead Space 2 spoilers) revisited Ishimura is one of my favorite video game levels ever. It was nostalgic, it was disconcerting to see the ship so changed and, heck, I still remember how gorgeous the textures on the hazard tarps draped all over the ship were. There were other memorable moments, too, like the haunting nursery level, flush with neon color and smeared blood in such a sick and complementary way. I remember the adrenaline rushes I used to get when being chased down by the regenerative Necromorphs, sacrificing random items I could've picked up along the way because I was pressed for time and life. New Necromorphs were a welcome addition to a game that maintained its franchise-staple creepiness, leading all the way up to that infamous (more spoilers) eye-drilling scene.
The excitement and intrigue of Dead Space 1 and the memorable moments of Dead Space 2 brings us to present day 2013 where the series has officially lost its momentum.
The story hangs flat. We're supposed to be reaching some sort of summation in this third chapter of the series, but it's not until the very latter half of the game that we finally get to experience anything remotely close to that. The Church of Unitology has the most meaningless presence until you get to that bridge, at which point you've already sunk in about 7 or so hours into the most formulaic Necromorph fights just to get there.
There are a handful of memorable moments in the game—moments where the game affords you some extra power and lets you tear through Necromorphs in a gleeful, satisfying battle where the predictable wave after wave of enemies is finally enjoyable—but they're unfortunately outshined by the monotonous, back-and-forth treks and rehashed maps that compose the rest of the game.
Here's the not-so-secret formula to Dead Space 3:
- Find the thing the members of your group want you to find. (Which involves entering an area, fighting off a wave of Necromorphs, wait no there were a few more jump-scary Necromorphs left, ok now continue into the area and either solve a really simple puzzle or retrieve an item or something.)
- Meet up with your group.
- Five seconds later something collapses right under you and you're stranded from your group.
- Find your group again. But, hey, might as well fetch another thingy for them first.
- Meet up with your group.
- Get separated from them again.
- You see where this is going?
It becomes almost laughable after the first few "NOOOO ISAAAACC COME FIND USSSS" whines from your group members when at this point you are just placing bets as to how long it'll take for the script to cut you off from the group this time. Isaac does so much falling in Dead Space 3 you'd think he'd start using the opportunities to practice diving moves for the next Olympics.
Discussions leading up to Dead Space 3's launch did not come without skepticism from its fans. They feared too much action in favor of real horror. Too many jump-scares in place of twisted hallucinations and psychotic events.
I held onto hope. I was confident in Visceral's ability to make an enjoyable game. And they are still great game makers. But the direction that Dead Space 3 took felt confused. Like it didn't know what it was anymore. It became this Frankenstein creation of every bullet point needed to make a blockbuster hit, with some half-assed creepiness that ended up only serving as a depressing reminder of the husk that the series has become with this third title.
Again. I can't believe I'm saying all of this.
Maybe fan expectations are to blame. We've been unraveling so many details about the Markers and the origin of the Necromorphs. We've been seeing more of the religious group studying under the Church of Unitology. We've seen what the combination of these things do to people. Where the research has gotten us. Where it hasn't gotten us. It's all very, very fascinating to me. There are so many unanswered questions that Dead Space 3 would answer, I'd tell myself.
And Dead Space 3 definitely did reveal information that tied the three stories together, but it was told in the weakest way possible. Playing solo, I experienced maybe two, three hallucinations, something that once gave the series its strength but now only highlights where the game is lacking. The Church of Unitology, though a looming idea throughout the entire game, barely shows up until closer to the latter half of the game. I was impressed by how many lengthy side quests there were, and they added more context to the story overall, but the missions were almost identical and so completely repetitive. It felt like a long chore just to hear a few audio logs. You never feel like you're progressing, just wasting time.
That leads me to my favorite thing about Dead Space 3: the text files. The audio logs, too. Reading up on what the engineers and scientists discovered about the Markers, their use, their origins, their connection to the universe and, through all that, the horrors they experienced while discovering all this—that was my favorite part about the game. But the fact that mere text files were the height of my solo Dead Space 3 experience should give you an appropriate frame of reference for how mediocre the entire thing is.
Like I said before: this game bored me. There's nothing fun about running back and forth in the same areas, always on a fetch quest. At most on a rescue mission. There's nothing fun about facing the same boss three times over, fighting mostly the same choreographed fight each time, just to have the big, tentacle-y thing crawl its way out of there. Yet again.
I don't want to be too harsh on Dead Space 3. It has a redeeming quality. A quality that most dedicated fans hated it for before even getting their hands on it: co-op. Everything that is boring and trite in single player feels pretty enjoyable in co-op.
Having a companion lets me excuse the game's faults because I get to enjoy playing a third-person shooter with a friend. I don't think of it as a Dead Space game. This is simply a third-person shooter with enemies that are fairly unique when lined up next to the soldiers of the shooter genre's various worlds. With decent surround sound audio for added atmosphere, adding a heightened sense of panic to the game, because it's so difficult to gauge where the Necromorph gurgles are even coming from. It's a shooter with lots of different guns that you can construct. So when you're playing co-op with a friend your buddy can marvel at how your particular version of the plasma cutter sets your enemies on fire. You can show off your creations. Maybe your friend will introduce you to the power of a cryogenic-blasting shotgun while you let them in on the secret of crowd-controlling saw blades (a personal favorite). The weapon construction in this game is impressively robust.
And the guns truly are great. The workbench might be a little cumbersome for newcomers, but it's exciting to see what weapons you can craft, and how you can completely morph and change them. A weapon can start out with a freezing ability but you can swap it for flames. You can have two totally different versions of one weapon, and it's fun to play show and tell with a friend.
Dead Space 3 is a better game when you ignore that this is meant to be the third installment of a horror series. It's a better game when you ignore that it's a Dead Space title and just play for the co-op experience.
There aren't many games with decent co-op campaigns. There are more games with multiplayer than there are games that allow for co-op campaigning. And for that, I think it's worthwhile to play Dead Space 3 if you're looking for just that kind of experience. While playing with friends, I got the impression that the game was built with the intention of focusing on cooperative play. Besides simple things like a workbench being built for two and the loot system fairly offering the same loot to both parties, the combat itself also felt great to play. It's certainly not as tense with a companion nearby, but it still feels fluid. You can coordinate with your buddy, shouting out enemy positions while you both concentrate on your corner of the room the Necromorphs are invading. Everything that sucked in single player sucked a little less with a friend to share the burden. Puzzles were more interesting to play cooperatively, and even that obnoxious boss was made all the better with a friend flanking from the opposite end.
The absolute best reason to play cooperatively over solo Dead Space 3 play, though, is the co-op-specific missions. These missions reveal more about John Carver, your companion. He has a dark history and his place in the game is to come to terms with that. It reveals an interesting character—perhaps the only interesting character in this particular Dead Space title, sorry Isaac—and an interesting relationship between him and Isaac. The game finally feels like Dead Space again when it's taking you down horrific memories long buried, but now unearthing in a violent, cryptic, and beautifully twisted way. Finally, Dead Space is trippy again.
Even in co-op, though, the game is still marred by the same issues I had when playing solo. Though the game is immense, it often feels like you're spending a lot of time going nowhere what with all the backtracking you'll do. Wasn't I just here? Didn't I just fight the same exact sequence a mere 30 minutes ago? Yeah, you did. It might've been a reused, slightly reskinned level or just literal walks back and forth. Either way, it's not fun, no. But it's at least less bothersome when you're hanging out killing Necromorphs with a friend.
The co-op experience itself is not without its own flaws either. The lack of a jump-in/jump-out feature and a sometimes unreliable checkpoint system that's exacerbated by the fact that if your friend dies, you die, makes the experience a somewhat fidgety one. And I found lots of interesting bugs when playing with a friend, like getting trapped in the ceiling when I just nearly missed the elevator ride because my co-op buddy was too impatient to wait for me to get both feet on the platform (you know who you are).
It's still a glaring fault that the third Dead Space title doesn't feel like it has the variety of enemies the first two games had. You face what feels like the same waves of enemies over and over again. This kind of transparency is one of the biggest hindrances to enjoying Dead Space 3 the solitary way. But Necromorph battles aren't the only area of the game that's completely see-through.
Even with Carver's addition to the storyline, the entire plot outside of that is simply weak. And who are the rest of the characters you're grouped with? You might remember Ellie from the previous Dead Space title. Even if not, the game makes it clear that there's history there. Now she's shacking up with some other dude, and he seems kind of like a dick. Ok, so there's some personality, some story here. But who are these people really? Why should I care about them? All they do is group together for safety while they send me out to risk my life for some bitch mission. They may as well force me to sit in the tiny middle seat in the back of the space shuttle like a goddamn infant.
The things that seemed exciting in Dead Space 1 and 2—the things that made their debuts in those games—are either missing or stale in Dead Space 3. The same old meaningless jump-scares of Necromorphs bursting out of ventilation shafts and appearing behind you make the game feel predictable. The lack of excitement behind the story makes the game feel sad, and the essence of Dead Space forgotten. The attempt at making you care an ounce about any of the characters you associate with and the poor execution of the storyline makes the game feel eye-rollingly transparent.
If you can forget for a moment that you're playing a Dead Space title, you just might enjoy playing what feels like a decent cooperative experience, even if the redundancies are still an issue. Oh, and, I suggest you play on Impossible mode, since the game seems to scale to the easier side from my experience.
This probably isn't the Dead Space game you were hoping for. It sure as hell wasn't what I was hoping for. But once I got over my frustrations with the direction the series has taken, and once I grabbed a friend to suffer the long ride of repetitive battles with me, I was able to focus on fighting interesting creatures with amazingly fun weapons. And maybe that's enough.