It was once asked on this very site, Are Videogames Advancing Sci-Fi? With a protagonist named after two of the grand masters of the golden age of science fiction, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, the original Dead Space, while not groundbreaking, was at least imaginative, telling a story based around the trope of the Big Dumb Object, an ancient artefact of seemingly unlimited power known as a Marker which had the unfortunate side effect of raising the dead in hideous mutated forms.
In this third visit to this universe, the game has mutated, and instead of space-set horror of 2008 it is now more akin to a standard action shooter, though it still retains aspects that set it above the storylines of many other games of that genre have to offer, though with the caveat that the story may be familiar to any who have played Mass Effect, likely no small portion of the intended market of this release.
In the year 2514, hiding from EarthGov on a lunar colony, Isaac Clarke is pressured into joining a mission to the icy world Tau Volantis where he believes his former love Ellie was last known to be. Their ship destroyed on approach to the planet, they locate Ellie and her expedition and discover Tau Volantis is the home planet of the Markers, and Isaac and his team believe if they are able understand the origin of the Markers, they can defeat the Necromorphs and save Earth.
In the first Dead Space, the claustrophobia was enhanced by the situation of the protagonist, sole survivor in a vast crippled ship, unable to communicate with the universe beyond the torn wreck of the hull, the ultimate in isolation. Here, the situation is reversed, and Isaac Clarke is now a well informed and well equipped leading man, a killing machine surrounded by comrades, and while it is necessary that a franchise must adapt in order to survive and compete, the loss of the atmosphere of abandonment and desperation that made the original so compelling is a heavy price to pay.
Another step away from the individuality of the first game is that, being a shooter, the structure of the game is often repetitious, even predictable, with the player easily able to intuit when and where the next wave of Necromorphs will materialise. Any novelties introduced here have transformed Dead Space 3 into a strange and not entirely successful hybrid of survival horror and third person shooter, exhibiting the weaknesses of both but few of the strengths, neither scary enough for a survival horror nor compelling enough to be an exciting shooter.
For a major game from a high profile studio, the user interface is underdeveloped, leading to an uneven player experience; the weapon crafting system offers a huge diversity of customisation, but allows the player to make weapons so overpowered the game is no longer a challenge, and the universal ammunition readily available for all armament spoils the realism, further removing the experience from the role playing aspect that was intrinsic to the atmosphere of the original.
From a technical viewpoint, the graphics are satisfying, using light and shadow well, but cannot be described as cutting edge, nor does the minimal plot stretch to the fifteen hours of play required to complete the mission, and is not only the most disappointing entry into the Dead Space sequence, but with the level of expectation, could turn out to be one of the most disappointing games of 2013. This is not to say that it is not enjoyable, but the ambition of the designers is compromised by the desire to appeal to new markets, betraying what made the experience unique.
This is demonstrated by an element new to the Dead Space series, the drop-in/drop-out cooperative mode, where two players connected over the Internet can assume the roles of Issac Clarke or John Carver to fight the Necromorphs. Prior to release, many followers of the universe expressed concerns about how this would impact the storyline and the single player campaign and assurances were given that the co-op would not be mandatory and the focus would remain on solo campaigns, but it is apparent the level designs, crafting benches and minigames have been created with the co-op in mind.
Furthermore, specific areas of the game can only be accessed in co-op mode, meaning players will only be able to see new cut scenes when playing with a partner, without which they will be denied the full Dead Space 3 story; if it is played solo, fighting through areas unaccompanied to arrive at the next goal, any sense of authenticity or accomplishment is deflated when a non player avatar of John Carver breezes up to deliver scripted dialogue.
Had Dead Space 3 been a truly great game, it might have been easier to forgive the methods employed to extract further funds from the players beyond the cost of the game; in game micro-transactions drawing real world funds from user accounts and a unjustifiable eleven costly downloadable content updates demanding further remuneration from the day of release; had these served any purpose other than to generate further income for the publishers, should they not have been included prior to release?
For the indiscriminate player, Dead Space 3 will be fun, but that is perhaps the most damning criticism, because Dead Space should not be fun to play; it should be a disturbing and frightening experience for an individual who wishes to push their limits with a more personal challenge, and by throwing the universe open to the masses, they have downgraded it to a mediocre imitation of a superior masterpiece.
This review is based on the Playstation 3 version of Dead Space 3; it is also available on Xbox and PC from Electronic Arts