Currently scheduled for release later this month, Cold Fear is a horror-themed action game in which you'll assume the role of an officer in the US Coast Guard investigating a Russian whaling ship that's adrift on the Bering Sea. We recently received almost-finished PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions of the game (a PC version is also in development) and are pleased to report that we've found it to be an enjoyable and quite challenging experience thus far. Cold Fear has more than a few things in common with games like Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Resident Evil 4, which, if you've played either of them, you'll know is certainly not a bad thing.
The most obvious thing that Cold Fear has in common with Sons of Liberty, of course, is that you'll be spending all of your time early in the game on board a ship. What makes the ship in Cold Fear a more realistic and terrifying prospect, though, is the fact that it's caught up in a seemingly never-ending storm that rocks it from side to side, causes waves to crash onto the deck, and forces you to play the game looking through a screen that, at times, really does look like it's having buckets of water thrown at it. Graphically then, the stormy seas are very convincing, but what's really great is the impact that the adverse weather conditions have on the gameplay.
Your character, Tom Hansen, is very good at keeping his footing when things get choppy up on deck, but even he will occasionally get caught out by more violent waves, causing him to fall to the ground and slide along the floor until he's able to get back on his feet or he bumps into something. On one occasion we actually ended up clinging to the side of the ship for dear life after Hansen slid toward one of the few areas of the deck that wasn't enclosed by a handrail. You'll be able to grab onto handrails with a single button press, incidentally, but you'll rarely get much warning when a giant wave is about to hit. Losing your footing isn't the only thing you'll have to worry about on the deck of the whaling ship, as Hansen will lose health if he's hit by a wave when close to the deck's edge. You'll also have to keep an eye out for large hooks and such hanging from the ship's rigging and swinging like deadly pendulums as the whole boat pitches and rolls.
It's not surprising then, that one of your first goals in Cold Fear is to find a way into and explore the ship's interior, which is made tricky by the fact that so many of the doors on board are locked, stuck, missing a handle, or require an access code at the start of the game. Most of the puzzles (if you can even call them that) that we've encountered, in fact, amount to little more than key and lock affairs that slowly afforded us access to more interesting and often more dangerous areas of the labyrinth-like vessel. The sheer number of locked doors can make things a little frustrating early on, especially since there's no map for you to look at. Your perseverance will pay off, though, when, after a couple of hours or so, you're able to stroll around new areas without any fear of getting lost. If your sense of direction isn't so great, you'll be pleased to hear that Hansen is fluent in Russian, which allows him to read directions on the walls when you look at them. Hansen will also say things to himself like, "This looks like the wrong way" or "I think it must be up these stairs," when you're wandering around looking for a specific area or object.
Getting lost is the last thing you should be worrying about in Cold Fear anyway, since not long after boarding the ship you'll discover that the vast majority of life forms on board fall into one of three categories: cool-looking parasites that want to suck your brains out and take over your body; Russian sailors whose bodies have already been taken over by the parasites and have become extraordinarily violent; and Russian sailors who haven't fallen victim to the parasites yet, but are so terrified that they'll shoot you on sight. Like the zombies in other horror-themed action games, many of your enemies in Cold Fear will only stay down once they've been decapitated, which can be pretty difficult to do given that the whole environment is moving constantly.
Fortunately, we've found that both ammunition and medical packs are quite readily available, both from the corpses of fallen enemies and from an armory and a medical room that you'll discover early on. You'll also find weapons that are far more powerful than the pistol that you start the game with, although the ammunition for these is significantly more difficult to come by. One of the best ways to conserve ammunition in many situations is to interact with seemingly innocuous environmental objects that become pretty effective weapons if your timing is good. Basically, objects like fire extinguishers, fuel valves, and barrels will explode when you shoot them, killing all enemies in the immediate vicinity. Many objects that you'll come across aren't interactive in any way, unfortunately, which is perhaps why the developer felt the need to point out which ones can be used via a series of notes and memos that you'll find as you progress through the game.
On the whole, we've been quite impressed with Cold Fear thus far, but there are a few aspects that we still feel would benefit from a little work. The most irritating of these is undoubtedly that you'll have to sit through a black loading screen (with a small radar graphic in one corner) for around five seconds every time you go through a door. This wouldn't be a big deal except that there are a lot of doors for you to go through, and, when combined with a complete absence of sound, the loading screen does a great job of pulling you out of what is otherwise a very engaging and atmospheric experience. We also feel like some of Cold Fear's save points (on the default difficulty setting that we've been playing, anyway) are spaced too far apart, particularly since some of them are sandwiched between encounters with enemies that could easily cause you problems if you're low on health or ammo when you meet them.
Having to play through significant portions of the game for a second or third time can be pretty frustrating, especially because the nature of the game requires you to visit the same areas over and over again, which means you'll have to check your status screen to remember exactly where you are with regard to your objectives. Enemies spawning out of thin air directly behind you can also get a little annoying at times, though their infrequent appearances do serve to keep you on your toes in areas that you might otherwise think are safe.
The PS2 and Xbox versions of Cold Fear that we've been playing are currently scheduled for release on March 15, while the PC version will follow on March 30. Expect a full review of the game in the near future.