Genre: Action/Survival Horror
Release Date: March 15, 2005
Outside of plotlines, the producers of survival horror games have thought of many ways to justify trapping your character in some creepy, dangerous, and all-around spooky situation, ranging from fire to barricades and any number of methods in between. Ubisoft's Cold Fear takes it another step further, placing the character on a boat in the middle of an ocean during a raging storm, effectively removing any possibility of sanctuary, since you can't run away from said dangerous place.
Of course, being on a boat has other "advantages" for those struggling to survive in a horror filled world. Take, for instance, the plethora of cramped, dark and enclosed passages, the astounding number of lockable and barricade-able doors, as well as the large number of crew members who can be infected. These factors and more make me wonder why the first Resident Evil didn't happen on a boat.
The premise of the story is familiar in many ways: a Russian oil rig set to drill for new oil has managed to tap into an ancient species of insatiable protein-devouring creature. There are government hands holding the puppet strings here, which means that the whole deal is much messier and out of control than it should have been. This is where you, Tom Hansen of the U.S. Coast Guard, step in a last resort by the government to contain their losses. In the midst of blowing the heads off of various Russian mercenaries and contaminated humans, you will begin to unravel more of the story about how this disaster came to happen.
The overall controls are relatively familiar to your standard survival horror scheme. Some key differences really contribute to making the game more involved and frightening. When traveling, the player can choose to run or walk, but unlike most games, fatigue is a factor, and running constantly is going to tire you out. That means that when you really need or want to run, you might not be able to. This slows down the general travel pace a bit and makes it more believable and more suspenseful. You can also use your surroundings to secure yourself, holding on and steadying against the rocking of the boat, which is very useful, as you are constantly swaying back and forth fairly aggressively, sometimes so aggressively that you will go sliding across the deck if you're not hanging onto something that's been bolted down.
Since the boat is constantly swaying and tossing back and forth, it complicates acts of combat. It is quite hard to aim at a moving target when it's moving, you're moving, and your surroundings are also moving. Even when using a pistol mounted with a laser sight, my generally accurate aim became slipshod and messy. In FPS-style shooters, I have little to no problem driving nails through the heads of my opponents, but here I was tossing a few extra rounds to the wind just to get a single headshot on one of the zombies. Taking this environmental factor into consideration, weapons like the shotgun and assault rifle are far more useful than a pistol. However, ammunition for these weapons is relatively scarce, making it an important decision as to whether or not to use them.
The view is primarily third-person, with an option to change to first-person to help with aiming. Most of the time, I found the creatures tended to be too close or too far to make for effective aiming in first-person mode. Outside of that, the scheme seemed to be pretty standard for a survival horror title, mixed with a few stealth action elements. For instance, the change weapon buttons are easily accessible, making it quite possible to cycle weapons in a hurry.
The zombies are not what you may be used to; they don't shuffle or drag slowly towards you. Instead, they tend to run at full bore, waving a knife or firing a gun at you like some raving, flesh-eating lunatic. There are a few other types of enemies, including the "Exocel" parasites themselves, which look like somewhat of a mix between a spider and an amoeba.
It was obvious that the intent behind any enemy in this title was not to really kill you or to provide challenge when it comes to killing it. Instead, they are there to add to the creepy ambiance and to provide general unease. Each and every enemy plays into that role; even if the enemies come across as unbelievably dumb (even the human mercenaries), but they still managed to creep me out and startle me and that is undeniably their purpose.
Later on in the game, some of the enemies are so durable and difficult to kill that it is quite boring to sit there and empty rounds into them. Funny enough, it seemed like it was easier to kill them by letting them jump onto you. When any zombie attaches to you, the game presents you with a sequence of button presses to remove them, and with good enough timing, kill them. Something felt wrong about having an easier time killing something by intentionally letting it pounce upon you, but it worked.
Generally, I felt like I was just going through the motions collecting keys, cards and levers because that is what one is supposed to do in a survival horror game. Most often, it seemed like there was little rhyme or reason to the placement of these objectives, although I still don't know why the key was sitting in the water of the flooded hallway or why the lever was right next to the mouth of the dead orca. Obviously, the developers placed those objects there in order to make suspenseful situations, but they never really provided plausible explanations behind the placement.
The notion of going through the motions just for the sake of going through the motions seemed to be present throughout the game. The stage design was similar in that aspect, as there were frequently events and rooms that provided disturbing and unsettling feelings but without explanation behind the rooms' existence. For instance, there is a room where the only source of light suddenly and spontaneously explodes. It is obviously very creepy to be walking through a cramped, blood-stained room just to have the light source spontaneously and inexplicably explode, but again, no backstory is given.
Outside of the various inexplicable stage design oddities (which kind of ruined things for me), I do have to say that the overall design was creepy and authentic in appearance. The boat seemed like a boat from bottom to top there was nothing about it that seemed out of place and the design was interesting. There were a number of puzzles and some pretty cool elements like the swinging objects on the deck of the ship; these objects were big weighted items hanging from cable or chain, which not only made disquieting noises but also could cause damage to the player or the enemies by swinging into them.
Graphically, the game is pretty impressive, at least as far as the stage design is concerned. When you are above deck, the ocean in the background looks vicious and unforgiving as the waves rise and break all around, and the boat itself has a very realistic worn appearance. The zombie models are somewhat depressing, as they don't look very interesting, decayed or really scary at all, looking a bit more like madmen then dead men. The Exocel are at least interesting to watch, since they move in a very unnatural manner; their elastic limbs stretch out to drag them along, almost like a slug.
I also was a little disappointed with the animation, or more specifically, the hit detection and collision determination. Often when a zombie would get close enough to stab/claw/bite, I would somehow be out of range to club it with my gun. Even more disturbing is when you see them attacking one of the mercenaries from a distance, and it looks like some sort of telekinetic mind battle, as their blows land from feet away.
I did enjoy the main character's animation above deck, as you got to watch him tilt against the rocking of the boat. Despite the fact that his gait when walking looked a bit unnatural, his general movements were not bad at all, even if his speech patterns were painfully so.
The voice acting was aggravating to me, filled with bad Russian accents and our "hero's" southern slur. Frankly, I got tired of hearing things along the lines of "I ain't gonna open that thar door over there" or "Golly Cletus, we best be sheerin' dem sheep before summer be a-comin'." Okay, I may have made up the last one and embellished a bit on the first one, but it really was quite a painful accent.
Then again, who plays a horror survival game for the voice acting? The real question should be, was the audio ambiance capable of creating a disturbing feeling? The answer to that is undeniably yes; the constant rain and wind, mixed with the creaking groaning boat were enough to sometimes make me feel jumpy and nervous while sitting in a dark, quiet room. There was a heartbeat sound as well, which created suspense during already suspense-filled moments, which I appreciated in an odd way.
Cold Fear turns out to be an all-around moderate suspense filled horror title. If you like to be scared and are looking for a new game in the genre, then this one will definitely do the trick. It seems a bit convoluted and rather forced, yet if you play it in the dark late at night, it will still spook the bejeezus out of you. Thanks to the moderate to short duration, it's also a decent rental if you just are looking for something to beat for the sake of beating. For best effect, play it in the dark, or else the unsettling spookiness just won't be there.
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