It doesn't know what it is. Its pacing, with constant huge explosions, constant monster attacks, leaves little time to create the ambiance - the slow build - expected of the horror genre, to which the series had originally paired itself.
And on the flipside, gameplay mechanics that emphasise the slow and plodding movement of a man clad in a deep space suit leads to monotonous combat that doesn't impress in action, nor terrify in the way it should when faced with undead alien nightmares. What we are left with is a title that doesn't impress in either of the areas that count.
The franchise's shift to setpiece-heavy scenes sees the returning Isaac Clarke repeatedly knocked over by explosions and tentacles, falling down cliffs, caught in avalanches. Very dramatic, but the result is, odd button press aside, you feel an observer rather than the player in control of the situation and trying to decide what to do. A trap that the Uncharted series sometimes fell into.
This third entry ramps the cinematic showdown between Clarke and the religious kooks that feel humanity's had its day and is ready to be replaced by Necromorphs through control of Markers - alien artifacts that started the whole mess in the first place. Cue echoes of terrorism as a Marker is detonated in the middle of a sprawling space metropolis, and Isaac's forced to make his escape from the now-rampaging hordes of infected colonists and extremists out for his blood, his survival vital as he's the only human capable of stopping them.
This leads to a reunion with his ex Ellie from the previous game, and a meeting with a bunch of two-dimensional scientist types and walking soldier-clichés, and the most indifferent love triangle sub-plot I've been exposed to. As such you fail to attach yourself to them, or them you. You're all stuck on the planet Tau Volantis, in the snow-covered ruins of which there may be a key to saving all of humanity.
So it's to the gameplay that game ultimately stands or falls. The foundation stones of Dead Space's gameplay is in enemies you have to shoot the limbs off to kill as soon as possible. DS3 plays with that convention by introducing different takes on the theme - different limbs for different creatures, forcing you to play spot the weak point as you're charged - but the difference between a shot in the arm and a shot to the torso is almost non-existent. That you feel it takes hitting one unmarked joint rather than the whole limb makes bullseyeing an appendage less satisifying than it should be.
As we fight almost constantly in small, confined spaces, in practice combat boils down to backing up against a wall or corner and hacking away at the oncoming hordes. It quickly becomes monotonous, and predictable. Instigate an attack, back up, dismember, carry on forward. Repeat. At least the Unitlogists break things up, keeping their distance and sticking to machine gun fire and grenades. Unfortunately, these battles are few and far between.
Not that there's isn't good stuff to be found in the game. The crafting system to build custom weaponry is clever and offers elements of an MMO with its tinkering with different spare parts to make interesting weapons at the nearest Bench (shotgun with flamethrower anybody?). Likewise when the monster cavalcade breaks and you can explore in peace, the atmopshere is great, the visuals fabulous. Dead Space is still a game of huge production values, with the budget spend clear to see on screen. The original's soundtrack was highly effective in emphasising both ambience and action; the third title is no different.
A saving grace then may the inclusion of two-player co-op, with Clarke joined by a secondary character. His partner John Carver's growing dementia means the player controlling him will see some imagined horrors the other player won't be privy to. Sadly this wasn't a side of the game we were able to test in time for this review - but for the solo player Dead Space 3 is a disappointment given its constant need to fall over itself to produce excitement and drama, rather than letting the gameplay speak for itself. And that has been constructed in such a way as to commit the ultimate sin of a sci-fi action horror: it's just boring.