If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Resident Evil 4 is probably sitting in a corner blushing a deep crimson and awkwardly avoiding eye contact with Cold Fear. Perhaps accusing Cold Fear of being an average imitation of the Capcom classic is selling it somewhat short, yet the comparisons and influences are clear to see.
You play the role of coastguard Tom Hansen, who – along with your ill-fated coastguard buddies – responds to a mayday from an adrift Russian whaler. Landing on the stricken vessel, they quickly discover it is doing an admirable if alternative impression of the Marie Celeste in that almost all the crew are missing (or, in many gruesome scenes, butchered), and those few still present are… changed. Before long you discover the Russians have been trying to harvest and control a parasite called Exocel, but their efforts have unsurprisingly gone awry, allowing the creatures to take over much of the crew and subsequently kill the rest.
Cold Fear‘s strongest and most prominent feature is in the scenario and setting of this cursed, deserted vessel. Taking place in the midst of a ferocious storm, the ship lurches from the power of the ocean and is continuously thrown violently from side to side. If you are on deck you need to watch out for waves and be careful not to slip off, although you can similarly use this to lure your enemies into makeshift traps. This also affects Hansen’s aiming, as being in such volatile surroundings makes things awkward to aim you weapons, as you might expect. Whether inside or out on deck, the incessant weather effects and oppressive, chilling atmosphere grant the game a very unique and commendable location, and help to elevate it from the realms of mediocrity. It’s a shame then that the game is based on the ship only for about a third of the total playtime, switching to an uninspiring oil rig partway through.
The camera follows Hansen from a third-person perspective, and it closes in for an over-the-shoulder view when he aims his gun. Most weapons come equipped with a laser sight, and you’ll need to destroy most enemies’ heads to kill them. On the whole the aiming is sturdy and precise, and the fact you can strafe and move around whilst aiming helps compensate for the enemies’ speed and ferocity. The arsenal of weapons you attain is the usual pistol-shotgun-flamethrower setup, although you can get a ‘pheromone’ gun which can be used to distract foes so you can run away or gun them down.
One of the key elements of any horror title is in the enemies’ design, yet it is something which is so hard to get right. For the most part, Cold Fear follows the well-worn path with mutant-zombie types (replete with running; much like the Infected in 28 Days Later) and bigger/stronger variations thereof. Things become a little more interesting and varied when some later enemies are introduced, such as demonic hounds who can short out lights in their vicinity (guaranteed to shit you up first time you experience it), and enemies who can become almost invisible, with only a slight light refraction giving them away, like Predator. Sensibly these more unique enemies are not overexposed, which keeps them feeling a little more challenging and distinctive.
The plot and characters are completely useless, making even the Resident Evil games look like narrative greats. Hansen is your typical cocky, defiant, square-jawed all-American lead, with some sort of military background and a disgrace in his past which is never made clear. The voicework is average and the soundtrack is adequate if unexceptional. Enemies sound reasonably apt, emitting monstrous screeches and screams. All in all, it feels as though developer Darkworks cobbled the plot together from a collection of Resident Evil entrails and some of those terrible horror movies you find in the rental section of your local video store. It’s a shame the narrative isn’t a little more inspired, because the backdrop is certainly one of the game’s strongest aspects.
The ship itself (and later the oil rig facility) is a myriad of claustrophobic corridors, derelict and impassable passages and locked doors. It’s a setting which could easily slot into pretty much any other horror title, which is both a testament to some overall solid design and perhaps an underhand remark at the overriding familiarity of some sections. There are a few areas where the ship setting again proves interesting, such as a room which is flooded and when the ship leans to one side, the water hits a malfunctioning electric control panel and instantly becomes deadly. Sadly these instances are not emphasised or frequent enough, and the game is again all too comfortable to slip back into emulating Resident Evil.
Technically speaking things are fairly adequate, if not exactly spectacular. The graphics are nice and solid with some good lighting and weather effects, although the game does have a slightly irritating tendency to envelope everything in darkness in a cheap albeit effective way of increasing the tension. Loading is fairly common although comparatively brief, and there is a nice line in physics with all manner of items on the deck being flung around (including hazardous suspended items like hooks or lifeboats).
Arguably the game’s most jarring flaw is the omission of a map. It’s such an utterly perplexingly stupid decision; it’s like trying to play through the apartment blocks in Silent Hill 2 or the police station in Resident Evil 2 without any reference aid, and it could be a means to artificially lengthen the game’s six to eight hours playing time (which it certainly, irritatingly does). As though they recognised this when it was too late, there is a near-useless ship general floor plan in the booklet, which is about as much use as a chocolate ashtray. Furthermore, the game boasts one of the most irritating and awkward final bosses a modern game has ever featured, in that if you don’t work out how to beat him in about three seconds, you have to do it again, and again. At least the checkpointing is generous.
While Cold Fear never manages to reach the giddy heights of the games it tries to emulate, it is still an enjoyable and solid survival horror title. If you are looking for something to help tide you over before the release of Resident Evil 5, you could do much worse than pick this title up. It’s a little too comparable to other survival horror titles at times and although it’s not exactly pushing the boundaries of the genre, it is still a worthwhile entry.