Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Cold Fear (PC, 2005, France): Brrrrr…illiantly Scary Fun
May 14, 2011, 3:57 am
Filed under: Cold Fear (PC, 2005, France)

My post regarding “Cold Fear” will be slightly shorter than average for two reasons. One, the game is relatively well-known, widely available, and old. (Yes, yes…it is a six-year-old game, and I am only now getting around to playing it—my common refrain). There are more than two dozen well written reviews on the internets already, so who needs me to blather on about it? Second, the game is so straightforward, it doesn’t require much verbiage to describe or evaluate. That’s right—this game is simple, scary, and fun.

So, two questions: 1) Why play it now? 2) Why bother writing about it? Allow me to address the second question first: My personal opinion is that most reviewers seemed to not give this game its due at the time of release. Most critics simply called “Cold Fear” a competent, but second-rate, “Resident Evil” clone. And while I’d never argue the game isn’t derivative (it offers nothing new to the genre, while borrowing just about everything from every other survival horror title out there), it is truly excellent at what it does. And anyway: Who cares if it’s a “Resident Evil” clone? I don’t. Just look at all the other dreck I play.

To answer the first question: Actually, this game has been sitting on my “shelf o’ shame” (games I’ve collected over the years and have not yet played) for quite some time. My impetus for popping it in was because I owned more than one copy of it—one was a PS2 iteration and the other was the PC port of the game.  When I first bought the used PS2 copy for pennies several years ago, I started playing it right away. But at the time, being immersed in the current-gen of consoles (the 360, the PS3), seeing my little PS2 chugging along with its jaggy graphics left me uninspired. So after 30 minutes or so, I put it on the shelf o’ shame

to be revisited at a later date. (I think I went on to play “Gears of War” or something.)

Later though, I discovered that the game had been ported to the PC, and while it is not always true that PC ports look or play better than the console iterations, I thought I’d give it a try since it was only going to cost me a few more pennies. In this case, the PC version—which can run at a maxed-out 1600×1200 resolution—looked remarkably better than the PS2 version (the native resolution of which was probably something like 640×400). I also had the option to run an iso of the PS2 version through the PCSX2 emulator on the PC. (For more info about PS2 emulator PCSX2, see my trials and tribulations discussed in the “Forbidden Siren 2” post on this blog). And I did compare that approach as well (being the graphics whore I am), but even an upscaled version of the PS2 copy looked shoddy in comparison to the PC port.

And for its time, it is a beautiful game. There’s no question about it, and most reviewers agree on this point. Playing the role of Tom Hansen, a disgraced soldier who is now simply keeping his head down as a United States Coast Guard (the nature of the disgrace is completely avoided narratively), you are sent across the violently stormy Bering strait to investigate a mysterious Russian whaler which is sending out a distress call. A SEAL squad had been sent in previously, and all were wiped out by some unknown force. But when you arrive, you quickly discover what that force was: In addition to hostile Russian forces on board, the ship is harboring “Exocells”—think HalfLife-like headcrabs but with elastic tentacles. Entering through the mouths of downed soldiers, Exocells infect humans and other life forms as hosts, and rather typical zombification ensues. (One nice mechanic: When shooting some infected soldiers in the head [which is the only way to actually terminate them, surprise], the Exocell will sometimes come rolling out of the headless corpse’s neck and then crawl after you. So, you have to shoot it too. Fun for all.)

So, in the traditional survival horror theme, the environs rely almost entirely on Vaseline-thick atmosphere, and “Cold Fear” has the detailed graphics to make it work. Colors are washed out, lighting is muted, a heavy haze hangs in the claustrophobic corridors, everything is wet (especially the half-eaten bodies strewn around the bathrooms and crew quarters). And appropriately, everything is swaying (at least in the first part of the game). Again for its time, the game does a remarkably efficient job of making you feel that the stormy sea—with its walls of water constantly pummeling the ship–could swallow you at any given moment. And actually, it can toss you right off the ship when walking in open areas where the guardrails have been destroyed. As you can imagine, the constant motion can make aiming tricky, but there is a “cling to railing” button that can steady your aim. It’s all perfectly disorienting, which is something you want in a survival horror game.

Gameplay begins with some rather tepid fetch quests (go here get electronic key, go there unlock door, go here and turn on a radio beacon, go there and rescue a Russian scientist chick) broken up by some nice jump scares as infected soldiers drop from the ceiling or jump from behind shipping crates and bumrush you. (And I’ll add here that the enemy AI exhibited pretty good variety overall—some zombified soldiers will lurk about menacingly, while others will suddenly launch at you full speed, melee weapon raised overhead—a pretty daunting vision.) But within an hour of gameplay, I started to think to myself: Is this it? Does this whole game take place on board this ship? I’m basically a landlubber, but as it turns out I’ve played quite a few horror games that take place on board isolated ships, and I’ve liked most of them. (I keep meaning to add “Cryostasis: The Sleep of Reason” to this blog, however it has been a while since I played it—before I started the blog actually—but it is one of my all-time faves). But unlike that game, where the ship feels large and labyrinthine, the whaler in “Cold Fear” is pretty small. The well-developed murky atmosphere and claustrophobic crew quarters, bathrooms, and galley notwithstanding, I very quickly started to feel as though I had traversed the entirety of it and was beginning to get some serious déjà vu.


But precisely at the right moment, the game changes location. (This was evidence to me that the developers knew exactly what they were doing.) Up until that point, the source of the little headcrab creatures remains a mystery, but the next thing that happens, you (assisted by the scientist chick) crash the ship into a nearby oil rig (which the converted whaler was initially trying to escape). While the gameplay doesn’t change at this point, the new location breathes life into the game at just the right moment mostly because the narrative expands, as well as the all new dreadful environments to explore. It seems the rig, the Star of Sakhalin, has drilled down and accidentally discovered this new lifeform. As you find out, Dmitri Yusupov, a member of the Russian Mafia, bought the rig at a rock bottom price, and after discovering the Exocells, he hired Doctor Kamsky to produce biological weapons using the Exocells, while raking in some serious profits. As usual, due to internal wrangling, personality conflicts, and some mismanagement, everything aboard the oil rig went to hell, and what you find is a mess of wrecked corridors, bloody heaps of scientists and soldiers, malfunctioning labs, and overgrown Exocells of several varieties. From there your mission is to generally destroy the rig to stop the infection so it cannot reach land.

Nothing new. But visually and atmospherically—with some smart pacing added for good measure—the game simply works, with emphasis on the word “simply.” The narrative is straightforward, the guns are easy to use and effective (although ammo is purposely scarce), and the missions are up-front with a little bit of requisite backtracking (just enough so you become familiar with getting around efficiently). Unfortunately, the characters only barely rise above cardboard cutout status, but I jumped out of my chair a handful of times at some surprise attacks, so I’m willing to forgive just about anything.

Well…except two items. There are a few confusing points in some of the maps where, without warning, the wall gives way and you end up someplace else. It’s as if you are traveling through a doorway and a new map loads. But in these cases, there’s no door but just a wall! There are a few of these places on the oil rig, and while they are disorienting, they don’t ruin the game. It’s just a surprisingly “unfinished” aspect of the game in an otherwise carefully crafted piece of software. Last, there are a few “convenient” points in the narrative where your character faints in order for the story to be pushed further.  Some of these are nonsensical and are glaring plot holes, but I’ve seen worse. The effect was me shaking my head and giggling, but it didn’t ruin the game either.

The upshot: Pick this up for practically nothing (my suggestion, the PC version), play it at full-tilt resolution, and give yourself a cheap reminder that games like “Dead Space” were done (even in embryonic form) long before “Dead Space” ever existed. One play tip: In “Resident Evil” clone fashion, the game is meant to be played in third-person perspective, with forced camera angles. But if you, like me, prefer first-person shooters, you can almost achieve an FPS effect with a simple, low-tech solution. The game offers players a “second-person point of view” (not a term I was familiar with), which is basically an over-the-shoulder perspective, used exclusively for precision aiming. (When in use, it almost looks like the position and size-of-character Isaac in “Dead Space.”) The only problem is that this perspective, while assigned to a button of your choice in the controller configuration menu (on the PC version), it is not toggled (it doesn’t stick). So, in order to keep this perspective active, you’ve got to continually hold the assigned button down (which is a pain in the ass). Of course, a small weighted object (like a lead fishing weight or something) placed on the appropriate key on your keyboard will do nicely. While I don’t think the developers expected players to use this perspective constantly, I found that playing the game from this close-to-FPS perspective was infinitely more enjoyable, while offering me much more control over the character’s movement, as well as the movement of the camera. The screen shots here show that perspective. Also, if you find the walk speed too slow using this perspective, you can open the “heroes.cfg” file in the game directory (look in the folder titled “Conf”) and tweak the “strafing” speed by increasing it. Good luck!