In space, EA can hear my wallet opening.
Ah, the benefits of PlayStation Plus. Free to those who drop $50 a year for Sony’s premium service, Dead Space 3 is one of many games that fell into the category of “Really Want To Play, But Don’t Have The Time.” Strange, because I always made time for the last two Dead Space adventures. I adored them for their creepy atmosphere and visceral horror. Going in to Dead Space 3, I knew from reviews that the game was a departure from the norm. Rather than treat the game as a mostly solitary adventure, the inclusion of co-op and a new weapon system made me a bit wary.
Thankfully, co-op is a feature I could easily ignore. To me, Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were primarily about a lonely character forced into taking on a horrifying menace by himself. It’s much more tense, horrifying and exciting that way. This also lends the games a Ridley Scott vibe that favors atmospheric storytelling. As I would discover, Dead Space 3 sacrifices plot and mood in order to deliver more action oriented experience. The jump in tone between Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3 is a lot like the shift from Alien to Aliens. Only this time, the action is boring, the characters are lame and the story is weak. Hurting the game further is a crafting system and micro-transactions that utterly destroy any semblance of tension and fear.
Dead Space 3 is presented in two parts. The first half takes place within the ruins of a colony in orbit over Tau Volantis, a frigid ice planet that may hold the answers to the Necromorphs. Isaac and his band of survivors, including his estranged lover Ellie (whom he met in Dead Space 2) scour the EarthGov ships and structures for clues about the planet below. It is this portion of the game that Dead Space 3 sticks to its roots by using Isaac’s talents as an engineer to get things working again. The experience is at its best when Isaac finds himself in Zero G environments, something Dead Space 3 does better than its predecessors only for the larger areas of space to explore. The space colony portion of the game comes with an interesting collection of side missions designed to offer more supplies and shed some light on past events. However these diversions always lead to frustrating combat gauntlets.
After a thrilling shuttle trip down to the surface of Tau Volantis, Dead Space 3 then turns into a dull Gears of War copy. Dead Space defined itself by the Event Horizon-style haunted house trappings of the USG Ishimura and the Sprawl. I have grown to accept some of the game’s predictable jump scares because the moments in between were scary and fun. After making planetfall, the game cracks under the weight of combat tedium that, admittedly, began about halfway through the space colony portion. The experience might have been saved if the combat was fun, but the “shoot the limbs” mechanic is no longer novel and a new weapon customization and crafting system makes the experience anything but.
In the past, Isaac’s arsenal of weaponry followed the standard Procure On Sight method, with our hero finding weaponized mining and engineering tools designed to cut up Necromorph limbs, which was the only real way to kill them. Obtaining weapons in this manner offered a great feeling of progression, that Isaac was getting bigger and better tools to use against late game alien variants. This experience has been completely removed in Dead Space 3 in favor of a self guided crafting system that all but destroys pacing and atmosphere.
One of the more immediate issues with the crafting system is that it favors farming and EA’s microtransaction payment model. Instead of picking up new weapons, players are given the freedom to design their own tools, turning each workbench into a gun nut’s personal Build A Bear station. Using parts found in the field (or by purchasing them from the PlaySation Store), weapons can be cobbled together into ridiculous monstrosities that offer unique primary and secondary attacks. For example, one of my earlier weapons consisted of a shotgun attached to a mining laser. The strength of your weapon is determined by the components used to create them, such as low or high grade gun barrels and weapon frames that can be found from fallen enemies or created by collecting a specific number of materials to build them from scratch.
Materials are not given freely and often times the player is expected to go out of their way to collect them. They can be found hidden in lockers, special cargo containers, picked up from enemies or collected by a small scavenger robot that takes ten minutes to complete its hunt. If ten minutes is too long (and it often is), you can pay EA to equip faster robot workers. The resource farming and waiting for scavengers to deliver materials positions the player to spend a significant amount of time hovering around benches or make the long trek back to another. This experience is worsened by the realization that for all your farming, you may not have enough materials needed to construct the desired item. Visceral tries to account for this by including portions of gameplay that feature a near infinite number of aliens.
When I did manage to complete my weapon designs, I often felt that they were largely underpowered. I can use special circuits to boost weapon stats, like reload time and damage, but no matter how many “+damage” and “+rate of fire” circuits I attach, even the most basic of Necromorphs soak up a lot of hits. And because the best equipment and components don’t show up until the last half of the game, I’m left feeling unfairly held back.
This is where the microstransactions come into play. Rather than farm components or hunt down blueprints, Visceral makes it easy to visit the PlayStation Store to buy weapons and extra materials. Dead Space 3 is the first game I spent money on microtransactions only to see if there was a noticeable difference between the weapons I could make and those that can be purchased. I dropped $4.99 on the Marauder Pack, giving me a new suit (no apparent benefits beyond the aesthetic) and an assault rifle/plasma melee attachment that easily turned aliens into mush easier and faster than anything else I made from scratch.
As a side note, while browsing the in-game store, I noticed EA offered material packs that contained a large number of materials and components to craft various items and attachments along with a randomized high quality item. EA wants you to spend cash for an item you might get. That, I think, is the game’s biggest and nastiest offender of this whole screwy setup. Anyone will tell you that you don’t have to spend money to purchase new weapons but I honestly feel that the game is designed to nudge you in that direction. If you decide to forgo paying for items, it seems to me that crafted weapons won’t really prove their worth until a second playthrough on New Game+.
If the story of Dead Space 3 was as interesting as the last two games, I could have overlooked the problems above. Unfortunately, the plot is just as underwhelming as the rest of the game. Dead Space 3 presents an emotionally damaged Isaac Clarke who has fallen on hard times after his previous emotional trauma strained the relationship between he and Ellie Langford to the breaking point. The galaxy has become a very dangerous place after the Unitologists, led by the fanatical Jacob Danik, militarized and all but decimated the forces of EarthGov. Teaming up with officer Jordan Carver, the remaining EarthGov battalion locates Langford’s team within the ruins of a colony orbiting the Hoth-like planet of Tau Volantis, which was once a hotbed of Necromorph activity 200 years ago. The story starts off strongly, I liked how the tutorial saw Isaac being hunted by Unitologists in a city, a cool little set piece before venturing into familiar territory. When Isaac meets with Ellie and starts butting heads with her new beau, the subsequent love triangle/dick measuring bullshit is so dumb and forced that the whole affair is impossible to take seriously. By the time Isaac reaches Tau Volantis, I had forgotten why I was even there. I knew that there was Some Big Secret to be found on the planet but the reasoning behind the tasks given to me along the way grew fuzzy and I didn’t feel the need to care anymore. All I really had to do was just point my gun and shoot.
Dead Space 3 is a disappointment on many levels and that’s a damn shame. Perhaps the game’s eventual reboot/re-imagining will find a way to get the franchise back to its roots.