Isaac Clarke has had a rough ride.
The love of his life died. She didn't like being dead, though, and instead of becoming a bitter-sweet memory like a good dead girlfriend should, she crawled up inside his brain-space and started dancing around his neural networks screaming sweet nothings and generally destroying what was left of the poor guy's fragmented psyche.
Then Earth-Gov had their turn, prodding and poking, trying to extract information on the mysterious Markers and making the aforementioned phantasm even hungrier to devour his sanity. You'd have forgiven him for dissolving into a gibbering heap, especially considering this psychological torture was being done whilst hordes of corpses with razor sharp limbs and very little desire to recognise a man's need for personal space got all reanimated and dangerous tearing the physical world to pieces as his mental state threatened to follow suit.... but Isaac somehow persevered. Largely due to the interactions he made with a certain lady, Ellie Langford. One of the only survivors of disaster that beset The Sprawl in Dead Space 2, Ellie became pretty special to our tragic hero, and at the end of the previous game the two jetted off into deep space. It was something of a happy ending...
Two months later we find Isaac alone. Unshaven, unkempt, and wearing a questionably geeky ensemble that looks like he's begun ordering his outfits from a Firefly cos-play store; the man has clearly started to unravel for real. Ellie has left him, whether it was his new jacket or his seemingly dejected and defeated personal state we cannot be sure, but the man is clearly broken. Cue Earth-Gov once more to the rescue! They blast in, all macho-gung-ho, inform Isaac that Ellie has gone missing, and our favourite necro-stomping engineer deftly swaps self-pity for weapons and witty quips, steps outside, and... does a bad-ass combat roll before taking cover behind a conveniently placed chest high wall as he starts aiming his pistol for critical hit head shots at incoming Unitologist soldiers!
Yes, Dead Space 3 has the audacity to include a cover system, combat-rolls, and human enemies; but before you lament for that precious “classic” Dead Space experience, you should probably know that these additions feel pretty natural. Not only was Unitologist intervention pretty inevitable lore-wise, but the combat roll feels like something that's been missing from Isaac's skill-set since day one (for all it's wonderful atmosphere and charm, mute Isaac of Dead Space controlled like a relic of 1990s Resident Evil era horror), and the context sensitive cover system (activated by simply ducking behind a wall, then pressing/releasing aim to bob up and down behind it) doesn't feel obnoxious or forced in any way.
The movement overhauls have been supplemented with a remarkably in-depth crafting system. You can still craft set weapons from found blueprints and upgrade them to suit your style, but now you can also dismantle any weapon in your inventory and rebuild it using the base components and materials you find strewn across the various environments. Ever wanted a mini-gun that fires stasis-enhanced rivets with a fire attuned grenade launcher attached to the bottom of it? Or a military grade shotgun set atop a suspended ripper blade that deals corrosive acid damage over time? The possibilities are extremely varied, and exploration of this system can be very rewarding.
The micro-transaction system that caused so much controversy before release can, thankfully, be entirely ignored. Opening lockers, stomping crates, looting corpses, the game gives you all you'll ever need. Not only this, later on you'll gain access to scavenger bots that allow you to scan for material rich areas which makes the grind for components even less of a worry. These little guys also collect Ration Seals, which can be used to purchase the Resource Pack DLCs directly from the in-game store
Although Dead Space 3 sets the first quarter of its adventure aboard the familiar derelict space craft and open vacuum areas that are absolutely ripe for terror, there's a distinct lack of horror here, for series veterans at least. The first game managed to scare us silly because we were experiencing the Necromorphs and their twisted terror for the first time. The second upped the ante on the action elements, but retain the horror by maintaining that feeling of isolation and dread and by mixing up enemy types and throwing new encounters into the mix. Dead Space 3 certainly gives us new experiences, but they're simply not inclined to horror in the same way. Even in solo play, that feeling of isolation just doesn't take hold like it did in the previous titles. The new weapon system, the horde-mode feeling of most of the Necromorph encounters, and the dispersal of quick-time events and clunky action sequences (rappelling filled me with a sense of “god not again” every time I came across one of the climbing apparatus) give the game a much more action-film feel. If Dead Space is Alien, and Dead Space 2 is Aliens, then Dead Space 3 is Die-Hard, with aliens. It's by no means a poorly made switch in tone, and it makes perfect sense considering the game's story arc, but those hankering for a more “classic” experience might feel the lack.
Co-op in Dead Space 3 is handled particularity well, and, after playing through the game both ways (solo and with a friend), I'd consider the co-op experience to be the superior one. The first two games played perfectly on isolation and fear, but Dead Space 3's strength is in its combat and exploration and this is absolutely enhanced when playing with an able partner. It definitely feels as though the game were designed primarily as a co-op experience, and then stripped down for an obligatory solo mode. Not only does the gameplay feel enhanced, but there are certain character interactions and story elements you simply won't have access to during a solo run, and story seems a little richer with Clarke and Carver trading banter and war stories (and even some clever moments such as Carver's hallucinations only being visible to the player controlling him) as their relationship develops over the course of the game. Carver remains a part of the cut-scenes if you play solo, but his character only feels fleshed out if you play co-op. This leaves solo play feeling more like a necessary accommodation than a fully realised mode, when you consider the narrative at least, and as the game forgoes the isolation and fear of the first two instalments it just makes sense to play to its strengths and play with a friend.
For many, one of the primary reasons for playing Dead Space 3 will be its part as the concluding chapter in Isaac's story. Without spoiling anything, the pay-off – the mystery of the markers – is a silly yet serviceable one. The game does a decent job rounding things off and gives us the inevitable ambiguously open sequel-ready ending. The main problem with Dead Space 3's story is the lack of an engrossing antagonist (the main bad-guy is utterly devoid of any kind of engaging character or motivation), and the few twists the game tempts us with are easy to unravel before their reveal. It does what it needs to do, but that's it. For all its attempts to elevate the game into epic-final-part territory, it feels a little flat in terms of emotional pay-off.
Dead Space 3 is an awkward game. It re-invents itself a little, sacrificing some of the elements that made the series a success while adding aspects that spectacularly enhance others. Co-op feels like the primary mode of play, leaving those who have no desire to team-up with a somewhat lesser experience. The lack of engaging characters and a slightly underwhelming final leaves the game feeling a little hollow in places, but those vacuums are filled almost fully by all the things it does well: It'll excite others with its truly excellent crafting system and enhancements to combat, but leave those yearning for the horror and terror the previous game's installed so adeptly with a sense of loss. Dead Space 3 is an enjoyable action game, no doubt, but the lack of atmosphere gives an almost ironic twist to the game's title.