Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Review: Dead Space 3 (PC)!

I missed Dead Space 3 on its release earlier this year so, when EA hand-balled me a free copy as an apology for the Simcity debacle, I was understandably thrilled, eager to don my engineering suit and have the shit scared out of me all over again. But, what quickly followed, was instead nothing more than the “strategic dismemberment” of my waning enthusiasm. Seemingly a pale imitation of its predecessors, my initial reaction to part three was vitriolic. Treading (and re-treading) the same old dark, dank spaceship corridors to collect yet another missing fuse, while fighting the exact same enemies as before? You’re kidding, right? It felt like lazy downloadable content. Is this all there is? Or is something better lurking just underneath the surface?

Dead Space 3 takes a long time to get going but the good news is that it’s actually a decent game if you’re prepared to persevere just that little bit longer. How so? I’ll dissect it limb by limb... after the jump!

Now I will make a concession here - the biggest brand new element in this sequel is the addition of a co-op campaign, and that’s something that I didn’t get to play (because nobody I know owns this underperforming game!). So whether getting used to the co-op mechanics enhances the boring bits at the beginning I can’t rightly say. But I do think of the Dead Space series as a solo experience - regardless of EA’s recent attempts to make everything social - so it’s just the solo campaign that I’m focusing on now.

At first it feels like less of the same. And by that I mean: it’s the same as the other games but there’s a lot less of it. It’s less interesting, there’s less tension, and you have far less equipment. It’s hard to pinpoint any memorable set pieces in the first act of Dead Space 3, most of which feels like a laborious chore, especially when you’re trudging back and forth through all too familiar corridors to make another piece of machinery work. Even the game’s protagonist Isaac Clarke seems bored with it all. One of the biggest reasons why the game isn’t scary is that Isaac himself isn’t scared. Of anything! Some demanding woman will say, “Hey Isaac, my desk lamp needs a new globe - can you venture alone into that pitch black labyrinth of twisted monsters and fetch me one?” And Isaac shrugs and is like, “Yeah dood. Sure!”.

I also felt a little underpowered. Starting with a basic bolt gun, you need to scavenge for materials and parts to customize your own additional weapons. And it wasn’t that I felt overwhelmed by the hordes of necromorphs - there was always plenty of ammo and medpacks to keep me cosy and comfortable - but it did feel very repetitive. I wanted to experiment with new contraptions but I was slow to accumulate them, and subsequently I used the same dull gun for about half the game.

EA’s solution to this is transparent and borderline offensive. You can BUY new guns, parts and suits from the in-game workbenches - and I mean “buy” with actual real world money. It’s not enough that you have bought this $60 - $80 game (depending on your country), there’s now also a blatant attempt to milk you for more, utilising the same blatant model you’d expect from a $2 iPhone app. Nothing is forcing you to pay, and you can certainly complete the game just by scavenging (I did), but it feels like they are attempting to capitalise on your impatience with your lack of swag. At times I felt so frustrated that I was almost tempted to just pony up the couple of bucks. Luckily common sense prevailed. However, that said, when I finally got my custom ripper I felt like I’d really earned it, and it instantly amped up the gameplay in a much-needed and satisfying way.

So let’s find some positives...

Much of the promotional imagery for Dead Space 3 has focused around the snow and when you do eventually wind up freezing off your snugly-suited ass in the frozen tundra your adventure starts to spark to life. It’s from here onwards that we start seeing things afresh and the game introduces new elements to rejuvenate the experience. Sure, there’s still plenty of errands and backtracking, but at least now I can see that the developers have actually put in some effort. There’s craft here, and I believe it’s ultimately a sincere attempt despite the money grubbing spectre of the DLC.

No single set piece really stands out (except for perhaps the final battle) but there’s some solid boss fights interspersed with the odd fun puzzle. I also got a kick out of all the engineering mini games, finding myself strangely comforted every time I was arm-deep in a panel. And I should confess that I became reluctantly invested in Isaac’s ill-fated love life. The story is relatively thin but much is made of Isaac’s failed relationship (and hopes to rekindle?) and I really wanted to knock the crap out of my obnoxious rival. He’s a total jerk and it’s fun to anticipate the horrible things will probably happen to him. That’s what you get for messin’ with my woman!

And I have nothing but praise for the brilliant (and mostly terrifying) music and sound design. I played this game on my laptop plugged into my TV, but I listened to it on a set of gaming headphones. Every eerie murmur and bump in the dark was crystal clear and it added immensely to the overall experience. It’s the first time I’ve truly appreciated the score in one of these games and it makes you realise how crucial it is in energizing the atmosphere. In a twister of spraying blood and flailing necromorph limbs the music becomes a piercing flurry of discordant sounds that dramatically heightens the tension and urgency. At times I had to take the headphones off just to catch my breath. The sound design is really the most key element in ratcheting up the intensity and keeping you immersed in Dead Space’s world.

So Dead Space 3 ended up winning me over and managed to adequately engage me throughout its final half. There’s no doubt it’s the lesser of the series but if you’re a big fan of Dead Space then there’s elements to enjoy. And I’m sure that co-op is a completely different experience again and I’d happy to give that a go should the opportunity arise (i.e. anybody else ever buys this game). Grab this one when there’s a video game drought (and it’s cheap). Right now, though, I’m going to play Bioshock Infinite. You’d probably be better off doing the same.

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