Cold Fear is a survival-horror game developed by Darkworks and published by Ubisoft for PC, PS2 and Xbox in 2005. After a Navy SEAL team gets slaughtered aboard a Russian whaling ship, coastguard Tom Hansen gets called in to investigate. On the ship, he finds hostile Russian mercenaries who are under attack by parasitic life forms named Exocels that have taken over most of their comrades. Stuck on the ship, Hansen decides to investigate the infestation and tries to exterminate the biological menace.
Cold Fear is a real clown-shoes experience narratively, as its story boils down to what's basically a classic-series Resident Evil story (complete with shoddy voice acting, a bunch of scientific notes detailing how the monsters work and people volunteeringly infecting themselves), only without the support of Capcom money.
On the one hand, I appreciate the pacing being fast so the game doesn't fester in its jankyness, but as a result of that, there really isn't much to latch onto. No one has an engaging personality (Hansen especially, who isn't even as campy as you'd expect), which lead me to just not caring about the plot at large. It just provides the minimal amount of material to be cohesive and not an ounce more.
Playing Cold Fear made me realize how important it is for horror games to have memorable scares and character moments, something this game lacks. This is especially evident when you look at Hansen's interactions with his ally Anna, who isn't even allowed to be a haphazardly cobbled together love interest. She's just there, and Hansen really cares about her survival for some reason. I understand that a coast guard would want to save someone innocent, but I need some campy justification about the virtue of living or some crap. Just any sort of flavour beyond the bland mess we have here!
The Exocel parasites are the most interesting part of the story, but they aren't utilized to their fullest. Despite being what amounts to parasitic Deep Ones, they aren't ever played for fear properly in the story. Hansen acts a bit disgusted and shoots them, and everyone else just treats them like you'd treat a new species of squid. Despite the potential horror advanced parasites represent, the game never makes use of it. No mercenaries infighting due to paranoia over infection, no journals about how an infected person is kept up by gurgling noises in their head, no nothing. As a result, the game is pretty unmemorable.
The combat is serviceable, but comes with some awful flaws. First up is the camera, which is a mess. The game is this weird stepping stone between classic Resident Evil and its fixed camera and RE4 with its over-the-shoulder view. You move Hansen through environments with either fixed or free camera angles and can switch to over-the-shoulder aiming at will. That could work, but here it does not.
Since the game doesn't use tank controls, you can move around pretty swiftly and there are surpringly few problems with getting where you want to go. But since the camera is bound to where Hansen is looking, it feels pretty bad when you try to look around an area that has free camera, especially since there is a little delay before the camera rotates. Either locking the player to over-the-shoulder view like RE4 or using standard twin-stick third-person shooter controls with free control of the camera on the right stick would have been better. Not to mention that the fixed camera sometimes clashes with the aiming mode, making it impossible to aim properly, since Hansen is in the way. Stairs in particular are not made for fighting, even though the game sometimes forces you to do just that. And worst of all, the game sometimes randomly locked me into aiming mode or stopped me from being able to aim!
Once you get used to the controls a bit, there is some fun to be had. Exocel mutants can only be killed by destroying the head, so you either have to aim properly and be rewarded with a really chunky headshot, or knock them down for a spell and go stomp their head in. The environments are also loaded with destructable barrels and valves that you can use for some carnage and there's even a bit of infighting between the Russians and the mutants, which is always fun.
One thing I noticed while playing was how much the health system changed my approach when compared to other horror games. There is no way to carry the medkits you find dotted around the environments, so you can't save up a stash for difficult encounters. That means that you aren't rewarded a lot for being frugal, so for a fair few lategame encounters, I found it best to just run past enemies, as fighting them for a chance to loot the room didn't seem worth it. This is especially true when you're backtracking and fighting enemies in rooms you've already looted. Failing that, there's also one enemy best fought by getting grabbed and doing a reversal QTE and one-shotting them without taking damage, which seems very backwards to me.
One last thing of note is how much the combat system struggles whenever you're up against humans with guns. One or two aren't so bad, but when you're fighting a room's worth of dudes, it's really difficult to make headway without running around the room like a headless chicken. You can crouch for cover sometimes, but the game really isn't built for that approach. With the healing system, weapon selection and crouching being what it is, I can't help but compare this game to Syphon Filter. The two games seem cut from the same bland cloth tarnished by non-standardized control schemes, but I gotta give Cold Fear props for ultimately being less aggravating at least.