Let me just say that after playing the first two games, watching Extraction, playing the iPhone game, and reading both DS novels, it really is difficult to describe just how excited I have been to get my hands on Dead Space 3 and see the conclusion of Isaac's terrifying tale.
Dead Space has gone from a sleeper hit that got excellent reviews (I'll never forget the first time I experienced that horrifying noise-intro as the bloody EA logo appeared) to a full-blown AAA title/series that many are calling the "Resident Evil" of this generation. So how does Dead Space 3 actually do?
I think it's important to address the notion of change within a game series. Typically, when moving through a series or trilogy, developers tend to hit one of two extremes. The next games in line either stay largely the same, often leaving gamers feeling underwhelmed and bored (think BioShock 2 or COD), or the initial formula changes completely, making many gamers feel angry and even betrayed by the developers (think Resident Evil 5-6). The key is that games shouldn't simply change or remain the same; they should evolve -- keeping core elements of the original game while adding on new ones that enhance the experience of the series as it moves forward.
Does Dead Space 3 evolve effectively? I think so, even if it's not perfect. Let's see why. DISCLAIMER: I am reviewing this as a lone wolf. No co-op for me on my initial playthrough.
As everyone knows, this is the single biggest change in Dead Space 3 -- going from a cramped Ishimura or a doomed Sprawl to a seemingly open ice planet. It's a huge change from dark to (literally) white, right? Well, don't be deceived. You don't spend all your time, or even most of it, walking around in the snow with the sun out. While chapter 1 will likely catch you off guard as it did me in giving more of an epic-sci-fi-movie feel versus a Dead Space game, you'll spend a huge majority of your time exploring claustrophobic ships and dark, abandoned areas littered with blood, all the while panicking at how few medpacks you have. Yep, still plenty of that Dead Space feel we all know and love.
If you played the demo, you may have been concerned about the blatant action sequences and human enemies. I will admit the action sequences are around noticeably more than in DS2, but this didn't bother me. Also, the human enemies are rare; seriously, you will encounter them only at specific parts of the game. If you've been following the struggle between EarthGov and Unitology outside of the games, it does make sense that Unitology soldiers would finally make an appearance. However, it's nice that they aren't a regular part of the game. That would honestly take a lot away.
This leads us to undoubtedly the main question fans are curious about before buying: "Is it as scary as the previous games!?" Yes it is. There were PLENTY of dark hallways and dimly lit rooms where I had to stop and take a deep breathe before moving on through. I still got an overwhelming sense of dread that made me have to take breaks between playtimes like with the two previous games. However, please understand something. After playing two games (likely several playthroughs each) and controlling a Necromorph-veteran of a main character, you are likely going to be at least a little desensitized to many of the scare tactics that are still employed here which originated in DS1. Not only that, but with more action sequences and a certain percentage of the game taking place on the snowy terrains of Tau Volantis, there will be certain levels that maybe do not scare you quite as much as the others. Don't get me wrong, though -- this game still freaks me out. If you want the real survival experience, by the way, be a man and start your first playthrough on Impossible.
With that being said, let me personally tip my hat off to the Visceral team on the audio. The new sounds they've been able to come up with are truly chilling, and I got so immersed in the atmosphere my wife was able to get a few scares out of me when I was playing alone in the dark. Seriously, though, whether it's the deafening blizzards or the near-silent creaking throughout the Greely, Visceral absolutely nailed it with the audio. If you're playing on a high-quality system/pair of headphones, you'll be extremely happy... though maybe not so happy while you play, if you catch my drift.
Something new to the audio is an actual soundtrack of melodies. You'll hear it in the menus, and you'll also hear it at certain parts of the game. Some people may accuse this of dumbing down the claustrophobic feel of the atmosphere, but in my opinion it gives the game more of a rich and even epic feel when coupled with many of the in-game sequences. Some of the soundscapes played during your space explorations are hauntingly beautiful; they give the player that downtime that's similarly needed in horror movies/books (though it's hard to ever truly feel safe or at peace in this game).
An element that greatly adds to the atmosphere are the stunning visuals. Whether it's an icey vista on Tau Volantis or the glowing lights in a dark, cramped corridor, Dead Space has always had a visual allure to it. Some sort of charm in its own twisted sci-fi way, similar to when you watch a movie like Alien. I'm just so glad this visual allure is still apparent in this game as it was in the previous two.
The gameplay of course still feels like Dead Space, as the combat is basically the same. However, I believe the combat is the game's main flaw (more on that soon). Several things have changed, like the weapon crafting, checkpoint saves, and the bench systems. There is no more store (or save stations), but again from a narrative standpoint it's logical in that your time is spent exploring 200+ year old ships and stations that weren't directly overseen by EarthGov. Being stranded on Tau Volantis gives credence to the scavenging aspect that plays into weapon crafting, and it encourages the player to explore every nook and cranny. One immense change is moving from gun-specific ammo to universal ammo. It can be frustrating at first, since you can carry "clips" in your inventory, but the clip translates to a certain amount of ammo that's different for each weapon. Be sure to take a few minutes early to figure out which weapons get the most/least amount of ammo in a clip. This will help determine which weapons you like for your playstyle, as well as which weapons are the most efficient.
As far as the necromorphs go, I've noticed they are much faster here than in the two previous installments. This is likely to counterbalance the double-weapon firepower, but just keep that in mind. Stasis will especially be your friend! If you are playing on Impossible on your first run, expect to die. I know some reviewers are disappointed with how the necromorphs look, but the devs said they wanted to make necromorphs that look like they've been trapped in space or ice for an extremely long amount of time. Again, to me this is one of those changes that makes sense. And I personally believe that when the newly-designed Puker gets up in your face you won't feel too peachy at all.
Like I mentioned, the combat aspect was the biggest drawback for me at times. First off, depending on your weapon choice you'll find CQC can be awkward as your shots many times miss up close. Secondly, in the latter half of the game I sometimes got the feeling that you would be simultaneously rushed by 7-9 of the same types of necromorphs. Not only was this lack of variety bland, but given the Necromorph speed boost here I generally just ended up spraying to survive versus the dismemberment I'm used to.
The decision to be heavily narrative-driven is the backbone of all the changes in Dead Space 3, and it's the best way to go in a new direction without the need to change core gameplay. I mean, Visceral can only use the tool of sheer mystery for so long before it becomes bland; I'm glad they decided to focus largely on Isaac's personal story. While many reviews reveal a polarizing effect of the story, I actually like it just fine. As I mentioned before, the Prologue and Chapter 1 will likely throw you off as you'll literally hit the ground running with Isaac. A lot has happened with him and Ellie since DS2, but as happens in the DS universe, the action kicks in pretty quickly and there isn't much time for explanations. You will notice there are some leaps in the plot throughout the game. However, if you think about it, outside of Isaac, Ellie, and some surface facts regarding Unitology and EarthGov, there is still quite a bit we don't understand about the Dead Space universe. With that in mind, the plot leaps aren't too hard to stomach. Also, being married and working full-time means I don't have too much time for explanations anyways! Seriously, though, I did enjoy the story's conclusion. The final chapter was incredibly intense!
One part of the story I felt was largely left out -- what happened to Isaac's dementia, Visceral? You played around with the idea of using Isaac's dementia to evoke psychological horror for the player, but most of that is missing in Dead Space 3. Isaac has (presumably) gone untreated with all the scarring he's got -- there are so many disturbing hallucinations the poor guy probably has that could have been implemented. If I could change one thing about DS3, I think that would be it; utilize Isaac's mental instability more. It would have added a deeper layer of character development as it did before.
There are 19 chapters here, whereas the previous game had 15. If you beat both previous DS games in 10-15 hours on your first playthrough, you're probably looking at about 15-20 here if you like to explore and do side missions. I beat my first playthrough in 21+ hours. In addition to the various difficulties, there are four additional game modes to keep things fresh: Classic, Pure Survival, Hardcore, and NG+. Vintage fans will like classic mode as there's no crafting -- you need full weapon blueprints to get new weapons (just like old times!). Pure survival means the opposite and forces you to craft everything from scavenged parts. Hardcore will give you one life, just like real life, to beat the game with. Die once and you're back to square zero. Couple all these with jump-in-jump-out co-op to keep you and your friends busy, it's more than obvious you'll get a good bang for your buck with Dead Space 3.
So that's it. There's my review. Dead Space 3 still feels like good ol' Dead Space, even if the different lighting levels in various areas tone things down at times, and the combat has its times of frustration. Still, if you're playing on Impossible for your first round, I wouldn't worry about not getting creeped out. Just turn up the volume, turn down the brightness, and play in the dark.
Would I recommend DS3 to a first-time gamer to the series? You can definitely pick it up and enjoy it, but you're probably going to get lost with some of the narrative jumps. Besides, the Ishimura is a classic! Go back and start on DS 1 & 2.
I just want to say thank you, Visceral. You've managed to evolve the game in a way that expands the lore in a near-epic way without dissolving the Dead Space roots. Dead Space has been a truly incredible experience since 2008, and I'm excited to see where things go from here.
After heavy contemplation and spending more time with both DS2 and DS3, I have decided to lower my overall rating by one star. I still stand by everything mentioned above, but with the combat flaws I noticed, some parts of the game did feel like a slight step back in terms of gameplay. Regardless, I still think this is a great and ambitious conclusion that every DS fan needs to play.