Welcome to Ghosts of Gaming Past — here we’ll be reviewing older horror games, classics and non-classics we missed when they were originally released. Have a game you’d like reviewed? Send us an email.
Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
There was a time when survival horror games ruled the earth, and Resident Evil was the franchise to aspire to be. 3-D environments seemed to match the mechanical limits those games aspired to, and being scared is always a good time. Resident Evil, specifically, touched off a whole horde of copycats and lookalikes, and some of them seemingly got lost in the deluge.
Cold Fear doesn’t quite fit into the category of a lost gem of the genre, but it’s close enough. A spate of neo-survival games hit the market in the early-to-mid-00s, based somewhat on a resurgence in interest with sci-fi franchises like The Thing, and Cold Fear seems to rely heavily on the game and story type of a The Thing survival game released in summer of 2002.
What separated The Thing (and later Cold Fear from the Silent Hills and Resident Evils of the world is that they were more action-oriented, less puzzle-focused, and just generally more interested in killing aliens than other survival horror types.
Cold Fear is an action-centered survival horror game released by Ubisoft in 2005. It is a contemporary Resident Evil 4, which moved that series’ focus from a puzzle-heavy, combat-starved game to something approaching an action shooter, and Cold Fear is not really altogether different.
It’s a bit more sparse, narrative-wise, and it doesn’t quite capture the magic of a more well-known franchise, but what Cold Fear offers is fun combat and moderate exploration within the framework of a new and interesting setting. It’s definitely worth a playthrough for those people who long for simple, sometimes simplistic, open world survival horror games. It may be a game that reminds you of other games, but it seems to be close enough to an homage to the genre to draw favorable comparisons of the games it makes you think of.
In Cold Fear, you play as veteran, wise-cracking Tom Hansen, a member of the Coast Guard who happens upon the weird events taking place aboard a Russian whaler in the Bering Strait. All of the ship’s crew has been infected by alienish creatures called exocels. They’re slimy, slightly wormy creatures that inhabit their hosts and turn them into murderous pseudo-zombies. Through mere exploration, you become entangled in the mystery of what has happened on the ship and work with a young Russian woman named Anna, daughter of a scientist on the ship. (SPOILER: he’s probably got something to do with it.)
Not surprisingly, Anna is the lynchpin for the trajectory of the entire game. Much of the plot revolves around the player’s efforts to (a) save Anna or (b) find things that will save Anna. It’s not the most cogent video game plot you’ll encounter this year, but for the time period, it’s on par with what you’d expect.
Beyond the story, the overall gameplay is standard zombie / alien fare, but the combat is solidly responsive and there are plenty of enemies to kill throughout, so you’ll end up enjoying the experience if you can buy into the plot. (Anyone who’s played games from ten years ago will have no trouble with this.) In fact, Cold Fear attempts mightily to build a mythos around the game’s events, mostly through journals, but even with some bonus narrative, the story still feels somewhat thin and watery.
Not to mention that Cold Fear cribs heavily from its influences, including The Thing and Half-Life. The floor crawlers look curiously similar to the headcrabs from Half-Life, and shooting a burst of flame at a nest of them attached to the wall, while satisfying, takes cues from John Carpenter’s masterpiece. I should also probably throw a little bit of Metal Gear in there for good measure. Still, oddly enough, the familiarity of them reaching out and picking from their influences adds to the overall charm of the game, for me.
Combat, really, is where this game sets itself apart from it contemporaries. There’s a lot of shooting in here, and though it’s not excellent, it’s not bad, either. The quantity of bullets you fire blurs the edges of how imprecise the shooting can be, at times. And you get pretty good at taking down enemies, because you have to be, because the normal exocels relentlessly attack – with butcher knives! – whenever they get close enough for hacking you to pieces. They aren’t your typical hack-wait combos, either. Once they get to going, they don’t slow down, which forces you to be ready for enemy-heavy encounters.
Not only that, but killing enemies generally takes more than just putting a half-dozen holes in them. After an enemy is downed, you have to walk over and stomp on its head (!) to put it out of your misery. Cold Fear predates Dead Space by a few years but still includes a near-integral mechanic from that game, which is interesting. In fact, there are plenty of similarities between the two games, but I won’t get into all of the details here…
However, the head-stomping mechanic, though satisfyingly squishy, also proves to be a microcosm for some of the major gameplay issues. It works whenever it works, but it doesn’t always work. If you happen to knock an enemy down on stairs, or in the corner of a room, the “interaction” icon won’t light up and you can’t finish off the enemy off properly, and it will keep getting up until you get it right. One-on-one, it’s not that big of a deal, but if you encounter a three or more enemies, you’ll have a hard go at putting them down for good.
A good horror movie or game gets the setting right, and Cold Fear makes the ship itself a character in the game. Whenever players are outside, waves crash dangerously against the side of the whaler, causing damage for those who cannot time their advances well. The best aspect of being trapped aboard the ship is that players are forced to learn the geography. The game can be somewhat linear, but even for those who stick mainly to traversing from one spot to the other will find themselves picking up the lay of the land, and that is satisfying. Granted, you will spend quite a bit of time backtracking, but it does what any good haunted house flick does (or the original Resident Evil): it forces players to learn the environment so that the familiar becomes unnerving. Cold Fear achieves that.
The game takes players to increasingly dark, dank, and dangerous areas, only to encounter a broader spectrum of enemies, but the good news is that players aren’t generally starved for ammo. Several instances require an overuse of ammo, so occasionally you’ll run out, but for the most part there’s enough ammo. And additionally, each gun is given enough ammo so that players can test out those weapons without feeling like they’re wasting “valuable” ammo. I came to love the flamethrower, but the shotgun was also really satisfying.
As you work your way through the ship, picking up the various trinkets that unlock other dank parts of the vessel, the sense of repetition sets in, but what’s good is that the game never really stands still. There is always something to be done, a new part of the ship to be explored, and that delays the monotony of fetch quests for Anna, who is constantly in your ear. Get over the fact that you’re retrieving MacGuffins to drive plot forward, and you’ll probably have a good time.
Tom snarks his way through the majority of the game, and though the jokes rarely hit, Cold Fear should be given credit for having a sense of humor about itself. The dialogue sequences are filled with corny one-liners, but through the lens of time, one can appreciate what the devs were trying to do at this specific point in history.
The problem with Cold Fear is that the ending almost completely destroys the goodwill it had built up to by that point. There is a cool, action-y sort of ramp-up to the end sequence, but then the final boss shows up and puts a sad, pathetic period at the end of the game, where an exclamation would have been more appropriate.
It is bad. A laughable, frustrating, almost unplayable mess. The game also saves just before the final battle, so if you roll up on the end boss with a lacking amount of ammo, you’ll have a rough time trying to keep the lumbering, silly beast at bay.
The Final Word: The ending aside, Cold Fear holds up better than it should. It isn’t quite a classic, but based on some of the more alluring elements, it could at the very least be considered a cult classic. It’s a solid enough game, and it handles well, despite being nearly a decade old. You won’t find it nearly as funny or as horrifying as it wants you to, but then again, that’s the kind of charm that movies like The Thing and The Evil Dead are able to conjure up.
The combat totally still works, even if it is a little janky, and it’s also relatively short, all things considered. Give Cold Fear a shot if you’ve exhausted the Resident Evil and Silent Hill games or don’t find the pace particularly engaging, because even though the game never quite reaches the heights of those other franchises, it makes a great addition to the genre.
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