These days, it seems every new entry into the saturated first-person shooter genre has to have some kind of gimmick in order to try to stand out from the crowd. Whether you’re talking about F.E.A.R.‘s slow-motion, Half-Life 2‘s Gravity Gun or Riddick‘s melee combat, pretty much every FPS out there has some kind of unique element to differentiate itself from its peers.
Cold Winter is no exception, but I’ll come to exactly why later.
In Cold Winter, you play the role of disowned British operative, Andrew Sterling. The game starts with a particularly grim premise; captured on an unspecified operation in China, abandoned by his own government, Sterling is thrown into a prison and left to rot. That is until – after six months of incarceration and torture – an old friend breaks into the prison under cover of the New Year celebrations to get Sterling out. The first couple of areas act as training levels and set the tone for the rest of the game, where you’ll get to grips with the agreeable controls, play around with the physics and generally get your revenge by killing prison guards by the truckload.
The weapon selection is extensive, and thankfully almost all feel suitably powerful. You get a superb kickback from weapons like the ‘Hammer’ semi-auto shotgun, or the deadly efficiency of everyone’s old favourite, the AK47. Sterling can only carry two weapons at once (just one of many Halo influences), but there is an extensive weapons list which covers all of the staples, from your basic semi-auto pistols, medium range assualt rifles, chunky shotguns, sniper rifles and, of course, all manner of explosive weapons and devices. The only thing is, with so many guns – and many of them automatic machine guns – a lot of them feel a bit too similar. Apart from a slight difference in accuracy and firing rate, there is little to tell some of these weapons apart. Perhaps a slightly smaller but more concentrated selection would’ve worked a bit better. Another thing which a found a little odd was that while these weapons have plenty of bite, they sometimes lack a little in bark. I’m not exactly an expert in weaponry, but after playing games like Black or Gun, it does feel a little like the weapon sound effects in Cold Winter are lacking in bass.
Which brings me to one of the most unique aspects – with the right materials, Sterling can create certain weapons and items. Want access to that locked armoury? Try to find some wire and pliers to make a lockpick. Run out of grenades? Combine rags, bottles and petrol to make some home-made Molotov Cocktails. Want to suffocate the enemies in that room? Just use some bleach and ammonia to make some gas grenades. There is a good handful of things he can create, and while it’s hardly realistic (I doubt if you really could create a timed sticky bomb from plastique, glue and a clock…), it certainly opens things up a little and gives you more freedom of choice.
Another way in which this game excels is with the small details. Refreshingly, you can search every downed enemy for any items you might scavenge. This could be grenades, a strip of cloth or even their body armour (depending on how you killed them and thus whether you left any armour intact). It really encourages you to fully explore the levels and pick up everything you can get your bloody paws on. You will also find dotted around the levels notes and information about where to go, what the bad guys are up to, or even just a bit of useless background information on the area or it’s occupants. Very little of it is actually relevant, and you don’t have to read all it if you don’t want to, but I thought it really fleshed things out and helped create atmosphere.
Probably the single aspect which I was most impressed with is the incredible physics engine. Created from Criterion’s RenderWare, this is probably the most advanced physics I’ve seen on the PS2, and it really helps to create a cohesive, believable gameworld. Boxes are blown through the air, files explode in a burst of paper and things in the gameworld move and react to your physical presence; which again all really helps with the immersion. Also worthy of praise are the excellent ragdoll physics, which are not only superb in their own right, but also interact with objects in the environment to a flawless degree. Once I killed an enemy by running up to him and throwing a radiator into his face. It’s probably quite disturbing that I should be so pleased about that…
I won’t go into the story in too much detail, but it plays out like a gritty James Bond plot. A bit like if Ian Fleming’s infamous spy had been written by Andy McNab, with touches of Tom Clancy. What starts out as a fairly rudimentary ‘hunt the terrorist’ theme soon develops into something a little more interesting, which is revealed gradually in-between missions in FMV sequences narrated by Tom Baker.
Yes that’s right, Tom Baker; he of classic Doctor Who fame (and, factfans, narrator on Little Britain). Baker is not only the narrator but the voice of one of the pivotal characters, John Grey. Other cast members include no-one I’ve heard of (Nathaniel Parker, Kristy Wu, Bill Dick, Colin McFarlane, Enn Reitel), but they all do a competent job and lend personalties to their characters. The script is also pretty good, written by Warren Ellis of Marvel and DC Comics fame. That is, apart from a bit too much needless profanity, but I suppose it is in-keeping with the adult themes of the game. The sound effects on the whole are very decent (other than my aforementioned issues with some weapon sounds) and the score is pretty good.
One thing to note is that this is a very adult game. As mentioned above, it has eccessive use of many of the worst profanities, and the gore is gratuitous to say the least. Like the notorious Soldier of Fortune, you can shoot individual body parts off your foes, so you can take off enemy’s legs, heads, hands, feet, etc. Swordfish would probably claim they’ve gone down the ‘realism’ route, but it is a bit much. Stay away if you are squeamish.
Technically, it was never going to be a PlayStation 2 tour de force, but it is pretty decent all the same. It has some lovely special effects such as motion blur when you’re dangerously close to an explosion, and real-time lighting which is impressive purely because it’s so unusual on the humble PS2. The AI is also admirable, one of the best I’m aware of in a PS2 FPS. Enemies will run around, try to find cover and generally prove they are no ordinary cannon fodder. You would do well to return the favour. Levels vary from medium to long length, although they can take some time to explore if you want to discover everything. The level design is on the whole very decent. There might be a couple of occasions when you’ll feel you’ve seen a few too many Middle-Eastern streets and would like to move on, but the game generally makes timely jumps from location to location. Loading is in-between levels although nothing too serious. In fact, almost all load screens are disguised by the mission debrief speaking over it, so it may be you won’t really notice it at all. It really helps keep the pacing consistent, and is much better than simply watching an extending bar at the bottom of the screen.
As much as I like this title, that’s not to say it’s without it’s shortfalls. Strangely – and while this isn’t really a fault, it’s nonetheless a design decision which bothers me – Sterling has infinite medpacks. There’s nothing done to explain this or excuse it; it just ‘is’. Consequently, it doesn’t help what is already a fairly easy game. If you are experienced with FPS and want a challenge with this game, you should probably start on Veteran difficulty (i.e., Hard). There is an Elite difficulty but it is not available until unlocked. The thing is, I’m not actually sure how to unlock it. You get ratings after every completed level, and it seems you will only get the elusive ‘A’ ranking if you achieve all secondary objectives (which tend to be along the lines of finding relevant documents, finding all weaponry, eliminating particular characters, etc) and have a unnervingly high accuracy. I’ve only got A on a couple of missions and consequently, Elite remains locked. Another slightly jarring problem is that you can’t customise the X and Y axis speed or sensitivity. It’s not really an issue as the default is very comfortable, but I would’ve liked to modify it a little, had the option been there. I wouldn’t say it’s guilty of any glaring faults, but there are a few things which could’ve been included or tidied up.
The gameplay itself is generally of the run-and-gun school. The pacing is pretty similar to the early levels in Halo, although here you are always a lone wolf (bar one very brief exception), and you can go off to do some minor exploration in pretty much every level. Thanks to the addition of the good enemy AI, competent controls, various weapons and superb physics, the gameplay is fast, furious and never less than entertaining. It all fits together in a very slick, very playable package, and is much better than many bigger-budget, higher-profile FPS out there.
So, to conclude, this is a brilliant effort from a small development team, which succeeds not in flair or in originality, but by doing the things it does very well and having an extremely solid structure. If you want a quality FPS on the PS2 and haven’t given Cold Winter a try yet, I fully recommend it.