Being the new boyfriend is tough. No matter how badly things ended with the current flame’s ex, there’s always an unspoken comparison. Maybe he’s a heroic fireman, or a talented, haunted musician, or even just a really good cook. As time goes on and nostalgia blots out much of the bad, you’re left with a ghost of the good, and that can be difficult to compete against.
People are competitive, especially when it comes to love. And even if the world is ending, as it quite literally is in the outer-space survival horror game Dead Space 3, you can depend on two otherwise sane dudes who are after the same girl to drop everything to beat the piss out of each other to prove their affection. It reminds me, in a way, of Titanic, where (if I’m remembering it correctly) Billy Zane was running around, wildly firing his gentleman’s pistol at guttersnipe Leonardo DiCaprio in a fit of jealous pique, even as they were plunging to icy doom while being attacked by space zombies.
Or did I dream that last part? In Dead Space 3, your character Isaac Clarke—apparently lying low after the traumatic events of the first two Dead Spaces—is pulled back into the fire when a couple of no-nonsense military bros show up and drop the name of his ex-lady friend. She’s an improbably attractive scientist trying to stop an intergalactic plague that turns inert, harmless cadavers into mobile, extremely hostile alien cadavers. Clarke isn’t really interested in helping out—he’s skittish and might as well be wearing a tinfoil hat and penning an incoherent conspiracy blog—but he finds motivation in the thought of rescuing his old girlfriend.
His plan hits a snag when he learns that Improbably Attractive Scientist is spoken for, and this rival—one of the soldiers who grabbed Clarke from his one-man Illuminut hut—isn’t one of those cool, secure new boyfriends who understands that acting threatened is a huge turnoff. Instead, this clingy, petulant redhead is eager to send Clarke on dangerous missions to clean out zombie-infested ships and underground warrens. It’s a dick move, and the resulting action sequences will disappoint anyone who was hoping that Dead Space 3 would be an angsty, intergalactic dating simulator.
You can go it alone or play in cooperative mode, during which the other person plays as a forgotten fourth vertex of this love triangle. (I picture this guy staring wistfully at Jealous Soldier and silently pulling for Isaac.) Doubling up, while it makes sense as a practical matter, eliminates some of the tension that comes with exploring dark crypts by your lonesome, which is at its core what a true survival-horror experience requires. The game is at its best when Clarke, flying solo, uses his gun-mounted flashlight to peer into unlit corners, uncovering cryptic messages and ghosts from the past. The flesh-eating monsters ultimately have a limited capacity for terror. Some of the most disconcerting moments happen not in battle but when you play recordings of those who, like Clarke, tried (and failed) to stop the plague.
The only thing you can really depend on in Dead Space 3 is a scavenger bot acquired early in the game. You send this little Roomba clone off in any direction, and it’ll return with raw materials for artisanal gun-making, which turns out to be the game’s main avenue of violent self-expression. (There are apparently downloadable add-ons that give these robots a voice and personality. While I think the idea is hilarious, I’m hesitant to pay five bucks for the pleasure. I’ll just continue to imagine it sounding like Dr. Nick Riviera.)
The possible combinations are extensive—upper weapons, lower weapons, energy weapons, melee weapons, weapon upgrades, and plain old bullet weapons. I’d be lost without the provided blueprints, which suggest helpful combinations, provided you’ve acquired the necessary parts. Still, despite all the options, I mostly stuck with the assault rifle/shotgun combo. I found it both reassuringly pedestrian and unpretentiously effective in its capacity for dismembering space zombies. That’s dismembering, not decapitating—the main difference between earth zombies and space zombies, it turns out, is that where earth zombies are generally put down by inflicting catastrophic brain damage, space zombies only stop coming after shooting off their legs, arms, and tentacles. (The original Dead Space became known for suggesting, every 15 seconds or so, that you “CUT OFF THEIR LIMBS.”)
As enemies got stronger, though, I eventually waded into the blueprints and found my spirit weapon; I upgraded to “Mjolnir,” a fearsome energy cannon and “hydraulic hammer” combo, named after the legendary hammer of Thor. As I used it to great effect and the bodies piled up, I could feel Jealous Boyfriend shrinking into a ball of impotent rage as Clarke wielded the killing power of the gods.
But there is no sexy respite for Clarke and Co. Every direction they turn—they’re investigating a failed expedition 200 years prior to stop this galactic virus or indigestion or whatever it is—ends up putting them in the most inhospitable environment imaginable. These forgotten spacecraft and ice-planet hidey holes are places that humans should never go, at least if they value not being dead. As you retrace the steps of two centuries previous—a military operation gone tragically awry—and slowly uncover the horrifying details, the mystery plays out like if Agatha Christie had written Event Horizon.
Dead Space 3 does have quite of bit of dead space. Some of the spacewalking missions are downright tedious, and constantly stomping on crates and corpses for gun ingredients quickly loses its squishy charm. That being said, start to finish the game looks incredible—the austere environments in orbit, in the ships, and on the planet’s surface reinforce the vulnerability of being hopelessly stranded—and it doesn’t suffer from the same self-seriousness that makes, say, Call Of Duty or Halo campaigns such a chore. The power of a petty love triangle in the face of species-wide extinction is indeed a love story for our time.