Horror titles always seem to have a certain thing in common. The overwhelming threat comes from some kind of evil source. Be it a mutated zombie or a crazed ghost, you can bet your bottom dollar that somebody has been up to hi-jinks; which makes Cold Fear a bit of an oddity. It's a horror game set on a boat, you see, and while there is a thoroughly evil threat to your well-being, there is another, much more immediate threat: falling off the boat. It's an interesting concept and one that is central to the game's appeal. But is it enough to make Cold Fear a truly worthwhile new title?
Whenever you hear about a new survival horror game, one franchise is inevitably going to spring to mind. Unfortunately for Darkworks and Ubisoft it's not one that they own. For any company, this automatically creates an enormous hill to climb. Anything they produce really needs to be either honed to perfection or do something very, very different. In a way Cold Fear is an attempt at both of these things, but neither element is sufficient enough to really make its mark. It's frustrating, as this is clearly a game that has been lovingly crafted and has some superb ideas at its heart.
The game itself puts you in the role of Tom Hansen, a coastguard sent to investigate a stricken vessel in the middle of the Bering Sea. At first appearing to be a regular whaling ship, things quickly turn interesting as Tom realises that something much more sinister is occurring. Cue lots of Russian scientists, military involvement and a selection of creatures hell-bent on your destruction. Just another day at the office then; if your office was a ship filled with mutated zombies, that is...
Central to the appeal of the game, though, is the time you spend on this ship and the threat it represents. With waves constantly crashing down upon you, it makes the possibility of being swept from the deck very real. This aspect of the game works superbly, mainly due to the creeping fear created by the graphics and sounds while on deck. It ensures that each step must be taken with extreme caution. Unfortunately, this is only used for a few very short sections of the game. It's one of the biggest disappointments, especially when it was the feature most aggressively promoted in previews. The actual core of the game is more focused on stopping the threat posed by the various creatures that inhabit the ship. In this regard, it's much more generic fare, using a third-person over-the-shoulder view to control your character throughout the levels. Holding the trigger draws your selected weapon, and when using the pistol, activates a torch to more thoroughly check those darkened corners.
In all honesty, the game itself isn't that scary either. Scares come from stock horror moments: creatures bursting out of lockers, appearing at windows and the like. It's all done competently, but there are rarely any surprises. A few nice touches do result in some genuine jumps of fear, but it doesn't get under your skin the way other games do. It's a real shame, as this is a nicely constructed game; it just feels dated in far too many ways. The combat system in particular can feel very sloppy, and things like headshots often feel fluked rather than earned.
Once again, though, combat has some very nice touches. As in any game with monsters, something is going to attempt to eat you at some stage. I mean, it's just the way it goes. This is where Critical Hits come in. Critical Hits are an alternative to merely shoving your enemies away when they grab you. They result in a rather gory (and deeply satisfying) death, but happen nowhere near as often as they should. It's another example of Darkworks shooting themselves in the foot by not focusing on the most enjoyable aspects of their game.
Puzzles (which are thankfully sparse) mostly come in one or two basic flavours: Find something and take it to another place or find a way to open that door. Nothing taxing, but it's far better than some of the dreadful puzzles other games lumber you with (I'm looking at you Capcom) and it helps to keep the action flowing. However, solving these puzzles does involve backtracking, which often becomes deeply irritating due to the lack of a map. You need to be pretty aware of your surroundings if you're going to avoid getting lost. This shouldn't be the responsibility of the gamer though; a basic map would have been very useful and it seems very odd that it was left out. Save-game points do help things slightly, being well placed for the most part, and help to move the game along; however a few long gaps between certain sections mar this and it becomes hard not to feel frustrated. It's like they're trying to annoy us on purpose sometimes.
The overwhelming feeling when playing Cold Fear is one of disappointmen, not because it's a very bad game, but because it had the potential to be something truly special. The production values are high and it's well put together - though it never gels as well as it should. However, it's certainly worth a rental - at the very least - and will undoubtedly provide some gamers with many hours of fun. Indeed, it's worth playing the game for some of the earlier sections on the boat alone. A solid title then, marred by a few too many irritating aspects, but certainly worth a go for anyone who enjoys a pulpy B-Movie blast.