Isaac Clarke is a man with many troubles. The rent on his tiny, studio apartment is overdue, for one thing. His detritus-strewn home is in need of a visit from someone with a working knowledge of a mop and bucket, for another. It appears to have been quite some time since Isaac was gainfully employed and his next-door neighbour’s incessantly vociferous canine keeps him awake at night. Frankly, things are little better on the relationship front where he’s swapped the hallucinations of a murderous dead girlfriend for the common heartache of an estranged living one.
Yes, Isaac Clarke is a man with many troubles, but at the outset of Dead Space 3 they are humdrum problems to which we can all relate. Having survived two campaigns in which the twisted power of Red Markers transformed those around him into grotesque Necromorphs, Isaac appears to have completed his own metamorphosis into something worse: a regular guy being ground-down by the mundane drama of everyday life.
Fortunately for all concerned, the preoccupation with Isaac’s living space is short-lived and a visit from EarthGov soldiers gives him something on which to focus his splintered mind. Despite some initial reticence, it’s not long before Isaac is once more jetting off into the dead of space, chasing the promise of finding the alien Marker home-world and ending the Necromorph plague.
Aiding his decision to accept this unsavoury mission is possibility of being reunited with Ellie Langford, the woman who saved his life but lost an eye in Dead Space 2. Thus begins a headlong escape from a city that is quickly tearing itself apart thanks to the sudden appearance of Marker-worshipping Unitologists and a local population that is being subjected to the gruesome Necromorph effect.
The opening hours of Dead Space 3 see Visceral Games break the franchise free of its traditional dark corridors and attempt to establish its narrative on a grander scale. Atop the recognisable qualities of the Dead Space series, Visceral piles a handful of new gameplay concepts. Some of these additions work well but others clash with the established building blocks of this exemplary action-horror franchise.
New to the fold is a varied cast of characters, each of whom has their own motivations and issues. By the time that Isaac and co have descended to the frozen surface of Tau Volantis to search for the Black Marker, petty squabbles have broken out and an antagonistic relationship is developing between Isaac and Captain Robert Norton. These relationships provide moments of human drama woven through the more straightforward and deadly threat of the Necromorphs. They also provide some lighter moments of comic relief as Isaac and Norton butt heads over ideals, leadership and the size of their plasma cutters.
While the people that form part of Isaac’s ragtag group serve to enhance the Dead Space 3 experience, those that fight on the side of the fanatical Unitologists are less welcome. The religious zealots want to activate the Black Marker so that it might fulfil its ultimate purpose of convergence and so they take a dim view of Isaac’s role as Marker-destroyer. It’s when Isaac is battling these human adversaries that Dead Space 3’s combat is at its least satisfying and this is particularly noticeable during an extended section towards the end of the game. The addition of a rudimentary cover mechanic means Isaac can now crouch behind level furniture and take pot-shots at human soldiers from a distance. This adds variety to the nature of the combat, especially when both Necromorphs and Unitologists show-up at the same time, but it also flies in the face of Visceral’s excellent work in creating exciting and panic-inducing close-quarters combat.
Fire-fights against human opponents lack the repulsive intimacy and heart-thumping terror of going toe-to-toe with the Necromorphs and rob Dead Space 3 of some of the series’ trademark claustrophobia. Crouched awkwardly behind makeshift cover while waiting to take a shot threatens to turn Dead Space into something that it feels it was never meant to be and that it doesn’t particularly excel at. Fortunately, these sections don’t crop-up too often and the unsavoury notion of gun-toting Necromorphs is mercifully sparsely used and short-lived.
The ups and downs of the increased human presence typify Visceral’s experimentation in other areas, too. Take the over-hauled weapon-crafting system, which for the most part is an absolute joy. The ability to bolt together constituent parts of Dead Space’s imaginative arsenal means if you long for the reassuring hum of acid-coated Ripper blades but also want the option to flambé your adversaries with the same gun, you’re well catered for.