If pop culture has taught us anything, it’s that space can be a pretty lonely place. Like Ellen Ripley before him, Dead Space’s Isaac Clark had to endure two full games of solitary terror in order to arrive at where he is today. To give the guy a break, EA and Visceral Games decided to expand the third installment in the series by allowing a second player to assume the role of John Carver, and officer in the Earth Defense Force with a bit of a troubled past. Together, the two of them journey from the familiarity of decrepit spaceships to the unfamiliar hell of Tau Volantis, a frozen planet that holds the key to saving humanity. With this newfound importance placed on cooperative play, we decided that it would be best for 1UP editors Jose Otero and Marty Sliva to team up and review Dead Space 3 together.

Marty Sliva: Before we delve into Dead Space 3, I feel like we should first state our history with the series. How versed are you with the prior games?

Jose Otero: I played and loved the original Dead Space. I can’t say the same for Dead Space 2 — I played about an hour of it and moved on. I know Dead Space and its sequel are often compared to distinct differences between Alien and Aliens, but the blockbuster path of the sequel kind of turned me away from the series. Plus, I had other games to play for work at the time. I also played about an hour of Dead Space Extraction and one of the iOS games.

MS: Ok, so you’re much more familiar with the series than I am. As much as I love the survival horror genre, I completely missed out on the Dead Space train in 2008 and 2011. I know a whole mess of people who claim that the first one is a truly terrifying experience in the vein of Alien, and that like you said, the second one becomes much more of an action story. I was a bit worried that Dead Space 3 would take that thought even further and strip away any sense of horror, instead focusing on action scope. And wouldn’t you know, that’s exactly what Visceral delivered: A kitchen-sink finale that had trouble finding a singular voice.

JO: Silly stories are practically a staple of survival horror games, but I wouldn’t claim Dead Space 3 lacks a singular voice. It’s true that the narrative consistently bumbles the peril and plot twists — with the developer often predictably showing their hand and their hordes of malformed enemy types waiting around the next corner — but this game still fits into the overall tone of Dead Space. The environments and graphics preserve a seamless transition between storytelling and action that’s remained a consistent elemnet since the first game, and the level of detail found in this experience can often feel breathtaking.

Every element of the environment consistently makes you feel consistently uncomfortable. The harsh sounds that doors make whenever they close behind you. The way you stumble across corpses that lie still in the silent and creepy environments. Even the notes left behind by the fallen contribute to a general sense of unease. Space and the planet Tau Volantis are cold, hard, and sometimes terrifying in a way that matches up to some of the best of sci-fi.

Of course, I’m not a huge fan of the way Dead Space 3 oscillates between action and suspense, but it stays consistent with what I played of the sequel, and tries to incorporate more ideas that make sense with the character — like the crafting system. To some degree, the problems I have with Dead Space 3 come from issues with pacing, both narratively and from a gameplay standpoint.

MS: I completely agree that DS3 is an aesthetic wonder. The empty vacuum of space, the decrepit remains of a once-powerful flotilla, and the unforgiving surface of Tau Volantis are all rendered with a level of artisanship that stands against anything we’ve seen this generation. Each location feels like a place that was lived in before the universe went straight to hell. The visuals are complemented by some great sound design that toys with your senses and plays tricks on you all in the name of tension. Sadly, I feel like a lot of this great work is hampered by rudimentary mission design and a crafting system that, though robust, pulls you out of the world every time you saddle up to a workbench.

Far too often, DS3 falls into the banal routine of forcing the player to collect three nick-nacks in order to power some sort of larger gadget. After you manage to find what you’re looking for, you inevitably stumble upon another piece of broken technology that, once again, requires Isaac to set out and gather another trio of objects. The few times that the story deviates from this cycle usual come in the side-missions, which each contain their own smaller narrative and have you descending into a dungeon-esque area removed from the main story. You’ll come across wrecked souls who’ve boobytrapped their own ship, and generals who had no qualms with brutally killing their own innocent men in the hopes of staving off infection. I would’ve loved to see the entirety of DS3 exude this same sort of unique surprise.

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JO: I agree that the crafting system is both the best and worst idea in Dead Space 3. It totally fits with the protagonist, an engineer who uses cutting tools and other hardware to fend off monsters called necromorphs, but this new system takes a long time to get into. About three to five hours into the campaign, I started to make guns that had useful secondary functions, like built in flame throwers or weapons that had increased melee power. But before I gathered enough materials to make better guns in Dead Space 3, I felt like a kindergartener tossing together whatever I could find into silly art ideas using macaroni whenever I saw a workbench.

Dead Space 3 eventually let’s you make fantastic weapons, and when you concoct the cooler variations, you can’t help but boast about it to your friends. Like when you told me all about your Stasis Bullet attachment — an add-on that slows each enemy you hit and makes crowd control easier overall. I’ve read that other players have made weapons with acidic properties or explosive damage. It’s really quite impressive stuff, but the fact that it takes so long to get started means you have to be patient.

As far as gathering objects to push the story forward: Yes, it does get a little tiring, but for some reason I didn’t find gathering item trios quite as unbearable. I think part of that comes from how much I enjoyed exploring the environments and the smaller discoveries I made along the way. I usually don’t get so absorbed by video game worlds, but I stopped to read and look at everything I could. Just the other night I found a tent frozen into a wall of ice with two men huddled inside. Obviously they froze to death, but it painted a haunting image that totally fit the location, and it’s something that’s easy to miss when you’re scurrying back and forth to find objectives. Even the notes and personal logs evoke a classic Resident Evil atmosphere: one that depicts the last few moments of survivors just like Isaac Clarke, the game’s protagonist, before they succumed to the horroible necromorphs. I know we already talked about aesthetics, but I really bought into it and that something that rarely happens to me these days.

I think Dead Space 3′s lengthy campaign is a major reason why gathering so many objects starts to get a little old. And then there’s the story. How many times can Isaac reunite with his teammates only to get separated from them by some nasty monster or calamity? How many times do I have to fight the same boss before I squish him into Necro-goo? How many times does the villain of this story underestimate Isaac only to set up a harrowing escape for our hero?

MS: Yeah, there are definitely some major problems with the plot, pacing, and overall tone that Visceral tried to push forward with the narrative. I really couldn’t care less about Isaac and Ellie’s love triangle, or about any of times I was double crossed. The game is filled with a litany of genre cliches, and what’s worse is that these story beats are so fleeting and relegated to their respective cutscenes, that I always felt this jarring disconnect between what I was seeing and what I was playing. Like you said, the most interesting stories that Dead Space has to tell come from what the player infers from the environment, and thankfully the well-designed locales managed to keep me satisfied.

For me, the thing that kept the entire ship from sinking was brutal and rewarding combat throughout the adventure. I found my gun dejour early on in the campaign — a rapid-fire pistol with Stasis-coated bullets. I never tired from walking into a room of Necromorphs and literally freezing them in their tracks. DS3 also did a good job of continually introducing new enemies which, aside from the human soldiers, were always interesting to take down. From the feral beasts that use cover and weather to their advantage, to the hoards of emaciated souls that tear at you with savage fury, the creatures never ceased to be entertaining. But that being said, this entertainment never entered the realm of horror, which ended up being a major disappointment to me. Aside from a few “gotcha!” moments, DS3 never managed to create or maintain a feeling of true terror. Maybe it was due to constantly being barraged with crafting systems, narrative interludes, and a plethora of elevators masking as loading screens. Regardless, these pacing missteps kept me from truly submerging myself in the world, which I find to be a shame.

JO: I guess the Dead Space 3′s horror comes down to each individual’s definition of the genre. I can’t judge it by the number of jump scares or gotcha moments, but rather by the number of times I felt uneasy playing. The best parts of Dead Space 3 create an incredibly threatening atmosphere that informs the player of what to expect. After you see a Necromorph pop through a vent for the first time, you get a general sense of unease every time you go near one. Yes, the predictable and boring combat areas detract from the immersion — especially the ones where you have to fight brain dead humans that practically behave like braindead necromorphs in disguise– but I think that’s more an overall pacing issue rather than just a way to mask loading.

Alright, we’ve danced around this enough: What about the coop play? I’m surprised how much fun I’ve had playing Dead Space 3 cooperatively, and little gimmicks like sharing weapon blueprints add an extra layer to the crafting system. I think it compares well to RE5′s model for coop horror/action, even if it reduces the scare factor.

MS: I completely agree. Where a lot of AAA games nowadays feature multiplayer that feels tacked on and removed from the central experience, DS3 is actually built around the idea of two buddies teaming up to survive together. Like you said, shared weapons, tougher enemies, and specific areas only accessible during coop make it worth actually going through the game with a friend. Any sort of fear or tension is negated when you’re exploring with another person, but seeing as how I didn’t find a whole lot of that there to begin with in the first place, I guess it’s not a big loss. That sort of apathy encapsulates my thoughts on Dead Space 3: a missed opportunity; a bit bloated; but still a gorgeous and ultimately entertaining experience.

JO: I played the hell out of Resident Evil 5′s coop mode and I’ll do the same with Dead Space 3. I think it’s definitely the better way to play once you’ve completed the story. Locking the content for second protagonist, John Carver, to a multiplayer mode seems like a minor misstep, but at least it provides a small added incentive for coop besides accumulating materials for more weapons.

Overall, I’m kind of surprised by Dead Space 3. I went in with low expectations and half-expecting it to turn into a different kind of shooter, but I’m glad to see it retained a number of signature qualities while building in new ideas. It’s unfortunate the story and some enemy encounters slip into predictable territory, but the overall product retains the atmosphere and combat that I enjoy in my survival horror games. Maybe one day we’ll get a survival horror game built for coop that can balance a meaningful story, less predictability, and even challenge some of the genre conventions for a change. At least, if you settle for Dead Space 3′s, you won’t be too disappointed by what’s there.

By 1UP Staff