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.