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Why Dead Space 3 proves survival horror isn't dead

OPINION: The third instalment in Visceral's trilogy hasn't abandoned its roots, argues Tamoor Hussain

Between you and me, I was lying when I used to tell people that I enjoyed noticing the similarities between Dead Space and Event Horizon back in 2008.

Not only had I not seen the film, but I hadn't played the game either. The lie started to creak under its own weight when I began working at a games retailer. Dead Space was the talk at the cashier's desk and I feigned my way through conversations. No more lies, I said one day. I booted up the game one restless evening and, to my surprise, was immediately consumed by it.

I went in expecting nothing more than a sci-fi skinned shooter, but found the best survival horror game since Resident Evil 4. In fact - brace for blasphemy - I like it more than Resident Evil 4.

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The USG Ishimura inspired a sense of dread that I hadn't felt with such intensity since playing the first Resident Evil. I'd estimate over an hour of my playtime was spent just staring into the depths of space, completely overcome by the scale of it all. The integration of the game's UI onto Isaac's RIG was absolute genius, while the pace and fluidity of the action distinguished the gameplay from its awkward, plodding peers.

Three years later we got Dead Space 2. I hated it. I recognise that it was a somewhat irrational aversion. It was a well made game, but everything I loved about the original felt like it had been excised in favour of Uncharted 2-aping set-pieces. It abandoned survival-horror to chase the more lucrative action game market, leaving the survival horror genre to continue dwindling.

Dead Space 2 wasn't remotely scary, there were certainly flashes of horror, but just as it started to give you the heebie-jeebies things would start exploding again. A train would crash through the wall, or the whole environment would split apart and it commanded players to mash a button to clamber to safety.

The beauty of the first Dead Space was that it instilled a sense of paranoia then left players to stew in the suspense, cruelly poking at them every now and then to push them closer to an emotional resolution. A flickering light became much more sinister after hearing what may or may not have been the muffled sound of a necromorph scurrying through a vent. The music swelled, going from muted ambiance to an ear-piercing shrill as the player edged forward. The tension built and built until finally: something, maybe an enemy crashing in through a vent. Other times: nothing, just the acute awareness that you've been had.

Dead Space's scares were manipulative, they felt almost Hitchcock-like in their crafting. Its sequels on the other hand were more like Scream's Ghostface abruptly bursting into a room, raising an oversized knife, then gracelessly tripping and crashing into everything in the pursuit of his victim. Not even the vaguest bit of class.


Star Gazing

My expectations for the third game weren't very high. Having taken a game with cult cred and elevated it to the status of a blockbuster mainstream hit, EA and Visceral Games had no reason to look back. The Dead Space I knew and loved was, well, dead. It had come full circle and once again I settled in to play a Dead Space game expecting nothing more than another sci-fi themed action game. And once again, I found something much better.

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In our Dead Space 3 review we awarded the game a 7.3. Naturally, user comments were a mixture of cautious optimism and death knells. On the top end of the scale was Polygon, which gave the game a 9.5.

Having finished the game just yesterday, I found myself reflecting on the critical reception to Dead Space 3 and - surprisingly - understanding why it would garner such a high score.

For me, the negativity surrounding the game isn't justified. In many ways it's the sequel to the first game we deserved; a small, progressive step instead of a giant, alienating leap. Weapon crafting and co-op aside, its biggest success is that it manages to strike a good balance between what made the first brilliant and what propelled the second to mainstream success. Though, admittedly, it doesn't do this with a lot of elegance.

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Dead Space 3 can be very easily split into two distinct portions, the first taking place in space and the second on Tau Volantis, the icy planet that is allegedly the source of the Necromorph-producing Marker.

The early hours of Dead Space 3 are its best. Returning protagonist Isaac Clarke, who is now a little less loony than the last time we saw him, gingerly explores derelict ships in search of former flame Ellie, stopping regularly to solve puzzles and shift around hulking pieces of machinery using telekinesis. Eventually players are given the opportunity to hop into a ship and head off on side missions following distress beacons and distant transmissions.

In these missions, over-the-top set-piece sequences are sparingly used, if at all. Instead gameplay is focused on simply exploring the Necromorph-ridden ships, listening to audio entries and reading text logs to get to the bottom of whatever ghastly events occurred on the vessel. They're very much in the spirit of the original game, and the most memorable moment of Dead Space 2: returning to the remains of the USG Ishimura.

The foreboding atmosphere is given the space to escalate and the time to envelop the player. Enemies still spring from dark corners now and then, but at a much slower pace and with less ferocity than in the rest of the game. These missions are genuinely great and, more importantly, an encouraging sign that the Dead Space series may not be torn from its roots entirely.

Once Isaac and his crew touch down on Tau Volantis the game makes a handbrake turn in the opposite direction and heads down a bullet-strewn path of death, destruction and strategic dismemberment.

Environments alternate between tightly constructed corridors where enemies rush at you, and arenas where Necromorphs are dumped in alongside fragile Unitologist soldiers, left to do their worst on you. Set-pieces come thick and fast, with Isaac scaling mountains and fighting off bosses that wouldn't look out of place in God of War.

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I didn't expect to like Dead Space 3 very much; in fact I only played it because I'm a little obsessive-compulsive about seeing trilogies through to the end. It's a personality quirk that usually leads to distress and displeasure more often than not (someone make Final Fantasy stop).

But Dead Space 3 has given me hope that, with a little design ingenuity, survival horrors can still exist in the modern gaming landscape. That, in the right hands, the genre can be be refined and evolved into something better, without cutting away what makes it unique. After Resident Evil 6, and a series of unfortunate trips to Silent Hill, I didn't gave up that hope.

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