The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dead Space 3 Review

The Dead Space series has been a favorite of mine since its debut in 2008. The creepy, insanity inducing “Marker” artifacts, the sinister Unitologist cult that worships them and the horrific Necromorphs the Markers spawn make for a memorable combination. The previous Dead Space games learned the lessons of design, ambience, and gameplay that classics like Resident Evil 4 and System Shock 2 worked so hard to teach.

When I saw that EA was putting Dead Space 3 up as part of a Humble Bundle charity sale I wasted no time in snapping it up. Having slugged my way through the campaign I’m forced to say I would have been severely disappointed if I had paid $60 for this game when it first came out.

Dead Space 3 (DS3 for short) is a game with problems. Serious problems. Technical problems, gameplay problems, narrative problems, and deeply rooted design problems. Problems that drag the game down on every level. Problems clinging tumor-like to the skeletal frame of a once strong survival-horror IP, choking the solid core gameplay and few cool new ideas. 


First and foremost DS3 suffers from savagely bad PC optimization. My machine can run other modern games at moderate settings without problems. Even on low settings I experienced severe stuttering that pushed the game almost into the unplayable range.

He's more dangerous dead than alive. At least to your frame-rate.
This was most notable whenever I acted on physics objects. A single brush turned dead bodies into awkwardly flailing masses that would cartwheel impossibly through the air, plunging my frame-rate into a slide-show. Given that DS3 is essentially a game about turning space zombies into meaty physics props this was crippling, turning nearly every fight into a performance killing epileptic fit.

Despite spending several hours troubleshooting and scouring the EA support boards I was never able to get the problem to go away. The game seemed to have trouble using both of my computer’s CPU cores, but there didn’t seem to be any patch or work around.

Origin, EA’s own ersatz Steam, helpfully disabled sound and controls after every new chapter loaded up or any time an achievement was awarded. Once I disabled the “Origin In-Game” element that particular problem went away. If your own delivery platform is forcing the player to regularly restart the game you’ve created an extra bug, not a feature. 

Follow the onscreen prompt to die over and over.
DS3 also shares the same quicktime problem of its predecessor. When the game instructs you to “Press E” to avoid hideous death, the developers expect you to read their minds from across time and space and understand they actually mean “Press E and F”. Because if you don’t you die. I don’t even know who to begin to blame for this, but until I remembered this problem from the previous game getting grabbed by any Necromorph was a death sentence and certain quick-time hazards become impassable blocks. 

Perhaps all these issues are less prevent or absent in the console version of the game, but it’s still the most problematic PC port I’ve played in memory. But let’s assume you’ve somehow made it past the fusterclug of technical issues and battered the game into a playable state. Or perhaps you’re playing on console.

Cold and Silence

DS3 starts up in the middle of a Unitologist cult attack and subsequent Necromorph outbreak on Earth’s moon. The government, having apparently learned nothing at all from the previous games, has started building the insanity inducing and space zombie creating Markers everywhere. This really seems like the sort of thing that should be restricted to an isolated lab with a built in self destruct mechanism until the aforementioned flaws get worked out.

Isaac Clark, the Unitologists now actively gunning for him, is caught up in the mess. In short order he’s rescued by a small band of scientists and soldiers (who are surely not doomed to be picked off one at a time over the next few hours) and makes his way to the world of Tau Volantis. This desolate, frozen planet is where the signal controlling the Markers seems to be coming from, so any answers about how to stop them will be found here.

Just you and the void.
Isaac’s little band isn’t the first group of people to have visited the planet. While the previous expedition was destroyed by the Terrible Secrets™ they unearthed they left behind a flotilla in orbit, installations on the ground, and piles of freeze dried bodies that have since reanimated into Necromorphs. The previous Tau Volantis expedition was supposedly 200 years ago, so it’s a little improbable that everything is still working after two centuries of exposure to hard vacuum, constant blizzards, and sub-zero temperatures.

The hungry, hungry void.
The game’s early chapters are spent exploring the derelicts in orbit. The zero-g sections are arguably the best part of the game, with Isaac able to move and fight gracefully in three dimensions. Your air supply is more generous than previous games, allowing for a degree of exploration. The cramped corridors of the ruined ships contrast nicely with the open void and amazing views of the planet below.

Crazy for You

Isaac comes off as surprisingly sane in this installment. Perhaps he’s built up some sort of immunity to the Markers or perhaps he finally put his demons to rest for good. This is an odd choice given that hallucinations and putting the player characters own sanity in doubt was one of the more interesting narrative twists Dead Space had going. It seems like throwing away a perfectly good, already established way to up the creepiness and paranoia factors.  

Some narrative elements work better than others. In particular the love triangle between Isaac, Ellie (his love interest from the second game), and a rival for Ellie’s affections named Norton comes off as exceptionally goofy. It’s never established why Ellie fell for this new guy in the first place beyond an attempt to manufacture a little additional drama. Norton’s sole distinguishing trait seems to be that he’s a jealous and insecure jerk.  

If Derp-face over on the right has any redeeming features we never see them.

A stronger direction might have been to make Norton a more noble and mission focused character. If Isaac was still obviously suffering from insanity and had sent Ellie away out of concern for her safely the whole dynamic would make a lot more sense and been a lot more interesting. None of this really gets in the way of shooting Necromorphs, but it’s still poor characterization.

Land of Plenty

One of the signature traits of Survival Horror games is limited resources. The previous Dead Space games gave you enough to make every supply cache meaningful and never enough to be wasteful. DS3 inundates you in health packs and ammo from the start and you can make more very cheaply at any workbench. Even on hard difficult I never felt pinched for supplies. Once you start finding deployable scavenger bots the concept of scarcity vanishes entirely, and DS3 becomes a war of attrition very much in your favor.

We could sneak past these creepy Feeders, but why bother?
They'll drop more supplies than we'll spend killing them.
This is compounded by a weird save system that always remembers your inventory, but only sporadically updates your actual game progress. Items, some enemies, and resource caches respawn whenever you save and quit. In an especially obnoxious and inexplicable twist optional missions only save at the start and end, meaning you need to replay the whole thing if you stop at any point. 

All this makes the inclusion of micro-transactions that let you buy extra resources or improve the efficiency of your scavenger bots a bit inexplicable. Between natural abundance, re-spawning pickups, and your scavenger bots it is almost inconceivable that anyone would need to spend real world money on in-game supplies. It feels like EA is trying to sell snow-cones on free ice cream day. 

...and let's not forget Greed is one of the seven deadliest.
I suppose it is to EA’s credit that survival isn’t tuned around needing to shell out yet more real world money. Still, the very inclusion of Facebook game style micro-transactions in what is supposed to be a $60 AAA game is obnoxious at best. Either give me a free-to-play game with a cash shop or just sell me a game that’s a complete package upfront. Don’t try and take my money twice. It’s indecent. 


New to the Dead Space series is weapon crafting. As you pick through the wreckage to Tau Volantis you find weapon frames, barrels, attachments, and more. These can be cobbled together at any bench into a variety of tools of dismemberment. A number of pre-made blueprints (including plans to produce classic Dead Space weapons) are already available. Or you can freely mix and match parts, building new component from raw materials.

More information about exactly what parts are compatible with one another would have been helpful and the part inventory interface is a bit clunky, but it costs nothing to experiment. Weapons can be broken back down into their component parts for free and obsolete or redundant parts can be melted down into more resources. Past the first few chapters you’ll generally have the resources to build whatever you like. 

This is why you pay attention in Shop Class.

Trying different combinations, like a harpoon gun with attached electric shotgun or a brutal hydraulic hammer that can also fire stasis-inducing rotary saws, is easily DS3’s best new feature. You are restricted to a mere two weapons at a time, so intelligently choosing alternate fire modes and tactical functionality is important.

Unfortunately some weapons (notably the rocket launcher and other explosives) are so powerful that once you can craft them they break the difficulty curve. Ammo is plentiful and universal, so even the most powerful weapons can be used freely. At least three or four different ammo types for broad weapon categories (Plasma, explosive, physical, etc…) could have gone a long way towards keeping some of the old survival horror resource conservation in the game. Rockets that one-hit kill 90% of enemies on Hard should at least be rare or expensive enough to make me think twice before firing one. 

Tooth and Nailgun

Past the opening acts combat rapidly deteriorates into a sloppy mess. Since the player is flush with health and ammo at all times, and can craft some gruesomely powerful weapons, the designers were forced to compensate to create any sort of challenge. As often as not later battles resort to trapping you in a small area and throwing wave after wave of the same aggravatingly durable enemy type at you. A few sequences have more of a Serious Sam vibe than anything like survival horror.

It quickly becomes as predictable as it is monotonous. Every time you enter a new area a monster pops out of the vent in front of you and another behind you, and then the same thing happens three-to-five more times. It stops being surprising. The side missions, which recycle the same room set, are especially egregious offenders. Many fights devolved into putting my back to a wall, chugging health packs and blazing away into a mass of thrashing, twitching, frame-rate killing ragdolls until everything finally stopped moving. 

Now kill these guys four more times and you can move on.
Arenas like this existed in previous games but were rare. The dearth of resources and better mix of monsters on display made them more frantic brawls for survival. Too many of Dead Space 3’s fights quickly become a grinding, repetitive chore.  

Even dismemberment and Stasis, two of the core elements of Dead Space combat, feel wrong. Necromorphs are faster and give less visual feedback as their limbs take damage. The most common new type of monster is strangely resistant to precision amputations. Enemies shrug off the effects of your Stasis blasts much faster than in previous games. 

Perhaps these changes were an effort to keep combat challenging. You can find or buy so much ammo and so many Stasis packs that you can just spam Stasis and blaze away at center mass. Carefully severing limbs to conserve ammo and sweating over each use of Stasis no longer makes sense. 

Most human enemies aren't worth taking cover from.
The addition of human enemies ends up being more comic relief than anything else. The Unitologist soldiers you battle occasionally aren’t very good shots and are as fragile as you would expect living humans to be against Dead Space’s body-shattering weaponry. They also spend a lot of time either committing suicide or getting murdered by the same Necromorphs they supposedly worship. Still, they make for a nice change of pace and enemy infighting is always entertaining to watch.

Dangerous to go Alone

Perhaps strangest of all DS3 was built with a fully functional co-op mode. While running around blasting Necromorphs alongside a buddy does absolutely nothing to help convey a sense of dread or isolation it is solid fun. Friendly fire is mercifully disabled and you can effortlessly pass supplies and even favorite weapon blueprints back and forth. 

Unless you're playing solo. But at least you don't need to babysit him.
The second playable character is a standard-issue hard-assed space marine named Carver. He doesn’t get much characterization beyond being angry, but if you’re playing solo the game does a reasonable job of explaining where else he is and what he’s doing. You don’t need to babysit an AI character like in Resident Evil 5, and during boss fights he occasionally shouts advice from off-screen. If the Dead Space series is going to completely ditch its survival-horror roots it might as well take on the better action game elements like co-op.

Fear and Loathing

Dead Space 3 isn’t really a scary game, but under all the mess there is some surprisingly effective traces of horror. The logs left behind by the last doomed expedition to Tau Volantis detail a distressing descent into murder, privation, madness, cannibalism, and death. The bits featuring soldiers willingly, calmly executing their compatriots and then themselves approach genuinely chilling. 

Things got ugly before the end came for the last expedition.
The desolation of Tau Volantis itself, both from orbit and down amid the icy wastes, is one of DS3’s most memorable elements. Even without the hordes of freezer-burned space zombies it is clear this world is relentlessly hostile to the human race and all organic life. The frozen, alien landscape and the awful secrets buried beneath it do more to convey an atmosphere of isolation and hopelessness than anything else in the game.

Absolute desolation.

Ultimately Dead Space 3 is a very difficult game to recommend. If I had paid full price for it when it first came out I would have been mad as hell. We’re left with the shambling, hungry shell of a strong IP, relentlessly sabotaged by technical problems and design decisions at odds with everything the series has traditionally done right. 

Series fans and people looking for a solid co-op game should still consider giving DS3 a look. If you fit either of those categories and can find it for cheap I would say go ahead and pick it up. Otherwise let the dead rest. 

Reasons to Play: Weapon crafting. Zero-G sequences. Solid co-op play. 

Reasons to Pass: Extreme technical problems. Obnoxious micro-transactions. Messy, repetitive combat. Survival horror dynamics, like conservation of resources, gone. Weird save system.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.