Dead Space 3 preview

Key features:

  • Developer - Visceral Games
  • Publisher - EA
  • Platforms - PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows
  • Release date - 8 February
  • Price - TBC

Dead Space 3

After a lengthy hands-on go with the game's opening sections, Dead Space 3is not looking good. A product of the same Videogame-o-Matic that birthed the other parts in the series, it's bloated with lazy creative decisions and trite, generic conventions. The horror isn't frightening, the combat isn't exciting and the plot is wrought with half characters and MacGuffins.

As it stands, the game feels like it's trying to achieve very little and not even succeeding at that. It's always prudent to reserve judgment until playing the finished thing but at the moment, Dead Space 3 is a dud.

The story goes something like this. After destroying the Sprawl at the end of Dead Space 2, Isaac Clarke, named for a portmanteau of authors Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, is languishing in retirement when his girlfriend, Ellie, discovers a mysterious frozen planet named Tau Volantis. She believes it to contain the source of The Markers: giant, monolithic obelisks which turn human beings into monstrous creatures called Necromorphs.

Intrigued, Clarke and some pals fly to Volantis, only to be shipwrecked when they hit a minefield. Down on the planet's surface, they find a military base that's overrun with 'morphs and must come up with a way to destroy it to stop the spread of the disease for good.

Dead Space 3 preview

Or something like that. It's hard to invest in such a weak premise, especially when it's so lazily written. If Dead Space 3's action and horror are lacking drive, it's thanks to the game's pedestrian dialogue which robs it of any real momentum. The plot seems like a nebulous assortment of thin clich├ęs - monsters, the end of the world, ancient mystical forces - and since it has no real presence, no concrete sense of what's at stake and who the aggressor is, Dead Space 3's gameplay has no urgency.

Aside from a few breathy, loose conventions, you don't know what you're fighting for or against, so the gunplay has only a vague sense of purpose.

And on top of that it's clunky and unrewarding. Even when aiming for the Necromorphs limbs (Dead Space's key though ultimately empty gimmick is that enemies take more damage from being shot in the arms and legs) your guns feel ineffectual and puny, an effect compounded by the game's limp audio. Also, Clarke, despite his new rolling manoeuvre, is still an ungainly avatar and feels frustratingly sluggish in the face of Dead Space 3's CQC moments.

Dreary

Now, with the game's 8 February launch date fast approaching, it's likely too late for Visceral to address problems like these. And even if it did, Dead Space 3's visual design would still be there and the game's pacing would still suffer as a result. Gunmetal grey corridors, flickering lights and sliding doors - this is the stuff of Aliens and DOOM, and as well-loved as those franchises are, their aesthetics are now incredibly tired.

Dead Space 3 is a miserable place to walk around. Not tense, not claustrophobic - just dreary and bland, like, it seems, the plot and the violence.

Dead Space 3

Even the Necromorphs - especially the Necromorphs - struggle to rouse any emotion except passing exasperation. Rough collections of limbs and spikes, their appearance is more risible than scary, waddling toward you with their claws hanging out, wailing like idiots. Remember the fast zombies from Half-Life 2? That's how you make a scary sounding enemy, by giving it a screech that's distinctive and unnatural sounding. The 'morphs on the other hand are just loud and silly.

There is no nuance to them, just more gore, more spikes, more noise. And even after a short time in Dead Space 3, you become desensitised to their presence.

They generally attack as part of predictable, almost PS1 era set-ups, bursting through vent shafts whenever you press a button, Resident Evil style. That would maybe work in short, irregular spurts, but the 'morphs behaviour is telegraphed at every juncture so that turning a key in a lock becomes, not an act of apprehension or fear, but just another bored sigh as you clock the approaching yell of yet another wave of generic creatures.

Something great

Nevertheless, despite all of these flaws, there's a good game in here somewhere. A couple of Dead Space 3's new features make welcome additions to the tired formula. The inclusion of optional objectives lets you pad out the story for yourself, and Volantis is a larger, more explorable space than ever. The weapon customising work bench has been expanded and despite the snooze-worthy dialogue, the voice acting seems, for now, rock solid across the board.

The zero gravity sequences are still excellent, too, and feel like the most distinctive part of Dead Space 3's otherwise grey whole. A particular part of the demo sees Clarke trying to catch up to a vital chunk of spaceship as it hurtles off into deep space. Dodging incoming debris and space-mines is a fast-paced and visually striking challenge, at odds with the game's otherwise textbook third-person shooter design.

It's set pieces like these that Visceral does well (the zero-G boss fights in Dead Space 1, the eye exam in Dead Space 2) and although they were lacking from the preview, here's hoping they feature heavily in Dead Space 3's finished version.

Dead Space 3 preview

My initial reactions to Dead Space 3 are negative, but that doesn't mean I want the game, or Visceral, to fail. If Dead Space 3 launches and it's excellent, then that would be great - I love being surprised. If it's not, if it truly is and remains all of the bad things revealed by the hands-on, then too bad, but here's hoping Visceral, EA and Dead Space can do something great the next time around.

Right now, Dead Space 3 feels lazy, tired and cynical. Nevertheless, we're still rooting for it and can't wait to try out the finished game when it lands on 8 February.