This is an article I was putting off for a while because I was struggling to get to a stage where I felt I had done “enough” to produce a review. The definition of “enough” varies from game to game from simply putting in a certain number of hours to actually completing the game depending on how much I am enjoying the game. The point comes down to the fact that I always try to give every game I play a fair shot and to not dismiss them out of hand. However, sometimes it becomes increasingly difficult to reach that moment of “right I’ve played enough now!” With Dead Space 3 I went through some serious pains in order to give it what I felt was a “fair shot”, and it was only when I realised that I was actually going through “pains” in order to play it that I decided that life was too short and stopped a good few chapters before the end.
Dead Space is a series that really suffered from EA-syndrome, where absolutely anything imaginative or possibly innovative was taken and stamped on until it became bland and flat in order to be palatable to as many people as possible. The issue being that being palatable is a far cry away from being delicious. Dead Space 3, by Visceral Games, especially suffers from it as it is furthest removed from the original, a game which might have actually had some promise back in the day.
I feel very uncomfortable calling Dead Space 3 a “horror” game. I never played the original Dead Space beyond the first half hour, but I do remember finding it vaguely chilling and that it actually did a fairly reasonable job of scaring me. Dead Space 3 on the other hand, is NOT scary. It just isn’t. If you think it is scary then, well, you’re wrong (and god help you if you ever try to play an indie horror). It’s a gory game, true, but gore is not synonymous with scary. Amnesia had moments of gore and blood and horrific scenes, but you weren’t wading through rivers of blood in every single section in order to progress. Equally, films like Alien are considered scary while films like Human Centipede are simply shocking. Sure you can stick a corpse on the walls, have spears sticking out of it from every angle, but that alone isn’t scary. It’s just a rather gruesome bit of art someone decided to leave hanging about.
To truly induce fear into someone is an art form in and of itself. It requires two very important things in plentiful quantities: subtlety and pacing. These are both things which truly scary games have in spades, while Dead Space 3 wouldn’t understand subtlety if it was in a lonely, shadowy corridor silent except for the sound of the wind and a door opening and shutting slowly and constantly on creaky hinges. A scary game keeps you guessing, it keeps you confused and in the dark and lures you into a false sense of security before suddenly leaping up into your face in a flurry of adrenaline, piss and screechy violin noises.
It’s the difference between Slender and Amnesia. Slender isn’t exactly “scary” as such. It’s loud, brash, in-your-face tension which is built up over a period of 10-15 minutes to be unleashed as series of jump-scares and screams. You DO get scared the first time around, that shit is pretty inevitable, and anyone will tell you that. It’s because it’s unexpected and the unexpected is what is actually scary.
You know what happens if you KEEP playing Slender though? It gets progressively less scary. Sure there might be some added tension if you manage to get further than you have before and if you are close to actually winning the game (which I still think is impossible). But each time you play it you scream a little less at the jump scares and the loud, constant thrumming which was at first just so damned horrifying becomes grating and irritating. It becomes predictable in its unpredictability. I played it for perhaps half an hour, over which time I gave it several shots, but then that was it for me. It wasn’t offering anything new and so I stopped.
Amnesia on the other hand doesn’t become predictable. It’s constantly nerve racking and constantly tense because more than half the times the music goes down to that deep bass and the string section starts sawing away violently, there isn’t any actual danger. It’s all carefully paced and slowly built up so that you psych yourself out. It’s scary because your mind makes it scary for you. Dead Space does the Slender thing, and then attempts to do the Slender thing over a game which is approximately 15 hours long. And then it tried to the Slender thing, on an even more obvious scale, again for Dead Space 2 and 3. And they wonder why nobody thinks it’s scary any more… There are only so many times you can walk up to a “dead” body, only so many times you can approach a “not-at-all-suspicious-looking-air-vent-guys” and not expect the former to jump up into your face and the latter to explode a tentacled horror also into your face.
I don’t want to seem like I am simply instantly dismissing the game here, so allow me to say that there were a couple of moments which were at least reasonably tense. A moment when being chased by an invulnerable monster while waiting for a door to slowly open, that was quite effective and had me on the edge of my seat. As did a section where you have to progress through a bunch of underground tunnels and caves bypassing a bunch of zombie-like creatures which appear either blind or deaf (or both) and only attack when disturbed. Choosing the option to attempt to sneak through actually made it pretty tense because if you disturbed any one of them you ended up getting attacked by ALL of them.
That’s it though. Two moments. I wasn’t lying when I said “a couple”. The rest of the time I was leaning back, I was casual, I wasn’t stressed and I wasn’t bothered. As someone who really enjoys having the crap scared out of me by games, I wasn’t even left disappointed (because I knew it wouldn’t be scary in the first place).
So, if it isn’t a horror game, does it come together better as an action game? In truth, as a 3rd person shooter it does actually make a fair bit more sense than as a horror. Combat has that heavy, weighted and deliberate feel which put me very much in mind of a Gears of War game. And while GoW may not be one of the best series out there, one cannot deny that it is an effective and well designed shooter. Combine that weighted sensation with a host of different weapons and you might be onto a winner here.
However, even here there are far too many things which just seem to drag it down. The lack of a distinct cover mechanic means that whenever one comes into combat with other humans armed with firearms it can be extremely frustrating avoiding incoming fire whilst also returning it. I know that many other games can be effective shooters without resorting to a cover mechanic, but here it definitely feels like it could have used one. Issac just feels too large and ponderous to pop around corners and fire at the enemies before darting back in. In fact, Issac doesn’t fucking dart anywhere!
This is a result of the combat being designed with close quarters in mind, where you are fighting against monsters who want to get up close and personal and not stand on the other side of the room taking pot-shots. In close quarters a heavier and slower approach often makes the game feel better, but at a distance it slows the game down too much. Besides, even in close quarters it had it’s issues. Considering that the monsters like to get properly right up into your grill there, far too often, seemed to be an issue with bullets travelling through their bodies because your gun was already half-way through them.
The use of “stasis” and “telekinesis” (the former used to slow down objects and enemies to a crawl, and the latter is self-explanatory) is also a bit gimmicky for my liking. I rarely ever used either and was only occasionally reminded of their existence when the game decided to show me a route which could only be accessed by using them. Also, it seems oddly against the tone of the game to just have power over motherfucking time and space…
Again, I’m not completely dismissing the combat. I have to admit that using the powerful array of weapons and guns which fire a line of projectiles/energy to blow the limbs from enemies piece by piece was great fun. It’s the mechanic which MADE Dead Space in the first place, and for good reason. Stomping and shooting everything from humans to aliens and monsters into a variety of diced chunks is definitely pretty satisfying. Even that is not perfect though as the times when a weapon would actually cut a limb from a monster seemed oddly arbitrary, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
The other aspects of the games had their ups and downs as well. I very much liked the weapon and armour crafting and upgrading system, it seemed very broad and allowed for a lot of variation in play style and in what you could use to explodify the tentacled-ones. On the other hand, the crafting relied very heavily on a resource gathering system which seemed very limited and took an awful long time to get anything, getting the resources for the most powerful weapons seemed an incredibly daunting task.
The look of the game was a mixture of sci-fi and a wildnerness of sorts, ranging from derelict or destroyed space corridors, to snowed in corridors underneath a blizzard on Hoth. All in all though, the environments were never particularly interesting. They could and should have made a lot more use of the time in space to allow gravity free movement, a larger range of spaceships to explore and maybe some colour even, but even in space it was pretty boring and samey.
I’m a little stuck on what to think of the story. I personally had absolutely no clue what was going on the whole time except that Issac and a bunch of soldiers was heading to Hoth in order to destroy the source of the monsters which were ravaging space. The human cult which wants space to be ravaged though, the other characters, even the monsters themselves and their sources, all of them have absolutely no introduction and I suspect this is because they were introduced in previous games. As someone who always insists that people ought to play Mass Effects 1 and 2 before playing 3, I suppose it only seems fair that I should play Dead Space 1 and 2 before I actually comment on the story All I will say is that it seems pretty convoluted and not very well thought out. The characters also do not have much characterisation and so end up as bland as a bunch of talking bits of cardboard. The final thing which might have actually changed how the game played is it’s co-op aspect. Unfortunately I did not try this, nor do I really have the patience to ever do so. It might be a game changer, but in truth I really doubt it.
All in all, Dead Space might have been an impressive and scary break-out title. Now that it’s on the 3rd of the series though, it is tired, boring, frustrating and just utterly bland and tasteless. It’s a game which I genuinely do not think is worth playing or even considering and Visceral Games will really have to shake things up if they make the unwise decision to continue the series further.