An intriguing blend of action, real-time strategy, and role-playing elements, JoWood's isometric third-person shooter Cold Zero: No Mercy superficially resembles games like X-COM and Jagged Alliance and is an often trigger-happy journey through the trials and tribulations of a hired mercenary. The game is violent, challenging, alternately thoughtful and fast-paced, and at times highly addictive. However, it's hampered by problematic camera controls and some other shortcomings, as well as action that can be overly difficult and repetitive. But if you don't mind the occasional frustration, and you relish the thought of wasting all sorts of baddies from an overhead vantage point while also taking time to perform some RPG-like day-to-day chores of a soldier of fortune, Cold Zero may be just the thing for you.
In Cold Zero, you direct the actions of one man, John McAffrey, an ex-cop expelled from the force for mistakenly shooting an innocent civilian and now in charge of his own private detective agency. McAffrey's new business is suffering mightily from his past indiscretion, and he soon finds himself flat-out broke and forced into working for a purported Mafia kingpin. He does not fight the law--in fact, McAffrey begins the game as an essentially decent sort who agrees to his current gig only under the threat of violence and because he believes he's battling other hoods. The game kicks off in McAffrey's new digs, a sorry tenement in an odd little neighborhood surrounded by gun shops, target ranges, bars, and pawnbrokers.
You'll navigate each level primarily using the mouse, pointing and clicking to determine the direction and distance you want to move. Hold the Ctrl key down while clicking behind or on either side of McAffrey and you'll shuffle backward or perform strafing-type lateral maneuvers. However, you can't freely climb or descend. If you want to move vertically, the obstacle in question must be determined by the game to be scalable. If it is, the icon will deviate from its original form to show you that climbing or descending is possible.
One of the real keys to the game is stealth. In Cold Zero, your enemies react intelligently to your maneuvers, jumping into battle mode when you venture into eyeshot or even when you make an inadvertent noise. To help combat their awareness, you can propel yourself in one of four different modes. If speed is of the essence, you can run. You can also walk, walk cautiously, and sneak--all of which are selectable via icons in the omnipresent control panel at the base of the screen. If you select the latter, you'll hunker down near the ground and shuffle very quietly and oh-so-slowly from place to place. Approach someone from behind while in this position, and there's a good chance you'll get within inches and quite possibly reel off enough shots to kill him before he's even had a chance to move.
What you won't want to do when nearing an enemy is swap or reload your weapon--both actions produce enough noise to alert everyone in the vicinity of your presence. A common practice is to reload or rearm well away from the action, sneak up for a few good shots, then run away quickly to hide as other thugs hear and swarm toward the gunfire. Another viable option is to leave your pistols and rifles and submachine guns holstered and instead make use of your silent weapons--namely, your own hard-knuckled fist, assorted knives and razors, and perhaps even a baseball bat. Of the hundred-or-so real-world armaments you can either purchase at the gun shop, snatch from semisecret stashes, or remove from the prone bodies of your victims, several are virtually noiseless.
Unlike most first-person action games, Cold Zero limits the number of weapons and other inventory items you can carry. You can still carry an unrealistically large number, to be sure, and you can also pack useful objects, such as silencers and telescopic sights and defensive paraphernalia like instantly healing medicine kits, bullet-proof vests, various keys, and much more. You may even find a fine gold watch or pornographic magazine to sell later at the local pawnshop. In any case, the more you haul around, the slower you'll move and the less sneaking or running you can do. And if you horde a ton of stuff, especially when your health is low, you won't be able to move at all.
Fortunately for those who like to travel light, the game allows you to learn as you play. By accomplishing certain tasks or successfully negotiating certain areas, you're awarded a number of skill points, which you can then distribute among several key categories. If, for example, you're quickly bored by searching for elusive door keys, you can apply your skill points toward a better understanding of technology. Soon, you'll be opening locked doors through sheer knowledge and skill. Or you can allocate those points toward your overall strength and thus become so powerful that you can win fistfights with just a couple of blows.
One other very important facet is Cold Zero's custom controllable camera, manipulated by pressing down on the mousewheel or center mouse button and moving the mouse. Although by default it follows you through your mission, you can also instruct it to pan independently throughout a level to get a better look at things while you hide stealthily in the shadows. You can turn it and rotate it and move it about quite freely.
However, it doesn't turn automatically when you turn, nor will it automatically zoom in when it needs to, pan out where appropriate, or ever permit even a quasi-first-person view. Perhaps one of the most poorly implemented concepts in the game, the Cold Zero camera consistently requires manual control. You'll often find yourself struggling to spin or redirect the camera merely to get a halfway decent view of your adversary among all the scenery and foliage that keeps popping up. All the while, you're also trying to target and eliminate the enemy combatant, reload and rearm, or move one way or another. Ultimately, you'll find yourself dead more often than you should be. Indeed, few games kill off the central character so regularly.
It is fortunate, then, that on-the-fly saves are permitted. Even so, you're forced to tolerate several convoluted menu screens and a half-minute or so of reload whenever you do die and begin the level again or jump back to your last save. Moreover, when you do restart a level, you must manually fast-forward through the accompanying cutscenes, a process that can last up to another half-minute. Such downtime is not a good thing, especially when you'll endure it so often.
Despite its strategic premise and the wide variety of RPG-like actions you must enact to work your way through the game, Cold Zero is most often a monument to gunplay. Most levels are festooned with enemies, in much the same manner as a traditional first-person shooter. You'll attempt to talk your way out of situations, but usually to no avail. Even in your hometown before you travel to the many unique destinations Cold Zero offers, you'll scurry about trying to yap to anyone who might listen, doing your best to see beyond the kill-or-be-killed philosophy. It most often won't work.
Furthermore, you'll soon realize that each of the 16 levels, despite fresh visuals and the game's many nonshooting moments, ultimately plays out in a similar fashion to the last. That sense of déjà vu will come over you when you enter a new area and are once again greeted by two or three dozen red blips on your overhead map, each symbolizing a bad guy. Some are dressed one way; others are dressed completely differently. They'll often speak in foreign tongues. And the mission objectives vary from hostage rescues to item retrieval to bomb defusing. Sometimes you'll even need to throw a victim's body over your shoulder and place it in a nearby crate so it doesn't attract the attention of his cronies. But in the end, you may feel like you've been down the same road one too many times, once again mowing down a gaggle of baddies in much the same methodical manner you've done so many times before. This sense of repetition permeates Cold Zero, even as the plot develops and you come to realize what exactly Cold Zero is.
There are other concerns. Though the game stresses the operational and ordnance distinctions between weapons and the need to keep them in good order--by clicking the technology icon and placing the cursor on the gun you need fixed--targeting seems erratic. Surely due in part to the fact that you're constantly shooting from the hip rather than drawing a bead from a first-person view, you may hit distant targets one moment then miss point-blank opportunities the next.
Nor is the AI perfect. Despite their excellent reactionary skills, they'll behave somewhat robotically when you're not nearby, pacing the same few meters in the same pattern over and over again. If you use the free-floating camera to scan the level first and learn what they're all doing, you can slowly and systematically work your way through them, waiting until each one has separated himself far enough from his buddies that your attack won't draw suspicion. Even so, you will die frequently, particularly since some of your foes are annoyingly able to shoot through walls and around corners.
And certainly Cold Zero isn't for everyone. Fans of pure action will undoubtedly find some aspects of the game--such as those times when McAffrey painstakingly tries to pick a lock or repair a weapon, or when he sits in an easy chair for a minute or more just to recharge his health--to be a bit dull. Conversely, strict strategy gamers may find much of the bang-bang craziness too fast and furious. And newcomers will certainly come to understand that the game is not a walk in the park. Even on its "easy" setting, Cold Zero isn't easy.
Thankfully, the game's visuals aren't so repetitive. You'll find yourself in a jungle one moment, a dilapidated mine shaft the next, and a big city soon thereafter. Each environment is attractively rendered, with believable lighting and tons of detail. The designer, Encore Software, clearly went beyond the call of duty to render incidental items in secondary areas that you may not ever visit. It also developed a neat system whereby rooftops and other visual barriers magically evaporate to allow you an unimpeded view inside. And, if you just want to break stuff, the game obliges by delivering an array of blow-apart boxes, exploding barrels, and more.
Sound is definitely one of Cold Zero's strong suits. The music is especially enjoyable, dynamically responding to the current situation by swelling up dramatically when things get sticky and lowering to a peaceful, temperate passage when the going is easy. Sound effects, including the clatter of dropped weapons and ammo, the whoosh of a windstorm, and the clip-clop of distant footsteps and voices, emanate from precisely the direction they should. However, voice acting is somewhat suspect. Most characters are just too over the top, and many are obviously voiced by the same performer.
Multiplayer Cold Zero can support a maximum of 16 competitors via either LAN or the Internet. Though we were unable to locate any active servers in time for this review, we did set up a small team-based LAN game and found the action to be quite a bit more fast and furious than during solo play.
Though it's rough around the edges, Cold Zero is nevertheless an adventurous and generally likeable game. Yes, you'll die way too often. And you'll definitely be forced to constantly rely on quick saves. Yet the combination of elements from several different genres--action, strategy, and role-playing--works to keep things interesting. When flaws in one are discovered, you always have something else to fall back on. If you're not a hardcore purist in any of the three genres, and if you can forgive its imperfections, you'll find that Cold Zero is an involving, gleefully violent game.