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Cold Fear (PlayStation 2) artwork

Cold Fear (PlayStation 2) review

"The phrase 'Resident Evil on a boat' has cropped up more than once over time to describe particular survival horror games. Whether you find the phrase cute, pithy or dispassionately accurate when applied, the trouble is that the handful of games attracting this description have yet to bring enough new stuff to the table (apart from the boat) or to do the old stuff as well as the bedrock titles did it, to be able to escape from their shadow. Cold Fear is excellent in its boatiness, perhaps the ze..."

The phrase 'Resident Evil on a boat' has cropped up more than once over time to describe particular survival horror games. Whether you find the phrase cute, pithy or dispassionately accurate when applied, the trouble is that the handful of games attracting this description have yet to bring enough new stuff to the table (apart from the boat) or to do the old stuff as well as the bedrock titles did it, to be able to escape from their shadow. Cold Fear is excellent in its boatiness, perhaps the zenith of boatiness to date. In most other departments it is a close copy of the Resident Evil blueprint. Some familiar dynamics of the genre have been rearranged slightly, mostly in ways that make the game hard with spikes of painful. These points of difference proved to be of interest to me, and so I expect they will be of interest to other survival horror fans, but I'd say this is definitely not the place to pay a casual visit to this genre.

In Cold Fear you play marine coast guard Tom Hansen who is sent out in response to a distress call from a Russian whaling ship during a storm. After your first encounter with a zombified sailor, it quickly becomes apparent that bizarre scientific shenanigans have been going down on the whaler. The story and plot delivery from this point on match Resident Evil's formula blow for blow. More extravagantly mutated creatures attack you, and in turn diary fragments and notes left by dead scientists reveal more of what was going on aboard the ship. The diaries are excellently written and chilling in effect, yet it is surprising how even quite specific details from them seem to have been lifted verbatim from Resident Evil 1. Soldiers and workers as guinea pigs, the deliberate infection of family members by obsessive high-ranking scientists, the escape of the specimens, the progress of the ensuing disaster; all are here.

The game's first moments are startling. You find yourself on the madly rocking deck of the whaler at night. Huge waves are exploding over the bow and gale force rain is lashing everything. Visibility's well down and the assaultive motions of the environment interfere with your character's aim and movement. Your ability to grab for safety if you're knocked overboard, or to break free if you're seized by baddies, is measured by a resistance meter. Spend too much time running or being lashed by waves and you won't have enough puff left to save yourself the next time the chips are down.

Holding L1 switches to an over-the-shoulder aiming view akin to Resident Evil 4's standard view, but it's a lot harder to hit things here. A baddie who was close enough to grab you in Resident Evil 4 would typically be filling the screen, and therefore presenting a huge target, where in Cold Fear a guy who's already in the process of stabbing you is probably still only a figure in the centre of the screen. You can also walk around while in aiming mode, which is handy as the regular pre-determined camera angles can sometimes confuse. The first people to mess with you are crazed Russian soldiers armed with assault rifles. Surviving a gunfight on the deck of a ship being tossed by a hurricane is no picnic. Still, what you will grow to like about the Russian soldiers is that they don't have to be shot in the head to be killed, because pretty much everything else in the game does.

The monsters in Cold Fear are animated by tentacled parasites that reside in the skull. If you destroy the head, the monster is finished. If you don't, the beastie will soon get up and come at you again with restored health. You can either aim to destroy the head outright (quite difficult with anything but the shotgun) or you can run and stomp on it while the monster's down. While you're trying to go the stomp, everyone else can still attack you, and if you don't stomp fast enough, you'll probably be standing next to the creature when it reanimates. It's also possible to stomp a parasite out of the head, which will then start attacking you in its own right, or maybe slither away to reanimate some other nearby corpse whose head you didn't properly stave in. In short, combat is very arduous. Even the presence of a huge amount of helpful, shootable explosive stuff in the environment (fire extinguishers, chemical barrels, electrical boxes, gas and hot air vents) is undercut by the fact that it all comes down to destroying the head. Ammo is also scarce, and its distribution on fallen foes is random. Being unlucky in finding the kinds of ammo you need for different stretches of the game can have serious ramifications. Save points arrive without warning, are not visible and are not useable more than once, further increasing the precariousness of your existence.

The funnelling of the player through a complicated one-wayish environment in which shortcuts are retrospectively made available is one of the clever staples of this genre. Usually the appearance of the shortcuts is a bit arbitrary, since it's hard to keep making excuses as to why some portal wouldn't open earlier on, but Cold Fear is more canny in this department than its cousins. Since the ship is damaged and out of control, different parts of it are flooded or on fire at any time, and different doors keep jamming. You can never anticipate where the next blockade will be, and the game will send you on some pretty circuitous detours. The toughest part of all this is that there's no in-game map, just a really spare, unhelpful one printed in the manual. I found that the absent map did stimulate me at times to think very carefully about how I was going to reach my next goal, but it also resulted in me tiredly circling the ship many times (with doors constantly jamming behind me and forcing me forwards) looking for rooms I'd previously missed but now needed to enter, or rooms that I now needed to enter but had no clue where to find. The signage is all in Russian, understandably, but you have to point your torch directly at the signs in aiming mode to read a translation, you can't get one just by walking nearby. Summarily, it is very hard to get around the huge ship in Cold Fear, and there's a lot of frustration that can come out of this – yet I found I had developed a grudging admiration for the challenge presented by this aspect of the game by the time I reached the end. This was still not enough, however, to inspire me to play again on higher difficulty. Note that I played on Easy, having been forewarned about the game's difficulty factor, and as this review has surely communicated by now, Easy was still far from easy.

There are certainly many fine features in Cold Fear. The physical portrayal of the ship in the storm and the atmosphere created are excellent. Darkness is also very well used in the ship's interior. Fuses sometimes blow, plunging scenes into sudden blackness, and monsters can stay hidden quite close by unless you shine your torch directly on them. The parasites are vile and creepy, especially when they're swinging around in the rafters by their tentacles or seen scuttling on the floor in the distance. Their insect-like chittering is a warning to scan the walls carefully with your laser sight. These are all good reasons to play this game, but the balancing difficulties and frustrations can be oppressive. The mapless navigation is hard slog, and so is all the head-destroying combat. If you run out of ammo it's not like you even have a knife as a backup weapon. If you run out of the right kind of ammo, you may need to return to a saved game and then will yourself be luckier the next time you search a corpse. And the saving is a pretty fickle business in itself. I find the game more admirable in parts than enjoyable on the whole, though it is always intense, and I think most people will just find the experience a bit too much like hard work. Nevertheless, Cold Fear is worth the investigation for survival horror heads.

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Community review by bloomer (February 26, 2008)

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