Cold Fear Review

I have a slight confession to make: I love the heck out of Deep Rising. Yes, it’s a cheesy b-movie starring Treat Williams of all people, and helmed by the director of Van Helsing, one of the worst movies of the last five years. But you want to know what sold me on Deep Rising? The consistency of the atmosphere and a sense of sheer fun, plain and simple. The movie is a heck of a lot of fun as far as sea-monster movies go, and nothing other than the design of the final creature could be mistaken for original, but on the whole Deep Rising is an enjoyable way to spend the afternoon.

The same could almost be said about UbiSoft’s latest, Cold Fear, because while it nails the consistently creepy atmosphere and lack of originality, the fun runs out about the mid-way point. By then, not only have you seen the genuine scares the game has in its entire repertoire, but you will have figured out that Cold Fear boils down to finding a key then backtracking to a previously locked door. Now imagine yourself on a whaling ship and an oil rig with no map for either, increasingly powerful knife-wielding zombies and monsters, and apply this principle.

The result is a game that opens strongly with a flawless cinematic that sees a hardened team of soldiers ripped apart ala Aliens by a lot of something we don’t see. Cold Fear’s opening goes down as a textbook example of how to draw the player into the story while showing just enough to set the stakes and illustrate the danger you’re about to plunge headfirst into. Once your character, a member of the Coast Guard, jumps in to investigate, we see further hints of creepy wrong-doings… for the first hour or so. After that, the game becomes a series of hunt-for-the-key/item while trying to place head shots on zombies. Because as we all know, unloading on a zombie’s chest with an AK-47 will just tick it off. You have to bust a cap in the brainpan and only then a Jedi will you… wait, wrong game.

So how is it that a game that starts so right can turn so average in such a short time? It’s all about unrealized potential my friends…

The way the camera (or the scenery) rocks back and forth to simulate being on the high seas in Cold Fear stands to be a point of contention among gamers. On the one hand, it’s a so-simple-it’s-brilliant move by UbiSoft that perfectly encapsulates the game’s atmosphere and gives the player an unparalleled sense of you-are-there. On the other hand, the graphics are so strong and the continual motion so, uh, continual, that I found myself getting motion sickness while sitting on the couch. Two Dramamine tablets later, it was back to zombie re-killing on the rocking Arctic seas where I tried to not think about The Perfect Storm. The enemies in Cold Fear have more dexterity than you would initially think a zombie might possess, thus their movements are very well done. When they get in close, which is far too frequently, they will hack and slash and try to bite you with sheer ferocity. The moves of aiming, shooting, or pushing enemies away from you appear fluid.

It may seem an odd thing to single out considering the game takes place at night and in the pounding rain, but the use of specific colors in Cold Fear really added to the game. I like how everything on the ship, the characters, and the oil rig had different coloring to it. There was seldom a moment where even rust patterns appeared the same. There are plenty of rooms where blood stains covered half the room, and even there it never looked like it was part of the walls. It looked like something bad happened shortly before you arrived, and that tremendously adds to the immersion.

There is never a moment when you feel your character is not somewhere in the middle of the Arctic Ocean surrounded by cold death at every turn, and the sound effects are perfect for capturing this. I loved how the sound changed depending how far away from the outside you were. If you stand inside a room at the top of the ship or on the side of the rig, you can hear the gale-force winds and pounding rain. But if you’re at the bottom of the ship, for example, you can only hear the creaking of the ship itself. The sound effects help sell the idea of a haunted house at sea, which is really what Cold Fear wants to be.

The developers must have raided the sound files used for The Perfect Storm because every moment I was playing Cold Fear it seemed like Mother Nature was throwing a temper tantrum. The water, the wind, the rain and the ocean waves all strike you with a relentless fury that is tough to convey in words alone. That being said, the monsters and other enemies almost seem like an afterthought because while each one has its own set of strange and scary vocalizations, the love and care that was obviously showered on the environment was not used enough on those populating said environment.

The human dialogue is great, and the actors actually seemed to care about their characters rather than go wildly over the top. The only exception would be the lady who plays Anna, but she even reigns it in the further along the game goes. The sounds the monsters all make are really cool, especially the little exo-cells as they stretch along the floors/walls/ceilings. Kudos to whomever came up with their effects.

The controls in Cold Fear take a while to get used to. Having recently played God of War, which is literally the only game I’ve ever played where the use of a fixed third-person camera was done right, playing through Cold Fear and having the camera rotate such that I was unable to see in front of me proved problematic. The solution is to hold down the L1 button which locks you into an over-the-shoulder view. This helps tremendously while aiming with the right thumbstick and shooting with the R1 button, and you can even walk around while in this position. I actually played the majority of the game with this fixed position because the camera frequently shifts to vantage points that can be considered more “cinematic” in nature, but make it hell to see or hit any approaching enemies. I wish developers would pay attention to God of War as a case study in how to use the third-person fixed camera because they did it right. Cold Fear, meanwhile, does it very, very wrong.

Your character also interacts with the environment using the circle button, which lets him pick up ammo and items, search bodies, activate doors, and so forth. Holding down the X button lets your character run, but be aware that a “resistance” bar will appear that shows your fatigue dropping. The lower it gets, the less likely a chance you’ll have to fend off approaching enemies should they get too close. The triangle button grabs onto ledges, handle bars, or whatever is convenient for you. You will find this helpful if you’re too close to the railing when the ship gets hit by a big wave and tosses you overboard. The square button reloads your weapon, and the R2 and L2 buttons cycle through your weapon inventory. You can also press down on the right thumbstick to crouch.

Where Cold Fear really comes up short is the gameplay. The atmospherics and the sound effects are all top-notch, and Cold Fear really, really wants to be a haunted house at sea. What Cold Fear unfortunately winds up becoming is a treasure hunt for “keys” to “unlock” previously inaccessible areas that force a lot of backtracking through creepy environments. There are plenty of times when you will clear an area of monsters, then find out you have to go back through that same area to unlock a door and then you find out that several monsters respawned. Creepy.

I guess I wouldn’t be so hard on Cold Fear if it hadn’t thrown its best scares into the first hour of the game. During that first part, you get the feeling (and even see glimpses) of something watching you from the shadows, but after that point the game resorts to jump scares. Fatal Frame 2 relied on terrorizing the player psychologically throughout the entire game, with plenty of jump scares thrown in for good measure. Cold Fear goes through a lot of trouble setting up a great stage for scaring the hell out of the player, then doesn’t do anything with it.

So, looking past the lack of genuine scares, you might wonder how the rest of the game is. Not bad, overall, but nothing you haven’t seen before. The story itself is great and I really enjoyed uncovering it, but the manual of all things spoils a lot of the mystery. There are plenty of fun interactions between the characters and the cutscenes are worth playing for, but the endless hunting for the key to unlock a door really gets old quick. The early gimmick of the whaling ship rolling back and forth is great to look at, but tends to only hamper your aim. I never once had trouble almost falling off the ship because it is fairly easy to simply time your runs to avoid the waves and to avoid falling off the ship. Does it add to the atmosphere? Absolutely. Does it actually play a part in puzzles or anything directly related to your actions? Not so much.

To be fair, there are plenty of unlockables obtained through completing set goals in the game, and those are always fun to look at. I think the recent God of War set the bar for how to do unlockables correctly insanely high, but Cold Fear does have a fair share of interesting material to look at. The game manages to find that perfect middle ground of a unique and great atmosphere but clichéd gameplay to the point where I would recommend checking it out for the sights only because the fun is fleeting.

There is not a whole lot of replay value for Cold Fear, unless you really enjoyed the environments and the creepy atmosphere. The problem with pretty much all horror games (and movies for that matter) is that once you’ve been scared one way, it’s not that scary when you see it again. By the end of Cold Fear, there really isn’t anything that will scare the heck out of you, except the challenge on Hard Mode to unlock some additional goodies. Other than that, Cold Fear is a one-trick pony that doesn’t use its only trick any near as much as it should have.

I enjoyed Cold Fear for what it was – an average thriller with some above average story-telling and terrific use of atmosphere. I would never pay full price for it, but it’s definitely worth a weekend rental. The continual use of motion alone is noteworthy, but an interesting story, strong characters and credible voice acting and sound effects combine to elevate a rather generic title to B-grade status. The result of a great atmosphere with the potential for scares but the lack therein, is a title with a lot of potential that leaves you wishing there was more to it. The game has a great trick glimpsed at the very start, but fails to use that trick to scare the player again. Cold Fear starts great then goes downhill quickly, and that great shame there is comparing how strong an opening it has with how limp the remainder is.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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