PC gamers return to the tense, 1980s climax of the title conflict in this action-adventure game from DreamCatcher. In the role of a freelance journalist who has traveled to the Soviet Union to cover a routine story, players soon find themselves political prisoners of the KGB -- stripped of all possessions and left in a jail cell to ponder an uncertain future. Using stealth tactics and a collection of improvised gadgets, the reporter-turned-hero must escape captivity or face a fast trip to Siberia (or worse). Missions play out in detailed re-creations of famous locations such as Lenin's Mausoleum, Chernobyl, and the Ljubljanka prison. Cold War is designed to offer players a non-linear game world that challenges them to devise and execute their own solutions to interrelated puzzles.
In a nutshell, Cold War is a Splinter Cell clone, but that really doesn't do the game justice. Cold War might liberally borrow the stealth dynamics, the focus on gadgetry, and the moody lighting that the Splinter Cell franchise has made famous, but Cold War puts its own strong stamp on the formula. It offers challenging gameplay, interesting levels, and a compelling story. While this isn't bad for a "clone," Cold War is also sadly marred by huge technical problems that just aren't worth the effort.
The game would often refuse to load at all, or simply crash soon after loading. When it didn't load, it would often bring our system to a crawl, making it hard to even reboot. Assuming you can get Cold War running without suffering any migraines or ulcers in the process, you'll find a neat game. You play as American investigative journalist Matthew Carter, who heads to Moscow in 1986 to follow up on a hot tip. Supposedly, the president of the Soviet Union is going to meet secretly with a CIA agent in Lenin's tomb. (Maybe a dark alley in a remote town would be too conspicuous?) What could this meeting mean for East-West relations?
The meeting turns out to be something quite different than what Carter anticipates. It's actually a move in a game of power politics. The president's closest advisors are going to reveal the scheming of the hard-line chief of the KGB, who wants nothing to do with the president's liberal policies of perestroika and glasnost. But the KGB chief learns of this and turns the tables. He makes Carter look like a supposed CIA assassin who's out to get the president, and he makes the president's advisors look like accomplices.
You unwittingly play right into the KGB's hands. After seeming to attack the President, you briefly manage to escape Lenin's tomb, only to get snatched up by the KGB and sent to the infamous Lubyanka political prison. From there, you get sucked into a classic Cold War thriller, replete with mad schemes, secret documents, and -- of course -- nuclear weapons. The plotting and pacing are tight, deftly interspersing exposition, often in the form of comic-book style cutscenes, with gameplay that offers a good variety of goals and situations. In some games, it can feel like you're doing things merely because the designers want you to. Here, it feels like there's a logical reason for what you're doing, a clear and immediate goal that will help keep you alive or thwart the bad guys.
On the downside, much of the game is restricted to two major locations, KGB headquarters and Chernobyl. Both areas are large, and the familiarity you gain with them over time adds to the illusion of them being real places, but a little more variety would have been nice. Cold War also lets you play as another main character besides Carter towards the end, which would be fine except the game then hits you with unfair odds and cheap "gotcha" attacks. It briefly tries to become a run-and-gun shooter when the whole game is designed to discourage that sort of play.
To survive your stay behind the Iron Curtain, you'll mostly need to rely on stealth and smarts. A pistol or AK-47 can cause more trouble than its worth, with noise drawing guards down on you. That's why you need to be sneaky. Happily, a clear and simple interface lets you know how visible you are and how alerted enemies are to your presence.
You'll want to move slowly, crouch, and stay out of the light in order to sneak past guards or steal up on them and knock them out. You then have the option of dosing them with an anesthetic to keep them out longer, and you can also hide their bodies. If you're willing to risk the noise -- and it is a big risk -- it can actually be better to sneak up on guards and take headshots to put them out of the picture permanently. (If you want the challenge of a purely pacifist approach, the game does offer an alternate mode where killing isn't allowed.)
Carter isn't just a stealthy journalist; he also seems like MacGyver's long-lost brother. One of the most interesting features of Cold War is the way you can build gadgets in the field. By collecting technical documents scattered around the levels, you earn points that you can spend to design useful devices. The more of them you design, the more new ones become available.
Once you've designed a gadget, you build it with items like batteries, alarm clocks, and appliance parts that you scavenge from the levels, though "building" here just means pressing a button on a menu. From these humble items, you can fashion rubber bullets, slingshot-launched grenades, ether mines for stunning foes, limited-use silencers, paralyzing ammo, and more. Of course, it stretches credulity that appliance parts and ether flasks are lying around everywhere you turn and that you can fashion rubber bullets from a plastic bottle. You'll just have to take it on faith and have fun with it.
You don't actually need the gadgets to finish many missions, but they open up different ways to approach many problems, which is always nice. One gadget that deserves special mention is an X-ray camera that lets you see guards through walls, as well as knock them (or security systems) out with a burst of energy. It's a useful and visually memorable variant on the thermal vision and "OCP" of the Splinter Cell series.
Along with the different approaches to gameplay, another thing that stands out about Cold War is its production values. Fine voice acting brings Carter and the other characters to life and makes the wry dialogue hit home. A richly orchestrated musical score builds tension, and realistic sound effects and positional audio draw you into the game world. And that game world can be quite a looker, too. It's true that characters often look like plastic and move awkwardly -- Carter hits like a sissy, runs like a pansy, and seems to float across the floor -- but the environmental art deftly portrays the gloomy monumentalism of Soviet architecture. These are some oppressive -- yet attractive, in their way -- locales.
It's such a shame that Cold War is subject to crashes and often won't even load; otherwise, it would be worth a much stronger recommendation. Cold War doesn't break a lot of new ground -- its indebtedness to other games is obvious -- but it makes great use of an existing formula. Ultimately, however, the huge technical problems make this a game you should approach with extreme caution.
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