By ERIC WITTMERSHAUS
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
What do you do when scary stops being scary?
After two excellent, legitimately unnerving video games in “Dead Space” and “Dead Space 2,” Visceral Games smartly realized that a large part of what made those games successful was that they featured an enemy that was ruthless and lethal, but also unfamiliar.
The series’ antagonist, an alien entity that subsumes all organic life and threatens to wipe out the human race, isn’t terribly original. But the way that entity manifests itself as necromorphs — lethal killing machines fashioned from dead tissue — was unnerving and unpredictable, keeping gamers constantly on edge.
Necromorphs weren’t going to stay interesting forever, leading to a more action-oriented approach to February’s “Dead Space 3” (rated M, $60 on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3).
Set in 2514, “Dead Space 3” brings back psychologically damaged space engineer Isaac Clarke, whose mind holds the key to destroying “markers,” massive monuments connected to the necromorph plague. After some frenetic, scripted action levels on Earth’s moon that feel similar to Naughty Dog’s popular “Uncharted” series, Isaac finds himself on and around a remote planet that’s the key to unraveling the mystery behind the markers and necromorphs.
All the while, the head of the Church of Unitology, hell bent on submitting all of humanity to the necromorph plague, moves to thwart Isaac’s every move.
As an action game that features online cooperative play, “Dead Space 3” is decent, if often unspectacular. As in past titles, you’ll be using a variety of weapons to sever limbs from necromorphs as they race toward Isaac. The puzzles, streamlined for “Dead Space 2,” are simpler than ever. The new gameplay style largely works, and the more bombastic, talky story fleshes out a rich game world the first “Dead Space” only hinted at. The work Visceral Games has put into establishing a “Dead Space” fiction is commendable, even if some of the newest game’s interpersonal drama falls flat.
“Dead Space 3’s” gameplay isn’t a resounding success, thanks to many levels following the same basic pattern of presenting players a large problem to solve, then introducing broken equipment that needs to be repaired before the real problem can be dealt with. Logically, the level structure makes sense. Isaac is an engineer, after all. But after three games of hacking sequences, door switch bypasses and broken machinery, the formula is feeling a little shopworn.
Semi-frequent glitches and some new wrinkles that aren’t quite as cool as they sounded in pre-release preview articles also hamper things.
The new feature that lets you build all sorts of weapons using parts you find scattered about the game world sounded great on paper. In reality, it made the game less challenging. Relatively early on, I designed a force gun that knocked enemies backward while setting them on fire. For most of what were supposed to be the game’s tensest moments, the gun was brutally effective at keeping hordes of speedy, swarming necromorphs at bay. At times, I tried experimenting with alternate weapons, but there didn’t seem to be much point to using any of them over the force gun. Past “Dead Space” games forced you to adapt your play style based on what type of ammunition you carried. But “Dead Space 3’s” customizable weapon system means ammunition comes in a new, one-size-fits-all form, and it significantly reduces the tension inherent in realizing that all you have left is a bunch of crappy saw blades to take out a whole room full of bad guys.
Based on my playthrough, “Dead Space 3” contains more than its share of glitches for an action game. The second time I played, I was greeted with a cavalcade of “congratulations” messages for completing various modes of the game. I hadn’t even put in three hours, and here I was unlocking rewards for beating the game’s most strenuous challenges.
In the interest of keeping myself honest, I didn’t use any of the cool stuff I unlocked, but when I finished the game (for real), I got messages telling me I unlocked a bunch of stuff I’d already had access to.
Glitches where the same audio clip would play twice, out of sync with itself, cropped up roughly a half-dozen times. If I hadn’t played with subtitles turned on, I’d have had no idea what was being said at a few key points of the story.
Flaws aside, Isaac’s latest adventure is perhaps the most narratively dense of the three “Dead Space” titles. If you’ve hung around for the first two “Dead Space” games, you’ll learn much more about the origins of the mysterious markers, the causes of the necromorph outbreaks and Jacob Danik, the leader of the cultlike Church of Unitology.
Other than a few stumbles in the final couple of hours, “Dead Space 3” delivers the narrative goods and serves as a fitting final chapter for a three-act story about Isaac Clarke, the markers and necromorphs. Let’s hope Electronic Arts and Visceral Games have the sense to let the story peter out.