The survival-horror genre gets such a bad rap these days that it’s tempting to overlook them for games with a frantic gunplay, co-op multiplayer elements, customizable weapons or … wait, that’s actually what Dead Space 3 offers. Not often one to take franchise risks, EA made a massive gamble years ago on an untested studio with an unknown IP in a survival-horror genre that had been seemingly owned by Konami for eons. Now three games in, the Dead Space series has made EA look the part of a sage investor, with a franchise that’s made survival-horror cool again. Granted, the “horror” part is a bit of a misnomer now, as you’re not liable to be truly scared by anything in Dead Space 3. But survival and cool are here in spades — as are some hiccups along the way.
The original Dead Space saw the series’ hero, Isaac, wandering a necromorph-infested hulk of a ship, carefully rationing ammo and creeping through corridors where mostly slow-moving enemies might jump out in an attempt to kill him. Fast-forward two games, and Dead Space 3 features fast-moving necromorphs — and even some weapons-equipped humans — moving at much faster speeds through both the shadows and the open range to undo our hero.
I had hoped that the faster pace and reduced focus on ammo conservation from Dead Space 2 would be a franchise anomaly. If I want a fast-paced shooter, there are myriad other series from which to choose. The gameplay in Dead Space 3 isn’t poorly executed, but when I sit down with a game from this series, I actually look forward to a slower pace, some atmospheric “gotcha” moments and gunplay that’s frantic due to setting and circumstance rather than sheer volume of enemies. Dead Space 3 has a few slower sequences, particularly in the later missions, and the setpieces provide some very cool moments, but on the whole I was bummed that the series hadn’t returned to its slower roots.
With that said, the addition of larger environments and the possibility to branch out into optional missions adds a new layer of diversity. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s like an Elder Scrolls game, but being able to break from the linear path is a nice addition to the three-games-old formula. The larger environments of the ice-cold planet also add to the “survival” aspects, not always from jumping-out enemies but from the need to find a heat source before Isaac turns into a frozen corpse. Dead Space 3 changes how you focus on survival, because although the traditional “survival horror” elements are intact in many places, there are also very different reasons to be worried than before. Heck, even having the use of new scavenger bots to gather resources speaks to how the mechanisms of survival have changed in this third game. Suffice it to say, if just “getting by” requires assistance, then you know survival’s a serious challenge.
In fact, perhaps the most welcome feature of Dead Space 3 focuses on this very notion of assistance: online co-op. The ability to play co-op with a soldier named John Carver doesn’t mean everything’s turned into a gunfire free-for-all. In fact it’s quite the opposite. Resource sharing and coordinating weapon choices adds a certain level of tactical prowess that wasn’t missing from the first two games but was presented quite differently. Whereas the limited resources in previous Dead Space games required players to use their heads, the actual division and use of those resources in co-op mode takes the thinking-man’s reins in Dead Space 3. In a pseudo nod to Left 4 Dead, puzzles and battles also adjust in difficulty based on whether John and Isaac are playing together. In other words, co-op wasn’t a tacked-on feature to entice new players, but a well-planned addition.
With the refined co-op, new environments and a clear focus on narrative to wrap-up the Dead Space trilogy, I found plenty to like about Dead Space 3. At times I longed for the feeling of isolation, of ammo being worth more than gold, of frantically wondering whether this scenario would be Isaac’s last stand. But even as I missed those things, I recognized that the game needed to go in different places to finish the series’ narrative thread, and I have to tip my hat to EA for taking those necessary steps. As much as I missed some of the horror and magic from the original, this final chapter adds enough of its own charm to warrant a look.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360
Review software provided by publisher.