Dead Space 3 review: Take down the terror, just a notch

Dead Space 3 is excellent, meaning I didn't enjoy very much of it. The torture is self-inflicted, and I only increased the severity by playing the game without company, without light and without those regular breaks they used to warn you about in the manual (ask your parents). The inclusion of co-op has made the solo stress no less potent.

I was consumed by caution, leered at every suspicious air vent (protip: they're all like that), loathed every single monster, and stomped their revolting corpses with wild catharsis and fanaticism. Isaac Clarke may be the respectable engineer-turned-hero now, but I suspect his childhood siblings cowered in the closet every time he lifted his boot and brought it down in the rhythm of temper tantrums.

All of these things, the concern over ammunition and health, the detestable creatures, the unnerving titter of what sounds like violin strings left in the rain, the creepy creaks and groans of a crappy space ship (protip: they're all like that) – all of these things make Dead Space 3 another extravagantly crafted concoction of horror, action and anxiety. So, no, it's not exactly "fun."
%Gallery-178021% It's not exactly scary either, just worrisome. But we've moved on from the low-key isolation of the rickety Ishimura in the original Dead Space, and Visceral Games continues to tweak its methods to accommodate moments of sci-fi spectacle and empowerment. In Dead Space 3 the balance between the dim claustrophobia and the cinematic escape, between the spirit of Ridley's Alien and that of Cameron's Aliens, is the best it's ever been, crucially because the game's weapon system has been restructured around it.

When you push back against an onslaught and own the room, it's because your behavior was as well-composed as your weapons. Obsessive resource gathering, the player-driven doomsday preparation that Dead Space 3 has done nothing to quell, can now be funneled into an elaborate (if dryly presented) crafting system. Gun frames form the basis for two stackable engines, which can pump out plasma, electricity, fire and other hazardous elements in whichever combination aligns with your style. You modify projectiles further with weapon tips, which can create significantly different outcomes and, for instance, launch explosives as grenades, rockets or proximity mines. Additional attachments can augment your ammunition and other abilities.

What you do with your two equipped frames, four engines, four tips and, ultimately, four guns grouped as two is a source of comfort, wedged in a game that constantly seeks to eradicate complacency. Dead Space 3 wisely amps up the enemies to compensate for your more creative relationship with resources, but it's a fair escalation in number and speed (and unnerving, emaciated mobs, as you'll discover later). Whenever Dead Space veers away from panic, it's important that you feel responsible for your empowerment. If I felt safer, it's because I made a gun that matched my cautious style of play. That peace-of-mind reward is earned, not given, though it didn't quite stop me from dropping mines in front of every vent in every room anyway. Because you never know.

Dead Space 3 doesn't have to apologize for being a well-designed action game that rewards quick aiming and resourcefulness under pressure. It also doesn't have to apologize for including two-player online co-op, rendered innovative by how subtly and concisely it enters and exits the scene.

If you play alone, which I still prefer, you'll barely feel the repercussions of the extra work Visceral must have put in to pull it off, save for a few repeated switches that make the other player's absence more conspicuous. Isaac Clarke's gruff companion, John Carver, is happy to occupy himself if you don't need his help, and the game never sticks you with a boneheaded AI character. There are bonuses for playing in pairs – puzzles are adjusted to require cooperation and Carver's background story is unlocked – but no expectations. Carver is, in some ways, just about buried in Dead Space 3. Dig him up if you want.

There's an interesting analogue of choice in Dead Space 3, and it doesn't play out in morality or plot (which holds an apt conclusion to the Marker and Necromorph saga). Instead, Visceral Games has used the central loop of exploration, shooting and gathering, along with crafting and co-op, to put a scariness dial on the game. You can crank it up and down as you play, by inviting a partner and welding together a weapon out of convenience, or by toughing it alone with a plasma cutter only.

This can't repeat the original Dead Space's first-blush brilliance, but it does make for an interesting, thoughtfully constructed horror game. Dead Space 3's only major stumble, which is forgivable in light of its other accomplishments, is in combat against other armed soldiers. The problem isn't what you might think: The established mechanics work fine with an added crouch toggle, but the level layout usually colors your expectations immediately. Walking into an area of cover-capable crates eliminates surprise, and is definitely veering too deeply into regular action territory.

Beyond that, Dead Space 3 is an exciting, shocking and mammoth adventure through the ghostly, unvarnished segments of space – and you do, thankfully, get to spend some more time flying. There aren't many games that can match the lonely, liberating movements of Isaac Clarke in nullified gravity, or his vengeful, squishy stomps of victory.

Huh, maybe I enjoyed more of Dead Space 3 than I thought.

This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Dead Space 3, provided by Electronic Arts.

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