The original Dead Space was a refreshing new survival horror game that made players freeze whenever they heard “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It was a breathtakingly well-made horror game that used its sound and visuals to inspire fear in the player. Dead Space 2 was an excellent follow-up that sidelined a few of the horror elements in favor of an engaging story and more character development with Isaac.
It was fast-paced, but you couldn’t deny that it was a Dead Space game. Dead Space 3, on the other hand, is Dead Space only in name and story. The game is no longer recognizable, and I forgot just how much was changed between Dead Space 2 and 3 and rarely for the better.
Exploring the Origins
Dead Space 3 starts out by giving us an introduction to a new character on a new snow planet. Apparently, this scene is a couple of hundred years before the events of Dead Space. It was the attempt of the government to get a handle on the necromorph power, but it turns out they failed, so they buried it and killed themselves.
The necromorphs take over the planet in their absence, but it turns out this planet also holds the secret to stopping the necromorph threat altogether. Ellie learns this and is trying to find a way there to finally put a stop to it. This makes Norton (Ellie’s current boyfriend) to stop by Isaac’s apartment (who is Ellie’s ex) and ask Isaac to help him protect Ellie.
The two set off for Ellie but are attacked by Unitoligist soldiers during their escape. Apparently, the cult can do whatever it wants, even to government employees. It’s during this section that you learn that there will be human enemies. The inclusion of human enemies is the first indciation that this isn’t the Dead Space your remember.
The beginning feels like a different game in a different genre. There is no fear being built in the player. It’s action from the word go. I also don’t know how I feel about some of the decisions with the storying telling. There are sections that feel so out of place and forced, like when later in the game Ellie gets angry with Isaac but then ends up in his arms a few minutes later.
Or when Carver opens up about his life story in the final act of the game after having not spoken for the majority of the game. Apparently, that scene makes sense if you played coop and listened to the character talk throughout the events of the game, but I didn’t. So my experience was stunted by poor design choices.
Should I Shoot for the Limbs?
A hallmark of the Dead Space series is its gameplay mechanic of shooting for the limbs of enemies. It was a mechanic that forces players to be considerate of their shots and created little moments in the flow that could heighten tension, like when a slasher is sprinting at you, and you are finally able to take its leg off.
You have a few seconds to collect yourself and gain control of the situation. This also meant that most combat scenarios had been carefully considered to ensure that players had time to adequately deal with enemies according to this mechanic. Dead Space 3 still allows its players to shoot for the limbs, but that’s at the detriment of the player for more than one reason.
Enemies can take a lot of shots from a standard plasma cutter, and even if you take them down, they can spurt new limbs and keep the attack coming. That’s cool. I like that. It keeps that fear fresh, but body shots can be just as effective, if not more so, than shooting for the limbs in Dead Space 3.
In fact, the later levels will force you to give up on shooting the limbs if you hope to have an easy time getting through the waves of enemies because Dead Space 3 sends A LOT of enemies at you at once. The sheer amount of necromorphs I had to fight in each encounter was enough to keep me from ever being afraid. It was like Dead Space 2’s pacing issue turned to 11. It was so bad that I began to be annoyed when enemies showed up. I never had fun killing them all. It was one grueling fight after another, and by the end, I was just glad I could hang up my RIG and call it quits.
There is no focus on the horror or survival elements in Dead Space 3. If I didn’t know what game I was playing, I would have thought this was the new Army of Two instead of a Dead Space game. Which makes sense because the increase in enemies is probably due to Dead Space 3’s biggest new mechanic: coop.
You see, the early 2010s were a time of innovation and copycats. Popular games were emphasizing online features, crafting, and quick-time events, which led to Dead Space using all of those new trendy mechanics despite it not making a whole lot of sense all the time. The largest misstep was that Dead Space 3 emphasizes its coop features but neglects its single player in many instances.
Enemy populations are designed for two people; you can see many puzzles or minigames focus on the co-op, and cut scenes even have the coop version barely edited out. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth that a single-player game was turned into such a cash grab coop experience. I would be okay with it if it was a new property like it should have been, but Dead Space is a survival horror game that did away with its horror elements included a coop, and removed any difficulty in surviving its world.
There is a pretty large weapon variety, but they all take the same ammo type, so you could blitz the game just using one weapon if you chose. But unlike Dead Space 1 or 2, where there is a challenge in doing so due to a weapon limitations with ammo or the weapons requiring a little more precision to use, Dead Space 3 gives overpowered weapons that can take out entire hallways of enemies and stasis them at the same time. I get that the weapons add to the fun that two people can have together, but Resident Evil 5 was coop and still at least tried to be a horror game.
I’m not interested in playing Uncharted in space. I want to explore old research facilities learning about the atrocities that were made there, and then being scared when I meet those atrocities face to face. Fear is bred by different factors, but the most important in a horror game is feeling powerless. However, that takes pacing and careful design choices, including sound design and writing to pull off effectively. Dead Space 3 was not able to do that.
Location Location Location
I think the thing that Dead Space 3 does better than the other two games is the varied settings that it brings us to. We start off in a prologue that features Tau Volantis, an ice world that is at the heart of the necromorph research team’s efforts. Next, we get to see Isaac’s apartment on a lunar colony before he begins his travels to Tau Volantis, but before he gets there, he explores derelict ships that have been silent for hundreds of years.
These ships can give off Issmura vibes as they are strange and silent, much different from the dying Sprawl of Dead Space 2. The ships each have a story, and one of them even brings you back into the past with a recording of a man who went out of his mind. He left traps around to stop people from getting to him. He even utilized necromorphs as part of the traps. These sections had a lot of potential to scare the rig off of Isaac, but they are hurt by the enemy barrage that is sent after Isaac and the lack of buildup.
Dead Space is best when it combines all the elements of the medium (sound, visuals, enemies, etc.) to build the player up and make them feel powerless. Dead Space 3 never does this. It’s why the other great location, Tau Volantis, doesn’t reach its potential either. Tau Volantis is an ice planet. If you are familiar with Lovecraft or The Thing, the snow-capped setting can send shivers down your spine. There is SO much potential here, but EA prevented any real creative freedom from occurring. To be fair, there are a few interesting ideas here, but they can’t make up for the rest of the game’s deficiencies.
The snow being whipped around by the wind helps to close your field of vision and make you feel discombobulated. There are even times where you will be walking through a snowstorm, and all of a sudden, you will just barely make out a form sprinting towards you out of the white wall in front of you. It’s a great moment, but after that, it’s back to waves and waves of enemies. Tau Volantis also introduces cliff climbing which I thought would be a great idea, but I was wrong.
I thought, “oh, I’ll be in a precarious situation, and enemies will be climbing down to attack me.” No. Almost every cliff climb section is just you dodging rocks or other debris. What is worse is that sometimes the game doesn’t register your jumps over divots in the wall. This causes you to fall back and probably get hit by the rock you were trying to dodge.
This was made all the more frustrating at one part because there are only very specific sections that actually let you jump across. I had to look up which sections they were because I was tired of dying from ice. Are you seeing a pattern? Dead Space 3 tries to introduce new ideas but fails to capitalize on them while at the same time ditching what made it Dead Space in the first place. It lost its identity. It isn’t a good horror game, and it often can feel like a cheap action game.
Finally, we are taken to the Alien City, where there is a machine that helped to put the biggest necromorph threat to sleep. This section is cool because it is so different, but at the same time, I felt like I was walking through the same few areas over and over for the last few hours of the game.
In terms of lore, it makes sense and shows the corruptible power of the necropmorphs, but it also just feels so overdone. How is Isaac able to finish the machine when no one else could during the original time period? It just feels too convenient.
Dead Space 3 might have been an okay space action coop game, but the overreliance on familiar elements turned it into something that didn’t know what it wanted to be. I was never scared during the game, and I was rarely thrilled. I was just going through the motions hoping something grabbed me. Besides some breathtaking views and the outline for a great game, I was left feeling empty after my time in Dead Space 3.
Dead Space is one of my favorite horror games, not action games. If a game is trying to move in a different direction developers, need to commit, and they need to be open with their fans. Halo Wars is a great example of this. They tried a completely different genre and introduced new characters to represent this new lineage of Halo games. Dead Space tried to hide its change, and it feels the worst because of it.