The Aliens: Colonial Marines fiasco is one requiring front row seats and a huge vat of Alzheimer’s inducing butter popcorn. Gearbox pointing a finger at Timegate, Sega pointing a finger at Gearbox, there have been whistleblowers, insider reports, and threats of lawsuits. And throughout it all, Electronic Arts must be laughing their ass off.
For the weeks prior, EA had once again fallen under the ire of journalists and fans over their treatment of Dead Space 3. First came the news that most of the game would be set on the ice planet Tau Volantis rather than, you know, space. It was then revealed that instead of tacking on a horde mode like Dead Space 2, there would be a co-op campaign mode, introducing a new character to play alongside series veteran Isaac Clarke, Sergeant John Carver. Most people took it in stride until word came down in January that on top of the game’s $60 price tag, EA was inserting micro-transactions into the mix. Throughout it all, the big question remains, is it a good game?
Like all things which matter in my life, I’ll first address the story. To follow Montoya’s example, let me sum up. In the first Dead Space, the maintenance vessel USG Kellion arrives at the USG Ishimura to investigate why it broke off radio contact. The Ishimura is a devastatingly efficient centuries old planet-cracker the size of a small moon which tears planets apart in order to extract every ounce of usable resources, a process badly required by an energy-starved human species at the sunset of the 25th century. Alas, the Ishimura was cracking the wrong planet, having been set there clandestinely by a religious cult known as Unitology. This is connected to an event centuries prior on Earth, where mankind discovered an alien artifact called the marker which, despite being a source of nearly endless energy, also happened raised the dead—BUT WHO’S PICKING NITS!? Realizing the unfortunate side effect, the marker was either lost or buried (still never fully explained), but later, in an apparent bid for the most short-sighted endeavor award, scientists attempted to recreate the marker without the whole undead nonsense. Alas, that didn’t work, and a couple monster menaces later, these marker copies were all summarily buried. One of these were lost on Aegis 7 which the Ishimura later cracks open. You can guess what happens next. Wackiness ensues and eventually only Isaac Clarke, the Kellion’s engineer, survives, admittedly a little unbalanced.
Understandingly, Isaac finds himself in a mental institution at the beginning of the sequel when another necromorph outbreak occurs at a massive space station known as The Sprawl, which is also where the mental institution happens to reside. Awkward. In the end, Clarke destroys a second marker copy, gets closure for lingering personal issues brought to light in the prequel, and escapes the Sprawl before destruction with the help of Ellie Langford, a pilot for the CEC Clarke helped rescue.
Two months later, we discover that Clarke and Langford developed a relationship and summarily ended said relationship as Clarke refused to involve himself anymore with the marker crisis. It remains a forefront issue because of the aforementioned unitologists, wishing to awaken the markers to speed along convergence, an end-of-the-world scenario which they believe will lead to heaven…or nirvana…or…okay, I’m still not exactly sure what they hope to get out of it. In this third installment, Clarke must team up with the remaining members of EarthGov’s military—comprising of two dudes and one ship—and fly to rescue Ellie who has continued the marker fight, leading her to the forgotten planet Tau Volantis.
The first Dead Space was simple in its approach, just a bunch loosely connected ideas meant to reference a half-dozen science fiction horror films from Alien to Event Horizon. The story was relatively straightforward, marred by some bizarre decisions, the first being a main character who didn’t speak, an annoying habit I wish games would stop. The story meandered; most events in the game were constructed more for their shock value than anything else. But it was scary. You never had enough ammunition so the name of the game was dismemberment. Instead of glowing bits, you just blew off enemy limbs to kills then. Doing so conserved ammunition and made for a satisfactory bit of animation. Moving into the second installment, Visceral pulled out all the stops, upping the action and disturbing content. The zombie-like necromorphs now emerged from children. The premise was equally as basic but because the first game benefited from setup, the designers had to write an actual story this time, consequentially compelling Isaac Clarke to finally speak. We discover his inner workings. He became a human being as everyone else around him turned into monsters. The developing relationship with Ellie, including the pivotal moment where Clarke sends her off in an effort to save her life at the apparent cost of his own, is one of the best written of its type in the genre.
Dead Space 3 cannot depend on necromorph frights anymore. I already know to tag each corpse I see in case they should stand up and attack. I know to sell all my extra gear to afford the gear I need and to shoot the limbs to save ammunition. I even know to use your arm equipped tractor beam to pull boxes rather than run to the location. I know all the rules. I’ve been the hero chased by necromorpsh alone on a ship. We’ve done the space station. What else would Visceral have done? As I finished the game I looked back and realized, especially under reflection from playing Aliens: Colonial Marines, that a lot of fans were apparently wishing for a remake of the first Dead Space. They wanted the same guy in the same scenario, but haven’t we done that already? Hadn’t that ground been covered? And it’s important to note that The Sprawl in DS2 was so large that most of the time there wasn’t any indication you were even in space, and the final act of the first game was set on the planet Aegis 7. So setting Dead Space 3 on a planet doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that it was an ice planet. We’ve kind of seen that before, and often. From The Thing to Extermination to Lost Planet, we’ve had our share of frozen wastelands in games. Why not a dark barren moon or something? I know it’s actually part of the story but that could have been done better.
And then there was the issue of the level of action. Isaac Clarke is finally able to kick some serious ass in DS3, and it’s required, as the necromorphs are coming at him in almost every room. Is this change to action from horror unwelcome? Not to me, as stated the necromorphs stopped being scary about half way through Dead Space 2. As the Alien franchise has proven, you can’t keep hiding the same creatures in the same dark corners. Eventually, the effect wanes. Add to this the new mechanic where Clarke and company can build guns from scratch rather than modify them along a linear path, and what you get is one of the best shooting games to come along in years. Forget Borderlands, killing thousands of creatures for a rare weapon drop. I’ll take raw materials and hours spent on a bench custom designing my own saw-blade launcher/flamethrower any day. It’s one of those mechanics you didn’t think you needed until being offered, and now I can’t see this franchise being without it. I’m almost angry it had never been offered before. The sticking point with some people is that this is where the micro-transactions are hiding, and I do mean literally hiding. If you don’t have the recourses required for your lightning-gun/rocket launcher combo, you’ve a choice of either continuing the game until the requisite resources are found, or purchase a resource pack which may net you what you need. The button is hiding in the corner with no prompt to force a sale down your throat. Should anyone click it yet? Well, yeah. Wait-wait-wait let me finish. Should you fork down money for a resource pack, absolutely not! But you can buy resource packs with ration seals which you also find through general gameplay. In fact I had so many resources by halfway through the game; there was practically nothing I couldn’t already build. I‘m used to this because I had been trained well from the two previous Dead Space games, which absolutely demanded that you smash every corpse and break every box not constructed out of indestructible digitanium. Hell, I took everything not nailed down and sold it if I didn’t need it, and if you follow that pattern, you’ll never ever never have to put down one dime for a resource pack. Was it a good idea then, implementing it? I honestly don’t think so. I think the massive backlack that occurred from the announcement hurt prospective sales, sales obviously not recouped for having the system in the first place. I don’t mind DLC; this is just totally unnecessary.
So, I praise the gun construction and the action-orientated gameplay. I even addressed the setting change. What remains is the inclusion of co-op. Dead Space 3’s campaign is “meant” to be played with two players, being referred to as drop in-drop out co-op. What that means is that while one person plays the main character, another player can step into the shoes of Carver. Not only that, but Visceral claims Carver only shows up occasionally if there is no player to play him, avoiding the pain of having a computer controlled NPC follow you everywhere. To be honest, I almost wish they had, because as it stands, neither the single player nor 2-player versions of the campaign feel complete. Let me explain.
If you play alone, there’s one scene where Isaac Clarke gets separated from the others, eventually falling into the hands of unitology baddies. Before being executed, Clarke knocks the weapon away and falls off the edge to a pile of garbage below. Carver was behind Clarke and should’ve been killed. When Clarke knocks the weapon away and falls to the ground, we don’t see what happens to Carver. He just magically appears next to Clarke atop the garbage. When Clarke gets swallowed by an enormous necromorph, we only see Clarke getting sucked in, but when we enter the stomach of the monster vis à vis round two, we discover Carver beside him. It’s not like these cinematic moments aren’t hard to reconstruct for the benefit of the other viewpoint; they’re all made within the game engine. They have to be because in single player the transition from game to cinematic is seamless, shifting only the camera angle. But if playing as Carver, there’s a clumsy cut to black as the cinematic changes to Clarke’s point of view. When it becomes Carver’s moment to shine, this changes, and now it’s Carver’s perspective which shifts instead of Clarke’s, but this only occurs about three times in the entire game. It’s like Dead Space 3 has neither a single-player nor a 2-player campaign; it has a clumsy hybrid of the two where sometimes it acts as a co-op game and sometimes it acts as a single player campaign with a +1. I was hoping that a little extra effort had been placed making each campaign a slightly different experience rather than a jarring one as people suddenly appear or disappear depending on the effort put in by the develops at that time. My thought is that they should’ve kept Carver in the whole time or should have created a more unique experience with each variation of the campaign to encourage multiple play-throughs.
As it stands, the single player experience is left wanting, as you keep getting the impression that you’re missing something, and you are. There’s no unique experience in single player despite the counter occurring in co-op. There are at least three new missions unique to co-op, missions all concerning Carver. Oddly enough, these are some of the most entertaining moments of the game. They involve Carver hallucinating to the bewilderment of Clarke. This manifests itself in the Carver PC seeing things the Clarke PC does not. This results in one of the funniest exchanges I’ve ever had with my best friend during the game:
Friend: Do you see it?
Friend: “The dead body right here.”
Me: “I don’t see anything?”
Friend: “Right here; my gun’s pointing right at it.”
Me: “There’s nothing there dude.”
Friend: “Seriously, are you telling me you can’t see this dead body right here, right in front me?”
Me: (laughing) “I’m not lying. There’s nothing there.”
Friend: “So I guess you can’t see the party hats either then?”
Friends: “Party hats, ribbons, presents…everywhere.”
Me: “You’re messing with me.”
Friends: “Toy soldiers. You just kicked one.”
Me: “Looks like we just hopped on the bus to crazytown.”
It’s co-op where the game’s true value resides, which is unfortunate for those of us still pining for solid single-player experiences. Both me and my friend admitted that the single player game would be lacking, though it’s not without its benefits. For one, impatience prevents someone in co-op from taking time to read the text logs scattered about the game. Voice chatter may also mar the amazing sound effects and music. I also recommend you play the game with friends rather than with strangers for the full experience. Although I’ve had no problems dropping into someone else’s co-op, the added bonus of playing with a friend can really be felt here.
This game was also incredibly easy. On normal difficulty, I never once ran out of ammunition and my path through the game was littered with the breadcrumbs of dropped medkits. Your weapons can achieve such a level of power as to make nothing seem even slightly threatening. I remember from the first Dead Space a moment where I entered a huge antechamber seasoned with necromorphs. Having zero ammunition, I had to run full tilt to the shop at the other end of the room. Since everything runs in real time, I was only able to purchase two clips before being kicked out by a necromorph attack. Nothing like that ever happens here. When you complete the game, you can unlock the ironically labeled classic mode, which disables co-op and weapon construction and brings back the classic aiming reticle of previous games. It also sets the game’s difficulty at hard. So classic difficulty is admittedly harder than normal today.
Yes, the old Dead Space charm is gone but I argue that it wouldn’t have been there if they had tried. Disappointing sales may preclude a fourth installment, which I still hope for. I can guarantee my friends and I would pick it up if it was as good as this one. One thing is certain, it’s a thousand times better than Colonial Marines and better than what most people say.