Cold Fear is a survival-horror game with an emphasis on action, featuring both adventure-style puzzle solving and third-person shooting. The game's story begins far offshore in the Bering Sea, on an apparently abandoned Russian whaler. In the role of a U.S. Coast Guard officer, players set out to investigate the ship and step aboard a high-seas nightmare. It turns out that the ship has not been abandoned -- yet many of those who remain on board have not remained completely human. Cold Fear is the sophomore release by Darkworks, whose first published game was Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare (2001), the fourth title in the genre-founding Alone in the Dark series.
The thing with survival horror games is that they present humans in what I think is their true light - as senseless, inarticulate beasts with only enough brains to walk, eat, and kill others. So from that point of view, in the game, it's not really a crime spilling out their brains, or whatever it is that moves them. You're putting the freaks out of their misery, and you've also made yourself feel better about the quantity of stupidity in the world you live in.
Darkworks' survival horror/action game Cold Fear follows my (insane) logic, putting you in the role of an ex soldier Tom Hansen, now a member of the US Coast Guard. Tom and his colleagues are sent to search a Russian ship caught in a storm, but the entire boarding party (well all but one) gets killed in a matter of seconds. This leaves Tom as the only survivor of course, tasked with the nasty job of finding out the dark secret that the ship carries. Of course, having played all those survival horror games has taught me something, and that is that 'dark secrets' usually involve humanoid mutants, brain-dead zombies, alien life forms or perhaps some form of demonic horror.
Very soon Tom finds out that there was a strange experiment going on (no surprise) under the command of a General Yusupov, and as experiments have a tendency to go wrong, so the ship is crawling with Yusupov's mercenaries who have or have not yet been infected with something called Exocells. The principle is easy enough - you need to explore the ship, collect the evidence of what was going on and try not to get killed in the process. Oh, yes, and locating possible survivors would be pretty damn polite as well, thank you.
The game plays in the third and over-the-shoulder view, with the ability to switch between the two at will. I did not like the default third-person perspective although it makes you more aware of your environment. It's mainly because I found it difficult to move, shoot, or interact in the default view for several different reasons. First of all, the game is much more engaging from the over-the-shoulder perspective, and secondly, it makes it much less difficult to aim at monsters. Most weapons do have a laser sight that helps you perform this task, but take into account some monsters move really fast and you need to shoot most of them in the head in order to kill them for good. If not, you'll have to stomp on their head (Silent Hill, anyone?) or simply shoot them in the head while they're not moving.
Now, the game takes place in both indoor and outdoor settings, so it's either dark, narrow corridors or the swaying, shaking ship's deck showered by rain and large ocean waves. This means it's extremely difficult to even hit the monster, let alone shoot them in the head. The corridors do not allow you great freedom of movement nor the aiming precision you need, especially if the monster's one level above or below you - for example, if they're located at the bottom or the top of the stairs and such. On the other hand, fighting on the deck means your vision is blurred because of the rain, your health bar lessens if you get hit by the waves, and the ship's shaking so violently it makes it almost impossible to move. And then, when a monster jumps you from behind in the middle of all *THAT*, you realize you have absolutely no trouble with killing anybody who dared approach you in such conditions, especially if they are carrying a long, sharp knife and let out a terrible shriek.
Having said that, I must admit that the combat sequences in the outdoor settings made for one of the best parts of the game. In truth, the monsters are not that scary or varied, but the realistic looking outdoor settings and the general difficulty of shooting *anything* in that storm makes the game masochistically enjoyable to play. Of course, a better aim would be most helpful, but maybe that would spoil the feeling they were going for, damned if I know. The real problem with the game is that it does not have the atmosphere of a true horror game. Now let me explain myself: by 'horror' I don't mean the pathetic attempts at presenting Freddy Krueger as the ultimate killing machine instead of a poor old fuck with a personality disorder and a strange manicure. The Japanese know the true essence of horror, so if you want to learn how to be *really* scared, you know where to go. The thing with Cold Fear is that it isn't even half as scary as Resident Evil, which isn't exactly the scariest survival horror game I've ever played. There are some instances which do scare the hell out of you - the abruptly opened doors, exploding canisters, monsters jumping at you when you least (or most) expect them - but most of the time, I would just shrug my shoulders and kill the mutated idiot in my way. Now, I am not saying that the game isn't exciting, it just isn't scary enough. The scariest moment I've experienced was entering the radio room ... well; I'll leave you to discover that for yourself.
The most engaging part of the game is definitely the combat, although it is not without its flaws. The story offers nothing we have not seen or heard at least fourteen quadrillion times. (This number is not randomly generated. It is the result of a long and costly research.) Various items are scattered around the levels, from different weapons and ammo to health packs and various data, such as journals and info icons that serve as help on different topics and such. These data items help you find out more about what happened on the ship, only you could have it guessed yourself anyway. They also provide you with instructions on how to use the environment to your advantage, as if it was so hard to guess what all those canisters, fuel tanks and fire extinguishers were there for.
As for the weapons, they include a semi-automatic handgun with a flashlight and a laser sight, AK47, shotgun, MP5, grenade launcher, flame thrower, and a spear gun. I preferred the assault rifle and the handgun, while the spear gun also proved to be very effective although it does not deal direct damage to your enemies. This is a sort of a short-range stun gun which makes your enemies temporarily disoriented and thus unable to fight, so you can choose to run by them or finish them off with a proper weapon.
Health packs, on the other hand, weren't very helpful as you are unable to store them. You see, Cold Fear offers you no inventory for storing items but only allows you to use them automatically, so whenever you stumble upon a health pack you will need to use it. The only exception is the health supply in the med room, which always helps you restore full health. It is also impossible to save the game whenever you want. You've guessed it - checkpoints. This of course entails plenty of replaying, which can get a bit tiresome. To make matters worse, the game features no on screen mini-map so you'll have to rely solely on your orientation. The first part of the game takes place at only one location, so in order to add more variety certain pathways and doors are blocked during the game. The locked status of the doors changes during the game, so you need to take care you've not taken the temporarily inaccessible road. Once I forgot that I could not open certain doors from the other side, so I had to go all the way back, and as I had no bullets I was duly ripped to shreds by stupid monsters.
There are several different kinds of enemies featured in the game, from the simple mercenaries armed with guns, to scary Exomasses with gigantic, oversized left arms. The smallest enemies are the Exocells (Contaminators), creatures that use the fact they're made of tentacles alone to the full extent, often crawling on the ceilings and sucking your blood from there. They consider the human brain to be a treat and enjoy sucking it out of its rightful owner, which in turn transforms the said human into a brainless moron, e.g. the Exomutant. The problem with these brainless buggers is that you'll need to blow their head off so they can rest in peace - otherwise they'll get up and come after you. Other enemies feature Exonests which produce Exocells and Exoshades - these sick motherfuckers are fast and like to jump at you in the dark, as well as Exospectres which can turn invisible, and Exomasses. All have their weaknesses which can be effectively used against them. The only problem with them is that they, again, lack any real scariness or hideousness, which I found a real let-down for a game such as this.
Cold Fear looks rather good, with enemies that look quite realistic (although not scary enough), and with authentic-looking and rather detailed environments. While Cold Fear isn't spectacular when it comes to the visuals, featuring monotonous, bleak, brownish and grayish surroundings, its looks complement the atmosphere perfectly, offering you believable settings to move in. The special effects are very good, with great weather effects and details like drops of rain or blood that fall on the camera, blurring the vision. The sound is also very effective, with different tunes that fit the atmosphere perfectly, solid voiceovers, and scarce ambient sounds, which is also very realistic in a way - after all, what sounds are you hoping to hear on an abandoned ship? The mutants' shrieks do the job of sounding very annoying, leaving you wanting to empty your gun into the freaks.
So, what's the conclusion? I must say it's a pity that a game with such a realistic feel and a believable atmosphere suffers from several annoying problems, such as the lack of an in game mini-map or an inventory system and the inability to save your progress or use the health packs at will. You're also unable to pick up ammo if the weapon that uses it is fully loaded, so you'll have to leave it lying around. The inability to carry more forces you to aim better, which is at times virtually impossible. Sure you might say that there is certain charm to this, and to a certain extent you might be right, but there is a fine line between hard and engaging gameplay and frustrating gameplay - a fine line which shouldn't be crossed.
I won't comment on the simplicity of the puzzles, the washed-out story, or the standardized, stereotypical characters with as much personality as a piece of cardboard. The main problem with this game is that it lacks the substantial element of a true survival horror game, and that is fear. Its inability to cause this emotion makes it a solid action game, but it does not make it a horror.
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