The original Dead Space was a tense experience because Isaac Clarke made such an unlikely hero. He wasn't a solider with a machine gun, he was an engineer with a plasma torch, and his vulnerability made his situation all the more terrifying. Dead Space 2 ditched much of the scary atmosphere of the first game in favor of more straight up action sequences as waves of necromorphs came flying at you from every possible direction. Dead Space 3 falls somewhere in between. It's more sci-fi action than horror, and Isaac's far more handy with a gun than he probably should be, but the game nevertheless manages to create an atmosphere saturated with dread and unease. A few bad gameplay choices prevent the game from being exceptional, but it balances the blam with the eek pretty much perfectly.
If you're not up to date on Dead Space lore, here's the really short version: Alien artifacts called markers not only drive people insane, but also mutate them into monsters called necromorphs after they die. A cult called the Unitologists believe the markers to be divine and the catalyst of something called Convergence, when we all die and become one with life, the universe, and everything. Isaac Clarke is the only person who really knows how to destroy the markers, so he's front and center on a mission to find a machine that will destroy them once and for all. The charismatic and ruthless leader of the Unitology forces simply can't allow that, so in between sidestepping necromorphs, Isaac must dodge a band of well-armed zealots, too.
Isaac, whose knack for getting separated from his companions borders on genius, typically finds himself creeping down dark corridors on his way to fix this or that gizmo. It's a reasonable excuse to get you on your own, slicing and shooting your way through the legions of necromorphs that are lurking in corners, but it does make the story feel a bit formulaic. Enter new area, figure out what's broken, send Isaac off to go fix it, move on to the next area. The gunplay in Dead Space 3 is never very sophisticated, but what it lacks in finesse it makes up for in urgency. Necromorphs will spring up out of the snow, drop in behind you, cross the room in the blink of an eye and even spit acid at you. You can never really relax because the room you're sure will be crawling with undead is often quite safe, while the spot where you think you can take a breath suddenly becomes ground zero for an attack. Despite the heavy emphasis on shooting everything that moves, Dead Space 3 maintains a sense of fragility; you never lose the sense that you're one awkward reload away from getting eviscerated.
Part of the fun of the combat comes from the wide variety of guns you can make in Dead Space 3's robust crafting system. You can mix and match handles, tools, tips, attachments and circuits to create exactly the gun you want, or just follow a ready-made blueprint. If you don't have the particular piece you want, you can just make it from scratch, assuming you have enough of the appropriate resources. Whereas previous Dead Space games used credits and nodes to upgrade your rig and buy you gear, in Dead Space 3, everything you want is a matter of finding and managing resources like tungsten, somatic gel, and transducers. You can make pretty much anything you'd need, from ammo to med kits to gun parts, so long as you have the right amount of resources. And that's where the game's microtransactions come into play.
You'll find plenty of resources naturally - they're dropped by enemies and stashed in lockers and boxes. The really cool stuff costs a mint, though, and even the most thorough player will only have enough resources to make a handful of the most badass blueprints. If you want a shortcut, you can buy resource packs - big bundles of everything you'd need to do some serious crafting. The microtransactions are an unobtrusive shortcut to sweet weaponry, an impatience tax for anyone who doesn't want to spend half their time breaking open boxes or replaying completed chapters just to collect more loot. They're quietly tucked away in a sub menu, easily accessible should you need them, easily ignorable if you don't.
Dead Space 3's other notable new feature is its co-op. Player 2, who can drop in to your game at any point, no matter how much of the game they've played on their own, takes on the role of the troubled John Carver, whose story is worth pursuing even though it's not vital to the main plot arc of the game. There's a lot to love about the co-op - most particularly the fact that both players get loot, and Player 2 gets to keep whatever they pick up - but what I don't appreciate is how some optional content is co-op only. Side missions not only add a great deal to the story but also give you extra access to vital resources, so to have some of them out of reach because you're alone is unfair and frustrating.
For as much as Dead Space 3 gets right, small things like co-op lockout keep raising their annoying heads. Uninspired, repetitious boss fights (Are we really still aiming for the glowing bits? Come on, guys.) drag down your momentum. Tedious rock climbing sequences feel like they were thrown in for the sake of variety, but add nothing to the overall experience. And the camera will occasionally mess with you during a particularly thorny fight, pretty much guaranteeing your untimely death. None of these issues will wreck your overall game experience, just irritate you.
Its roots are firmly in horror, but Dead Space 3 isn't particularly scary - it's creepy. Take the time to read the text logs and investigate the side missions, however, and you'll find some genuinely disturbing stuff. The more you learn about exactly what happened on the planet, the more uncomfortable you'll become. Dead Space 3 has a way of getting into your head, uncoiling and slithering around your subconscious until you're not quite sure what's wrong, you just know you want to get the hell out. Its subtlety makes for a great contrast to the in-your-face combat that dominates the rest of the game.
Bottom Line: Dead Space 3 positively nails its science fiction storyline, slowly spiraling up to a go-for-broke conclusion. It's a different tone than the first Dead Space, for sure, but it's a damn good one. The fighting never evolves past point-and-shoot and the boss fights are dull , but the weaponcrafting is a lot of fun to tinker with.
Recommendation: Pick it up and bring a buddy.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.