Who wants to be an ex-police sniper fired for shooting a hostage by mistake? It may sound like a very bad movie premise, or a joke character from the Naked Gun series, but here he is: John McAffrey – no.1 with a bullet. Our man is now off the force and doing the Sam Spade thing, working in a dingy office with little money but a plucky and attractive secretary. And with this hackneyed premise, let the barrage of narrative and gaming clichés begin.
Cold Zero is a point-and-click isometric 3D action-adventure. It has RPG elements jumbled in with single-unit RTS gameplay. Imagine Commandos, Desperadoes or Robin Hood, but with one guy to control instead of a team. Think of Syndicate, but zoomed in a little. That’s the general feel of Cold Zero.
The simplicity gained by losing the pack of followers is lost by having plenty of other things to take care of. It’s like being trapped in the brain of a zombie. Every little thing has to be controlled. Put on the bullet-proof vest! Reload your gun! Now move some stuff around in the inventory! If you’re undaunted by the large amount of micro-management involved, the faff may be worth it, but the barrage of stats to keep track of and improve tells us that Cold Zero has good dice-throwing credentials. All doubts about the RPG flavour are dispelled by the rather involving inventory management. Each item of clothing, weapon or item has a weight cost and will slow you down; each weapon, as well as needing ammo, will wear down with use; you can only carry a fixed amount of things.
But what about the combat? Enemies crowd around and then stack up, dead or unconscious. The idiots walk towards you, shoot or hit, then run back. One guy might take a pot shot or two, then get bored and return to his patrol path. It’s depressingly primitive. A line-of-sight indicator (borrowed from Commandos) lets you know when to duck and when it’s safe to move. If you cross a thug’s path he’ll manifest a question mark (curious/worried) and then an exclamation mark (alarmed).
You’re supposed to sneak rather than charge, although our man is equipped for both. He has multiple stances: crouch, walk, run or “walk in an aggressive manner”. This last means your weapon is at the ready; you walk more slowly than usual, but will be quicker to react. A stamina meter slowly drops as you crouch or run. Both are obviously intensive, and when out of stamina your man will revert to a normal walk. This can be disastrous if you’re sneaking around in the middle of heavy enemy numbers. As you kill more people, solve more problems and turn more switches, you can level up on stamina and many other things, as per the gospel of RPG. Strength, fighting and lockpicking (for example) can all be improved. I last saw this feature in Deus Ex, and I think Cold Zero tries to set a similar mood of dark conspiracies.
This is not a beautiful game. In a scientific poll I showed this to 5 different people and asked for first impressions – to be summed up in one word. “Crap” is the nearest family-friendly approximation to the answer I got every time. This might sound harsh, but I’m not just talking about texture sizes or colour depths; you can pile those on and still not look good. It’s the design that’s a little bit rough, and much worse is the character animation. To call it puppet-like would be an insult to the proud industry of string yankers and marionette-danglers. Our hero glides about and clambers with the most bizarre slow-motion awkwardness. There’s plenty of clipping, too.
The physical level design is frustrating as well as bland. Everywhere you are stopped by arbitrary rules. Standing on a big container? You can clamber up onto that rooftop, sure, but don’t try stepping off the side. That one-inch drop to the pyramid of crates is obviously enough to paralyse you in fear. It doesn’t help that the mouse cursor doesn’t always change to show “impassable” when it hovers over, em, impassable spots. You just have to accept there are some places you can’t go.
Rather than the fake 3D of Robin Hood (for example), here you can swivel the camera around and look about in all three dimensions. The camera can zoom in and out and lock onto the hero from anywhere on the map. To anyone who’s played an RTS this is a standard and familiar feature. Having to swing round can be a burden, and one task too many when you’re in the thick of a fight. What’s more, roofs don’t always go transparent. If you’re on the far side of a building you’ll often disappear.
The idea is that when you stand outside a building with a low roof, the roof will fade to show inside (except when it doesn’t). As you hover the mouse over the floor inside, the cursor shows that you can move there. Clicking is useless, however. You need to find the door on the building, wave the mouse over it until it the cursor shows a hand, and then click on that. Our hero will go and open the door (well done!) and then can be led to that spot on the floor. If you’ve ever felt the need to lead a sleepwalker around, this should give you that kick.
Your secretary lives in your head. One more instance of the “female voice in ear” game element. At certain mission points she’ll pipe up with new information or a change of plan, or you can call for help or report a problem. Unfortunately your little private conversation can be broken up by bad guys. At this point you have to keep track of where your man is, what’s being said (both heard and seen in the little speech bubbles) and fighting back. Or you might rely on the tendency of enemies to take a few lazy shots and then get bored and leave.
Good music can enhance a game, but nasty music… Well, let’s just say that the infinitely looping soundtrack brings to mind bad episodes of Miami Vice or Riptide. Think bad 80s cop shows, bad 90s reality TV shows, bad hair and men with rolled-up blazer sleeves. What’s worse is when you notice the “join” in the loop, so that a few seconds before you find yourself gritting your teeth, bracing for impact. Yes, I know I can turn it down.
It’s all needlessly complicated. While RTS gurus will scoff at the click-load in this game, it’s still heavy. Where’s the fun? In a story-driven action-adventure like this, the fun lies in exploring environments, fighting baddies, discovering plot twists, meeting new characters, and being exposed to new and interesting situations. There’s a danger that the gameplay, the fun experience might be buried under the interface and burden of management. Cold Zero has fallen into the trap of giving the user too much to do. Whoever said “Less is more” may not have been aware of video games, but the motto still applies.
Still, the awkwardness may not have been as much of a problem if the core game were a mind-blowing experience. It’s not.
Cold Zero does more than walk down a well-worn track. It rolls along a deep channel cut by an infinite number of games before it. And with so many genres sampled, so many game concepts dropped in, the result is a bland, anonymous blur.