I'm nothing if not positive. When EA showcased Dead Space 3's action-focused new direction at last year's E3, I steered clear of the dissenting voices and naysayers. Visceral knows what it's doing, I thought. When coop was revealed, I chose to think about the ways in which another player could add to the horror rather than detract from it. I didn't even get angry about microtransactions and 11 pieces of launch DLC. The proof would be in the pudding - the gristly, deformed, pus-spewing pudding.
Turns out, Dead Space 3 is pretty much the exact game everyone else said it would be. It is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess; a misguided, dull slog that's so devoid of innovation and inspiration that it seems mad that it actually comes from the same people as its stellar predecessors.
When EA launched Dead Space, it felt like something new. Yes, the component parts had been seen before in both cinema and gaming, but it brought ideas to a stale genre and did so with rare style. The sound design, the limb-rending, the zero-gravity, the isolation. The game was far from perfect, but it was fresh and bold. Dead Space 2 then took those ideas, threw in some new ones, and polished the thing into a shiny Triple-A franchise; another string to EA's ever-growing big-budget bow.
Dead Space 3, though, is none of that. In a 14-or-so hour campaign - playable on your own or with a coop partner (more on that later) - there are no new ideas, no innovations, no flair. The game has transformed from mid-paced horror into an action shooter with an eye for the grotesque, but has done so without relaying the foundations necessary to facilitate that sort of mutation. You can't just make a Gears of War game because you fancy it - you have to build every polygonal cell to support it.
The first worry is the introduction of human enemies - soldiers of the mad Unitology leader Danik. They appear early, suggesting that Dead Space 3 is going to completely eschew its roots, but in actual fact their appearances are sparing and actually strangely welcome. Turns out it's more fun to fight a group of reasonably smart humans than an endless, relentless tide of necromorphs.
Every combat encounter - and there are many - is almost always twice as long as it should be. Any time Isaac accomplishes anything, whether it's solving a puzzle or just finding a new area, he's assaulted by a small army of waggly-armed idiots that need to be sliced up in classic Dead Space style. Being overrun by Necros has always been the least appealing part of the series, but now it's a fundamental part of the game - by the end of the campaign I must have slaughtered over 1000 of them, and did so with no real skill or tactical consideration, just aggression, hope and just enough Stasis to slow a few of them down. It's a slog.
Considering the new focus on combat, it's maddening that Isaac is now limited to carrying two weapons at once, and that the old upgrade system has been replaced by a confusing and somewhat cynical crafting mechanic. It breaks the flow of the action and seems completely at odds with the immersion the (admittedly excellent) visuals and sound attempt to establish. Every five minutes, you're stuck at a work bench trying to cram a new attachment onto your gun, wrapping your head around 5 different pieces of in-game currency and praying that what you end up with is actually capable of doing some damage.
It reminds me of a meal I had the other week. I went to a restaurant that served steak on hot stones, so you can cook it yourself. It sounded great; novel, exciting, just pretentious enough to make me feel a little bit cool. Five minutes in, though, and I'm sitting there with a slab of uncooked meat and some heat, essentially. I've paid a premium to do the chef's job for him, and the steak ended up being average at best.
The idea of crafting your own weapons in Dead Space 3 might sound great. It certainly nods to the Minecraft crowd, and Isaac's engineering background justifies it narratively. But in practice, you're just doing the designers' jobs for them. Nothing I built was ever as good as a powered-up plasma cutter, and more than once I built something that actually made the game much harder.
Later in the campaign you actually do get hold of a bespoke weapon, and that goes on to inform the design in the rest of that chapter. It's one of the best bits of the game. There's a lot to be said for having your choices restricted by artists and creatives who might just know better. Especially when the ubiquitous bench also carries a giant list of greyed-out weapon blueprints that can only feasibly be made on a first play-through if you're prepared to lay down some extra dollar. It's a pretty ugly affair.
Thankfully, the second controversial inclusion is probably Dead Space 3's saving grace. In the absence of horror - and the game just isn't scary, seemingly deliberately so - having a partner along for the ride does enhance the action. Certain sections are clearly designed for buddying-up, and your cohort Carver is a decent sidekick. He hates you, for one, which is novel enough, and he has his own personal tale to separate him from Clarke.
He's much more than just a second Isaac or a bland avatar. Yes, he might look like a reject from the SS Normandy, but he has his own motives and backstory, and more interestingly actually suffers from visions that make his own journey through the campaign different to Isaac's. It's gimmicky stuff, yes, but still an interesting use of cooperative dynamics that does offer something more than just a friend to kill things with.
The campaign does branch for each coop partner, too, and there are coop specific side missions which are about as exciting as the single-player equivalents (read: not). Dead Space 3 is definitely a better game when played together.
A shame, then, that it's still not a very good game. When you're not drowning in dead bodies, you're carrying out bland menial tasks. Dead Space has always been a game about Isaac doing chores for other people, but this is ridiculous. Just getting to the snowy planet of Tau Volantis takes an age and requires a seemingly never ending succession of fetch quests, and even basic traversal is constantly halted by having to grab something to open a door or just wait while the damn things open. One chapter has five elevator rides in it. Five. The pacing is baffling at times - every time it threatens to keep things moving it yanks you back into some dull busywork.
The snowy planet doesn't do much for the horror, either. Having the action step out of the darkness is no bad thing, but it doesn't take much of a critical eye to see the frozen tundra and permanent snowstorms as just sexier versions of PSOne fogging - the actual levels themselves are cramped and linear. And while some sections and set pieces do shine - one open chunk in deep space is marvelous to look at, while a few Uncharted-style scripted sequences are genuinely impressive - there's so much plodding and killing that it's hard to enjoy them.
Dead Space 3 isn't a let down because Visceral decided to turn it into an action game. No one can tell them what Dead Space 'is' - they decide to make whatever game they want. And there is enough lore and scope to make Dead Space an action game, even if that choice is probably a poor one. Dead Space 3 is a let down because it's not a very good action game, and a really substandard horror game. It is devoid of ideas, hung up on laborious combat and obsessed with making even the exciting seem boring. In truth, it's a bit of a shocker.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Time Played: 14 Hours