I’ve got a couple of disclaimers to make before I wax lyrical about Dead Space 3. Firstly, I’m a massive fanboy of the series, with the original making it into my top 5 of all time. Secondly, I’m a bit of a horror aficionado; if a movie doesn’t have cats jumping out of closets, ghosts revealed in mirrors or a shower-curtain reveal scene, it won’t make it into my collection of 300 horror DVDs and Blu-rays.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, I can explain why I think Dead Space 3 is easily the best in the series, despite the fact that the last third of the game won’t have you reaching for the Valium quite as much as its predecessors. Any horror fan can tell you that making a sequel to a horror film is hard; making the third in the series scary is almost impossible. Horror of the edge-of-your-seat, hold-your-partner-tight kind uses a relatively small set of tricks, and reusing them is a sure fire way to bore your audience.
Yet, the first two thirds of Dead Space 3 use very similar techniques to the earlier games. You’re still traipsing around derelict space ships, using the dynamic lighting of your weapon to light up the dark corners infested with all manner of deformed nasties. Except now — and this is the masterstroke of brilliance — you’re doing it with a pal.
You might think playing with another person lessens the tension, and that’s absolutely true if your co-op buddy is a douchebag who thinks teabagging Necromorphs is hilarious. Even the most perfect horror ambience can’t withstand such dickish behaviour. But if you find a co-op pal (shout outs to Dr3money, who watched my back) who treats this experience the same way a good horror movie should be approached – in silence, without cracking lame jokes every five minutes – you’ll find it to be even more emotionally exhausting than playing alone.
Now you’ve got a buddy to look out for as well as yourself, and all too often you’ll spot an axe-wielding zombie about to hack his/her head off from behind way before he/she does. Approaching death arenas with a pal, the large open areas where you just know you’re gonna get swamped by the ‘Morphs, usually involves several minutes of discussion about how best to handle it, followed by several minutes of getting your face ripped off as you watch your strategy go down the crapper. Co-op is a godsend, and makes the rehashing of scary tricks that much more enjoyable. It’s also integrated perfectly, with cut-scenes reworked for the co-op game, and even co-op specific missions.
If there’s one disappointment with co-op, it’s that the promised player-specific hallucinations are very rare, feeling more like a token effort than a game-changing feature.
Dead Space has always been known for its fantastic environments, and the third delivers even better game spaces. Each area tells as much of a story as the audio and text logs scattered throughout, and I often found myself browsing the photos and personal items in people’s rooms and homes. The last third of the 20 hour campaign takes the player down to the icy planet of Tau Volantis, a refreshing break from metallic corridors, and introduces one of the many new novelty features, body heat. It’s also the area where the game morphs from tense corridor crawler to more of an all-out firefight, but the gunplay is always tight and satisfying, especially when you experiment with new weapons.
It’s amazing how many different things can happen to the human body depending on what you fire through it. My favourite environment was unquestionably the open space areas, where you’re forced to fly several hundred meters through the cold, silent depths of nothingness. No other game has captured the terrifying loneliness of an EVA like this.
The other huge improvement to the game is the new weapon and inventory system, though it comes at a cost. There are literally hundreds of different weapon types to be crafted at the benches, and you’ll experiment with new varieties every ten minutes or so, as the benches are liberally spread throughout the levels. Each weapon and attachment has a wildly different effect to the rest, and it’s obvious the game designers are fans of Insomniac’s inspirational armouries. Unfortunately I discovered an absolutely killer weapon combo about half way through, that made even the toughest of encounters a bit too easy — and this was while playing on the hardest difficulty level, ‘Impossible’.
As far as PC-specific features go, there’s a decent selection of graphics options. Anti-aliasing in particular has an impressive range of choices including SMAA and FXAA, but MSAA it out thanks to the deferred rendering engine. It ran beautifully on max settings at 1080p on my 4.5GHz CPU with dual GTX 670s (as it freaking well should) and frequently pleased my ocular system with breathtaking vistas, despite the occasional low res texture. The gorgeous visuals are exceeded by the game’s award-winning audio, with horrifying ambient effects and a soundtrack that perfectly matches the tempo of the onscreen action. This is the kind of OST worth buying on iTunes.
Based on my experience with the series, the Dead Space 3 that I played perfectly fitted my expectations for the game, but it could be very different from the Dead Space 3 that you end up playing. Played solo, the continued reliance upon the monster closets and flickering lights to raise your pulse will probably become a tedious grind of familiarity, rather than the tense moments of co-operative pants-soiling that I experienced. Fans of the series should still check it out just to see where the Black Markers take Isaac this time around, but to see the game truly shine, they should bring a friend along for the ride.
- Visceral are the masters of creating horrifying spaces that reek of authenticity, and Dead Space 3 is packed full of them.
- Co-op makes all of the old tricks fun again.
- A stunning audio-visual experience.
- The campaign delivers around 20 hours of value.
- Weapon customisation is actually fun as a result of the wildly different effects, rather than the meaningless grind found in other games.
- The old tricks mightn’t be so much fun when played solo.
- Some might not enjoy the trend towards action in the final third act.
- Some weapons feel very overpowered, especially when you and a pal are both packing serious heat.
- No multiplayer means that once the campaign is done, there’s little reason to return.
- The much vaunted player-specific hallucinations don’t crop up enough to warrant the attention they received.
Full disclosure: Bennett is currently shacked up with an EA employee, but any concerns of bias can probably be dismissed by his glowing 4/10 review of the recent Medal of Honor over at Ausgamers.