Cold Fear Hands-On

Darkworks' new horror-themed action game will see you shooting for survival on the high seas.

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In light of the October announcement of Cold Fear, a new horror-tinged action title from Ubisoft and Parisian developer Darkworks, we recently got to go hands-on with the game for the first time. Our brief experience with a demo version revealed some adventure game-style puzzle-solving and a solid-feeling third-person-shooting model. That's a lot of hyphens, but in simpler terms, the game is looking surprisingly good for one that Ubi hasn't publicized much at all until now. Cold Fear is still several months off from release, but the early build we tried out gave a favorable first impression, and we're interested to see how the final version shapes up before its first-quarter '05 release.

Tom Hansen will be up against unnatural enemies--and the elements--as he attempts to uncover the mystery of a derelict Russian whaler adrift on the Bering Sea.
Tom Hansen will be up against unnatural enemies--and the elements--as he attempts to uncover the mystery of a derelict Russian whaler adrift on the Bering Sea.

Cold Fear places you in the role of Tom Hansen, a Coast Guard officer who encounters a derelict ship adrift on the Bering Sea. Upon boarding and exploring the ship, Hansen quickly discovers that things have gone decidedly south aboard the mysterious vessel. Everything is in shambles, with some parts of the ship destroyed and other parts on fire. More disturbingly, a large number of the ship's occupants seem strangely thirsty for Hansen's blood, and most of them don't seem quite human. There are a number of still-human survivors on the ship--Russian mercenaries, it turns out--but they'll be gunning for you too, in an attempt to cover up whatever madness has occurred on the doomed whaler.

The demo version of Cold Fear placed us near the beginning of the game, apparently not long after Hansen has boarded the ship. You've got two basic perspectives on the ongoing action. By default, you'll see a third-person view with variable camera angles à la Resident Evil or other such adventure games. But we found the optional pseudo-first-person view to be much more useful, because it swings the camera down just over Hansen's shoulder and provides you with a free-look ability and a laser sight (at least with the default pistol). Even better, you'll switch on a handy flashlight while in this view, which comes in awfully handy in the dark confines of the ship's lower decks. You can walk around freely in the shooting mode, which makes exploring the ship with the controllable perspective a must.

Interestingly, gamers who haven't found their sea legs might take a while to get used to playing Cold Fear. Roughly half the game takes place aboard the whaling ship, while the remainder sends you to an ocean oil rig. In the words of one Ubisoft rep, "The game is quite nautically themed." In the demo, the ship was tossed around violently by a rough storm, which actually made items (and bodies) slide from side to side, occasionally costing Hansen his footing. Giant waves crashed against and sometimes over the side of the boat, and with the camera angle moving just as loosely, weak-stomached gamers could potentially suffer from a little motion sickness watching it. We found the effect to be pretty realistic, though, and it fit nicely with the setting.

The game's third-person-shooting mode is useful for both exploring the ship and scoring headshots.
The game's third-person-shooting mode is useful for both exploring the ship and scoring headshots.

All the enemies we encountered in the short demo of Cold Fear were human...or at least they were all humanoid. As it turns out, some kind of parasite has infested a large number of the passengers aboard the ship, turning them into bloodthirsty monsters that are hungry for your jugular. It seems the parasite nests inside the host's noggin, so you can fire away at a possessed enemy's torso without dropping it. One well-placed headshot, however, will result in a shower of blood and cranial fragments. More importantly, it'll take the monster down instantly. If you do manage to knock down one of these former humans without killing it, you can run up to its body and hit the action button to stomp its head into mush before it gets back up.

Aside from all the shooting of former-human monstrosities, the Cold Fear demo had a bit of simple puzzle-solving that mostly required us to find a key card in one area and take it to a locked door in another. One novel room required us to shoot out a wall-mounted box to disengage some electrical systems. The catch was that this room was flooded with water up to about waist level, and the ruined box had a live wire dangling from it. We had to wade through the room and conduct our business quickly, because as the boat rolled from side to side, the wire got dangerously close to the water we were standing in. Eventually, we were electrocuted when the ship pitched too far to one side. On a side note, though, it's possible to have Hansen grasp a rail while shooting to provide extra stability, because the boat will literally throw him around when it's tossed too violently by the rough seas. Hopefully, the game will incorporate more such tricks in its mechanics and level design that play on the setting in this sort of imaginative way.

Cold Fear has a nice, moody look to it, though we only got to see the deck of the ship and a few of the rooms below decks during our brief demo. The outdoor beginning was especially impressive, with the rain coming down in torrents and waves exploding over the bow during the raging storm. The internals of the ship were extremely dark, making the flashlight a must in a lot of cases, though the game didn't seem to rely on typical survival horror-style shock-scares to creep you out. The design of the ship itself seemed mainly by the numbers, though exploration did reveal the occasional grisly set piece (such as an eviscerated killer whale on a cutting-room table) or a cutscene depicting a possessed human's entrance.

You may very well have to develop a set of sea legs before you can successfully plunge into this game.
You may very well have to develop a set of sea legs before you can successfully plunge into this game.

Cold Fear looks to have some real promise so far, with a satisfying shooting model and a dark, sinister environment to explore. The basic framework on offer seems quite solid, so if the game presents a steady stream of disgusting new enemies and thoughtfully designed puzzles as you progress, it could turn out to be a satisfying action game for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Cold Fear is currently slated for release in March, so look for more on it before that time.

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