Hands On: Dead Space 3

By Adam Smith on July 25th, 2012 at 9:00 am.

Are the open spaces of a frozen planet inherently less conducive to fear than the claustrophobic confines of a creaking interstellar haunted house, blood-stained metal dungeon or sprawling catacomb? Does being followed around by an angry man called Carver tend to cut through an atmosphere of exhilaration and dread somewhat? These were the foremost questions running through my mind as I sat down to play Dead Space 3. Oh, and what’s with the universal ammo?

That last one is easy; apparently the universal ammo that showed up in demonstration videos, and indeed in the early version of the game I played, is a placeholder and will not be in the final version of Dead Space 3. That’s a good thing. Choosing an arsenal could be even more important than in the previous games, with a greater variety of enemies to face, many of which have more specific weaknesses. Even in the two levels that I played, the plasma cutter wasn’t always the weapon of choice and I found myself intentionally switching from evisceral engineering equipment to actual guns for the first time in the series.

More on why that was later but first, a few words on the apparent move from the hulking hulls and stations of space to the ice and snow of a seemingly lost planet. I did have a chance to trudge through the snow, which parts and folds around Isaac’s legs as he pushes his way through a skin-scouring storm, but that came later. You might have seen the E3 demo, with its out of control drill and giant weak-spot-studded monsters and that was the second area I played, but before that it was steam spewing pipes, narrow corridors and access tunnels. Isaac’s back on a ship and it’s as rundown and grim as ever.

A major strength of the series has been its ability to make space believable. Not space as in the screamless void, but rather the spaces in which the dismemberment occurs. The first game in particular, through signage, detail and layout, had a location that felt lived in and died in, an industrial workspace that flailed an acknowledging boneless limb in the direction of Alien’s Nostromo. That game’s problem, even as it launched the series, was how often it reused locations and repeated ideas. The hero as repairman, as janitor – Roger Wilco huffing nightmare fuel, although infinitely less prone to sudden death.

Seeing the ship makes the ice planet seem not so much a complete change of pace and scenery as a possible addition of some much-needed variety. The necromorphs are more grotesque than ever, the visuals enhanced so that each shuddering piece of cartilage and splash of fluid is lovingly rendered, and there are some changes. The spitters seem a different species entirely, much more dissolved and decayed, and in one sequence corpses writhed back to life, some missing limbs that had been severed previously and struggling to move at all, just spewing and snarling on the floor. Stomp on everything is the basic lesson here.

Isaac’s not afraid anymore though. The aggressive streak he showed in Dead Space 2 is even more magnified as he appears to be taking the fight to the necromorphs, perhaps even where they live. He’s on their lawn, shooting out their windows and kicking in the door, or at least that’s what it seems like. It’s not the greater frequency of action and set pieces that risk removing the fear (if not the horror) altogether, it’s the fact that these things, no matter how hideous they might be, are familiar now. To make me, and Isaac, afraid again, there’s going to have to be something unexpected.

And there was, down on the planet, but not in the way that I’d hoped. At this stage, the fourth entry in the series, Dead Space has built up a considerably mythology. The first game was about a man on a ship full of monsters searching for his girlfriend. The second was about what happened to him afterwards but also what had happened before in a broader sense and what was happening elsewhere. Dead Space 1 didn’t have much of an elsewhere and that’s one of the reasons its isolating terror was so effective, even though it was essentially an action game. Dead Space 3 seems like it might have a lot of elsewheres.

It comes down to this: I think I’d prefer to play a game about necromorphs rather than a game about batshit future-religion Unitology. The two are linked, sure, but as soon as Dead Space 3 put an assault rifle in Isaac’s gloves and planted him in a fight against some Unitologist believers, it lost me a little. Isaac with a gun shooting human beings just doesn’t feel like Isaac anymore. They gave him a voice and I was fine with that and now they’ve given him a partner (optional) and I’m actually fine with that as well, but once he starts crouching behind walls and charging positions with a shotgun, he’s definitely not an engineer anymore, he’s just another space marine.

The objection isn’t simply conceptual either. While the majority of my time on the planet’s surface was spent fighting all new necromorphs, with spiked tentacles erupting from their waists once their torsos had been neatly lopped off, once I started shooting humans the oomph was gone. Tough thing to capture oomph but let me put it like this: firing a scythe of energy into a mutant baby that’s hanging off a ceiling, dragging it from its perch and then pinning it to the floor before tearing the uncanny little bastard into quivering chunks of flesh with a shrieking circular saw is oomphy; firing a clip of bullets into a man who barely reacts to each shot and then falls over is not oomphy.

There was no point where I could use a plasma cutter on a human being, plot reasons having stripped me of all my engineering equipment by the time I ran into them. I do wonder if the man on man action will only take place during very isolated incidents where that is always the case, to avoid the messy consequences of strategically dismembering a living person. My assault rifle did knock someone’s leg off at one point but he was already dead.

Given how solid the rest of the game already feels, I reckon it’s an area that’ll see improvement, but at the moment, the man-shooting doesn’t feel as brutally satisfying or, bizzarely, as real as the monster-slicing. The presence of the unitologists does offer something that’s squelchy and satisfying though. I saw one hapless group caught between my Isaac, a fellow journalist’s Carver and a whole horde of necromorphs. Because computer games have transformed me from a mild-mannered chap into a cold-eyed and sadistic sociopath, I shot the unitologists in the legs and then watched the necromoprhs tear them to shreds. I did it to conserve ammo, which is why I was laughing at the time. I find tactical use of resources absolutely hilarious.

We need to talk about Carver. The entire game can be played solo and I managed to play through the snow level twice, once alone and once with a partner. There are changes where needed, such as a single switch to be pressed instead of two simultaneously or a helping hand from NPCs or the environment. I’m guessing there are more enemies as well, although we worked so perfectly in harmony that the game seemed a great deal easier than it had while alone. Perfectly in harmony except when we were stomping, swinging and shooting at each other, that is. The first rule of any co-op game played briefly is this: discover if friendly fire causes damage (here it does not) and then exploit that for comedy or sabotage.

The most interesting parts of the game from a co-op perspective where the set pieces, those being the giant malfunctioning drill and a giant fully functioning monster. The former requires one player to perform crowd control on necromorphs, perhaps by actually leading them into the drill’s path, while the other uses a combination of stasis and weaponry to disable the machine. It’s a fun sequence, although didn’t seem quite as hazardous as might be expected. As for the monster it’s an impressive boss battle, albeit rather familiar. Smaller enemies must be taken out while a larger enemy’s attacks are avoided and its glowing yellow bits are shot and shot and shot.

The co-op might add longevity, or at least that’s how I see it, because I can’t imagine playing through for the first time with a partner. I want to continue Isaac’s story without Carver bleating on in the background and I think the whole setting becomes much more ridiculous when a second person is thrown into the mix. It does feel like the strangest odd couple spin-off that never was, with bickering, disagreements and ‘accidental’ punching and grunting whenever in close proximity. I definitely want to play the game with a friend but not until I’ve seen it all first.

Despite my hesitance to embrace Isaac the man-murderer, I quietly applaud the apparent intent to bring some variety to the game. If the gun combat can be made more convincing and there are proper surprises in store as well, which I don’t doubt, then Visceral are probably going to suck me back into their lifeless vacuum. There’s much to discover yet, with suggestions everywhere of more complex mechanics and systems that can’t be spoken of yet, but based on what I’ve seen, Dead Space 3 isn’t the all-out hoo-rah action game some people are worried it might be. I hope that some of the surprises yet to come are actually frightening though and I kind of hope I don’t get to see those before I’m playing the game at home, headphones on, in the dark, for the very first time.

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56 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    AmateurScience says:

    I really must sit down and play the first two, they’ve been staring at me from my steam list for too long.

    • bonjovi says:

      really liked both. I wouldn’t pay full price for them, but picked them up for few quid on sale. I am not a fan of horror games, so i just turned down the difficulty to lowest setting and played it as a B movie :-) Very enjoyable. Hope to pick up this one for a fiver or so as well.

    • Premium User Badge

      Cross says:

      Consult the PC Gaming Wiki before you even *contemplate* playing the first Dead Space. It has some pretty serious control issues on PC.

      • StAUG says:

        Oh sweet Jesus did it what. I had to install a 3rd party graphics card utility that would force various effects (VSync, AA, etc) on or off and trawl the Internet before I found of combination of settings that would render it playable.

        At least they learned for the sequel, Dead Space 2 worked like an absolute charm and hasn’t crashed once in 2 playthroughs.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      They’re definitely decent games. Nothing in there that will really surprise you, and being a metal-clad death-dealer does detract from any chance of fear, but it’s full of neat touches and spectacular scenes.

    • mikmanner says:

      I find them painfully derivative but well executed, jumpy horror. It’s like Resident Evil 4 meets Doom 3 in an unimaginative universe similar to Aliens, The Thing and Event Horizon.

      I like the first one better, the second was a big, expensive boring roller coaster. The highlight being a minigame involving an eye.

      • Ruffian says:

        to be fair, though, The eye is probably one of the best/my favorite Qte/minigames in any video game ever. So perfectly gruesome that first time you miss and accidentally magnle Isaac’s head. lol. Awesome.

        Also did anyone else who saw Prometheus wonder if riddley had played DS2 or something? That medapod scene was awfully similar to the eye mangler. I mean he probably didn’t, but the similarities made me crack a smile/wince at least.

    • Caiman says:

      I love them and hate them. The former is because I’m a huge sci-fi fan, particularly when it involves alien creatures doing disgusting things to bodies, and the latter because body horror is about the only thing that actually frightens me. So the combination is not only highly atmospheric, it’s also cripplingly frightening at times. As in “turn the monitor off and switch on the light I’m scared and want my mother!” Holy crap. But as people who say “it’s not scary at all” prove, fear is learned and contextual, so it really depends on how much you like the setting. But I think they’re excellent games heavy on the atmosphere and loneliness.

    • Premium User Badge

      liquidsoap89 says:

      I enjoyed the first quite a bit. I think I’ve played through it twice now. The second one couldn’t hold my attention though. I managed to beat it eventually, but that playthrough took me about a year… It definitely isn’t bad though (it’s pretty much just a more refined DS), but for whatever reason it didn’t jive with me.

      #1 is still great though.

  2. DerNebel says:

    My biggest problem with this hands-on review is the part where you weren’t scared. The Dead Space series started as a horror series and now it has turned into the most generic of action games. This is the kind of game where a writhing fleshy necromorrph has its notables gouged out and then sliced in half during the E3 demo, after which the crowd offers standing applause. The enjoyment Adam gleaned from this hands-on was nothing but killing and dismembering enemies. The game is supposedly set on a frozen planet but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of tension or, as Adam is well aware of, sense of space.

    • Yosharian says:

      Why does nobody else notice this?

      • Taedirk says:

        @yosharian
        Because the Dead Space series hasn’t been scary from the start. At best, it was an alien popping up and going BOO! right before you shot off 3 limbs and checked his body for ammo. Even the first one wasn’t really scary. I still remember laughing my arse off at climbing on the asteroid. If the belts circling it caught you, it sent your head flying one way and your body another.

        • Yosharian says:

          It was creepy as fuck, but if you didn’t find the game scary I’d wonder what the point of playing it was.

          I’d be the first to admit I’m easily creeped out, but seeing this series morph into Gears Of War In Space really pisses me off.

        • Felix says:

          I read this a lot, that Dead Space, the first and second games, are just jump scares. This is patently untrue. It is also very atmospheric. It’s a constant pressing-in of the walls kind of scary. It isn’t psychological horror like the Silent Hill games, sure, but it at least shares the atmosphere of creepiness.

          Besides that, there’s body horror, which is well-represented in Dead Space, and the fear of impending doom. You could die at any moment. And the moments when the combat music stops, but there’s still one or two enemies left that you didn’t pay attention to and thus scare you when you turn around or they hit you from behind (kind of how there’s no music in real life for those critical moments). And if you didn’t feel the impending doom, then you should play at a harder difficulty, obviously.

        • Phantoon says:

          Tell me you weren’t creeped out by the return to the ship in #2.

          • Ruffian says:

            not sure if it’s what you’re talking about or not. It’s been a while since I’ve played it. but the unkillable thing towards the end of #2 that just slowly stalked you was fairly panic inducing for me, at least.

        • Ruffian says:

          This was indeed, awesome. The gruesome deaths, if nothing else did it for you – were enough reason to play for me.

    • furiannn says:

      The thing is though, in order to add a bit of variety to the Dead Space mix, they had to get away from the claustrophobic and dark interiors.

    • dee says:

      I don’t remember being very scared in the first or second game, besides the occasional jump scare. The second actually seemed to have a little more atmosphere. Did you guys actually find it as scary as, say, amnesia?

      • furiannn says:

        Now that is scary. Amnesia was so fucking scary that it gave me a full on headache from the constant shivers. Amazing stuff

        • dee says:

          Several times I had to just stop and breathe.

          • furiannn says:

            The thing is though, no other game has truly done that to me before, and I’d played many a scary game. Not even SH2’s hospital. Cant wait for Frictional’s next instalment.

          • Inglourious Badger says:

            Furiann, try Slender. That’s the only other game that’s scared me on Amnesia levels of fear. Plus its freeee.

            Agree Dead Space is tame in comparison but still fairly atmospheric, I thought. DS2 got a bit action heavy, but occassionally slowed the pace and cranked up the tenaion again (like when you return to the ship from the 1st one). The Thing references will be complete now it’s moving to a snowy planet.

      • Caiman says:

        Amnesia was scary, no doubt, but ultimately it was just a monster in the dark. The biggest scares were the “boo” scares which, while unscripted, happened to me when I backed into the damn thing. Dead Space was scarier for me because of the horrible flailing limbs, splitting heads, and other unmentionable alien and unknown terrors, and being swamped by them. But maybe that’s just me.

        What both games did right though was having long periods, in some cases, where absolutely nothing scary happened at all. That was frightening.

        • f1x says:

          Aye, I guess it comes to each person to be scared more or less,

          myself I’m scared quite easily,
          but you are right noticing that yes Dead Space is still scary, just a different thing of

          For example, nowadays nobody will get “scared” watching the Shining, but the atmosphere and the sense of something is fucked up/overwheelming insanity is simply amazing

          Not that I’m gonna compare Dead Space to The Shining of course, but I always thought Dead Space was more about the atmosphere (+ some cheap scares) than just really focusing on scaring the player

    • Yuri says:

      Dead Space always felt more like panic-action than real horror.
      Old Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Forbidden Siren, Amnesia, earlier Penumbra games – those would be actual horror/terror.

    • drinniol says:

      Yeah to me horror has never been about scares, rather it’s about creating an ongoing sense of unease. And blood and guts.

      • Yosharian says:

        Sounds exactly like Dead Space to me, I guess it’s all about personal experience

  3. StAUG says:

    While universal ammo seems a step too far, a less irritating ammo system would be good. The contact beam in both DS1 and 2 would take up an inventory slot for every 4 rounds had for it. Inventory managament was a sub-game of it’s own by virture of what a baffling ordeal it was.

    • furiannn says:

      They mentioned in the article it’s just a place holder.

      • StAUG says:

        I know. Which is why I said what I said. Having the inventory stack/work in a less annoying way would be good.

        • Phantoon says:

          I liked that having the big weapon limited your inventory space with its ammo.

  4. CaspianRoach says:

    At this stage, the fourth entry in the series, Dead Space has built up a considerably mythology.

    I thought there were only two of them yet?

  5. Vayl says:

    but once he starts crouching behind walls and charging positions with a shotgun, he’s definitely not an engineer anymore, he’s just another space marine.

    Real Space Marines don’t use cover! They charge the horde of mutants and tkae the fight to the impure (or something like that!)

    • Screamer says:

      YAAARRRRRR!!! “Burn the heretic. Kill the mutant. Purge the unclean.”

  6. Moni says:

    I have a theory that horror franchises become self-parodying comedies by their fourth episode. Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien. It probably has something to do with the mystery being lost as you discover more about the horror with each instalment.

    Another reason could be that you can’t just keep doing the same thing, it gets dull. Dead Space 2 did some really interesting things playing with the players’ expectations built from playing the first game; I wonder if Dead Space 3 can do the same.

  7. Sc0r says:

    All I heard was, that DS3 will be a more action-based approach in the series. EA thinks, that horror doesn’t sell as well as action-shooters do.
    So from what I saw in the gameplay-clips, it will be some sort of Gears of War with less muscles in exchange for a few shock elements.

  8. mr.black says:

    So by this logic, next game could be Dead Space, the RTS/FPS hybrid. Necromorphs are so common, so numerous we need to add some sort of tactical overlay..

  9. Gira says:

    Quite why these thoroughly pedestrian games keep getting any press is beyond me.

  10. Xardas Kane says:

    I liked the first 2 well enough, but a co-op horror game that’s NOT about killing weird space aliens anymore? It might be a good game, but it’s not a good Dead Space game. They lost a customer in me.

  11. Screamer says:

    Reading this, I’m a bit more optimistic. Definitely going to solo first though if I decide to get it.

  12. ithenos says:

    I have a serious question, I’m a pc gamer but do occasionally play consoles.
    I want to know wether I should get dead space for pc or ps3? I played 1 and 2 and on the ps3 the wii part is also purchasable, but pc is… You know, pc! Can someone please advise me on this?

    • Thiefsie says:

      Do you have logitech hardware?? if so avoid the pc versions like the plague as they kill the control irrepairably (unless you unplug everything and uninstall setpoint).

      Better off on a gamepad really but the graphics will always be a billion times better on PC. They’re not overly demanding (power wise) games.

  13. fish99 says:

    Isaac must be the unluckiest SOB who ever lived.

  14. KenTWOu says:

    Dead Space was a real survival horror for me (I played Amnesia – one of the scariest games ever made, I love System Shock 1 and 2, that’s why Dead Space hooked me up). But Dead Space 2 wasn’t. Because of several reasons: Isaac had a voice, he showed his face during conversations, suits were less claustrophobic, less brutal and more mobile, level design wasn’t claustrophobic either, you can even find invisible walls in space, DS2 script wasn’t strong enough… and they used such ‘boo’ moments very very often! This is only the very beginning of the game and it already has three of them. And now they make Dead Space 3 even more casual game… because of EA, I guess.

  15. Brun says:

    The biggest thing that sticks out to me about Dead Space is its sound design – some of the best in the business, I’d say.

  16. Muzman says:

    That top picture is misleading. I was hoping the Skele piggy-back rides would be fully dynamic, but they were just quicktime events :(

  17. Roshin says:

    edit

  18. Grey_Ghost says:

    This article has re-piqued my interest in this game. Looks as though it might not suck after all.