The first Dead Space was a decidedly single-player affair that pitted players against the hordes of Necromorphs hiding in the shadows of space. When Dead Space 2 arrived on the scene, Visceral maintained the solo survival story, while also adding in a perfunctory multiplayer component to spice things up.
Despite the constant evolution of the series, much was made of the drastically different idea to insert cooperative play into Dead Space 3. At its heart, Dead Space 3 is the natural next stage in the growth of the franchise, which still keeps a keen focus on the solitary exploits of protagonist Isaac Clarke. Concerns raised that co-op might in any way diminish the quality or experience of Dead Space 3 were unfounded, and Visceral should be commended for how incredibly complete Dead Space 3 is from top to bottom.
Dead Space 3 picks up a few months after the conclusion of Dead Space 2, and we join up with Isaac living in seclusion in a colony on Earth’s moon. Though he’s trying to distance himself from the Markers, alien artifacts that turn any living thing they come into contact with into monstrous Necromorphs, a government coalition seeks his help to track down a scientific research team that went missing while trying to discover where the Markers originated. Meanwhile, Unitologists, religious zealots who worship the Markers, are also seeking the origins of the artifact (and Isaac), though for their own nefarious purposes. After a daring escape, Isaac is taken to the far reaches of the galaxy, where the Marker signal has been tracked to the icy planet Tau Volantis.
Like the first two games, Dead Space 3 presents some wildly fantastic science fiction locales where the action takes place. Make no mistake, Dead Space 3 is more action-oriented than its predecessors. Whereas Dead Space could be considered a more traditional survival horror experience, slowly paced with large action set pieces to break up the startling silence, Dead Space 3 often keeps its foot on the accelerator.
The once-frequent battles against a small number of Necromorphs that you may recall from earlier games are gone, and have been replaced with a near endless onslaught of new horrors being thrown at you at almost every turn. Narratively, it makes sense; Tau Volantis is home to an incredibly strong Marker signal. The sheer numbers of infected monsters you’ll encounter often push you to the limit when playing alone, which is why it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a partner along for the ride.
On Isaac’s journey, he meets soldier John Carver, whom the second player will take the role of in co-op play. The great thing about Dead Space 3’s cooperative mode is that it’s there if you want it, and doesn’t affect the single-player one bit if you don’t. There’s no computer-controlled Carver lagging behind you when another actual person can’t play. Unless you are specifically playing co-op, you’d never even notice Visceral added such functionality into Dead Space 3. All that said, when you do have a friend to stand by your side, the game becomes even more adventurous.
There’s a series of missions locked off for Carver that show how the Marker is impacting his sanity, much the way we saw Isaac go through the same troubles in the first two installments. There are more enemies to fend off, and there are some tweaks to the puzzles in the game, but outside of the added story, co-op plays like a more intense single-player. In a sense, Visceral crafted two completely different Dead Space 3 games, with each being an incredible stand-alone experience worthy of its own playthrough.
Weapon crafting is the other big change to the series’ status quo, and actually makes for a rather interesting new way to play. Rather than having Isaac find money throughout the various locations, or in the corpses of fallen enemies, there will be raw materials like tungsten, somatic gel, and scrap metal. More rare items like weapon frames, parts, and circuits can also be found. All of the items you scavenge (either alone or with the help of a scavenger bot), allow you to create more health, ammo, better guns, and armor upgrades as you progress. When crafting a weapon, you can combine two of your favorite aspects into one new super-weapon, giving you more freedom to play the way you want. You can even evolve the basic weapons to be more impressive or suited for cooperative play, as any and all parts you find can be mixed and matched to your heart’s content. Unfortunately, you can only carry up to two weapons at a time in Dead Space 3, but any weapon created can be stored at a workbench, or recreated from your saved/shared blueprint.
Resource management is pretty vital to the cause, as you’ll often have to decide between creating better armor, better weapons, more health, or more ammunition on higher difficulties. For returning vets of the series, the amount of items you pick up on the run will seem quite staggering. Visceral does do a nice job balancing the weapon crafting as the difficulty increases, and the new challenges that opened up after completing the game bring a host of new settings to make another run through even more hardcore. On normal however, there’s plenty of ammo and health, which often allows you to spend your time crafting better weapons/armor instead of relying on the old standby plasma cutter. For those truly engaged in the crafting aspect, there are a handful of optional side missions to play, which often pay off with massive storage lockers of high-end resources. They’re a bit more difficult than the standard story missions, and you can’t save progress anywhere when playing one, but the risk is often worth the reward.
Visceral has made quite a name for itself with the presentation in Dead Space games, and this third entry is no exception. Dead Space 3 is every bit as visually appealing and inspiring as the first two games. The grotesqueness of the Necromorphs is ramped up, with several new variations to inspire night terrors in even the most unshakable players. Despite taking place on an icy planet, much of the game still transpires in darkened corridors. That said, few developers have perfected the nightmare-inducing industrial hallway as well as Visceral. It helps to have tremendous sound design, and Dead Space 3 doesn’t fall short in that regard either. The visual and aural aspects of the game are almost impeccable, with only a few wonky animations (mostly from Necromorph deaths), still plaguing the series. That doesn’t detract from the overall experience one bit though, and Dead Space 3 sets a new standard of excellence for video game horror ambiance. Plus, stomping on Necromorph heads still looks and sounds as brutal as ever, which is all you can ask for.
It’s not often that a sequel can surpass its original tale, but with Dead Space 3, Visceral manages to do just that. Almost every aspect of the game is improved over earlier entries, and surprisingly, the addition of cooperative play actually enhances the overall game in ways no one but Visceral expected. Even if you choose to completely ignore that addition, the single-player campaign is the strongest in the series, and elevates the Dead Space mythology to new heights, while continuing to lay groundwork for even more stories within the universe. To the chagrin of some fans, Dead Space 3 is not a survival horror game anymore, but that doesn’t diminish how fantastic a title this sequel really is. Dead Space 3 isn’t the video game you though it would be; it’s even better.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 3.