Dead Space 3 had me worried long before it ever hit the store shelves, or "the cloud" as the cool kids would put it. I approached it with the same trepidation experienced when bracing oneself moments before ending up in a highway car pileup. Don't get me wrong, this isn't because I have a strong dislike for the franchise. On the contrary, I count the original Dead Space amongst my most cherished horror games, while the second game is the very epitome of polish and attention to detail in my book. Not only was it just a pretty damn good horror game, but it came out of nowhere and single-handedly revived the dying survival-horror genre.
Dead Space 3, then, has everything going for it. It has excellent pedigree, a sizeable fanbase and an obscenely large budget. Unfortunately, the game's biggest asset also threatens to be its undoing. EA's Frank Gibeau has already declared that Dead Space 3 needs to sell at least five million copies to survive. The problem is that the survival-horror genre isn't anywhere near as mainstream as your Call of Battlefield-type war shooters. The problem is that Dead Space is a franchise catering to the niche survival-horror fanbase, and that's what makes the five million dollar target seem ludicrously unattainable.
When I say unattainable, I mean impossible to achieve as long as it sticks to the survival horror formula. I mean, you can't make a Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi and expect it to be Dabangg kind of money-puller. If you want to cater to the lowest common denominator, you need to dumb down the content for mass acceptance. Speaking of which, the gradual descent of Resident Evil—the original survival-horror game—into a third-person cover shooter is terrible portent of the inevitable dilution of Dead Space 3's horror roots.
In space, no one can hear you scream
Having finally played the game, if there's one thing that I can say with absolute certainty, it's the fact that Dead Space 3 has changed considerably. The changes range from annoying microtransactions to an inclusion of a cooperative mode and cover system. It's interesting how these elements tie in with the game's survival-horror premise, but what needs to be seen is whether these elements borrowed from mainstream blockbuster fare can exist harmoniously with the franchise's core philosophy.
Dead Space's plotline has been one of its strongest points thanks to a comprehensive mythos woven around two games, books and feature films, along with an excellent satire of the cult of Scientology that forms the pillar of the narrative. The original was set against the backdrop of an alien infestation that mutates the dead crew of a gargantuan ship into twisted undead beings eager to disembowel every living thing in sight, whereas the sequel continued the madness on a large facility on the remnants of Titan (Saturn's largest moon). For those keeping track, the last game ended with protagonist Isaac Clarke's resolve to find the source of all malevolence—the Black Marker.
The third instalment ties the loose ends on the freezing planet of Tau Volantis, where the source of the Necromorph plague has been found. It is on the frozen wasteland of Tau Volantis that Isaac and fellow survivor Ellie Langford run into the quintessential space marine Sergeant John Carver. This brings two main radical shifts to the Dead Space formula. The most significant addition being the cooperative campaign, which most purists had speculated would dilute the Survival Horror element by having an extra on your side. The other paradigm shift involves human enemies in the form of zealots from the Church of Unitology. Much to the loyal fanbase's chagrin, Visceral has succumbed to the temptation of throwing some cover-based combat in the mix.
For better or for worse, this sort of gameplay has turned out to be the aginomoto of the video game world. The kids love it and the studio bosses swear by it, but what really needs to be asked is do these additions run afoul with the franchise's horror formula? The answer, however, isn't as straightforward. The co-op mode absolutely kills the tension for me. The whole experience quickly devolves into a third-person shooter with wild gunfire cutting through waves after waves of enemies.
While this works beautifully in a traditional cover shooter such as Gears of War, it unfavourably changes the dynamics of a survival-horror game that derives inspiration from sci-fi horror classics such as The Thing and Aliens—all of them being creature flicks that work their magic through claustrophobic tension. The first two Dead Space games stuck to this formula, but Dead Space 3's co-op mode deviates too wildly from this arrangement for my tastes.
Nevertheless, this surprisingly doesn't affect the game at all. The convenient drop-in/drop-out co-op campaign pairs you up with EarthGov grunt John Carver, and it explores his parallel story in a greater detail. Once you disregard its survival-horror roots though, it becomes clear that the cooperative mode makes for a fun third-person shooter experience. The buddy-based puzzle and combat mechanics may not reinvent the formula, but the mode is pretty competent at what it does. The best part is once you drop out of the mode, the shift to single-player campaign is a seamless and unobtrusive affair.
Carver's co-op missions are strictly optional and don't affect the single-player experience at all
It's remarkable how the developer Visceral Games has managed to weave in competent single and co-op campaigns in the same package without the player noticing anything amiss when one of those is taken out of the equation. The choice between the two then comes down to whether you prefer the traditional horror experience of the single-player campaign or the shooter-inspired dynamics of the co-op mode.
It's a similar story with the cover mechanics. The fights with the Unitologists (human enemies) unequivocally come across as abrupt deviations from the game's survival-horror mechanics, but it's a fun cover-shooter experience nonetheless. Dead Space 3 eschews the potentially infuriating snap-in/snap-out cover system and adopts a much more elegant contextual approach instead. Just press the button to crouch and approach any form of cover to automatically seek refuge from the enemy. Popping in and out of cover and engaging enemies is intuitive enough for even survival-horror loyalists to forgive the game's frequent cover shooter distractions.
Apart from the co-op mode, cover system and human enemies, the traditional single-player elements of the franchise have received a major makeover as well. What sets Dead Space apart is how Isaac Clarke isn't your typical macho hero with all the big guns in the world at his disposal. He is an engineer first and the games have always stuck to the formula of having him co-opt mining/engineering tools and equipment to fashion deadly improvised weapons. Dead Space 3's comprehensive crafting system does a fine job of putting the engineering back in engineering tools.
The game does away with the idea of fixed weapons types and the credit-fuelled upgrade system of the prior games. This time, each weapon can be crafted from scratch and is comprised of integral components such as weapon frame, tool, modules, upgrade circuits and attachments. All these elements can be mixed and matched and fundamentally affect various attributes of the weapon. For example, a frame decides if the gun is one or two handed and how many upgrades it can carry, whereas weapon tools actually determine what sort of projectile or energy source it will employ. Upgrade circuits, as the name suggests, enhance parameters such as damage, speed, reload time, clip size and more. Modules affect alternate fire. Attachments, more or less, are similar to passive buffs found in RPG games. They imbue a weapon with additional fire, electricity and stasis effects, in addition to providing scopes, energy concentrators and even healing properties.
In essence, Dead Space 3 has pretty much crammed its weapon crafting system with every conceivable element from an RPG skill tree. This lets players create a staggering permutations and combinations of weapons and save their creations as blueprints in order to share with their friends. All that weapon building requires resources, which can be garnered through crates and enemy drops. The game would have been great if it had just ended here.
Weapons tend to get overpowering due to a lack of balance
However, even Dead Space 3 doesn't escape EA's penchant to squeeze lunch money out of kids with its mad push for microtransactions. The game essentially locks you out of sampling the weapon crafting and modification feature to the fullest for the want of resources. Mind you, the resources aren't scarce to create tension, but to ensure that you end up spending real cash for these raw materials that EA shrewdly describes as "DLC" to avoid the microtransaction controversy. Not that it helps, though.
Prima facie, the concept of automated resource gathering with the Scavenger Bots seems like a viable alternative to paying real cash to buy what you need. Just drop one down and it goes about mining for raw materials, which will be in your inventory after a short while. Unfortunately, these bots are frustratingly slow and don't scavenge enough resources to make much difference. Not unless you plonk Rs 600 to increase their speed and efficiency.
This paying for resources business doesn't sit well with me because it creates a clear conflict of interest. I mean, it's hard to trust a game where developers have to make a choice between implementing gameplay tweaks and design decisions to make it fun for the gamer and doing the same to make them spend their hard-earned cash on in-game content. Although it's tragic of EA to cripple Real Racing 3 with ludicrous microtransctions, one can argue that it's after all a free game. However, it is downright ridiculous to take the same approach with Dead Space 3, especially after charging Rs 3,000 for it.
Strategic dismemberment, sadly, has taken a backseat due to the game's newfound love for shooter mechanics
There's a possibility that the microtransaction business may have even caused far-reaching effects to the core gameplay mechanics. It was rumoured that the developers had to include the microtransactions pretty late in the development stage, and the system has therefore been retrofitted into what was essentially supposed to be the traditional Dead Space approach to resource handling. Although it's difficult to confirm this rumour, one can't help but notice a distinct lack of balance in Dead Space 3 when compared to the last two games. This time around, the latest instalment simply doesn't have the tight control over ammo and upgrades that the last two games spoiled me with.
The downside to creating any sort of weapon you want clearly lies in how deceptively easy it is to craft a gun that can take down Necromorphs in a single shot. The concept of unified ammunition makes matters worse by ensuring that you no longer run the risk of using up all ammo should you choose to spam enemies with your favourite gun. Yes, this brand of simplification also means that you don't have much to lose if you don't spend real money on upgrades. However, the idea isn't just to save money, but to instead create an enriching survival-horror experience by challenging the player. Dead Space 3's lack of balance tends to take the fun out for those seeking a challenge.
More bad news awaits fans of the franchise, because the PS3 version that I have tested at least seems to have stagnated from the graphics perspective. I don't mean that the game looks dated, but if you approach this expecting a major eye candy jump over the last game, you'll be sorely disappointed. What's worse, however, is how the 3D modellers working on this game somehow managed to make a right mess of Ellie's face. It genuinely made me wondered if Visceral had outsourced the task of creating that particular model to a Maya Academy reject over here. Fortunately, the sound department makes up for Dead Space's poor visual showing, as it is expected from any EA game.
The game has its fair share of horror moments
The Dead Space franchise has been admired for its rich mythos fleshed out with excellent narrative. The latest instalment, however, screws the pooch on that aspect rather spectacularly. It's clearly evident that in its quest to emulate the success of cover shooters, Dead Space 3 has also imbued their hackneyed plots and puerile narrative style. This is compounded by the game's 20-hour playtime that has been padded with objectives spread out excessively far apart from each other and Quick-Time Events that get repetitive over time. The linear progression and uninspired level design tends to make the proceedings seem longer than they should rightly feel.
At the end of the day, although Dead Space 3 manages to be a decent shooter at heart, it still pales in comparison to the survival-horror greatness of its predecessors. It may have the big-budget trappings of a AAA game, but all the cinematics and eye candy in the world cannot save it from the largely banal and uninspired implementation of these elements. This is all the more conspicuous in the face of a weak narrative that tends to undo the legacy of the past two games. When stripped of its tension and survival-horror roots, what you're left with is a mediocre cover shooter that doesn't live up to the series' standards.
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