Dead Space 3

yearlateds3

2008’s Dead Space was a self-proclaimed love letter to the sci-fi horror genre, and was one of the last specimens of a dying breed: The AAA-developed horror title.

Jim Sterling of the Escapist has gone over this in more depth than I care to, but I’ll sum it up: Because horror games have a niche market, big distributors and developers are less willing to take a chance on them over products with a wider appeal. Thus, horror games are usually the province of smaller developers. This has led to some big successes for startup companies, like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Slender: Source and Outlast. The drawback to this is we’ve lost the grand, theatrical style of horror games that we got until the beginning of the previous console generation; F.E.A.R., Resident Evil, Metro 2033…the list goes on.

Yes, major developers, we’ve all seen Aliens – we know that the logical progression for a horror franchise is to make it more action and character focused. The problem is that when you do that, it stops being a horror game and just becomes an action game with the lights turned off. All the franchises I mentioned above have neglected their horror roots in favor of becoming more generic shooters…except for Dead Space. The third and latest game in that franchise makes a decent attempt to stay a horror game, but commits a few unforgivable sins in the process.

We start with a recap: In the future, humanity basically does the Firefly thing, expanding to the stars and creating a power-hungry Sino-American space empire. Here, instead of being a thinly-veiled criticism of Star Trek, it’s a thinly-veiled criticism of Scientolo… umm… the Scottish Church. The Scottish Church worships a big black slab that I can’t call a monolith because it’s covered in evil red spikes. This not-monolith has the power to revive dead tissue into a hive mind of murderous zombies and monsters, and so naturally the Scottish Church wants to make as many replicas of it as it can.

"ReeeeEEEEEeeeeeeEEEEEE!"

I suppose it’s safest to join the religion whose god has the least subtlety.

That’s where our player character comes in. Now, I completely support stuffing the game full of references to classic sci-fi, but you have to know where to draw the line. Evidently, the developers don’t, because we play a man with the groan-inducing name of “Isaac Clarke”. I might have laughed if that was the name of a character who showed up in an audio log or something, but as the main character the joke gets old really fast.

Anyway, Harland Bowman (look ‘em up) is an unsuspecting engineer who inadvertently discovered one of these replica monoliths, and had to fight the monster-fied remains of an entire spaceship before he could shut it down. This drove him insane, and he was confined to an asylum on a huge space station. Thanks to Renny Harlin’s Law of Sequels, this huge space station also has a monolith replica on it, and gets infested with monstrous zombies and zombified monsters galore to take on our hero.

The third game tries to get away from the predictable ethos of Dead Space 2 by starting us out John Carpenter’s The Thing-style: A lone man trudges through a frozen tundra before finding a crashed spaceship, containing yet more monsters. We’re introduced to the combat here, which has been a constant throughout the series: We have an assortment of fun space guns with which to dismember the monsters, although none of them is very good at showing you’ve done any real damage. The monsters are all either completely fine or in several pieces, and even on normal difficulty they can take quite a bit of fire. Aside from this, my biggest problem is that there are quite a few cutscenes in the game (I’m not complaining about this; I do appreciate the attempt at a character piece), and they all take control away from the player – but since everything is in-engine and shown from the same over-the-shoulder camera, it can be really tricky to tell when the scene ends and you have to start moving. I mention this because the first time it happened, I failed a quick-time event immediately after the cutscene and had to start from the very beginning. Basic game-making here: The player should always be able to know the extent of their agency at any time.

Anyway, after fighting some zombies on the crashed ship, our character finds a deactivated lightsaber, which he holds up so the audience can see every inch of it, before he gets overwhelmed by the zombies’ sheer numbers. We then go from The Thing into the next theater over, which is showing Blade Runner: Our hero R. Daneel Norton (yeah, just keep both of those Wikipedia tabs open for the rest of this review, folks – it’s not often I get to show off like this) now lives on a polluted, advertisement-filled space colony, where he’s consumed by melancholy and booze after going through the hell of the first two games. Unfortunately for him, a space marine kicks down his door, and mentions that a lady friend of his has gone missing on a dangerous space mission.

Why does every single battle partner/love interest in video games have to look exactly like Alyx Vance?

“Yes, dear, I’ll remember to slaughter all the space zombies on my way home…yes, dear, I’ll remember to drop off the dry cleaning too…”

Now, our hero is a badass slayer of thousands of space zombies, but here is a reminder to old and new players alike that he is also seriously pussy-whipped. His entire reason for going through the first game was to see whether his girlfriend had survived, and as soon as he met a vaguely-similar looking lady in the second game he immediately devoted his life to her.

This similar lady has left our hero Willis French to work for the space marines, and so he is given honorary placement in their ranks, and goes off to investigate after a boring third-person-shooter sequence. This sequence is where the game first commits is cardinal transgression: It makes me sick. Literally. I’m not the sort of person who gets motion sickness from games, but this sequence ends with an extended chase scene atop a futuristic freight train – and the combination of three separate sets of wildly moving colored lights meant I had to turn off the game and drink some water. This happened to me multiple times throughout the game, and so I feel justified in holding it against them because it massively decreased my entertainment. A scary experience isn’t made scarier if you have to stop it and take a break every half-hour.

They go to a big spaceship, where we’re introduced to our co-op partner, Sgt. John Carter (again, not the wisest of references to make, developers). You can tell he’s a major character because his room is littered with conspicuously-placed audio logs, which pile so many war movie hero cliches into this one man’s personality it’s a wonder he doesn’t explode from the pressure.

Speaking of exploding from the pressure, when the spaceship comes out of its generic-brand hyperdrive it encounters a huge field of debris, which leads to a hull breach and a zero-gravity sequence. I’ve usually really enjoyed these sequences in previous Dead Space games because of how fun and different they are, but this one was different. Because the developers want to show off their current-gen physics engine, they fill the vacuum of space with dozens of spinning and blinking objects, and before you know it I feel just as sick looking at the scene as my mid-tier graphics card does rendering it.

...not that I'm willing to do anything alternative, though.

No still image can do justice to how hard this is to look at in motion

Once you get inside an old spaceship at the center of the debris field, our hero Heywood Calvin strikes off on his own to locate his lady friend. There’s some amusing subtext in the next scene, where he sees that the ship is festooned with crazed wall scribblings and huge bloodstains, and has to be reminded by his space marine buddies that most people are actually scared of the space zombies. You know, fear? Like something horrific might make you feel?

During this inevitable space zombie battle, I have the opportunity to point out something that’s been bugging me ever since the first game: your melee attack. Pressing the space bar without any weapon lets you stamp your foot with an absurd amount of force. Theoretically, it can reduce most space zombies to so much spilled pasta sauce in a few seconds, but it practice it’s ineffectual in combat, since there’s no way to jump and you’re always either knocked back or retreated from while you’re doing the very slow animation for the attack.

After fighting our way through the space zombies, we discover our hero’s lady friend has survived, and has been doing some research. The old spaceship we’re on is actually the crashed ship from the opening, and the deactivated lightsaber is the key to shutting down the fake monoliths once and for all…but unfortunately, it’s on a nearby ice planet, meaning that you have to go down there.

I was glad for the opportunity to explore another gameplay environment besides derelict, zombie-infested spaceships, but then the very next mission has you go to… a derelict, zombie-infested spaceship. While I do like how you have to manually use your spacesuit to navigate between ships because of how it makes the world bigger and adds to the gritty sci-fi tone, I didn’t want to have to put up with it for much longer.

So, I did something I only do in drastic cases – I looked up spoilers on the internet. As it turned out, after two hours of gameplay, I was less than a quarter of the way through the storyline, and there was quite a lot of space sequences left to go. And so, I just stopped playing the game. I’ll do many things for this site, folks, but I won’t put myself through this pedestrian, vomit-inducing horror game for six more hours.

From what I saw of Dead Space 3, it had quite a few decent ideas on how to shake up and iterate on the franchise. However, these reviews aren’t as objective as I’d like to think, and this is a reminder that you’re always seeing the game as filtered through my experiences with it. Give the first game a try if you enjoy sci-fi horror, but wait to pick up the sequels until you get a feel for the franchise.

TWO THUMBS UP: Space sequences; what I saw of the ice planet

THUMBS UP: The character-focused plot and apparent resolution to the story

THUMBS DOWN: The lack of scares or changes to the gameplay

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Motion sickness

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