Those lucky bastards with the GameCubes have their precious Resident Evil 4
, but the other systems haven't been completely left out of the survival horror loop. The Xbox and PS2 (and later the PC) are all getting life aquatic with the creepy stylings of Cold Fear
. While the budget and depth of this title aren't as big as Capcom's behemoth it still has plenty of scares and zombies to decapitate on the quest to finding out what those wacky scientists have been up to this time. You want your B-movie thrills? Step right on in.
The set-up here is pretty classic stuff. There's a decrepit Russian whaler out on the rough seas that the CIA has put a small crew of Sam Fisher types to see what's going on. They quickly get ripped to pieces, literally, and so the next man in the area gets the call to go aboard. That happens to be Tom Hansen, a Coast Guardsman, and a couple others. In short order the list of heroes has been narrowed again to just Tom. His boat had to go back to port and he's all alone on the ocean on a floating zombiefest.
Even though Tom is the hero, the boat is a star unto itself here. Out in the storm the boat rocks from side to side as a hard rain comes down and waves crash across the deck. Tom has to grab hold of railings to avoid sliding off the side of the boat and needs to be swift on his feet to miss being hit by the hooks and crates that are swinging overhead. If anything works well to make the situation hopeless it's right here.
If the zombie set-up is old hat, the game quickly proves that it has a life of its own and brings some new ideas to the table. Tom has the unique position of being a survival horror hero who can move and aim his gun at the same time. The camera drops into an over-the-shoulder view and allows him to move around at about the same speed as he normally walks. Aiming is taken care of by the laser-sight that's stuck on most of the weapons. Even sweeter, the handgun and submachine gun both have flashlights stuck to them. With dark rooms aplenty these lights add some extra drama by highlighting just one small area at a time.
And what are all these weapons good for? Blowing heads off, of course, this is a zombie game. Much of the game involves the careful craft of creating a good headshot. The zombies are a bit slow at first, but when they get close enough they rush at Tom for an attack. At this time they can be pushed back or Tom can fight with them and try to get a critical hit on them. After a bit of a struggle Tom gets the gun in the mouth, pulls the trigger and it's a brain fiesta.
If there's anything to complain about with the creepy-crawlies in Cold Fear it's that there are almost too many zombies. There are some ExoCels which crawl around the floor and can zip up to the ceiling, but for the most part the game is about shooting heads off and it would have been sweet to have some more variety. After mastering a couple of techiques it's easy to go through the game simply by moving from room to room and taking careful aim at the targets inside. This gets better and much more intense when there's a pile of zombies that need to be quickly avoided and taken out, but more often there's just one or two zombies in the room that can be easily dealt with.
While not splattering bits of brain across the walls, Tom has the task of slowly unlocking the puzzle of the boat. This involves a lot of backtracking and cross-tracking as the game winds all through the floating deathtrap. Doors will open up or be bashed open and later on closed off by an explosion. Another time there is a mass of water that needs to be pumped out to clear yet another hallway. Only by collecting keys, cards, and codes in the right places can Tom make his way through all of the different locations.
To help make sense of what's going on it's helpful that Tom is fluent in Russian. Figuring out where he is requires looking at a sign on the boat so that he can read it. That gives a name that either must be remembered or looked up on the map in the manual because, sadly, there is no map in the game itself. Since the various goals in the game are done with verbal instructions on the place to go next this means a bit of running around aimlessly and trying to open every door in order to figure out what's next.
And at least the boat has a map in the manual. That's only the first third of the game and the rest takes place on an oil platform for which there is no map at all. With the instructions still verbal it's easy to get confused and wander about aimlessly before realizing that some vent that was previously covered up was now open and is now the portal to the next vital area. With a map handy the game would be much smoother and quicker and that's probably for the best since it's not a huge game by any standards.
Gamers should be able to finish the game the first time through in six to eight hours. For those with an intuitive sense for the puzzles this will fly right by. On the normal mode the game poses a moderate challenge and is more about presenting a quick adventure with plenty of chances to take it to the zombies and, what else, blast their heads clean off. Well, it's not so clean, but you understand.
The save system helps to keep the action moving pretty swiftly. These points are scattered throughout the game and are triggered when Tom steps through a doorway before going on to the next chunk of the story. They can't be predicted, but the spacing is at the right distance without feeling too safe and not so far as to induce screaming and yelling at having to do an annoying section over and over. Well, this did happen a couple of times, but even that's a pretty good track record.
As with so many cross-platform games, the PS2 has gotten the short end of the porting stick. The Xbox version is graced with both the option to view everything in 720p and it has quick transitions between rooms. The PS2 version has neither of these and it's the latter that's vastly more heartbreaking. A lot of moving around the levels means going through a lot of doors and that means too many 10 to 15 second waits in the action. Multiconsole gamers will have the easiest choice in the world in going for the Xbox version. Exclusive PS2 gamers will still get the same gameplay, but will end up with more staring at a blank screen than they desere.
So even if Cold Fear doesn't create a whole huge new gaming experience that's still perfectly fine since it does establish a dark and gloomy mood and manages to keep that pace up for the large part of the game. There is a thin story that's picked up by reading documents scattered all around the game, but anyone who's seen a horror movie or few hundred will be right at home here. In fact, that's almost a prerequisite so that you can fill in the blanks of the plot with your own memories of movies that have explored similar territory.
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