“BRAHM!” goes the Inception horn in Dead Space 3’s menu screen, almost as an opening warning shot that this latest space horror sequel is going to be total, market-researched nonsense.
That dreaded horn, the sound of commercial-minded people launching derp at their audience at what they assume is their level, represents the kind of safe concessions that this third Dead Space makes with its design – while still a successful and mostly fun facsimile of the series’ 2008 beginnings, the main change to the design comes in focusing more on set piece-heavy combat scenarios, something it proves to be an awkward fit for.
The series has always been a shooter at heart, really, but Dead Space 3 plays the design so safe that it’s an experience almost entirely bereft of surprise, the opposite of why we’d previously seen the franchise as such a draw. The problem is a lack of ideas and a comparatively boring structure to the first two games – mostly set in entirely generic space-type corridors and later, the equally dull snowy tundra of Tau Volantis, it’s an ammo-pumping slog to the finish rather than the unsettling, environmental-driven horror picture book that we’d previously seen in Dead Space.
Two main additions explain the sea change in design, here: a strong focus on weapons crafting, which requires harvesting resources in an almost Farmville-like tedious rinse-and-repeat way which threatens to destroy Dead Space 3’s sense of drama, and co-op, which is new to the series and proves to be a good fit for the multiplayer-minded of you out there. But the changes made to the formula almost aren’t worth it for either feature – it’s basically the same thing again and again, at the expense of Dead Space’s identity as a series.
There’s the same combination of cheap scares and gangs of monsters running at you drawn out over many hours, still holding together just because the foundations of its gameplay are so steady.
But there are no visual flourishes that cleverly tell stories about the surrounding setting, no real sense of danger given the generous supplies and no emotional twists for Isaac Clarke that speak to you as a player – these are the genre-subverting strokes we used to associate with Dead Space, and it seems that they’ve been jettisoned in favour of two more marketable ideas. The story barely makes an effort, too, with protagonist Isaac Clarke now a tedious errand boy, and a main villain who – honestly – looks like Elton John in a ski jacket.
While the weapons customisation is definitely entertaining to tinker with, it’s blatantly too demanding, requiring that you send out droids to mine resources every 20 minutes or so, and even then it only gets you a fraction of the way towards purchasing that ludicrous elemental cannon you like the look of. Combining weapons to create new ones offers sometimes thrilling results, as long as you engage with the off-putting deluge of boring menu screens.
You’ll have to play through the story several times to get the very best armoury – or, quite cynically, get your hand in your real-life pocket to multiply what you earn with microtransactions. Acceptable practice on a free app, maybe, but absolutely out of the question for a £40 game.
Still, circumnavigate that nonsense and you’ll still find a robust space adventure to be had in Dead Space 3. Those Event Horizon-style shots of distant stars behind floating starship debris speak of a richly realised industrial sci-fi visual style, one that is often able to trump many of the sources it borrows from. Dead Space 3 plays to the crowd, despite being occasionally as thematically fascinating as the previous two games, and coming packaged with a co-op mode that is rarely less than good fun.
The main, series-killing fear is that Dead Space no longer has anything new to say.