Horror games used to mean scant resources, low health and puzzles, but around 2005, when Resident Evil 4 came out, that all changed and now we have 'action-horror', a hybrid genre that combines zombies, aliens - or whatever - with shotguns, weapon upgrades and set-pieces.
It's a fine set-up; plenty of horror staples from the world of film like The Thing, Dawn of the Dead, and Aliens blend high action with spine chills and work really well. But ever since RE4 introduced action-horror, subsequent genre games have struggled to unite violence and scariness, shoehorning either cumbersome combat mechanics into straight horror games (Cold Fear) or bland scares into plain shooters (FEAR). Dead Space 3 is also tussling with this awkward marriage of fight and flight and doesn't really handle either.
The shooting feels awkward and ineffectual, the horror isn't horrifying. And despite extremely high production value, Dead Space 3's aesthetic, writing and score are all rampantly derivative, comprising grey corridors, Lindelhof MacGuffins and Inception-style BRAAWRS. Despite the superlative level of polish, it feels like a remarkably lazy game, that not only lacks original ideas but stumbles through the ones it borrows.
Treacly and prosaic
Combat is the clumsiest part of the game. Series frontman Isaac Clarke returns, equipped with his trademark cache of futuristic rifles and laser cutting tools, but he's so sluggish to manoeuvre that fighting feels scrappy and shambolic, resulting usually with an abortive bash of the melee button as opposed to a placed gunshot.
And even when you do manage to drag the reticule over the monster in time, the weapons feel puny and damp. It takes several rounds to a bad guy's weak spot to put him down, and the resulting flourish of gore - nicely rendered though it may be - is hollow and unfulfilling and becomes increasingly more so as the game goes on.
'Restraint' is not in Visceral's vocabulary. Channelling schlock horror movies like Event Horizon, each of Dead Space 3's attacking Necromorphs explodes at the slightest hint of bullet. And it quickly grows wearisome; blood and guts can add a playful, sensory flourish of colour to a shooter but the impact is lessened if they're being sprayed around every few minutes.
Dead Space 3 is bad horror. Instead of playing on suspense and your imagination, it bombards you with things and noise. The combat is too regular, and always accompanied by bombastic foley courtesy of Jason Graves's score and the overbearing screeches of the Necromorphs. The music is competent but ultimately pedestrian, a plain orchestral arrangement that rouses nothing but apathy.
But the monsters are practically humdrum, assorted limbs and spikes with no distinctive features or sounds at all. They just waddle towards you and bellow, then mutate into globs of flesh if you wound them. A really menacing creature has a defined outline and set of characteristics, like Alien's alien, with its weird head, stealthy attacks and acid blood. It's consistent, you know what the stakes are and that's what creates the tension. Dead Space 3's creatures can look like and turn into basically anything, and, as opposed to something comprehensible, you end up fighting shapes or blobs and killing them feels kind of listless. It's like shooting air.
The action is treacly and the horror is prosaic; Dead Space 3's writing and graphics don't rein in the creative slack, either, and the game feels incredibly flat.
Story and co-op
The story is absolute tinsel, with anaemic characters and meaningless plot devices stringing together disjointed action beats. The origin of an artefact called the Marker which turns humans into Necromorphs has been discovered on a wintry planet called Tau Volantis. Isaac, now vaguely mentally unstable and estranged from his girlfriend, Ellie, is recruited by a team of mercs to track the Marker's origins and put a stop to it once and for all and something and stuff.
The writing in Dead Space 3 is predictable, cliché heavy and tired, but at least sort of passable. It gives a modicum of context to the action and there are a few sparks of life within the love triangle between Isaac, Ellie and her new squeeze, John Carver. Other than that the plot is total gas and could go unnoticed if it weren't for all the mawkish sentimentality being thrown around. For a game about chopping monster's legs off with power tool, Dead Space 3 has absolutely no sense of humour.
The writing feels very teenage, demanding to be taken seriously despite its immaturity. There's fun to be had with the hyperbole and gore of Dead Space, but Visceral isn't playing.
The two, new, central conceits are weapon crafting, which can be done at customisation benches dotted throughout the game and co-op mode, where one person plays Isaac and the other one Carver. The weapon making idea is ok - it's not new or imaginative, and it demands you spend time lethargically collecting gun parts - but it adds some colour to the otherwise greyscale combat when you can strap a shotgun to your laser.
Co-op improves things a great deal. Again, having a friend in the midst with you kicks the drowsy combat awake some and the extra cooperative missions are a pleasant sidenote to the main slog. You also get additional scenes of dialogue once someone else is playing, which flesh out Carver's character and backstory a little. But still, the writing remains, like the combat, very flawed and there's only so much a second player can add.
Rick Lane summed up his Plughead review of Dead Space 2 with "it's fine, just fine" and that's more or less all you can say for Dead Space 3. It's a dull, plagiaristic, rice cake of a game with nothing to say and nothing to add, but no more offensive than any other cut/paste action-horror job on the shelves. The environments are monochrome, the story is totally pedestrian and the mix of action and horror is as janky as it's ever been. If you like the first two Dead Space games, you'll probably like this one. And if you like DOOM 3 or Alan Wake or the latter day Resident Evils, Dead Space 3 is a perfectly functional way to pass the time until the next versions of those games come out. As Lane said, it's fine, just fine.
But it's also kind of disheartening. Combined, EA and Visceral have the talent and the capital to produce work that's really impressive. But instead, Dead Space 3 is toothless and tired, and wholly lacking in uniqueness or bravery. It's a safe, corporate game which functions in every technical sense but is creatively stagnant, inspiring nothing from the player but a passive 'oh' of acknowledgment. Action and horror can blend and big money can produce excellent games, but Dead Space 3 suggests we're not quite there yet.
- Gameplay: 6/10 - Functional, if a little awkward in places. Combat feels cumbersome but co-op is solid
- Sound: 5/10 - Bland score and monster noises. The voice cast is uniformly good
- Graphics: 7/10 - Very polished but grey, dull and unimaginative aesthetically
- Writing: 4/10 - Really poor. No humour and no originality. A very thin plot that barely hangs off undercooked characters
- Replay value: 7/10 - Plenty of collectibles and optional extras to scoop up through multiple play-throughs, co-op extends the lifespan some
- Overall: 5/10 - A dull, uninspired and imaginative game that doesn't even try. Perfectly competent but ultimately lifeless
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