Let's begin by putting a few of Dead Space 3's nastier pre-release demons to rest. That cover system everybody threw their Plasma Cutters out of the pram about last year? It's barely a system at all - a mere afterthought, designed to streamline a handful of human-on-human shoot-outs which swallow up around half-an-hour in total. The implementation's also unobtrusive to the point of unnoticeable - simply crouch while nudging up against an object, and you'll pop your head over it when you aim. Long story short, Dead Space is still distinguishable at a glance from Gears of War.
That ice planet, Tau Volantis? With its starkly-lit exteriors and ostensible shortage of hiding spots for gristly killing machines? It wouldn't be our first choice of survival horror environment, true, though white-outs and caches of deep-frozen Necromorph lend the surface a certain John Carpenter-esque thrill. But to reach the benighted world, you'll have to travel through an enormous spaceship graveyard - an orbital frosting of undead-ridden debris several miles thick, that harbours a good four to five hours' worth of quarantine zones, dodgy generators, smashed-up laboratories and bloodied elevators.
Returning Dead Space fans will be in their element here - inching through the creaky, flaking orifices of each craft with gun raised, circling around vents as you would a radiation spill, rifling through closets for health, ammo and, nowadays, resources to spend on satisfyingly demented custom weapons. There's even a vessel with its own internal tram system, in memory of the one players had to fix while touring the ill-fated Ishimura, and missions that take returning lead Isaac Clarke into the debris field itself. Out there, our man with the Marker-polluted brain is just one meandering nugget of tinfoil and LEDs among many, albeit with a delightful chewy centre.
Once you do go planetside, you'll find that Tau Volantis isn't all icicles and dramatic cloud formations. The pulse-deadening Arctic trappings quickly give way to a series of brutalised interiors that are every bit as pregnant with threat as those drifting through the void, hundreds of miles above. Dead Space's appendage-fixated combat loses nothing for the change of scene, either - as ever, scything away limbs results in faster kills and a diminished likelihood of getting scythed in turn.
Despite a shortage of new blood, the game's enemies remain delightfully unsportsmanlike, rushing under your shots unless doused in time-slowing Stasis. There's nothing quite as satisfying (or economical) as pinning one to a wall with its own, telekinetically propelled arm. Unless it's tearing that arm off in the first place, of course.
Does the controversial introduction of co-op detract from all this? Not really. New pal John Carver isn't the most uplifting company, but if you tackle Dead Space 3 in single-player you'll rarely bump into him. There's no AI partner to babysit in the absence of a second player, and cutscenes branch cunningly to suit, sneaking Carver into and out of the blank spots in each sequence like an imaginary friend.
Co-op can't be ignored entirely - those who brave the horrors of Tau Volantis in pairs will glean new insights on both Clarke and Carver, via a handful of co-op-only side missions and some jarring character-specific hallucinations. All in all, however, Visceral has made good on its promise not to let the feature scupper the franchise's trademark claustrophobia - that soul-withering awareness that the environment itself wants your head on a prong. Much as with the cover system, you need never know it's there.