You know the drill – it’s the homicidal mining apparatus that figured in last year’s E3 demo of Dead Space 3. We’re at that very point in the game ourselves and the experience feels like trying to fend off a sudden Necromorph assault while trapped in the death-metal version of an automatic mixing bowl.
The new evasive dive roll move is coming in handy, allowing us to narrowly dodge the drill head, which veers unpredictably around the room, churning up sparks as its blades struggle to chew through the metallic floor. Even though Visceral tipped its hand on this set-piece ahead of the game’s launch, experiencing it in the context of the full campaign underlines just how perfectly this instrument represents the design values that set Dead Space apart from the vast majority of shooters and sci-fi properties on the market.
Forget about Halo or Mass Effect’s vision of the future, all gleaming pearlescent surfaces and orderly contours. Dead Space’s aesthetic, in contrast, hinges on a memorable sort of blue-collar futurism. This newest entry feels most at home amid the cacophony, grime and muscle of industrial machinery. If you’re playing this encounter in co-op, the banter between protagonist Isaac Clarke and soldier companion Sgt John Carver contains a noteworthy exchange. The frightened Clarke wonders aloud, “Now what?” His partner shouts back over the deafening clatter of the drill, “I don’t know, you’re the rocket scientist, you tell me!” To which Clarke replies, “I work on ships, not giant drills.”
It’s one of the rare moments where the game comes out and explicitly reminds us that, even though Clarke goes by the job title of engineer, he’s really just a glorified spaceship repair guy who’s way out of his depth. He’s no space marine like Carver. There’s no reason to believe Clarke has received any formal combat training. The dismembering aliens facet of his work he had to learn on the job. This is part of why he’s such a likable hero: his is a classic underdog story.
Less likeable by far are the terrorists who help kick off the campaign. Why let modern military shooters have all the fun – or all the cash? Visceral clearly hopes to woo the sizable mainstream shooter audience that has made Call Of Duty one of the most profitable game franchises on the planet. Less than an hour into the game, players will find themselves in the streets of a Blade Runner-styled lunar colony called New Horizons, crouching behind chest-high walls, trading gunfire with zealots from the Church Of Unitology. Clarke has been forced out of his morose retirement by two unexpected visitors: the aforementioned John Carver and his prickly associate, Robert Norton. They’re aware of Clarke’s experience with the mysterious Markers that have threatened humankind, and they need his help with one last mission. Norton’s ship is waiting to get them off the planet, presuming they can survive the siege.
Dead Space 3’s cover-based shooting is competent but uninspired. Clicking the right analogue stick causes Clarke to crouch. You duck behind walls. Enemies take cover and shoot at you. You pop upright and shoot at them. Occasionally, they throw a glowing red grenade to flush you out of cover, forcing you to shoot at them from behind a different chest-high barrier. Eventually they die. But this approach doesn’t feel like a natural extension of Dead Space’s combat, which is traditionally physical and takes place at close quarters. The average Necromorph couldn’t be more eager to invade your personal space, dashing across the room towards you. Part of the horror of Dead Space stems from this feeling of molestation. Enemies mount you, gnaw on you, their pointy limbs desperate to impale. Dead Space combat is all about the terror of there being no place to hide. Cover-based shooting, by definition, says, ‘You’re in luck, I’ve got a place for you to hide right here!’
Every action epic needs a villain, of course. And we’re introduced to Dead Space 3’s while passing through the lobby of a Unitology headquarters. In a looping video address that bears uncanny similarities to Andrew Ryan’s ‘man in Washington’ speech, we’re introduced to the head of the church, Jacob Danik.
He’s voiced by the wonderful Simon Templeman who manages to imbue the character with sinister nobility. Danik has enjoined his followers to kill you for your part in destroying a handful of Unitology’s revered Markers, ancient artefacts that channel nearly unlimited energy but also generate a host of crazy-making side effects in those who linger in their company.