Dead Space 3 single-player review: oppressively tense

I'm a pretty big fan of the first two Dead Space games. Despite some minor criticisms, the series' "strategic dismemberment" angle has proved to be mechanically much more interesting to me than the standard "blast everyone in the face" strategy encouraged by most shooters. The audio work in the Dead Space games has also been top notch from the beginning, combining with expertly-lit and visually impressive locations to create a palpably tense and oppressive atmosphere. In my recent, solo playthrough of the Dead Space 3 campaign, I continued the horrific adventures of engineer Isaac Clarke, and was pleased to note that most of the changes and additions to the new entry one-up the tropes fleshed out in the first two games. focalbox First thing's first. The proverbial "elephant in the room" that had many fans of the series puzzled and upset when the game was first revealed, was that portions of the game would take place on a Hoth-like ice planet. While it's true that about half the game takes place on the icy Tau Volantis, and there are indeed some more open, outdoor areas, there are numerous indoor locations where the bulk of the action takes place. Visibility during many of the outdoor sections (and the added risk of freezing to death, at least until you find an insulated suit), creates a different kind of claustrophobia. Granted, enemies popping out of the snow just somehow aren't quite as scary as being stalked in the dark confines of a lab or space station, but it works. That said, series of missions early in the campaign that had me traveling between different spaceships and included some zero-gravity exploration were personal high-points for me. Given that Dead Space 3 is the lengthiest adventure in the series to date, the mid-game change in locations ends up working mostly to the game's benefit, keeping things fresher for the player. The settings for the final several chapters of the game shake things up even further, and while I did find myself occasionally pining for some more of the deep space action that's present in the game's earlier half, Tau Volantis and its frozen horrors proved to be quite compelling. Dead Space 3 also takes some departures from its traditional game systems. Most of these "improvements" work in the game's favor, but are still bound to rattle some Dead Space purists. Gone is the need to clutter up your inventory with multiple types of ammunition. Ammo in Dead Space 3 is universal across all weapons, though the consumption rates of each weapon can vary dramatically. This is clearly a change made to accommodate the addition of co-op, and though it does simplify things quite a bit, it eliminates what would be a need for constant ammo-swapping and management when playing with a friend. Enhanced weapons crafting is another interesting addition to the series. In previous games, players would collect power nodes that could be used to upgrade their rig, or various weapons. Crafting in Dead Space 3 introduces a variety of different resources and parts that can be collected throughout the world. The number of possible parts and weapon combinations is quite staggering, especially once you factor in extras like circuit boards that imbue bonuses to things like reloading, damage, and rate of fire, different weapon tips, and attachments that can do things like add fire or stasis to projectiles. Truth be told, I settled on an upgraded plasma cutter with a lower machine gun attachment, and a line cutter with a lower attachment that fired spikes. I certainly could have spent a lot more time crafting the perfect weapon, but I quickly grew attached to my arsenal. Unlike previous games, you can only carry two weapons at a time, but since each weapon can basically be outfitted to function as two separate guns, this isn't as limiting as it may sound.

Feeders swarm in packs, when disturbed.

With "strategic dismemberment" still front and center of the action, Dead Space 3 continued to impress me with its variety of enemies. Of any shooter series I've played, the Dead Space series has always been one of the best examples of moment-to-moment variety. Each enemy exhibits a variety of behaviors, and as before, removing different limbs will change how the creature pursues and attacks. Maybe it's just me, but even the standard "vanilla" Necromorphs in Dead Space 3 seemed a lot more aggressive. It seemed like improved versions of each member of the entire Necromorph cast from the previous games made at least one appearance in Dead Space 3 (though some, like the Pregnants, are woefully underutilized), but despite the already impressive roster Visceral Games has added even more types of terrors. The Feeders--quick, skeletal baddies that attack in large packs, once disturbed--really creeped me out with their propensity to try and back me into a corner. Not all of the enemy additions were welcome, however. There are some new Necromorphs (you've probably seen in the screenshots), which basically look like axe-wielding, garden-variety zombies with glowing eyes. I couldn't help but wonder how the shadowy demons from Alan Wake had invaded my sci-fi shooter. They're not horrible, but they feel incredibly uninspired when compared to the rest of the monsters. Dead Space 3 is also the first game in the series to ask Isaac to battle human enemies on occasion. I found that these sections made sense to the narrative, but were a bit of a letdown from a gameplay perspective. Strategic dismemberment isn't at all important when battling humans, and I actually felt a twinge of disappointment (or maybe it was relief) when I realized I'd be fighting humans for a bit. Some later sections that mix in both human and Necromorph enemies are a bit more interesting, but thankfully, during the vast majority of the game's combat, Isaac is the only human involved. Speaking of firsts, there are a few minor improvements to the game that I really appreciated. The first is the inclusion of 10 optional missions (a few of which are co-op, only). These feature completely new locations, and add several extra hours of gameplay, and the couple that I played through felt more like they'd been made optional to streamline the critical path, rather than because the content therein was of lesser quality. Dead Space 3 also gives players the ability to replay missions they've completed, so if you miss or skip an optional mission on your first playthrough, you can always go back and see what you missed later, even if it's just to jump to one of these specific side missions. The firefights in Dead Space 3 are chaotic and explosive, but I also encountered a few AI quirks carried over from the previous entries, such as the rare instance where an enemy would get caught on the environment. The most egregiousness and immersion-breaking of these issues is that the "enemy triggers" for some rooms were easily manipulated. For example, there were several times where I'd trigger a wave of enemies, and fall back to the room's entrance, only to have the enemies pull an about-face and retreat once I'd crossed the door's threshold. I'm pretty sure the practice of luring creatures out and dispatching them, one at a time, isn't a result of intentional design. From a story perspective, things eventually escalate to a level that's pretty ridiculous, but it all somehow fits within the context of the series' over-the-top lore. Playing solo, the game does a great job of capturing the solitary feeling of the first two games, though some of the single-player cut-scenes that feature John Carver (the game's other protagonist in co-op) are a bit odd in the sense that there's a hint of the "buddy movie" dialogue going on, only to have Carver disappear when the player resumes control. Thankfully, you won't be doing battle alongside a shoddy, AI version of Carver when playing solo. As far as the single-player experience goes, Dead Space 3 hits most of the high-notes the series is now known for. The ice planet location ends up providing some welcome change of pace, even though it's not as psychologically compelling of a setting to me as the claustrophobic vacuum of space. Isaac's third outing is definitely his most ambitious yet. Provided you're not allergic to snow, Dead Space 3 is another wild ride and great addition to a series that still has some of the most interesting shooting mechanics and enemy design out there. Shacknews' Ozzie Meija is diving back in with me to play through the game in co-op mode, so stay tuned for our assessment of how Dead Space 3's campaign plays with a buddy.
This Dead Space 3 single player review is based on an Xbox 360 retail copy of the game, provided by the publisher.