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Dead Space 3’s superb combat, sound design, and crafting system more than make up for its weak story

Eric Deters, Reporter

The Dead Space games are usually ones that I appreciate most in retrospect as opposed to when I’m actually playing them. The combat’s fine-tuning and precision becomes more apparent as I think about it, and the sheer amount of detail makes each moment and locale memorable. Most would tell you that the horror elements aren’t the series real focus, and true as that may be, the games never failed to get frequent jumps out of me, perhaps even when they shouldn’t have.

Before I got my hands on Dead Space 3, I was worried that this would be the turning point for the series; that the addition of human enemies, weapon customization, and what seemed like more sluggish movement and aiming would be the downfall of this great action-horror franchise. Let’s just say my fears may have been warranted, but in reality, dead wrong.

Dead Space 3 builds off of the narrative of the first two main games in the series in occasionally stupid, yet also occasionally great ways. Once again, players control the engineer Isaac Clarke as he fights against the Necromorph (reanimated and repurposed dead flesh) threat as he races to wipe it out for good.

Following Clarke’s stint on the Sprawl where he destroyed an EarthGov-created Marker while battling dementia along with a new Necromorph outbreak, Isaac retreated to a moon colony where he hid from the cult-like Unitologists determined to kill the man who destroyed one of their religious artifacts. After being recruited by his ex-girlfriend Ellie’s crew, he sets out to a derelict flotilla of 200-year old ships and eventually the ice planet below them, Tau Volantis, to discover what the scientists that ventured there centuries earlier had found.

The story works well at propelling Isaac from location to location, but falters almost any time the love triangle between Ellie, Isaac, and the ship’s captain Robert Norton,  is the centerpiece of a cutscene (which is alarmingly frequently). The drama, at least on a character level, is unfortunately pretty weak.

The story also fails to nail the tight, near-perfect pacing of the first two games, and the second one especially. It tends to push Isaac along its path to specific, beautiful locales, but once he gets there, there’s nothing much to do. Looking back on the whole experience, I can’t recall nearly as many “HOLY S***” moments as I can from even the first half of Dead Space 2. The smaller, moment-to-moment stuff is just as strong as it’s ever been, but at the risk of providing what might be a less memorable experience.

Roughly the first half of the game takes place on the flotilla, and this area provides the most traditional and polished Dead Space experience in the series. When Isaac and company finally land on Tau Volantis, the game retains the polish but the setting changes the game’s dynamic in very interesting ways. Instead of dark, dank corridors, Isaac travels through blistery, snowy environments where his vision is hampered in other ways. Snow and wind will limit his view and no flashlight can ameliorate that. Instead of hiding in vents, Necromorphs will burrow underground like faster, land-dwelling, undead sharks, and it’s terrifying.

It’s not an understated sense of terror, but a relentless, unending one. Feeders (a new enemy type created after starving survivors on Tau Volantis resorted to eating the flesh of Necromorphs) are perfectly emblematic of this, similar to the Pack from Dead Space 2. They lie in shadows, only visible by their glowing eyes until Isaac shines his flashlight on them, immediately drawing their attention but not their ferocity. When they do attack, their screeches and their numbers are enough to cause any plan to disintegrate into sheer madness and panic. Dead Space 3, like its predecessors, maintains tension in and out of combat nearly perfectly.

Combat is classic Dead Space, with returning weapons, enemies, and “strategic dismemberment” tactics from the old games. However, dismemberment isn’t as effective as it used to be, and the focus is instead put on weapon customization, which takes some time to open itself up, but is eventually one of the most satisfying and enjoyable parts of the game.

Weapons consist of a frame (which determines the weapon’s size), two tools (which determine what kind of weapon it will be), tips for each tool (which determine how the weapon is fired), and attachments that modify the overall weapon. For example, the famous Plasma Cutter, Isaac’s weapon of choice from the first two games, would be a compact (one-handed) frame with a Plasma Core on top and a Rotator Cuff Module on bottom that allows the weapon to adjust its orientation. The tips would be a default, and there would be no attachments.

Where in the previous games players frequented the Plasma Cutter as their primary weapon with other weapons as back-up, Dead Space 3’s customization and the homogenization of ammunition results in a system that strongly encourages experimentation, and not just because it’s useful against enemies, but it’s just a lot of fun.

The game’s presentation is in line with the rest of the games, and while the visuals aren’t quite as refined as they were in the previous game, they do tend to be more ambitious and inventive. Necromorphs look and sound horrifying, and Tau Volantis is, on first glance, a serene, beautiful world, but soon reveals itself as inhospitable, and just as dangerous as the derelict ships Isaac has frequented in the past.

The sound design, however, is what ties the entire experience together. Voice acting is above average, especially for the audio logs Isaac finds strewn about that detail the history of the world. The music is thrilling, the effects are chilling, and it all works in tandem to punctuate every moment perfectly.

I’m not sure if Dead Space 3 is the last we’ll see of the franchise, and while I hope it’s not, it wouldn’t be a horrible way to say goodbye to this oddly lovable action horror series. I still think I prefer Dead Space’s sophomore outing, but Dead Space 3 manages to be a nearly equal experience thanks to its excellent crafting system and outstanding combat and sound design.

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