The Dead Space series has been, perhaps, the last resort for survival horror fans looking for a good mix of intense and creepy atmosphere balanced with just the right amount of action and a good story (not to mention the horrible monsters and gore). But as with many survival horror classics before it, Dead Space 3 takes the franchise across the thin line between horror and action, introducing human enemies, universal ammo and a new weapon crafting system for making powerful military-grade firearms. If you go it alone, you can still find some scares if you look hard enough, but is Dead Space 3 the next evolutionary step for the series, or is it something that should be thrown out of the nearest airlock?

Isaac Clarke, the space engineer turned Necromorph-slayer and Marker-killer, can’t seem to let go of his past. Or rather, it is his past that can’t seem to stop coming back to haunt him. As Dead Space 3 starts, Isaac once again crosses paths with the Marker-worshiping disciples of the Church of Unitology (which by now is more of a doomsday cult than a church) who want nothing more than to kill him and bring about the end of humanity. Isaac is then recruited by his old flame Ellie and her new boyfriend to travel to the frozen planet of Tau Volantis, where he must put an end to the Marker threat once and for all. A complex and confusing plot has always been a trademark of the Dead Space series, but Dead Space 3 takes it to a whole new level. A short video at the start of the campaign will help you catch up on the story so far, but other than that you’re pretty much on your own. So if you haven’t brushed up on your Dead Space history, you’ll have a hard time connecting with the plot and understanding why Isaac is doing the things he does, or why you should care.

However, if you are familiar with the overall plot of the franchise, Dead Space 3 offers an intriguing, fast-paced single-player campaign and a cast of great characters that help drive it along. It’s not the best the series has seen so far, but it does have some nice unexpected twists and turns to it that grant the player a better understanding of the franchise’s arching narrative. It also serves as a nice excuse to introduce new enemies, environments and characters to the franchise’s universe.

Right from the beginning it is obvious Dead Space 3 is much more action-oriented than its predecessors. First of all, the very first enemies you encounter are human zealots with guns and a nasty attitude. Necromorphs do make an appearance once the game hits its stride and the familiar corridor-crawling returns, and they are the main enemy throughout the entire game, but the first few minutes of fighting human opponents help cement Dead Space 3 as an action game. The scares are still there, if you really look for them, but they are entirely optional; it is completely possible to go in guns blazing and still come out with plenty of ammo and health items (and a lot of dead Necromorphs). To make things easier for Isaac, who isn’t used to his enemies firing back at him, the game introduces a new cover system and an abundance of ammo. All weapons use the same ammo now, so once you find a weapon you like, there’s little reason to switch to a different one (more so now that Isaac can only carry two weapons at the same time).

Technically, each weapon Isaac wields is actually two different weapons, thanks to Dead Space 3’s new weapon crafting system. Apart from the usual ammo and medpacks, Isaac can find a ton of weapon parts and other building materials just lying around (or on the smoking bodies of his enemies) and use them to construct new and powerful tools of destruction. If you lack the imagination, you can always just make the iconic weapons from previous games, or follow the blueprints you find throughout the game, but a system that rich just screams experimentation. Combining two different types of weapons to create the perfect Necromorph killing machine can be very satisfying, and a little bit addictive. There are literally hundreds of different unique combinations available, with all sorts of upgrades and improvements. Tired of your boring energy bolts? Why not add stasis bullets and an incendiary grenade launcher? It might take some time to fully realize the potential of this system, but it is worth it.

When it comes to actually playing the game, Dead Space 3 does feel a lot like the previous games: Necromorphs still come out of nowhere and post a serious challenge in groups (unless you have the right weapon of course) and the ever present feeling you are not alone is still there, only less intense since now you can pretty much tear to pieces anything the game throws at you with a few well aimed acidic plasma bolts. The claustrophobic environments are back with much more variety with the occasional open space, usually reserved for a brutal boss fight. The game shift between a crowded colony to a derelict space armada and right on through to Tau Volantis itself and an underground alien city. Each new environment is beautiful and haunting in its own way, although some are more striking than others. If only the gameplay was as diverse as the game’s visuals.

Maybe “not as diverse” is a bit misleading. Dead Space 3 does try to occasionally break from its visceral action and combat gameplay in several of ways, it’s just that most of them aren’t that fun or interesting. Exploring in Zero gravity is still done well but offers little challenge, and the same can be said about the few door puzzles Isaac encounters. One chapter completely revolves around a few segments of mountain-climbing, which are by far the worst part in the entire game, with clumsy controls and unintuitive environmental cues. There are several good moments that don’t revolve around shooting, like steering a spaceship that’s falling from orbit through a field of debris and the always intense boss battles.

If you are looking for horror, it is still there, just underneath the thick layer of gung-ho action. The player has to choose to be scared, and to play in a way that would make him/her scared. It is still possible to stick to using the classic plasma cutter or line gun to dismember the army of alien monsters roaming the frozen planet, or even flee from conflict from time to time, but it usually just feels forced and a little bit like cheating yourself. Luckily, the game’s main missions are still saturated with a creepy and slightly terrifying atmosphere of impending doom, so even while you’re blasting your way through an abandoned research facility, you can’t help but wonder what fresh horrors the game has in store for you.

Dead Space 3 is at its best when following the linear path set by the main narrative (maybe apart from the god awful climbing sequences that came straight out of gameplay hell). It is when you decide to step out of the comfort of the story missions to explore the cold surface of Tau Volantis or the innards of a dead spaceship that the game turns sour. These side missions you encounter at certain points throughout some chapters are boring, uninspired and even downright lazy. They contribute nothing to the story and feature the same recycled environments over and over again, with just the slightest variation in enemy types and locations. They are basically there to lengthen the time you spend in the campaign, and to give dedicated players more resources and gun parts. The only ones really worth playing through are the ones tied directly to the game’s new co-op option.

If you find Dead Space 3 a bit too scary for you to go in alone, you can always invite a friend for some drop-in drop-out co-op play. There aren’t many things that are more fun than dual rocket launchers bombarding a herd of Feeders. Take heed though – playing in co-op completely ruins the game’s atmosphere and horror elements. You basically have two guys with an arsenal of devastating weapons laying waste to the Necromorph (and sometimes human) scourge. Your co-op partner controls John Carver, a bitter unfriendly soldier with a dark past he isn’t willing to reveal. Playing through the aforementioned co-op exclusive side missions helps to learn more about this newcomer, and offers a pretty surreal experience for the second player (and that’s all I’m going to reveal about that).

Dead Space 3 continues the series shift from gut-wrenching horror to gut-splattering action. It is a bigger, more diverse experience than any of the previous games in the series, though at the cost of the franchise’s survival horror credentials. Although the intriguing story is fairly linear, the game still gives the player more ways to play through it: a trigger happy action hero or a slow and methodical survivor; together with a good friend or alone in the dark, under a blanket (you know, because it’s February). The new and rich weapon crafting system is fun to mess around with and while the gameplay contains some hit-and-miss moments, the game is still a worthy sequel. Just don’t expect anyone to hear you scream.

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