Would coming out four months earlier have made a difference for Cold Fear?
The game is so similar in almost every respect that it's difficult not to compare it to Resident Evil 4, and it suffers greatly by that comparison. So the question becomes, if there hadn't been a Resident Evil 4, would Cold Fear have recieved a higher mark than it's getting here? Probably not.
A third-person survival horror game, Cold Fear concerns the adventures of Coast Guard officer Tom Hansen as he battles his way through hordes of ravenous zombies and mutated freaks. It offers the same innovations as RE4, i.e. the zombies now sprint, and guns can be manually aimed at critical areas. Tom has a few new moves available to him as well, including moving while shooting, and steadying his aim by grabbing onto nearby railings. Of course, none of these are actually new mechanics to survival horror; almost all of them appeared in the surprisingly good (but now forgotten) Extermination back in 2001. Just because it took games four years to start ripping off Extermination doesn't make the gameplay fresh or new.
The game's biggest claim to originality is that it's set entirely at sea, which gives the physics engine a chance to really show off. It's great fun to watch boxes slide around on deck, and crates swing dangerously through the air, but the game never really does much with the mechanic past the first area. While tilting camera and swaying characters are visually impressive initially, it soon becomes clear that they have very little effect on gameplay. Other than one location on one deck where a steep tilt can send Hansen sliding off the ship (to instant death), the gameplay isn't really affected by the rolling waves. No matter how steep the angle of the deck gets, neither Hansen nor the zombies he fights ever seem to have any kind of a problem getting around on it. There are as many railings as one would expect on a whaling ship, but Hansen is never forced to hold onto them to keep from being knocked off his feet. Frankly, this seems like it could have been a fun game mechanic. Imagine: Hansen having to hold onto things to keep from being thrown off his feet, watching the zombies get tossed against walls and over railings since they're not smart enough to do the same.
Sadly, nothing like this happens, which makes the apocalyptic, Perfect Storm-esque waves that buffet the ship seem far less impressive and scary than they really ought to be. Maybe it's because only the first third of the game takes place on a boat, and the rest is set in a decidedly more stable environment. Perhaps the developers thought it would be a waste of time to program new physics for a small portion of the game. The end result is that only a fraction of the setting's promise is realized, making the game look much worse than if it had just been set in an Antarctic research lab in the first place.
There's a wide variety of weapons on display, and other than the most useless flame-thrower since The Thing, they're all very good at splattering enemies all over the game's walls. That's right—this is an incredibly, excessively violent game. It seems to have come from a school of thought that believes too much is never enough. Every human (or humanoid) creature in the game can be killed with a single headshot, but that wasn't enough for the good people at Darkworks. No, they thought it best that every headshot should be accompanied by a Scanners-esque cranial explosion big enough to make the player ask just what kind of pressure those skulls were under. The game doesn't even offer the player a choice in the level of violence they involve themselves in, since the zombies have stunning recuperative powers, and can only be killed by causing their heads to explode. It's not a game for the faint of heart. Or stomach.
Perhaps the amazingly gruesome methods of disposal are a technique meant to distract the player from just how lacking the design of the game's enemies are. It's not that the enemy design isn't good; it's that there's only one design per enemy. One kind of zombie, one kind of hulk, one kind of demon dog, one kind of mercenary, etc. That the mercenaries all look exactly alike is by far the most preposterous. I mean, I can't tell one demon dog from another, but why does every single mercenary have the exact same face and head? This is why developers put gas masks and night vision goggles on bad guys. There are only seven or eight different kinds of villains in the game, and no effort was made to keep the player from getting tired of the wave after wave of them. Perhaps the developers thought the game was so short that no one would have time to get sick of blasting the head off the same zombie over and over.
Yes, it's a very short game. Well, maybe not short; it's really more small than anything else. The game takes place on a whaling ship and a drilling platform, and neither of them are large enough to be the setting for an entire action-intensive videogame. That's not to say the game is a breeze to play through. The extreme level of difficulty posed by some of the monsters and the absurd amount of backtracking required will ensure that even the most patient player will grow very weary at the generic and repetitive locales.
Maybe all of this would be bearable if there was an interesting story to hang all of it on, but sadly, that isn't the case. It's the most generic scenario imaginable, with scientists attempting to generate monsters for use as bioweapons, only to have them get loose and… do I really have to describe the rest of the plot, or can anyone who's ever played a video game fill in the rest for themselves?
Also questionable is how little effort was put into making any of the characters plausible or coherent. And I'm not just talking about the terrible, seemingly phonetic voice acting. There's a complete lack normal human reactions from the main character. At one point, early in the game, Tom Hansen sees the dismembered corpse of one of his co-workers, with whom he's presumably worked for quite some time, and all he can think to say is that he's glad he found the code he was looking for on the man's corpse. I'm playing as a sociopath, or an amazingly one-dimensional character—either way, it's hard to imagine why I'd be interested in seeing this man's story play out. Later in the story, he dedicates himself entirely to saving the life of a woman he's just met, seemingly just because that's what main characters do in videogames. Maybe he's not so much heroic as impressed by the fact that on a drilling platform in the North Atlantic the woman would wear a parka so small that it serves only to provide a framing device for her enormous breasts. If there was a lower common denominator, the developers at Darkworks were apparently unable to find it.
The one really noteworthy thing about Cold Fear is just how similar it really is to Resident Evil 4—not just regarding technical and mechanical aspects, but in terms of specific plot points as well. Beyond both games being about a generic action hero out to rescue someone's busty daughter, there are a surprising amount of specific plot overlaps. The main "monsters" of both games are prehistoric parasites brought up by drilling, parasites that send tendrils into the victim's brain and turn them into bloodthirsty, weapon-using, running zombies. And they're parasites that can only be revealed by blowing off the zombie's head. Both games even feature doors with retinal scanners that can only be unlocked by salvaging a corpse's eye.
If Cold Fear had come out a year after RE4, I would have called it an obvious rip-off, but it must have been almost completely finished by the time RE4 was released, which makes the similarities a little more suspicious. The theft would have had to take place while both games were in development. Since RE4 went through a very public redesign more than halfway through development, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that RE4 was the one cribbing from Cold Fear's playbook. If it's true, they can't be faulted too badly. After all, they did a much better job with the same basic elements, which is really the biggest problem with Cold Fear. All of the elements that make up a decent survival horror game are on display here. The monsters, the violence, the simplistic, action-oriented storytelling… They're just so shoddily rendered and assembled that all they add up to is a mediocre experience.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.