The image above is s a piece of concept art from Dead Space 2 and it shows Isaac Clarke, surely the most unlucky hero in modern science fiction games, boosting out into hard vacuum. Behind him, a nightmare of bony swords and skinned bodies is erupting from the ship Isaac’s making his escape from. The Necromorphs, the warped, stretched creatures that take a human body and turn it into something designed to kill as horrifically as possible. Isaac is flying backwards, aiming down his body at them and firing as he goes.
What he’s firing is, of course, an arc welder.
That image, for me, sums up everything I love about the Dead Space games. Science, and specifically, engineering, versus a particularly twisted kind of faith, the sort that rewards belief in it with a prolonged death. It’s a perfect, almost binary image, the two competing schools of thought in the game wrapped up in one piece of art. But the real kicker, for me, is the arc welder. The fact that Isaac constantly has to use his ingenuity to defend himself far more than the traditional parade of firepower you get in games like this. Isaac Clarke isn’t just an astronaut, he’s an engineer, a man used to solving problems with the best tool he has, his brain. Like I said in a previous post, Isaac Clarke, is Dave Lister in hell.
Which brings us to Dead Space 3, the most recent and, in some ways, least loved of the franchise. The game opens with you walking through the snow, centuries in the past, on a world called Tau Volantis. You take the role of Tim Kaufman,a soldier, sent to retrieve something from a downed spacecraft for Doctor Earl Serrano. It’s slow going, you have no ammo, no real idea of where you are without triggering the direction marker and when you do, it leads you to the shattered, broken-backed wreck of a just-crashed shuttle.
And there’s ammo outside.
That’s enough to key you in on the upcoming attack but it’s not enough to prepare you for what follows. After retrieving the item you were sent for, the ship crashes down a mountainside around you, as you frantically try and avoid the larger pieces. Finally, you make it to the bottom, hand the item back to your commanding officer and he thanks you, kills you, then himself.
It’s an involving, grim opening chapter that subtly keys you into two things; firstly, that this isn’t just about Isaac’s experiences on the Ishimura and the Sprawl, and secondly that the tone here is slightly different. Dead Space 3 is the Aliens to the previous two games Alien, something which becomes apparent very quickly. The chapter immediately following brings you to Isaac. hiding out in one of the cities on the Moon, when, as is always the case, his hand is forced. The Unitologists rise up and, as Earth and the Moon burn, Isaac is rescued by the last surviving members of an EarthGov military unit, Captain Robert Norton and Sergeant John Carver. and taken by them to Tau Volantis. Ellie Langford, introduced in the previous game and Isaac’s former love interest (Presumably his tendency to look blankly into space was a turn off), took a team there to follow up on rumours that it was the Marker homeworld. Barely escaping before Jacob Danik, the head of the Unitologists, triggers a Necromorph outbreak on the Moon, the men travel to Tau Volantis to rescue Ellie and shut the markers down once and for all.
Except, this being a Dead Space game, it’s never that simple.
Dead Space 3 has the most fluid, varied plot and mechanics of the series to date, all of which change depending on which of the game’s three primary locations you’re in. The first, and arguably, most memorable is the shattered, centuries-old fleet that you jump into above Tau Volantis. This is the point where game mechanics and plot combine perfectly, as in short order the ship you’re on is destroyed, you have to run protection on the only capsule to make it out, dock it with one of the ships, clear it of Necromorphs and work out how to get to the surface. It’s classic Dead Space gameplay but with the volume, and budget, turned all the way up. There’s still plenty of dark corridors and Necromorph stomping, but the sheer, cold, beauty of the graveyard, and the array of things you can do in there is amazing. I had a nasty tendency, once the game opens out and gives you a skiff to zoom around the place in, of just walking out onto the airlock hatch and looking around. A dozen broken ships, countless hundreds of pieces of debris and a cold, dead, beautiful world hanging in the sky; a view which is so extraordinary it’s been used in a lot of the game’s publicity material. For me though, that view says a lot about Isaac’s character. Each objective here makes practical sense, from clearing the escape capsule to locating and repairing the centuries-old shuttle that may hold together long enough for you to get to the surface. They’re all engineering problems, and all play out against the backdrop of the last human fleet that came here and the countless fragments of tragedy they left behind.
Arriving on Tau Volantis changes the entire tone of the game. The frozen, barren world of the prologue, it’s crammed full of Necromorphs buried in the snow, the temperature is constantly sub-zero and the design aesthetic changes completely. Whereas the first act of the game is very much about a broken version of Starfleet, this is the game’s take on John Carpenter’s The Thing. You can rarely see more than about fifteen feet ahead of you to begin with, the danger is constant and, crucially, your suit, damaged in the crash-landing, isn’t insulating you. Stumbling from burning wreckage to burning wreckage, constantly monitoring your temperature is a really smart piece of instant jeopardy to drop you into, reminiscent of the sea floor/no oxygen level in Tomb Raider 2. You’re wounded, off your game, constantly under attack and when you find the outpost from the prologue it gets worse. Necromorphs, something colossal that you only see the passing of at first and the constant need to stay warm mean you’re always running, always juggling one priority with one another. There’s a huge feeling of imminent crisis, of doom just around the corner, and the fact that the outpost is still intact, and infested, only emphasizes that.
It’s also here that you start getting some genuinely nice twists on established Dead Space tropes. The traditional ‘turn the switch using your TK module’ puzzles are now frequently crank handles for generators and the skiff that you used in orbit makes a welcome return, enabling you to travel between outlying buildings for optional missions. That in itself is a change, and one for the better, with several areas either an optional single or double player mission. This idea is introduced in the first act and the first one is also one of the most memorable. Aboard the Terra Nova, one of the orbiting ships, you find evidence that there’s a massive stock of ammunition that had been hoarded by one crew member. When you go to retrieve it, the crew member’s automated defences, including taunting messages from him and wave after wave of Necromorphs, swarm you. Fighting for your life, whilst listening to country and western music being piped in, you finally battle your way to the ammo dump and find, of course, that he’s dead and has been for centuries. His last message is a confession and apology and you retrieve the ammo and head out.
And that’s when his actual last message plays, explaining that for you to have got this far, you have to be infected and he can’t let you leave…
It’s a great sequence, the fight just this side of doable and the set up for it giving a personal insight into the horrifying events in orbit. The side missions on Tau Volantis pick up on this, but never quite have the same personal impact as the haunting image of the abandoned control room in the Terra Nova main tower, and the dead body sitting there.
The side missions on world never quite reach this level of emotional impact. Instead, they’re largely concerned with the crafting mechanic built into this game. In addition to upgrading your weapons you can build new ones, but that costs resources and the nice juicy treasure chests at the end of the side missions tend to be chock full of them. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that you need those new weapons. This is Aliens at least as much as it’s The Thing, and the increased amount of high power weapons and gun play hasn’t sat well with a lot of fans. Danik and the Unitologists, naturally, follow you to Tau Volantis and that means you have frequent running gun battles with them. This in itself isn’t too bad, making a welcome change from yet another shrieking Necromorph and adding a human face to the opposition. Where the crafting mechanic hit trouble, for me, was with a specific bottleneck and what I had to do to work past it. There’s a sequence, relatively early on world, where you’re trapped with the vast creature you’ve only briefly seen prior to this. You have to constantly hack pieces off it in order to drive it away and, without one of the high end weapons you need resources to craft, it’s basically impossible, even on Easy. I ended up replaying the only optional mission unlocked at that point 10 or 11 times in order to get the resources needed.
When I finally did, and got the gun, the fight with the creature lasted under a minute.
The problem with that is, I still had the gun and almost nothing else in the game is as tough as the creature I’d just seen enough. This meant the tone of the game changed drastically for the second half, the horror replaced by full-on action movie gun play as Isaac marched methodically through location after location, dealing out high explosive destruction along the way. The stealth element vanishes, a good chunk of the horror element vanishes and I can see why a lot of people jumped ship at this point.
The reason I didn’t was because the plot rises up at the exact moment the game’s balance shifts. Once again, you’re assailed by multiple problems; Norton’s romance with Ellie begins to collapse and he blames you, Danik returns, a colossal biological transmitter must be not only thawed out but modified from the inside and, finally, you have to lead the survivors up a mountain to retrieve the Codex glimpsed in the prologue. This section is, like the Fleet, just a perfect combination of plot, mechanic and action. Isaac travels up the mountain on asecender wires, walking up the slopes whilst fending off attacks, dodging rock slides and guiding the others along in a cable car. You’re constantly moving, constantly fighting and when you’re wounded, and you will be, Isaac’s desperate, exhausted stumble has never looked so fitting. He’s one of the quintessential put upon heroes and this section you can see him working for a living. Finally, you reach the top, bring the cable car up, relax and…
The creature you saw off when you first got to the compound grabs the cable car, kills someone you’ve spent most of the game trying to keep alive and drags you halfway back down the mountain.
And something extraordinary happens; Isaac gets mad. And so do you. This stupid, brutal creature has been the bane of your life, it’s killed people you needed saving, wasted ammo you needed elsewhere and this ends and it ends NOW. The mechanics of the fight are massively convenient but the emotion behind it is totally real as you use two harpoon guns and your TK module to literally tear the thing in half.
Then, for good measure, walk over to the corpse and empty a magazine into it. Just to be sure.
It’s a turning point in the plot, not just because you finally get to kill the damn thing but because after this it’s just Isaac, Ellie and Carver. These are the plot, and mechanic, centric characters and if they’re the only ones left, then this is the endgame.
Except this being a Dead Space game, it’s never that simple.
What follows is arguably the best section of the game, as Isaac (And Carver if you’re working as a team), search for the Codex from the prologue, which holds the key to beating the Necromorphs and Rosetta, the creature that built it. What you find is one of the original inhabitants of Tau Volantis, cross-sectioned, preserved and scattered throughout the lab complex. Once you’ve found, and reassembled, ‘her’, the truth emerges; Tau Volantis isn’t the Marker home world, it’s the home world of a race that sacrificed everything to stop the Markers, building a city-sized machine to freeze the world before its’ inhabitants could undergo Convergence. Convergence, the holy grail of Unitology, is revealed to be the combination of every living thing into a colossal Necromorph which will then reach out psychically and connect with the others of its kind.
And off you go at a gallop once more.
Whilst it’s certain that Dead Space 3 is more a science fiction action game than a horror one by this stage, the plotting is so note perfect you just get swept along with it. The tempo is raised and kept there and then raised even further and by the time you get to the final location in the game, the stakes couldn’t be higher or simpler. Isaac and Carver have had everything taken away from them, will lose everything else if they fail and know they won’t be coming back. They go anyway.
The machine, which is the size of a city, is where the game’s final act plays out. More importantly, it’s where Isaac, the engineer, finally comes back to the fore. The vast majority of this level, aside from the inevitable combat, is about working out what the Machine can do and how to control it. Isaac is, after a full act where he’s an action hero, a scientist again and the result is equal parts tranquil and terrifying. The design work in the city is extraordinary, the Aliens and The Thing references falling away and Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness sloping into view. It’s an engineering triumph, a graceful monstrosity that helped a race euthanize itself and the crystallization of the conflict I talked about at the start; religion vs science, knowledge vs belief.
It makes perfect sense then that this should be the final battleground. It’s just a shame that it isn’t. Instead, after the dangling plot threads of Ellie and Danik are resolved you and Carver find yourselves alone on a planet that’s tearing itself apart. Running back through old locations, fighting off even more Necromorphs, you finally face the faintly ridiculous final monster and, in a moment which is equal parts action movie dementia and brutal thematic symmetry, stab it to death by throwing Markers at it, tearing the planet apart as you do so. Ellie tearfully heads for home in an escape shuttle and Isaac Clarke and John Carver are consigned to history as Tau Volantis dies around them.
It’s an odd, slightly lopsided ending, if nothing else because despite the fight feels weirdly anti-climactic. It makes sense thematically for the plan with the Codex to go wrong but you spend so much time working for it that ‘oh just shoot it until it dies’ feels weirdly flat. What’s even odder is that this is how every previous game has ended yet somehow here it’s a bum note. That being said, the ending itself is nicely horrible, not only though Isaac and Carver’s sacrifice but the fact that, in the end credits, you find out they’re alive. After all he’s been through, everything he’s fought for, Isaac still can’t catch a break. That being said, this feels like the perfect final chapter for the series; Isaac has made his peace with Ellie, Convergence has been prevented and Isaac and Carver lay down their lives for everyone else.
Except this being a Dead Space game, it’s never that simple…
At time of writing, there’s a single piece of DLC for the game which changes the ending completely, and sets up a fourth game. There are also rumors that this game has already been cancelled, which have been denied. It seems weirdly appropriate that Isaac’s fate should be uncertain like this, especially given the ending of Dead Space 3.
However, the fact that this uncertainty is based on the negative response to the game strikes me as a little unfair. This is every inch a continuation of the previous two games and, to return to that image one last time, the central conflict there is the central conflict here. Even the crafting mechanic, justifiably criticized for both the lack of balance it causes and the optional micro-payments grounds the game, giving you full access to Isaac’s skill-set. He’s an engineer first and a soldier second and for all the action movie beats, Dead Space 3 resolutely keep that to the fore. It’s not perfect by any means, the horrendous bottleneck and balance shift I talked about earlier take some real adjusting to, but it’s ambitious and fun and does something new with the franchise. Not everything works well, but everything works well enough and as any engineer knows, that’s the best you can ever hope for.