A rule of writing suggests that things are often better in threes. That’s why we have the Three Little Pigs, The Three Stooges, and, of course, the BLT sandwich, which are all obviously good things. However, when it comes to popular entertainment, the Rule of Three often doesn’t apply. That’s why we have The Matrix Revolutions, Ocean’s Thirteen, and Assassins Creed 3, which are obviously not very good things. The same was true of Dead Space 3, the 2013 set follow-up to its wildly popular predecessors. An original IP by Visceral Games, Dead Space was released in 2008, and the “haunted house in space” became an instant smash hit, trading in fast paced action for unsettling horror. The “over the shoulder” camera, tactical shooting and hideous threat of the Necromorphs appealed to horror fans who felt Resident Evil was beginning to lose its way after its’ seminal fourth entry. Whilst Dead Space didn’t really rewrite the bloodstained rules, it certainly splattered them with a fresh coat of viscera. The grimy industrial sci-fi of abandoned ship the USG Ishimura, was heavily inspired by the Alien film series, and presented a bleak portrait of mankinds mechanised future amongst the stars. The combat offered surprising tactical depth, with the dismemberment of alien zombies a vital tactic. And, to top it all off, silent protagonist Isaac Clarke was a relatable everyman, an engineer just trying to survive another (particularly harrowing) day at work.
Sequel Dead Space 2 stuck to the same template but upped the intensity, throwing a newly voiced Isaac through an action adventure that increased the scope of the narrative. The game was a hit, the franchise taking place on “Best of…” lists for years to come. However, lighting didn’t strike a third time, and Dead Space 3 was treated as something of a disappointment by fans, receiving middling reviews. The slow paced horror was all but gone, whilst the action was dialed up to eleven. Poor overall reception and low sales meant that the franchise went into a hibernation. Whilst not the strongest title in the series, Dead Space 3 is hardly the car crash that some made it out to be. It continued the story of Isaac Clarke and his battle with the insidious alien Markers, injecting the gameplay with enough new ideas to keep it feeling fresh. By retaining what was good about the series, and bringing the trilogy to a satisfyingly dark and scary conclusion, Dead Space 3 definitely deserves more appreciation, especially when compared to the genre-defining previous entries.
Dead Space 3 opens in a prologue, as a young marine searches for the mysterious “Codex” on the surface of snow Planet Tau Volantis. It’s a neat sequence that not only familiarises players with the controls and some set pieces, but also begins the intriguing story. Suddenly, we’re flung 200 years into the future, where Isaac is living in hiding on a lunar colony after the events of the first two games. Predictably, things don’t remain in that cramped apartment building for very long. Carver and Norton, agents of the teetering Earth Gov, press gang Isaac into a rescue mission to find girlfriend Ellie, who has gone missing on Tau Volantis. Before he has time to refuse, they’re on the run from the Unitologists, Marker worshipping cultists, who have toppled Earth Gov with their militarised cleansing campaign. It’s clear that the protagonists are living out the last days of mankind, forced to live in dirty urban sprawls, our home planet drained and decimated whilst religious fanatics purge the unbelievers. It’s a dark twist to an already bleak sci-fi universe. Whilst it’s an intense sequence, it’s here where the cracks Dead Space 3 begin to show. As Isaac escapes down the streets of Lunar Colony, you’ll be forced into cover based firefights with soldiers, a new direction for the series, but not really a welcome one. Despite the context of the action being great, the mechanics are very unrefined. Crouching behind objects is quite fiddly, making it too easy to be hit, and the faceless Unitology cannon fodder never as intimidating as Necromorphs.
Things begin to pick up as the crew become stranded in the wreckage field orbiting the ice planet. In a welcome change from enclosed corridors, Isaac must drift into space and navigate the wreckage fields in order to repair the ship. This open sequence that lets you float through the open environment with full control of Isaac, and with the planet stretching out underneath your mag-boots, it looks terrific. It’s a natural progression from the wall jumping zero-g puzzles and the free floating rooms, Visceral really nailing the feeling of weightlessness.
Eventually, you’ll journey down through the turbulent skies of the surface of the frozen planet. Tau Volantis is a fantastic location, icy wastelands smothering abandoned outposts and mining facilities. All that snow creates perfect hiding places for Necromorphs, which love to pounce out during the constant blizzards in scenes evocative of John Carpenters’ The Thing.As well as the standard “emaciated corpse with blade arms” Necromorph design, there’s also several new monstrosities for you to contend with. Whilst the axe-wielding fiends, skeletal mobs and colossal brutes are pretty terrifying at first, repeated surprise attacks and shrieking eventually become tiresome. The tactical combat is replaced by frantic pay and spray tactics, as you panic to blast away. Boss fights, never the strongest element of the franchise, are (spectacle-heavy) “shoot the weak spot” grinds, and the only tactic basic enemies display is “run at them.”
Thankfully, this is where Dead Space 3 accepts what is it. Fully embracing its action leanings, the game allows you to construct your own superweapons from scavenged parts. Although it seems complex at first, the system quickly becomes second nature, and you’ll be able to construct some amazingly powerful guns. Fancy a heavy chain-gun with a grenade launcher attachment? Go for it. Or perhaps an acid coated chainsaw with an underslung flamethrower is more your speed? Whatever combinations you can dream up, you can make, and your OP arsenal is more than effective against the mindless monster masses.
Against all odds, the story really delivers by the conclusion, although, for the most part, the moment to moment beats are generic. You’ll get tired of being repeatedly separated from your companions, and some of the crew are so obviously expendable, that they might as wear red shirts. Norton is one irritating prick, and after his high-school level love triangle with Isaac and Ellie, you’ll eagerly wait for his inevitable demise. Nevertheless, the final stages of the game are laden with big revelations, tying up the overarching plot. Isaac discovers that the mysterious and ancient Codex is the key to stopping the both the Marker infections and the Necromorph threat for good. I won’t go into spoiler territory, but the finale of Dead Space 3 moves the series away from grungy sci-fi horror and into the realms of terrifyingly cosmic Lovecraftian fantasy. The last hour of the game is jaw dropping, and you’ll find yourself pressing on purely to see what happens next. Isaac also gets a fitting send off, and although for some, the ending may be a bit bleak (especially with the Awakened DLC) it feels appropriate in such a dark universe.
Dead Space 3 might not be the best in the series, or even a perfect game, but its blockbuster presentation, solid bloody combat, and uniquely bleak sci-fi universe make it a title that’s still great fun to play. Viewed several years on, it’s a nice conclusion to a trilogy (which shows no signs of restarting any time soon), embracing the full on action and dark science fiction to great effect. It presents horrific monsters to mow through with souped up sci-fi weaponry, and ends on an appropriately terrifyingly conclusion. If we never experience another Dead Space adventure, then Dead Space 3 is a good, but not great, finale for the series.
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