Despite the PlayStation 2's dominance in this generation's console war, the console hasn't been able to provide a great, exclusive first-person shooter. The Timesplitters series has been the leading franchise on the PlayStation 2, yet that has been available to Xbox and GameCube owners. Killzone had its moments, but ultimately fell somewhat short of its potential and little else has given PlayStation 2 owners anything like what Xbox owners now expect from an FPS.
Cold Winter, an FPS from Swordfish and Vivendi Universal Games, goes down the secret agent route to deliver an all-action, explosion heavy experience. You play as Andrew Sterling, a disowned MI6 agent who has been sentenced to execution for spying in China. You start the game as an old friend saves you from more extreme torture (you've already had your finger rather disgustingly broken) and impending death. After escaping from your captives you are employed by a private security agency and embark on a highly dangerous mission that puts your own life and that of your friend at risk.
While Andrew is an ex MI6 agent he has a distinct lack of gadgets - something that you'd normally associate with secret agents and videogames. He does, however, have access to an awful lot of weapons and explosives. You are limited to the Halo-like 'two guns at once' system, but weapons are dropped by all enemies and are freely available in supply crates scattered around the game's levels. These range from your standard spy silenced pistol, to ridiculously powerful flame throwers. The range of explosives is equally high, with grenades, smoke grenades, gas grenades, timed bombs, sticky bombs and more. Most of these are created by combining items that you pick up throughout the game and you are rarely without a sack-load of explosives.
Given the extreme amount of weapons and explosives that the game provides you with, you'd expect a lot of action, and the game doesn't disappoint. The developers clearly loved explosions, with gas tanks around every corner and liberal amounts of destructible objects placed around the levels. For the most part the game's engine holds up well, but a cascade of explosions and the resulting flying debris will cause the framerate to bog down considerably. Cold Winter's visuals are best described as rough, but quite pleasing at the same time. Character models are all pretty basic, but they can take a stomach churning amount of damage, with blood spurting violently across walls and limbs flying off in all directions. Environments range from beautiful to drab, with texture work often falling victim of 'PlayStation 2 dullness', but on the whole the environments make for interesting locations to play in. Sadly there's no 60 Hz mode for us Europeans and no widescreen support either.
This game carries an official BBFC 18-cert and it's obvious why. When the screen isn't being filled with more blood than a Tarantino movie, the characters can't stop swearing, sometimes with unintended comical results. The voice acting (which includes a major role for Little Britain narrator Tom Baker) is very British, but some lines simply don't work, causing laughter at moments of extreme tension. Cold Winter's storyline is undeniably gritty, and bursts of laughter don't help. The soundtrack is suitably spy-esque and changes to match the situations Sterling finds himself in. The one major letdown is the cutscenes, which really don't match up to current standards. Considering that there are an awful lot of them this is a little disappointing, but they are good enough tell the story, despite looking PSOne like in quality.
Enemy AI is fine for the type of game Cold Winter is. These guys aren't going to be able to take on any Elites from Halo, but when they come at you in groups they are pretty challenging, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Sterling uses the environment to his advantage, tipping over tables, cabinets and a number of other objects in the environment to make cover. This gives you some protection against the almost endless gunfire, but isn't so useful against missile or mortar shell fire.
A first in any first-person shooter (that I can remember anyway) is your everlasting medipak. You can give yourself a much needed health boost as many times as you want; the downside being that this procedure takes an eternity and really can't be used in the middle of a frantic fire-fight. Obviously wanting to do things a little differently, you also have to search every fallen enemy for goodies - rather than simply walk over them. Searching bodies will often give you body armour (which you can seemingly bolt onto your existing armour) and you'll want to keep your armour level high in order to survive some rather accurate enemy fire.
During each level you have a number of objectives, some essential and some optional. Most objectives involve you blowing something up or simply reaching a certain part of a level, but things never get boring. This is partly down to the game's rather short campaign; just as you are starting to get into the story the game suddenly ends - a rather unsatisfying end it is too. Thankfully, a strong multiplayer component is included.
Four players can play split-screen on one console and this works very well, despite single system multiplayer action becoming a rather neglected feature since the introduction of online game modes. The standard game modes are included and each game can be customised with whatever weapon setup you want. There's a lot of fun to be had offline when you finish the campaign, but that isn't to say that online play hasn't been included. Cold Winter supports up to eight players online with the same game modes and customisation options that are available offline. The small number of players is a little disappointing, but the maps are designed well to cater for this.
Cold Winter clearly didn't have the budget of other big name first-person shooters that have graced the PlayStation 2, but that hasn't stopped Swordfish from creating one of the best the console has seen. The single-player campaign is almost criminally short, but it's extremely enjoyable while it lasts, and the multiplayer modes provide plenty of fun for everyone. If you are looking for an ultra-violent disgraced secret agent shooter that packs more explosions than a nuclear plant manned by Homer Simpson's less intelligent long lost brother, Cold Winter won't disappoint.