I’ve just read this review back to myself, and realised that it does what I always hate in a review: spends most of the time picking at flaws, only to finish with “but it’s actually good – I really enjoyed it.” Let’s just start by saying that I liked Dead Space 3 plenty, and keep that in mind as we go…
OK, where’s the button to unshit my pants?
With the video game industry becoming more and more like the movie industry, it’s not surprising that, as with movies, the trend in games is towards endless sequels to (or remakes of) properties that have proven themselves in the past. But where movies almost always drop further and further in quality with each sequel, it’s not usually the case that the first game in a series will be the best one.
I’ve noticed a few common patterns to the ways in which game series progress after a popular first entry:
The God of War, where the designers follow the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra and don’t really change much at all from game to game. The follow-ups aren’t any better or worse per se, but there’s a Law of Diminishing Returns at play – you can’t eat ice cream for every meal…
The Resident Evil, where the second entry perfects the formula of the first, and all subsequent entries fail to recapture the magic – there’s nowhere else to go, and no new ideas that can add anything of substance to the formula. (See also Uncharted.)
The Devil May Cry, where they experiment with a bunch of new stuff in the second entry and just fuck it all up, then get it right for the third one, which goes back to the winning formula of the original, bringing in those aspects of the second that worked. After that it goes the way of the Resident Evil. (See also Prince of Persia.)
The Dead Space series of “zombies in space” games seems to have gone the second route. The comparison with the Uncharted series is most apt – this game is a victim of Uncharted 2’s success as much as Dead Space 2’s – Uncharted 2 set the bar for action sequences, and nothing else has measured up yet (including Uncharted 3).
Yes, Dead Space 3 is good, but it can’t top the second one – it has no answers to the frantic opening sequence, the eerie atmosphere of your trip through the decommissioned Ishimura, or the “Jesus Christ!” factor of the stab-yourself-in-the-eyeball-with-a-massive-needle minigame. There’s less characterisation, too – most of Dead Space 2 was about the protagonist, Isaac, sorting out his guilt issues; now he’s just a grump battling his way through the shit that gets thrown at him. A tacked-on love triangle adds nothing, especially since the guy he’s competing with for the affections of the newly busty Ellie might as well have all his dialogue replaced with “I am a total shithead fuck you Issac.”
There’s more to the story, though – where the first two were more along the lines of “just survive”, this one gives more backstory, more complications, and a definite end goal, as Isaac & Co. set off to stop the source of the Necromorph (read “space zombie”) infection. This is probably a good thing, since you can only do the “same shit, different day”/”wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time” shtick so many times.
But the main complaint against it seems to be that it’s not frightening enough. And true, it’s not so scary – the Necromorphs more annoying than frightening now. Most of the time I was thinking – “oh, will you fuck off, I’m trying to repair a space shuttle here!” not “ohshitohshitohshit” like you’d expect of a good horror game. Isaac seems to feel the same way – he’s an old hand by now, so even when he’s facing impossible hordes of alien murder engines there’s an element of “*yawn* – this again”. (After an encounter with a bunch of regenerating monsters, which were the nastiest enemies in the earlier games, he just quips “I hate those things”, where previously it’d be “OK, where’s the button to unshit my pants?”) There are few real surprises – Necromorph appearances are usually well telegraphed and the best scares and atmosphere come from the logs you find (as usual with horror, what’s implied is more effective than what’s shown).
I have to say, though, this doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t see Dead Space 3 as a horror game* – it’s an action game in a horror setting, as the Dead Space series always has been. Sure, the previous games had more of a horror emphasis, but any game where running the fuck away from danger is not the preferred option isn’t trying to be survival horror, and there’s nothing to be gained by pretending it is.
As an action game it’s good, but again not as good as before. Everything seems to do less damage – both your attacks and your enemies’. (It doesn’t help that you’re usually groaning under the weight of all the health packs the game has thrown at you.) The series’ main distinguishing feature – Necromorphs are already dead, so you do more damage by blowing off extremities than going for headshots – didn’t feel as important this time around. It seemed just as effective to blast away at the bad guys wherever instead of picking your shots.
The weapon crafting system added novelty, but not much else – mostly I just recreated my favourite weapons from the older games. There’s the new co-op aspect, too, but I haven’t experimented with that much, since it involves dealing with strangers on the Internet, a pastime I never like to encourage.
In spite of these whinges (OK, one more: the graphics don’t seem as good as Dead Space 2’s, like they’ve tried to do too much and had to make compromises – the characters’ faces in particular are noticeably less detailed, perhaps a consequence of having more characters this time around) I enjoyed Dead Space 3 a lot. The final boss fight was suitably epic (my one real complaint of Dead Space 2 was that it was a bit anticlimactic), and I found I really did give a shit about what happened to the main characters (as opposed to the supporting characters, who have the life expectancy of a fragile thing in a dangerous thing**).
I find it weird to recommend a game in spite of the fact that you won’t crap your pants while playing it, but that’s the kind of crazy, mixed up world we live in.
*As an aside, how tense can a horror game ever really be? The game continues when your character dies – even in games where you don’t have weapons and health packs and spend most of your time running from monsters, you’re still functionally immortal.
**Or if you prefer, “a cold thing in a very hot thing.”