We all know that zombies have gone mainstream. They're everywhere. In movies, TV, novels and games you'll find islands full of the undead, high schools packed with letter jacket-clad shamblers and leagues of cosmopolitan metrosexual brain-eaters. Hey, we've even got zombies falling in love nowadays.
So why not zombies in space?
That's the question the Dead Space franchise has been posing for a handful of years now, and it's back to make the case once again.
The survival horror adventure Dead Space 3 picks up where its predecessor, Dead Space 2, left off. Mankind is still being devastated by the plague-like effects of alien artifacts called Markers—mysterious mechanisms that turn living humans into vicious, hive-minded undead Necromorphs. A reluctant hero, engineer Isaac Clarke, finds himself thrust back into action to save his estranged ex-girlfriend, Ellie, who's gone missing while searching for the Marker home world. And what starts out as a damsel-in-distress rescue mission quickly evolves into a race to save humanity itself.
Unity Equals Monstrosity
Isaac has to fight off literally thousands of crawling, charging, leaping, pummeling, lurching and crushing zombified something-or-others that range in size from your average human undead to gloppy, tentacled gigantic things larger than a small building. He also has to defend himself against religious zealots, humans who call themselves Unitologists. These mad-eyed fanatics are determined to stop anyone and everyone from fiddling with the Markers. They believe humanity's sublime evolutionary end is to become one with the Necromorph "unity." (Read: meet a horrible death and be reborn as a mutated monstrosity.)
If that weren't enough, let's not forget about Ellie's current hard-nosed soldier boyfriend. He's a guy with a hairpin-trigger temper and a jealous streak a mile wide. Clearly, he'd rather shoot our engineer alter ego than run the risk of Ellie becoming attached to him once again.
Man, being a hero in this Dead Space is a tough slog. The story here is a twisting and turning "what's the truth?/who's right?/who's wrong?" kind of tale that's not always easy to keep track of. But with time you realize that the endgame, the real goal, is much simpler: Keep blasting away at anything that moves while piecing together mechanical puzzles, weapons and gadgets.
A Grossing Pair
That results in a game with some engrossing ups and quite a few messy gross-out downs. In the positive column, there's loads of heroic action. Isaac may be reluctantly dragged into this current situation, but once he gets there he self-sacrificially throws himself at the task, risking life and limb to save Ellie and her team. He and a compatriot are both ready to lay down their lives to save others and perhaps gain a sense of personal atonement.
The space flotilla and frozen-planet environments are graphically impressive. The weapon-crafting mechanic is a strategically involving addition (using Isaac's engineering skills to cobble together tools and weaponry). And the co-op team play—that allows a friend to drop in or out at any point and play by your side as a rough-edged battler named John Carver—is a smooth system.
But every positive column needs a negative one. And that's doubly true when it comes to M-rated shooters. So on the other side of things, Carver is something of an angry, grumpy fellow, fond of foul language. And even without him, the f- and s-words, various crudities and misuses of Jesus' name flow like rivers of alien blood. And trust me, this alien blood does flow.
Survival is only possible by a willingness to shoot or stomp Necromorphs into oblivion. When gamers equip their handmade plasma cutters, flamethrowers, grenade launchers and various melee mashers, the zombie alien foes are ripped in half, torn into red chunks, burned to a crackling crisp, dismembered and decapitated. Their bulging eyes burst in squishy, gruesome and explosive ways.
All that while these attacking creatures (and some humans) are using everything from rending pincers to caustic (vomited) bile to gnashing teeth to do some eviscerating, flesh-gouging damage of their own. We see limbless human victims, gun blasts to the face, gaping wounds, corpses hung high and entrails dangling low.
If You Ask Mom
In truth, then, being a hero isn't the only tough slog here. Being a gamer is too. Pulling a trigger over and over for hours on end, stomping on the umpteenth Necromorph body to scrounge up a little more ammo, trying to avoid being eaten by one monstrosity or another, and getting bombed with constant splatter and verbal filth can wear your brain down to a nub.
Last time out, this franchise launched a special ad campaign, trying to grab attention with a winking "admission." "It's revolting. It's violent. It's everything you love in a game," the Dead Space 2 ads declared. "And your mom's gonna hate it."
Well … moms everywhere agreed. Maybe more often than distributor EA Games was counting on.
So with the release of number 3, the promotional presentation is a bit more low key, bearing the simple slugline, "Take Down the Terror." But I can tell you, Mom still has her arms crossed and a disgruntled glint in her eye.