Visceral encourages experimentation in this area by replacing the intermittent reward of fully formed weapons with the steady drip-feed of schematics and upgrade components. This entices you back to the workbench to switch out parts, modifiers and circuits to see how different components complement one another. There’s even a separate weapon-crafting arena available from the main menu, where budding weapon-smiths can tinker to their hearts content before testing out the results on some unfortunate Necromorphs.
The materials required to facilitate this dangerous pastime are collected from downed enemies and small, automated Scavenger Bots that Isaac can deploy. While there’s also the opportunity to purchase component parts and weapons packs via micro-transactions, this is all together unnecessary thanks to the amount of scrap material on offer. However, it’s here that a problem with Visceral’s eagerness to please the trigger-happy rears its head. The biggest concern regarding inventory management on normal difficulty is not the scarcity of supplies but the abundance of them: we finished our first play-through with a game-balance busting 1,000 rounds of universal ammo stashed in the safe.
As well as providing the biggest clue that Dead Space 3 should be tackled on hard difficulty from the outset, this embarrassment of riches also impacts other key areas of the game. In Isaac’s first two outings it was necessary slow enemies with the stasis power in order to take a breath, reload and carefully aim shots for maximum effectiveness. Here you can instead blast away to your heart’s content, with only one particularly fast subset of Necromorphs forcing the use of stasis to effectively line-up a shot.
Similarly, despite Isaac’s advice to his fellow survivors that they use the kinesis power to snap the pointy bits from downed Necromorphs and propel them at their disfigured brethren, the near infinite supply of ammo makes it possible to entirely forgo kinesis as a combat aid. This only changes in the closing chapters of the game, where stasis and kinesis are boosted by environmental factors that significantly over-power both abilities. This turns them into the easy option for fighting off your misshapen adversaries and threatens to render moot your lovingly-crafted weapon set. It feels as though Visceral is seeking to compensate for having neutered stasis and kinesis up to that point, while simultaneously guarding against the possibility that the freedom it has afforded you with weapon-crafting might have resulted in you being equipped with weapons not suited for the run-in to the finale.
Difficulty imbalances aside, Visceral’s work in environmental design and character development has come on apace and it still excels at lulling you into a false sense of security and then hitting you with a moment of panic. As was the case with its predecessors, suspense is maintained by Visceral’s ability to subvert your expectations and so just when it seems that a Necromorph must surely burst forth from a wall cavity, it doesn’t. This clever toying with your nerves is enough to have you walking almost everywhere with your weapon raised, which makes it easier to appreciate a well-timed scare from a source that you’d subconsciously written off as safe.
The audio design is instrumental to this. The scuttle of bone on metal or a sharp, contorted screech has your straining your ears into the silence that follows. Irrespective of your burgeoning arsenal, it’s enough to unnerve you even when the threat is not delivered upon. Outside in the more open, external environments of Tau Volantis, Visceral opts for a different tact. Robbed of an effective means of scaring you aurally, the designers instead choose to artificially create a close environment with the occasional white-out, which allows Dead Space 3’s new Necromorph types lurch out of the encroaching blizzard. The troublesome Wasters are particularly persistent and their ability to further mutate after being dismembers elicits feelings of both disgust and a steely resolve to put them down for good.
While weapon-crafting is perhaps the most obvious nod to Isaac’s role as an engineer, it is not the only one. A handful of puzzles revolve around balancing voltage, hacking electrical locks, completing circuits and coaxing ancient, alien machinery back to life and present welcome nods to Isaac’s erstwhile profession. Such moments slow his evolution to fully-fledged space marine and set up some tense set-pieces where puzzles must be completed under duress, as Necromorphs convene on Isaac’s prone position.
This change of pace is supported by a number of optional side missions of varying length. These offer Visceral the opportunity to experiment yet further with the structure and narrative exposition of the Dead Space universe. While not all of them hit the same memorable high standard, one or two offer unique highlights, such as the introduction of an off-beat character who wouldn’t feel too out of place in a BioShock game. Another, on the remote icy wastes of Tau Volantis, explores the importance of keeping a well-stocked larder and what happens when it runs dry. While others are simply glorified loot runs with the promise of a shiny new schematic at the end, almost all of them add something to the experience. From a macabre narrative note to a nod to the wider Dead Space fiction, all are worth the additional time required to explore them.
On balance, Dead Space 3 sees the identity of the series at a crossroads and is a prime example of a franchise mid-evolution. With Dead Space 2 Visceral expanded upon the scope of the original game and perfected its oppressive atmosphere, but in doing so it set a new standard for every developer working in the survival-horror genre, including itself. Its follow-up adds multiple new concepts, some of which work while others undo some of its previous progress. The handful of boss fights in Dead Space 3 are particularly forgettable, while the narrative occasionally lacks the courage of its convictions and the end-game reveal is a little too ludicrous to take seriously. However, where the new concepts work, they add to the solid core and are enhanced by Visceral’s excellent pacing and its impeccable audio and visual design work, not to mention what remains the best HUD design in all of video games. Dead Space 3 a worthwhile addition to the series, but throughout it feels like Visceral is simultaneously trying to broaden the appeal of its flagship series while casting around for where to take it next.