Dead Space 3's review embargo lifted yesterday (at 2pm UK time) and it seems that the game has been generally well received - currently hovering around a Metacritic of 80 per cent with a fairly wide range of scores from 50 per cent (VideoGamer) to near perfect (Game Informer - 9.8/10).
We'll look at the reasons for the scores which result in that average below, but first it seems appropriate to call attention to a rather bizarre dissonance between that average and the result of some quick and very selective mathematics from EA's marketing department.
Hot on the heels of the 2pm embargo came a press release, detailing the now customary plans for DLC and picking out a few choice quotes and scores from the coverage in the wild so far. However, EA seems to have been particularly particular in choosing which scores to feature in the accompanying text.
Not that unusual, you might think. The job of PR is to make things look good, after all. However, given the range of scores currently in the public realm, the wording of the statement below is disingenuous at best.
"Dead Space 3 is an international hit having received a 9.0 from Multiplayer.it in Italy, 9.0 from AusGamers in Australia, 8.8 from 3DJuegos.com in Spain and a 9.75 from Game Informer magazine in North America. As a result of these four, the game is launching with an average score of 91."
It's possible that these scores are merely those which EA had in advance, thanks to exclusivity deals and active press relationships. Charitably we could assume that "launching" means, "coming out from under embargo," in this context, and "international hit" means critically rather than commercially, but it's undeniably misleading rhetoric, even under the auspices of these presumptions.
This troubling spin aside, two key factors seem to be standout points of interest in review coverage of the game: co-op and crafting. Co-op puts a second player in charge of a no-nonsense marine, accompanying returning hero Isaac as he seeks out the source of the broadcasts which have been powering the alien Markers from Dead Space 1 and 2. The game's new crafting system replaces the first games' power nodes with raw resources harvested from enemies and loot stashes, encouraging experimentation and broadening weapon options.
On the obverse, it seems that Dead Space makes the mistake of treading ground a little too familiar in its pursuit of its thrills and spills. As Eurogamer's Dan Whitehead points out in his 7/10 assessment, this is an especially dangerous path for horror to follow.
"Familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt," he opens, "but it still makes for barren soil where horror is concerned."
This third chapter in the main canon of Visceral's gruesome franchise opens in acceptably familiar surroundings: space. Having been King's Shillinged by the military, including a neat bit of emotional blackmail regarding his fellow survivor and ex-lover Ellie, Isaac Clarke prepares to descend into a world of cupboard monsters, plentiful corpses and sudden pressure modulation once again.
Rooting through a what remains of a fleet of abandoned ships, in the opening section Isaac is faced with the double threat of the series' xenomorph-esque Necromorphs and a new enemy in the form ofDanik: a well-spoken zealot from the alien-loving Unitology faction. A thrilling enough setting, perhaps, but padding and unimaginative quest design has also left a number of reviewers cold.
"Its superb combat and addictive new collection and upgrade system [are] brought to life by the game's crackling production design," writes IGN's Casey Lynch, en route to a mark of 7.8 . "The same can't be said about the frequent errand-running, poor story and overwhelming sense of deja vu that marks much of the 19 chapter adventure. Dead Space 3consequently becomes caught in the dissonance of the extreme glory of its combat and presentation, and the pervasive tedium of almost everything else it does. Despite its problems, one fact remains: I can't stop playing it. Allow me to explain."
"Dead Space 3 further refines this combat trio with more responsive controls and better shooting than the last two games."
Arthur Gies, Polygon.
Arthur Gies of Polygon has similar thoughts, but comes to a more generous conclusion, in his 9.5 review.
"Dead Space 3 further refines this combat trio with more responsive controls and better shooting than the last two games," says Gies. "Combat is more immediately satisfying than it's ever been because of this, which is good, since managing multiple on-screen enemies is more important than it's ever been. Visceral frequently gives in to the kitchen sink approach, throwing what feels like everything in its repertoire at the player.
"The game actually suffers in this regard compared to Dead Space and Dead Space 2. There isn't the same sense of spectacle and fanfare to each new enemy type's introduction, and it's hard to escape a sense of familiarity for players who survived the first two games."
At the bottom line of the review group is VideoGamer, with an outlying but comprehensively argued 5/10.
"Dead Space 3 is pretty much the exact game everyone else said it would be," writes VideoGamer reviewer Jon Denton. "It is, quite frankly, a bit of a mess; a misguided, dull slog that's so devoid of innovation and inspiration that it seems mad that it actually comes from the same people as its stellar predecessors.
"In a 14-or-so hour campaign - playable on your own or with a coop partner (more on that later) - there are no new ideas, no innovations, no flair. The game has transformed from mid-paced horror into an action shooter with an eye for the grotesque, but has done so without relaying the foundations necessary to facilitate that sort of mutation. You can't just make a Gears of War game because you fancy it - you have to build every polygonal cell to support it."
Whatever it achieves, it seems that Dead Space is certainly set to divide opinion. Back over at Eurogamer, Dan Whitehead bemoans the fact that so much is crammed in, echoing the comments of 'kitchen sinks' seen elsewhere.
"Dead Space 3 never fully slips into the sort of fist-bump macho posturing fans have feared, but it does have a restless desire to throw quirky action beats in your face. You'll blast at gun-toting thugs on top of a speeding train. You'll play what amounts to a Panzer Dragoon rail shooter as you steer a crashing ship through a planetary atmosphere. You'll man turrets and hurtle head-first through tumbling debris and zip around in space on jet boots, collecting satellites. You'll rappel down mountains. You'll rappel up mountains. Such moments have cropped up in both previous titles, of course, but never with such frequency.
"This is a breathlessly entertaining game," adds Whitehead, "albeit one with a severe identity crisis."
The bells and whistles are more appreciated by Polygon, which pays special notice to the way in which Isaac's skills as an engineer are utilised in the game's puzzles and non-combat sequences, giving players a bit of breathing room between bouts of dismemberment.
"Isaac can explore and unlock the secrets of that game world via more elaborate versions of the engineering puzzles that have come to define the series," notes Gies.
"This is a breathlessly entertaining game, albeit one with a severe identity crisis."
Dan Whitehead, Eurogamer
"However, there's a more organic sensibility to the puzzle logic in Dead Space 3 - whether you're unlocking the seals on an old engine to tow and mount to a shuttle or building a new guidance computer, Isaac's engineering background is more at the forefront than ever. These puzzles are a great palate cleanser from the more frequent firefights, and they make Isaac a more believable, relatable character. That engineering motif in turn carries over into the revised upgrade and crafting system."
Here, in that crafting system, we find a new mechanic which has received almost universal praise, empowering the player to experiment and create death-dealing machines of their own devising, adding elemental damage and secondary weapons to the series' brutally industrial arsenal.
"There's a greater sense of empowerment than there has been, in large part because you're making more decisions that are personal to you, rather than taking the safest route possible," writes Gies.
"No weapon upgrade is irreversible, so every piece of loot you find can be reconfigured for maximum potential. There's an almost playful attitude present with gear that makes it easy to get caught up in its systems in a meaningful way."
IGN's Lynch agrees, stating that the system "really adds to the combat experience," before pointing out that it also adds longevity to the experience. "These systems work together powerfully to create a reward structure you'll want to come back to. This is especially evident in New Game+ mode, which I immediately started once I beat the game. And I'm so glad I did."
"It's a superb system," agrees Eurogamer, "intuitive and flexible - and one of the greatest pleasures in Dead Space 3 is tinkering with what you've found and testing the result on the next Necromorph to cross your path. It's here that the game really plays to its strengths. The carnage is what sells Dead Space - certainly not the blank slate of Isaac Clarke, so awkwardly elevated to franchise hero, or any garbled back-story about alien Markers and religious cults. Once you've got a monster frozen in space as it lunges towards you and a weapon that can tear it apart limb from limb, that gameplay sweet spot is as sadistically entertaining as ever."
Its appeal isn't quite ubiquitous, however. For Denton, it's an unnecessary distraction.
"Considering the new focus on combat, it's maddening that Isaac is now limited to carrying two weapons at once, and that the old upgrade system has been replaced by a confusing and somewhat cynical crafting mechanic. It breaks the flow of the action and seems completely at odds with the immersion the (admittedly excellent) visuals and sound attempt to establish. Every five minutes, you're stuck at a work bench trying to cram a new attachment onto your gun, wrapping your head around 5 different pieces of in-game currency and praying that what you end up with is actually capable of doing some damage."
Denton isn't completely disappointed by the offerings of Visceral's latest, though - he finds some solace in the branching story offered by a refreshing co-op companion in the shape of surly space-cowboy type Carver.
"Thankfully, the second controversial inclusion is probably Dead Space 3's saving grace. In the absence of horror - and the game just isn't scary, seemingly deliberately so - having a partner along for the ride does enhance the action. Certain sections are clearly designed for buddying-up, and your cohort Carver is a decent sidekick. He hates you, for one, which is novel enough, and he has his own personal tale to separate him from Clarke.
"He's much more than just a second Isaac or a bland avatar...It's gimmicky stuff, yes, but still an interesting use of cooperative dynamics that does offer something more than just a friend to kill things with."
Jon Denton, VideoGamer.
"He's much more than just a second Isaac or a bland avatar. Yes, he might look like a reject from the SS Normandy, but he has his own motives and backstory, and more interestingly actually suffers from visions that make his own journey through the campaign different to Isaac's. It's gimmicky stuff, yes, but still an interesting use of cooperative dynamics that does offer something more than just a friend to kill things with."
For Eurogamer, Carver offers more of this nuance, and an emotional depth to the narrative which you might not be expecting, although it does come at the cost of some of the terror.
"Also diminishing the horror is the introduction of co-op play," Whitehead continues. "As well as adding more monsters and missions, co-op cleverly inserts Carver into scenes and occasionally plays with the disparity between what each player is seeing for some fun tricks. For a game in which you stomp cadavers into bloody chunks, it's surprisingly elegant storytelling."
There's a pleasant lack of groupthink around the disparate reception of Dead Space, but conversely the general perception seems to have been one of a game looking for broader appeal, going for shotgun rather than sniper rifle and hitting more things less impactfully as a result. Less frightening, less difficult and not as resonant as the previous entries, Dead Space nonetheless nails some new improvements which will prove a boon to a large sector of its target audience.
It's not an unusual aspect of a core game's evolution to pan-genre blockbuster franchise, and generally its good for the bottom line, but fans of the series' trademark tension and terror who felt closely attended to in Isaac Clarke's first two harrowing adventures may feel that they've been sidelined in favour of a game which ticks more boxes for the mass market.