Dead Space 3 doesn't want to take sides in the debate over what constitutes a true survival horror game. It would rather leave the choice up to you. This is a game rife with options and flexibility, building on the strengths of the franchise with clever new ideas that let you tailor the experience to your liking. It hits a few sour notes in its story and struggles at times when it steps away from the core combat, but Dead Space 3 is a thrilling and worthwhile sequel.
Dead Space 3's story follows closely in the footsteps of its predecessors. That is to say, it's nearly incomprehensible. Isaac Clarke, now caught in a confusing love triangle, has been sent off to the frozen ice planet of Tau Volantis, believed to be the marker homeworld. You remember every last scattered detail having to do with markers and their sundry effects on humanity, right? If not, you're out of luck: aside from a brief "previously on Dead Space" video buried in an extras menu, the game makes precious little effort to explain anything of remote importance. It's an issue compounded by a dearth of interesting characters, and this ultimately makes it difficult to feel attached to anything that occurs in the haphazard, quickly moving narrative.
But no matter: while Isaac's latest journey may not unfurl with the deftest of storytelling, it fully succeeds in ushering you from one incredible locale to the next. Whether floating in the starry abyss amid the vast wreckage of destroyed spacecraft or attempting to stay alive in a suffocating blizzard, Dead Space 3 keeps you on your toes with one expertly crafted environment after the other.
The game's opening chapters tend to favor loud and boisterous set pieces, but once you start digging deeper into the frozen hellscape that is Tau Volantis, a feeling of subdued terror gradually builds. Where atmospherics are concerned, developer Visceral is once again at the top of its game. Interior spaces are a terrifying stage show of light and shadows, and even some of the planetside vistas are capable of making a glowing sunset look deeply unsettling. Just as creepy is the game's sound design, which marries subtle audio effects with a restrained score to further build the tension.
Yet Dead Space 3 doesn't simply mimic what the series has already done well. With its introduction of a robust weapon crafting system, it takes a significant step forward in terms of depth and flexibility. Every classic weapon, from the plasma cutter to the ripper, has been broken down to its basic components, spare parts you can cobble together at a workbench to create the most surgical or bombastic weapon you can conceive. Scavenging for parts often feels like collecting loot in Diablo: a virtually endless stream of rewards you're constantly picking up from lockers and fallen enemies.
You start with a basic frame and then slot in tools that determine the primary and alternate fire--say, a plasma cutter coupled with a flamethrower, or a telemetry spike augmented with an underslung grenade launcher. You then add attachments that can further modify the weapon fire--goodbye vanilla grenades, hello acid grenades--and finally, plug in upgrade circuits to modify basic stats such as rate of fire and reload time. The only thing more staggering than the number of modular parts is the number of theoretical combinations. All of this weapon crafting takes a little while to fully comprehend, but this new feature adds a deeply satisfying amount of depth and strategy to the game's core combat.
This is primarily due to the fact that your creations are never set in stone. You're always combining new parts to meet the demands of the game's increasingly terrifying onslaught of necromorphs, a mutated collection of zombified somethings operating in collusion to ensure you never get too comfortable behind your current weapon of choice.
As in previous titles, Dead Space 3's combat is a methodical take on the third-person shooter that encourages aiming at the limbs of necromorphs as the most effective means of taking them down. But that roster of enemies is a wildly varied bunch, and their mutations require different approaches to combat. The basic plasma cutter works well early on against slashers and wasters, humanoid enemies who simply charge at you upon sight. But you need to modify your approach as the game mixes in different types of foes, like the chaotic swarms of feeders, those weak but agile necromorphs who attack you in massive numbers. For these, slotting in a powerful melee attachment like the hydraulic engine works well by smashing them down in wide, sweeping arcs of devastation. But later, you encounter immensely powerful foes like the snow beast, a four-legged necromorph roughly the size of a truck. This is when being able to slap a secondary grenade launcher onto your primary weapon suddenly comes in very handy.
No matter which enemies you're up against, Dead Space 3's combat is a brutally satisfying experience. It achieves the difficult task of equipping you with a powerful assortment of weapon parts that you can tailor to your own liking, while still making you feel tense and anxious about what sort of mutated beasts lie in wait around the next corner. The rate at which you find new upgrades for your weapons grows at an equal pace with the game's introduction of more and more twisted enemies, leading to a smooth difficulty curve that lets you enjoy each fight while rarely feeling any sort of frustration.
One decision that has a significant effect on how the combat feels is whether or not you choose to approach Dead Space 3's campaign as a solo endeavor. Gone is the competitive multiplayer of Dead Space 2, replaced by drop-in co-op that allows two players to journey through the entire story campaign side by side. The seamless transition to co-op play is aided by a few helpful changes.The game's puzzles (which tend toward simplistic and uninteresting) are tweaked to allow both players to work together, while both players are shown different instances of loot on their screens to avoid fighting over who gets what.
Isaac's new friend is an intensely grumpy fellow named John Carver, a character with a tragic backstory that's explored only in co-op. It's nice that the co-op mode gives you an extra bit of narrative context, but Carver rarely rises above the angry-soldier-with-family-issues archetype seen in video games countless times before. Carver's personal story of the marker's influence on his life ultimately rings hollow, and winds up feeling like one of the game's bigger missed opportunities.
Even though the combat mechanics remain the same, playing co-op makes for an altogether different experience. The tension is lessened with the comfort of a friend at your side (though disabling co-op revival can restore some of that feeling), while frequent conversation between Isaac and Carver obscures much of the game's creepy audio.
Yet at the same time, shredding your way through hordes of necromorphs with a buddy is great fun. The action here works quite well in a cooperative setting, like in those instances where one player is about to get pounced on by a necromorph and his buddy freezes that would-be killer at the last second with a well-timed stasis shot. On top of that, working with your partner to ensure you've assembled complementary weaponry is immensely satisfying from a strategic standpoint. So while co-op feels very different, it's by no means worse than a solo playthrough. It's simply a matter of taste.
That Dead Space 3 lets you choose between these different experiences is a theme echoed by the broad selection of optional side missions. These are treks into some of the most ravaged depths of each level--often feeling like a dungeon run in a role-playing game--where you can learn more about the people who inhabited these places before everything went to hell. (And collect some pretty sweet weapon parts to boot.) Some of these missions are unique to co-op, but most are available to solo players as well. Altogether, this side content can take a campaign that's roughly 15 hours long and extend it well north of 20 hours.
Dead Space 3 is a big, generous game, but it sometimes reaches too far for its own good. Peppered throughout the campaign are various gameplay sequences intended to give you a little break from the core combat. Some of these are fun palate cleansers, like a scene where you're piloting a rapidly failing spaceship through a minefield of debris. Others are simply tedious, like the clumsy ice-climbing sequences on Tau Volantis. These adventures in scaling sheer cliff faces aren't that fun to begin with thanks to the awkward and unresponsive way you maneuver around on your rope, and become exponentially less fun when the game starts throwing ever larger hazards at you.
Yet these issues make up a small portion of a much larger package. From its terrific weapon crafting system to its deep well of side content, Dead Space 3 is a massive game rich with options and personalization. Whether you choose to approach it with a friend or by your lonesome, using a plasma cutter or an acid grenade launcher, Dead Space 3 makes fighting for survival a delight.