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TVG straps on a life-preserver and sets sail into stormy seas as we play Ubisoft’s Cold Fear...
In the month that sees the European release of Capcomâ??s eagerly awaited and long overdue Resident Evil 4, comes Ubisoftâ??s latest foray into the survival horror genre, which has been dominated over the past ten years by the Japanese giants: the aforementioned Capcom with the Resident Evil franchise, and Konami with Silent Hill. Whilst there have been others, most recently Tecmoâ??s Project Zero (or Fatal Frame, depending on where you are reading this), the genre has pretty much been the domain of the big two franchises â?“ but is Cold Fear a true pretender to the crown?
The game certainly comes from a good pedigree; the developer of Cold Fear, DarkWorks have previously been involved in the creation the fourth iteration of arguably the first survival horror title, Alone In the Dark, when in 2001 they released Alone In The Dark: A New Nightmare. Since then they have been keeping pretty much a low profile, that is until now.
What is quite extraordinary about the current crop of survival horror titles is that regardless of whether they are iterations of a franchise (or in Cold Fearâ??s case an â??originalâ?? title) they have all tried, in various ways, to move away from the â??standardâ?? format and tried to inject something new into the genre. Looking back at Silent Hill 4: The Room, which was released in 2004, one of the key differences was that players found themselvesâ?¦wellâ?¦stuck in a room, which acted as a central hub for the main character. That feature allowed the developers to subtly change the appearance of the actual room as time went on. Project Zero II, an Xbox port of the previously released PlayStation2 title continued to thrust its unique brand of Japanese style of horror on to the market, whilst Resident Evil 4 evolved away from the static camera angles traditionally used in the genre into a more action based horror title. But where does Cold Fear fit in to all of this?
Set in the present day, Cold Fear sees you play the part of Tom Hansen of the US Coastguard, called out after a Russian whaling vessel is spotted drifting in the stormy seas of the US coast. Once on board though, things arenâ??t quite as they seem. It seems that the Russians found â??somethingâ?? in a new oil well and have begun various â??mad-scientistâ?? experiments in order to understand the creatures that emerged with the black gold, which they nicknamed â??Exocelsâ?. Of course, the experiments have subsequently gone disastrously and horribly wrong as is typical in survival horror games and movies, with the subsequent Exocels and the results of the experiments now roaming across the Cold Fear environments.
The two locations in the game are the Russian Whaling Vessel and Russian Oil Rig, which has in fact been used as a base of operations for the experiments, and you know what, itâ??s only just occurred to us that the â??ship-to-rigâ? environment jump has happened beforeâ?¦Metal Gear Solid 2 anyone?
Anyway, in a bid to get away from any sort of â??CODECâ?? feature to communicate important gameplay and narrative elements the developers have scattered the journals and notes of various characters around the environments, with the first note explaining about ammunition conservation â?“ more on that later, but other notes will provide important exposition aids, for example the feud between the Captain of the ship and the Lead Professor of the experiments is the main thread of the first part in the game. With most survival horrors, a strong narrative is a key component to pulling the player through, and Cold Fear certainly has the storyline to do just that.
The fact that the game is set, for the first part at least, on a ship in stormy seas has allowed the developers to play with the hazards of being in rough seas, which is the constant threat of being thrown over board by high waves when on deck. Not only that, but the rocking and rolling of the ship is captured beautifully â?“ keep your sick bags at the ready if you suffer from seasickness though as DarkWorks have managed to capture perfectly the motion of a ship in stormy weather, not to mention to great visuals of the towering waves racing towards you. It is more than possible to fall overboard during the whaling ship sections of the game, with one wave crashing over the deck you can all too easily find yourself gripping to the edge in a desperate attempt to stay alive. The high waves can and do serve a purpose to Hansen though as they can knock enemies overboard too although that require a good sense of timing. The rocking of the ship also means that suspended objects swing quite violently at times so you also have to be keeping an eye out just in case you get knocked over,
Integrating Resident Evil 4 style over-the shoulder views with traditional static cameras, Cold Fear feels like a game caught in the transition between the â??old schoolâ?? survival horrors and the Resident Evil 4, which has probably done more than any other title to develop the survival horror genre beyond what has essentially been the same format for 10 years. We found that for most of the time weâ??d guide Hansen through the game in the over-the-shoulder view, especially once weâ??d got used to the game. The static camera view does of course do the same job that itâ??s done for years, that is, to add a certain level of cinematic qualities to the game, but the bane of using this view is that jumping from angle to angle sometimes causes the controls to become confused, and Hansen will turn back on himself â?“ as annoying now as it has always been.
In the graphics department, Cold Fear for 90% of the time, excels and as well as the aforementioned stormy sea, the character models including the various Exocels, look awesome; not only that, but the animation is to a very impressive standard. As well as getting Hansen to look as if heâ??s struggling against the strong winds and the movement of the ship, the developers have added little touches like putting Hansen protecting his eyes from the wind so he can focus on whatâ??s in front of him, itâ??s all about creating a sense of depth and to that cause, DarkWorks have certainly been successful.
Besides the weather effects, the environments in Cold Fear also share a high visual quality; the ship and rig look really weathered with rust patches and other signs of wear and tear evident throughout. It is however some of the details in the environments that do niggle ever so slightly. For instance the level of programmed physics goes so far in the game and then disappears serving to destroy the illusion of realism â?“ the hanging saucepans in the kitchen (sorry â?“ galley) swing back and forth with the movement of the ship yet you can take as many pot shots as your weapon allows and youâ??ll still not get them to react in any way. Also, the inability to shoot out the lighting when it was done by fellow Ubi published title Splinter Cell a few years ago may seem like a pedantic pop at the game, but that detail would drastically change the way that youâ??d approach the game. Yes, Hansen does have a torch so heâ??d be able to see in the dark, in fact there are scripted moments where the lights DO explode, but imagine that you (or an enemy) cut the lightsâ?¦which view would be best to use? And wouldnâ??t it be cool if Hansenâ??s sense of balance was affected because of the drop in visibility?
As with the visuals, the audio in Cold Fear certainly sets the scene and builds the tension in all of the right places, with the main menu music eerie to say the least, but itâ??s the sound of the ship that especially helped to immerse you into the world of Tom Hansen. Waves crashing, rain hitting the decks, and the odd crack of thunder all help to create the audible impression of the perfect storm (which slightly off track the developers cited as being one of the inspirational films when planning the game), with the character voices all suiting the models nicely, even though the Russian accent is a little overplayed from time to time.
But aside from the visual and audio aspects of the game, how does it play? Well overall, we have to say that we enjoyed Cold Fear, it certainly had enough little aspects in it to feel different from some of the other survival horror title, although this was mostly due to the rocking and rolling of the boat and the impact that that actually had on the gameplay. The controls handle well and it features the ability to change weapons very quickly (in fact in a nod to MGS the two lower shoulder buttons of the PS2 scrolled through the available weapons in a very Metal Gear fashion.) And speaking of weapons, how does Tom Hansen destroy the Exocel? Simply put, he is lucky enough to come across several firearms, including the famous AK-47 Kalashnikov, as well as a Grenade Launcher and experimental spear-gun that attracts Excels together â?“ now whereâ??s that explosive barrel?
One final thing about killing Exocels and thatâ??s how to kill them, because you can fill their host bodies with as much lead you want, but to REALLY finish them off youâ??ll have to follow the age old rules of killing body snatchers - destroy the head of the host, which can be accomplished by either shooting at the skull or crushing it underfoot with an all to realistic sound effect to boot. And whilst the warning of ammo conservation may have the more trigger-happy of you to groan, the ship does have an armoury that never seems to run short â?“ the same with health and the shipâ??s (and rigâ??s) sickbay.
Having said that, there is one issue that we had with Cold Fear, which was the issue of â??travelling,â?? that is to say, the amount backtracking you have to do in order to progress through the game. Itâ??s a problem that has especially plagued the survival-horror genre (Silent Hill, anyone?), and itâ??s certainly an issue that was dealt with to great effect in Resident Evil 4. Sadly it has to be said that there is a lot of travel in Cold Fear, especially on the whaling ship, to the extent that at times you find yourself running from the front deck, through the bowels of the ship, to the rear deck, only to have to travel back through the lower decks again.
This niggle ties in rather nicely with one of the other negatives in the game â?“ the seemingly stingy save points. The gameplay can be quite trial and error at times, which can irritatingly compounded by dieing 45 minutes after the last save point causing a dramatic and sudden urge to pile-drive your beloved console into the mat. The annoying thing is that after dieing a couple of times (and ignoring the violent desire to crush your console) youâ??ll realise that save points are relatively common in the game â?“ sometimes less than ten minutes apart. The maze-like level design of the ship can and does confuse you until youâ??ve pretty much moved on to the rig, and the lack of a map (which perhaps would make the game that little bit easy) means that youâ??ll have to rely on your memory to point you in the right way. As some way of compensation however, the developers have created Hansen with a certain level of psychic ability, so that if he thinks heâ??s going in the wrong direction heâ??ll let you know â?“ which is nice.
Resident Evil + Invasion of the BodySnatchers + Alien + The Perfect Storm = Cold Fear
In other words, the game utilises a series of components and dare we even mutter it under our breath, clichés that can be derived from any number of horror films and survival horror titles, which is no big fault since for the most part (travelling aside) the game is an enjoyable title away from the established franchises that does offer some new ideas and details to the genre.