At this point the Dead Space franchise is almost an industry joke, being both a prime example of EA’s moustache-twirling evil business practices and also a long-running experiment; designed, it seems, to see exactly how many unwelcome new mechanics Visceral Games can get away with before fans just give up completely. The most amazing thing about the series isn’t that they keep getting away with it, but that they continue to do so while making surprisingly great games in spite of it all.
The original Dead Space video game was supposed to grab the shambling corpse of the survival horror genre and pull it out of the shadows, back to the forefront of public consciousness. It didn’t quite manage that, as it underperformed commercially despite receiving almost universal critical acclaim. Those poor sales led to its sequel being recast as an action-heavy sci-fi shooter, which, while retaining a fair amount of the creepy atmosphere, didn’t really feel like it was about scaring players anymore. It was still very good, but the shift in focus was disappointing to the handful of people (myself among them) who wanted to see more refinement of the original formula.
Dead Space 3 is probably the most egregious example of both developer and publisher openly taking the piss. Of the new features specific to this instalment, exactly all of them are things which fans specifically didn’t want that make very little sense in the established universe: human-on-human combat, a co-op mode, a new weapon crafting system, and the option to purchase components for that system using real-world currency. And of course they all, somehow, work very well indeed.
All, that is, except for the micro-transaction system, which a blockbuster video game like this neither needs nor benefits from. In the free-to-play games space this kind of thing is begrudgingly accepted, as it allows smaller developers to release a core game for nothing while still potentially being able to earn decent revenue. A big-budget triple-A release doesn’t get anywhere near shelves without a £50 price tag already slapped across it, so the idea of content being walled off behind further monetary barriers is offensive enough that the very idea of supporting the company that implemented this becomes faintly ridiculous.
Dead Space 3 almost gets away with it, as the in-game supplies which can be bought with actual money are already rather plentiful. I spent a lot of time experimenting with the crafting system, and it never felt artificially limited or unreasonable. Shelling out real money allows you to build better equipment much faster, but you can still build it in a reasonable amount of time without spending a penny. If it wasn’t for EA’s cheery advertisements encouraging you to buy more components popping up all the time, I would have probably forgotten about the micro-transactions completely.
The fact remains, however, that those advertisements are very prominent and very annoying, which leaves an unpleasant, distracting smell hovering around what is otherwise a surprisingly absorbing new mechanic.
Don’t get me wrong – I was more than prepared to hate the crafting system purely on principle. The first two games had such differentiated armaments that they were almost characters in and of themselves: I had such an attachment to the Ripper, for example, that I considered it a kind of friend, as I plodded around the environments sending it whirring into various monstrosities. Having the option to craft your own weaponry seemed like nothing more than an excuse to shoehorn in the micro-transactions, presumably so that EA could shamelessly expand the pile of ill-gotten gains upon which their executives squat like hoarding little dragons.
As it happens, I was wrong about that. It’s a great system – intuitive and flexible. The Dead Space series has always prided itself on a trademark dismemberment mechanic that prioritises slicing off arms and legs with futuristic industrial tools, rather than simply putting bullets between eyes. Crafting actually complements this, as the best weapons are the ones created while in that very specific mentality. I got to keep my Ripper, but I also got to attach a Force Gun underneath it so that when I’d done slicing up whatever creature had annoyed me, I could blast its constituent parts across the map.
This also ties in with the characterization of Isaac Clarke, who remains the unluckiest man in the universe, but an engineer. It makes complete sense that a guy with his technical know-how would be able to strap together little murder machines just using bits and bobs he’d gathered from the environment.
Unfortunately, the rest of Isaac’s character is thoroughly uninteresting. I was fairly pleased with how the second game handled his transition from silent hero to someone who actually talks and emotes; he was never a great character, but he was good enough that the abandonment of his rather haunting silence never felt like too much of a betrayal. In Dead Space 3 I felt less connected to Isaac than I ever have before. Much of the story’s core drama revolves around a love triangle involving him, his ex-girlfriend and her new partner, and it’s just unbelievably vapid. Likewise the game’s central premise is that Isaac is compelled to track down the aforementioned ex-girlfriend, even after his trauma-induced emotional distance fractured their relationship. This is odd, considering that if you look around the lonely apartment in which Dead Space 3 begins, you can listen to answer-machine messages from Ellie (that’s the ex) which Isaac has clearly been ignoring. The entire narrative hinges on this guy behaving out of character from the opening scene.
The original game’s story wasn’t really told through exposition dumps or even character dynamics, instead relying on subtle environmental work and that old writer’s maxim of “show, don’t tell”. It was one area in which the first game was noticeably superior to the second. When Visceral try and focus on expressing the narrative through Isaac himself, the more clichéd and less effective the whole thing seems, and Dead Space 3 is the worst offender by far. There are really no characters or plot events to care about here at all.
This is undeniably a problem, though not necessarily a huge one, as very few Dead Space fans prioritize the series’ story over its gameplay, which thankfully remains fundamentally unchanged. In fact it’s arguably better than ever, with those pesky human-on-human encounters actually making a lot of contextual sense, and the co-op mode being very good despite rendering the few remaining horror elements completely worthless. The main things to dislike about Dead Space 3 are those which nobody really cared all that much about to begin with.
The question is though, how long can the developers keep this going? Dead Space 3 is a fine game, but it isn’t quite fine enough to justify this series’ continued existence – at least not in its current form. The original game was, in many ways, the least enjoyable of the main trilogy, but it was also the most promising. At this point it’s incredibly obvious which style of gameplay Visceral prefers, but in order to make Dead Space a truly excellent action franchise they need to unlock a few of the shackles which still bind it to its roots. And that’s the problem.
Dead Space is a damn good action experience, but there’s little longevity in such an oversaturated, competitive market. The first game stood out because it was different, and the second game excelled where its predecessor failed by taking that difference and using it to build something more intense and familiar without abandoning what worked in the original – at least not all of it. Dead Space 3 has a very firm grasp on the intensity and the familiarity, but its blood-soaked fingers are struggling to keep a hold of that crucial uniquity. When the series inevitably let’s go completely, there’s a good chance it will remain adrift.
In space, there’s no one to tell you maybe horror wasn’t such a bad idea after all.