Blinding gusts of snow whitewash the scenery. Visibility could only be worse if there were absolutely no light source. Movement catches your eye. Is it just a trick played by the snow, or something much worse? You trudge onwards, desperate to make it to a source of warmth before you freeze to death. Out of the corner of your eye, you don’t so much as see the movement from before as sense it. Fear washes over you, and you stop moving altogether, waiting to see if you can catch the movement again. After waiting – unknowingly holding your breath – for longer than you should have, you take off again.
Boom! A necromorph bursts out of the snow, blades slashing at you in a fury that would make angry girlfriends jealous. Gut instinct pulls up your weapon, a modified plasma cutter, and you fire straight into its gut. The necromorph keeps coming, not even registering the damage. In a frenzied moment of clarity you realize that you need to shoot the limbs. With some less-than-precise shooting, you manage to sever the necromorph’s legs from its grotesque body. And then it disappears into the snow. With caution, you once again head for your objective, knowing that you’re being hunted by something far worse than man. The game is afoot.
Visceral Games shocked the survival horror genre to its core with the release of its hyper-violent, utterly terrifying first entry to the Dead Space series in 2008. The debut introduced us to Isaac Clarke, who stumbled through the remains of the USG Ishimura, struggling at every turn to survive the horrifying onslaught of formerly human monstrosities and escape the cramped environment that begged to become his tomb. The second game in the series greatly expanded on the astonishing foundation of the first, setting the stage on the Sprawl, a massive space station built into a shard of Saturn’s moon Titan. Unbeknownst to Isaac, he’d been “contracted” by EarthGov to recreate a Marker, the purpose of which was to stop the energy crisis on Earth and effectively save the planet. Oh, how wrong they were.
Dead Space 3 opens with an introductory cutscene that summarizes the events of the first two entries while tying in the current events of mankind, as well as introducing us to Isaac once again, an effective approach for filling in newcomers to the series and refreshing the details for long time players. Once the game takes on the perspective of Isaac, who is living on the New Horizons Lunar Colony located on the moon, the player is rapidly thrown through the hoops. Unitologists, led by Jacob Danik, are committing terrorist acts against Marker Test Labs to spread the necromorph infection, with their latest target being on New Horizons Lunar Colony. Nearly everything on the moon wants Isaac dead.
It doesn’t take long for Isaac and his new crew, including the co-op available partner John Carver, to find their way across the galaxy at the planet of Tau Volantis, believed to be the very source of the necromorph outbreak. In a truly spectacular sequence, the player finds themselves hurtling through the atmosphere towards the planet in an all-too-outdated shuttle.
To keep it simple, what makes the Dead Space series so poignant is that Visceral Games knows what works with the series, but isn’t afraid to innovate on their own formula. With Dead Space 3, taking the fight into not only a more open environment, but managing to keep the environments claustrophobic, is a bold new step into survival horror. When outside, you never know where the necromorphs are going to strike from since there aren’t any vents to anticipate the attacks. This is offset by all of the moments that are expected of the franchise, and there are tons of instances where you feel safe, that nothing could touch you in the small room you’re in, only to find out just how startlingly wrong you were.
One of the most innovative features is the new drop in/drop out co-op. This adds an entirely new element to not just the gameplay, but to the story as well. When an additional player is present the combat difficulty scales up, yet there is also the added bonus of co-op only missions. These missions play towards revealing both how John Carver is dealing with the loss of his family and how the Markers are tampering with his mind. When playing through as Carver, the player has visions that Isaac doesn’t, which tend towards the player yelling at their buddy “are you seeing this?!” None of these moments are integral to the overall story, but they add a nice incentive to play through with a friend.
A staple of the Dead Space franchise is the crafting bench, which is where Isaac is able to upgrade his equipment. In Dead Space 3, this takes on a whole new meaning. As the player finds loot and spare parts, they are able to craft entire weapons of their own design, a first for the series. By the end of my first run-through, I was fairly dead set on my acid-round spewing carbine with line cutter under-barrel. The options seem limitless, and each and every take on a weapon is rewarding in its own way. If the player doesn’t want to spend the time searching for loot, there’s a micro-transaction screen where they can purchase a variety of packs and weapons, though finding the equipment on your own in-game isn’t much of a challenge. This is made even easier with the use of the scavenger bot, which spends its time finding spare loot for the player when used.
As with any game series, adjustments to the controls and options available to the player change with time. In the case at hand, the main control addition is the ability to combat roll. This feels like a natural extension to Isaac’s abilities instead of a cop out to allow players the option to avoid being hit. Too many times in the first two games I found that I was cornered and had no way to escape the situation without taking massive amounts of damage. This adds a new tactical advantage to combat, as well as the new option to crouch behind low cover.
Overall, Dead Space 3 is the perfect balance of action and horror. As a series grows, the story situations evolve and oftentimes have to grow with them to compensate, as well as for the benefit of creating new and exciting scenarios for players to experience. While this is true for Dead Space 3, and was a large criticism for Dead Space 2, they feel organic to the story and don’t overpower the shock value within the rest of the game. All the way up to the explosive ending, Dead Space 3 carries the core values of the game series and expands upon them in unique and highly entertaining ways, as well as offering a wide variety of new game+ options that empower the game with extensive amounts of replay value.
If you’ve set Dead Space 3 aside, there’s no time like the present to get the living bajeezus scared out of you.