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Dead Space 3 (Xbox 360) artwork

Dead Space 3 (Xbox 360) review

"I don't mind that Dead Space 3 is an action game; I mind that it's a clumsy, uninspired one."

Dead Space 3 asset

The first thing you should know about Dead Space 3 is that you shouldn't play it if you're hoping to be scared. Necromorphs still run the show, but they've long abandoned the ventilation shafts of the USG Ishimura and have taken to loudly broadcasting their positions and charging players at full speed, usually in groups. There's never any suspense over where the necromorphs are, or how many of them are coming, or what they'll do. There are lots of them, all around you, running straight at you and being very noisy about it. Dead Space hasn't been frightening since 2008, but this is the first time it doesn't even seem to be trying.

The other thing you should know about Dead Space 3 is that you probably shouldn't play it anyway, regardless of what you're looking for. To be clear, I have no qualms with this series moving in a more action-oriented direction, as I've always said that if you can address your issues with a game by simply changing its title, you don't have a very strong argument on your hands. But Visceral is handicapping itself here. Dead Space was a great game on its own terms, but all the more special when you take into consideration that claustrophobic survival horror isn't something we see a lot of these days. We don't have any shortage of gung-ho, set piece-heavy action-shooters, though, and when you fail with one, you fail so much more noticeably, as Dead Space 3 almost immediately does.

Let's start at the bottom. As the trailers suggested, Dead Space 3 is the game that finally pits Isaac Clarke against enemies that shoot back. Gears of War was released over six years ago and set a standard for third-person shooters that the industry has generally kept up with, and yet someone at Visceral thought it would be a good idea, in 2013, to shoehorn cover-based gunplay into a game with no cover system. Shootouts are mercifully limited to only a handful of chapters here, but they underline just how ill-equipped the series is to continue in this direction. Slow movement and over-the-shoulder laser sight aiming work well for games like (to name the most obvious example) Resident Evil 4, which balance thrills and scares in equal measure. In situations that require speed and precision, however, these controls feel awkward and out of place.

Unfortunately, necromorphs are now so relentlessly in-your-face that the rest of the game doesn't fare much better. They move so quickly and so predictably that most of Dead Space 3's encounters play out like mindless monster spamming; from a design standpoint, the only thing separating this from something like Doom 3 or Painkiller is that this game controls less intuitively. The enemies are virtually interchangeable, now, too. This one walks, this one crawls, this one jumps a lot and this one sprouts tentacles, but when their only universal attack mode is swarm you and hack away at you mercilessly with their sharp parts, they all become indistinguishable meat bags.

That's not interesting AI behavior. You can make it interesting by putting a unique spin on it, and that's what Dead Space's core dismemberment mechanic did. But when necromorphs can clear long distances instantaneously, attack in groups, frequently spawn behind you and spin their appendages about with the ferocity of an industrial fan, who's going to take the time to angle their plasma cutters and carefully pick off one limb at a time? Originally, precision was rewarded; here, attempts at precision just result in the player being overwhelmed. And if I'm making the game sound difficult, it isn't. You'll still absolutely stockpile medkits and ammo, enough so that soaking up damage and blind-firing tends to be the quickest and most effective strategy.

So as a shooter, which it is, Dead Space 3 is both unimaginative and clunky. That puts it in the same league as Dead Space 2, which was saddled with many of the same issues. Visceral seems to be a bit more openly embracing the franchise as a shooter now, but they still need to refine it as such.

Dead Space 3 asset

But maybe you liked Dead Space 2, as I know some people did. To those folks, I submit that Dead Space 3 does virtually nothing new. Aside from the soldiers, the reanimated corpses of said soldiers, and a few massive but uninspired bosses of the shoot-the-glowing-weak-points variety, I'm struggling to think of a single enemy type that hasn't been recycled from the previous two games. The sinister creature designs – and the way they play into the hands-on quality of the combat – have been a big draw thus far, so removing the surprise means enemy encounters feel phoned-in before they've even begun. One particular boss at the midway point is the only standout, and Visceral botches it by making us fight the damn thing three times, for the contrived reason that it keeps getting away before you can finish it off, a fact that Isaac grumpily acknowledges aloud at one point. If the protagonist of your game is getting annoyed, the player probably is, too.

See also: Isaac remarks "I hate those things" after yet another run-in with that unkillable, regenerating necromorph, which is quickly becoming Visceral's go-to tool for inflating the difficulty when they can't figure out a better way of doing it.

So Dead Space 3 offers very little that you haven't seen before, but at the very least, it certainly never looked this pretty before. Most of the game is set on the arctic backwater planet Tau Volantis, so in addition to its usual cinematic influences, the series can now add John Carpenter's The Thing to its inspirations. It does the setting justice, too, employing gorgeous weather effects the way most horror games use darkness and really driving home the loneliness one would feel being stuck in a place like this, even when accompanied by other characters or playing cooperatively online (which you can do now, by the way). What's more, while the action is more relentless than ever, Visceral counterbalances this with long stretches of downtime in which you can simply soak in the incredible atmosphere. You really get the sense that if they were still serious about approaching the series as survival horror, they could have done a marvelous job.

I confess that I'm still not very invested in Isaac's personal struggles. Neither is he, in fact, as the only reason he gets involved this time is because someone charges through his door and holds him at gunpoint. But no matter. Visceral's higher-than-ever production values, paired with their characteristically excellent presentation (the HUD-less interface and flawless single-take transitions between cutscenes and gameplay) go a long way in making Dead Space 3 feel like a quality product, despite its numerous shortcomings elsewhere. It's almost crafty, in fact – every time I grew fed up with a particularly obnoxious action sequence, there seemed to be a stunning vista right around the corner to cool me down. Production values can't carry a game alone, but I can't deny that every time I was asked to get absorbed in Dead Space 3's world, I was never less than 100% on board.

It’s a shame the cumbersome combat repeatedly shatters the illusion. There were rumors floating around early in Dead Space 3's development cycle that the game would be a first-person shooter. This was met with anger. Why? Are fans afraid that the series will become homogeneous with every other popular shooter franchise? It already is. A first-person Dead Space 3 wouldn't have fixed the game's generic design and now complete lack of surprise, but it would finally put to rest the identity crisis that the brand has been struggling with for two whole entries now. If you're gonna make a shooter, Visceral, at least be honest with yourselves about it. I don't mind that Dead Space 3 is an action game; I mind that it's a clumsy, uninspired one.


Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (February 08, 2013)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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