Wednesday 13 February 2013

Dead Space 3

The Title Screen

Released in 2013, Dead Space 3 is a third-person shooter by Visceral Games. A direct sequel to the 2011 Dead Space 2 which continues the story of Isaac Clarke, on PC, Xbox and PlayStation. The singleplayer campaign can now be played co-operatively, but there is no other multiplayer. This review is based on the singleplayer at hard difficulty, with no co-op assistance.

Disclaimer: This is an adult title, with occasional strong language and fairly graphic violence in an futuristic alien/zombie-like setting.

The First Thing
Sadly, the opening of the game did not really elicit any strong emotional response from me. The menu is fine and the tutorial mission is interesting enough, but the opening moments just did not grip me in the same way the previous games did. I feel that, particularly at the start, the story telling is just not up to the same standard and I was left feeling disconnected to the familiar characters and events for some time. The time jumps and frequent plot exposition was not to my liking.

Plot & Devices
A few months have passed since the events of Dead Space 2. Isaac Clarke (you) and Ellie have already formed and ended a romantic relationship, resulting in Isaac living alone in hiding and depression. Suddenly two military officers inform him that Ellie has gone missing on a mission to find the source of the Markers. On top of this, EarthGov has been overthrown by the Unitology religion and their terrorist leader, Danik, is looking to find Isaac and kill him. The decision to rescue Ellie will take Isaac to the Marker homeworld where the origins of their power and final plan will be discovered. Isaac, Ellie and their team must brave the frigid wasteland, horrible monsters and devout fanatics to end the evil of the Markers forever.

Isaac and Ellie

This time the story feels more driven by events, than character development. Isaac is still the same 'victim of circumstance' character, but is now feels more accepting of his role. Human drama does enter into the story, but always feels secondary to overall events. The plot continues on from the previous game and for full enjoyment I would again advise playing through the previous titles if new to the franchise; particularly the second. However, it is not required by any means.

Much like the previous games, Isaac will be alone most of the time and character interaction takes place over radio/video, or small in-engine cutscenes. Many text and audio logs are hidden around the levels and will reward competitionists with additional background and story depth; as well as other in-game rewards.

The Game
The core gameplay remains unchanged. Dead Space 3 is a third person shooter with the HUD information shown holographically on characters. Health, stasis, ammo and oxygen will be shown on Isaac, and inventory, mission objectives and other noteworthy information is displayed in front of him. The Stasis Shot still slows objects down, and the Telekinesis can move many items for puzzles or combat. Quick-time events require the pressing of the indicated button shown on the RIG to survive. Isaac now has four minutes of air to use in the oxygen-less environments, and can still float around the Zero-Gravity areas as he did.

Fighting the waves of Necromorphs

Although not particularly scary, the combat feels the same except that Isaac now carries two weapons instead of four and there is one universal type of ammunition. Health will not regenerate automatically and is managed through various health packs. In true survival style, combat is a little sticky and ammunition is not intended to be plentiful. The Necromorphs still require targeted attacks and limbless Necromorphs are still as dangerous as ever, and have more variety in how they react to their injuries. This time Isaac will encounter human enemies as well, who use guns, grenades and stasis against him. Isaac's new crouch and roll abilities are especially suited at dealing with the human enemies. All defeated enemies will drop an item on the first hit, or foot stomp, they receive after death.

Items construction is a new, and large, part of gameplay. Throughout the game players will find Construction Materials (Tungsten, Scrap Metal, Gel etc.) that can be used at Work Benches to build many different items. New Scrapbots can be carried around that seek out additional Construction Materials when placed on the ground, returning them to the Bench. A pulsing sound indicates special locations where a Scrapbot will be particularly effective at gathering materials. Construction Materials do not take up inventory space and the Bench also act as a bank, storing player items for later. Most items found can also be de-assembled for some Construction Materials which is a useful way of turning unwanted items into something useful.

Weapon diversity has been overhauled and consequently there are no more 'set' weapons. With the new crafting system the player is free to customise weapons from the different components they currently have. Components can be found in the levels, or created with Construction Materials. This system results in a lot more customisability than the previous games, and gives the player the ability to create quite a personalised combat experience. For example, affixing a "repeating" component will turn weapons into rapid fire, but deal less damage. Good weapon combinations can be found in blueprints and this can help offset the slightly overwhelming nature of the new system. Also, the classic weapons from the previous games are not gone but unlocked in blueprints throughout the course of the story.

Weapon construction/upgrading

The power node upgrade system has been completely removed. Weapon Frames have a varying number of slots and 'Circuit Boards' can be fixed to these slots and will adjust the weapon in some way (Damage, Reload, Firing Speed, Clip Size). Circuits can be found in levels, and can be crafted with Construction Materials once initially discovered. Circuits can be removed and swapped around at will and this provides players even more choices on how to customise their weapon. Player armour is still upgradable and Stasis, Telekinesis and Health can be upgraded at the suit changers and costs Construction Materials.

Level design is still predominantly linear, but there is a fair amount of off-path exploration offered that will reward in Construction Materials, other secrets or good places for Scrapbots. Every now and then the player will be presented with an optional mission that will reward in some plot explanation and special items. They are completely optional, but since resources are scarce it felt sensible to take any opportunity to find upgrades and Materials. There are also optional missions unique to the Co-Op, but I only encountered two of them.

More new mechanics brought to the franchise include rappelling on sheer cliff edges, sections where Isaac will freeze to death if he spends too long outside or away from fires, and new puzzle ideas such as rotating discs with telekinesis or controlling two independent symbols on a grid. The game is also quite a bit longer than previous titles clocking in at 15 hours for a 90.5% completion at game end - I did all optional missions and as much exploring as could.

New climbing and heat management gameplay

The sound track is quite atmospheric and more noticeable, but still primarily used to heighten emotion during combat. Sound effects are extremely punchy and solid, and the voice acting is of good quality; featuring the same actors for Isaac and Ellie. The graphic fidelity is more or less the same as the previous game and generally looks good, but I feel a few of the new enemies suffer from the visual contradiction of complicated, new textures in an old engine. Mostly the visuals are fine with good cutscene animations and some fairly fantastic looking vistas at times. 

Given the bad reputation of the previous games with regard to the PC porting, it seems effort has been made to do a better job this time. Unfortunately V-Sync locks FPS to 30, but with it off I was reaching 200FPS and higher which was surprising. For personal preference, I used RadeonPro to lock it at 60. With this achieved, mouse control was excellent and I noticed no other porting errors. The graphics menu (whilst not great) has some good options and every key can be rebound.

Wrap Up & Negatives
Most of the negatives for Dead Space 3 come from the plot. Although the story is good, it is not always handled too well; with important plot points or character motivation simply being told to the player. In comparison to the developing and interesting personalities of Dead Space 2, characters now seem to have become a little one dimensional and predictable. The story also did not feel deep enough to support the length of gameplay, and towards the end started to feel stretched and a little padded.

The enemy AI is still inconsistent and gets stuck behind scenery sometimes. Like the previous titles, it completely breaks any terror or immersion when enemies run away just because you walked through the occasional 'magic' door. The new save system is designed to allow the player to farm Construction Materials, and actual progress is saved from the most recent checkpoint. However, there seems to be no relation between a checkpoint that you return to on death, and one that you save to when quitting. This caused me to repeat 35 minutes of gameplay at one point which was not nice.

A little too much direct plot explanation

There are a few other nitpicks, such as the game re-populating areas that have already been visited with new items, which is counter-intuitive. It is also fair to say that almost all horror has gone in favour of action and for some this will be a negative. Despite the attempts at disguise, the game occasionally shows signs of its over linearity with doors that open mysteriously to coincide with story, or remain locked until all monsters have been killed. At least in the first game this was attributed to 'containment breaches'.

I feel I should address the potentially controversial addition of co-op and micro-payments. Neither impacted the story or my experience in any significant way. I felt no need to buy additional resources and I was never prompted by the game to purchase anything for real money. I did encounter two optional missions only playable in "co-op", but this is acceptable to me and vastly better than a story not making sense, or being forced to play with an incompetent AI partner.

Given that the previous game is quite possibly my favourite title ever, it is hard not to be biased. But with my objective hat on I feel Dead Space 3 is a good action shooter that stands apart. They have taken the existing formula and built upon it, with no real bad or frivolous additions. The weapon creation system is fun (if a little complicated), the optional missions are woven in nicely and increased enemy variety is always welcome. As for gameplay, this is exactly what a sequel should be: new mechanics, trimming out what didn't work (like multiple ammunition types) and keeping the familiar characters and story.

I enjoyed playing, but I felt disappointment with the story implementation. The plot is perfectly fine, just stretched a bit thin and not always gracefully delivered. If this is the end of the story then I feel this is a solid and respectable ending. Worthy to be part of one of the best franchises in recent gaming, for sure.

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