By Richard Larsen
The Dead Space franchise has set the bar high for both the third-person shooter and the survival horror genre.
On the eve of Dead Space 3's release, developers Visceral made no secret about wanting to broaden the game's appeal and tap into a more mainstream audience, toning down the horror elements and expanding on more generic action-oriented set pieces.
The most controversial aspect of this broadening of the Dead Space horizons was the addition of an online co-op option, news of which left many fans of the originals gnashing and wailing like Necromorphs themselves.
While the horror elements are still there, albeit a little thinner on the ground, and the art and sound direction no less impressive (although not necessarily improved upon), the added emphasis on duck-and-shoot sequences battling drop-ship loads of faceless space marines definitely feels like familiar territory covered in so many other contemporary games and is to the detriment of the franchise's unique appeal. They're not a major fixture of the game by any means, but they add little enjoyment when they do appear.
Plot-wise, while the basic story is very similar to the first two games, the Dead Space universe is satisfyingly expanded upon. As well as a plethora of tape logs, journals and artefacts that flesh out the rich back-story of humanity’s bloody history with the alien Markers, we get to see what's up with the moon (big old moon-city up there), take a trip into hyperspace in a sweet-as starship, jet-pack around in space exploring a genuinely awesome graveyard of derelict spaceships and spend the guts of the game on the impressively realised snow planet Tau Volantis. Narratively the game spans several hundred years of Dead Space's rich future-history which should satisfy lore-nerds out there. I know I definitely was.
A big development in Dead Space 3 is the use of weapons and gadgets. Players used to the Store and Work Bench interfaces of Dead Space and its follow-up Dead Space 2 might find the new Bench set-up confusing at first. The new interface can be daunting, especially for casual gamers who might not have the patience to slog their way through the sorts of arcane options and minutiae found in more immersive role-playing games. Call me a lazy space-bastard but I definitely can't be bothered mucking around taking weapons apart and putting them together when there's marauding Necromorphs out there to strategically dismember.
I definitely had trouble remembering and identifying what weapons I had activated and what their payload was capable of taking out, which is bad news when the game gets going and you start coming up against 75-foot horror-behemoths shooting psychotic ghouls out of their gaping maws and you're armed with the equivalent of a reverse vacuum cleaner. An interesting new development is the addition of scavenger bots, which when activated cruise off to collect the precious scrap metals and tungsten needed to create new weaponry and supplies. It's kind of a cool device, but I'd definitely trade the little guys in for a return to the ordinance set-up of old. More experienced gamers' milage may vary, and I've no doubt many will find the increase in tech options a pleasing development.
The cast all bring some pretty decent chops to the boards, performing the cut-scenes with passable renditions of classic action game schtick. Gunner Wright and Sonita Henry are back as Issac and Ellie, this time round joined by Ricardo Chavira as Sgt John Carver (who's playable in the afore-mentioned co-op mode) and Robert Grant as space-douche extraordinaire Captain Robert Norton. A love-triangle plot between Issac, Elle and Norton is given a shot, but there's no surprises as to who's going get the girl - if you make it through to the end without getting eaten alive or sliced to pieces. The only real standout is a deliciously hammy performance by Simon Templeman as the villainous (British, natch) Jacob Danik, who makes the most of his role as the latest in a damned line of crazed religious nut jobs wanting to bring the Necromorph ascension to humanity.
Finally, the co-op. Yes, there was valid concern that this development was going to defeat the purpose a game built on its jumps and shock scares, ideally meant to be played alone and in the dark. But the way Visceral have incorporated the co-op element into the game without betraying the core Dead Space ethos is actually quite ingenious. True to the psycho-dramas at play in the game, each co-op character (either Isaac or Carver) experiences the shared gameplay differently depending on each character's level of dementia, resulting in heightened tension trying to figure out who's flipping out and who's keeping it together. It also means your buddy better have your back when the going gets nuts.
There was a lot riding on this release particularly in light of the co-op and micro-transactions controversies, but Dead Space 3 delivers on pretty much every level. It's still by far and away one of - if not the - best sci-fi action game franchises available today, and both die-hard fans and newcomers alike won't be disappointed with this latest (final?) chapter.
Dead Space 3
:: Publisher: Electronic Arts
:: Developer: Visceral Games
:: Format: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
:: Rating: R18