Grab a jacket.
After plodding through the muddied waters of new video game releases, one inevitably learns that the "can't tell a book by its cover" cliche only applies to books. Might it be possible to shrewdly infer the caliber of game from the quality of its cover?
To begin our review of Vivendi's shooter, Cold Winter, we arranged a special interview with the cover of the game itself:
Me: Hello, Cold Winter's jacket. Can you tell me a little about yourself?
CW: You are Andrew Sterling. MI6 Agent...Disavowed.
Me: Okay, that's me. I asked about you. You must not be at all derivative of Goldeneye. Are you?
CW: No Tux. No License. No Mercy.
Me: Those are pretty tough words. What new features do you offer to back 'em up?
CW: Battle intelligent enemies who take cover and call for backup.
Me: Sounds difficult. Can America's gamers handle intelligent enemies? I mean, they actually take cover.
CW: Pick up, use, or throw most objects or combine to create useful devices.
Me: Let me get this straight - you can PICK UP objects? I don't understand.
CW: Bodies realistically contort as they take impact and damage.
Me: I'm overwhelmed. Does it also have sound and graphics?
CW: [Storms out of room]
Needless to say, the cover promises not so much. At least it's humble.
So naturally, I didn't expect much from this Goldeneye clone, and my low expectations were perfectly met. Cold Winter sets the bar low and keeps it there. Yes, enemies take cover. Yes, you can pick up objects and throw them. Yes, dead bodies do contort, but only 'realistically' if your name happens to be Gumby.
Just as the box promises, you play as Andrew Sterling, a characterless grunt who has been given the task of stopping a ho-hum nefarious arms deal threatening the entire world. The plot is given through lengthy dialogues, during which you will marvel more at the funny things British people say than you will at the torturously prosaic exposition. "He said Mankey, funny Brit!" There is no option to skip through the humorless, long sequences the first time through. The writing is bad, oftentimes dropping the F-bomb with as much sincerity and gracefulness as a fifth-grade girl trying to curse for the first time.
But the story is incidental, since your job is not really to understand what's going on, but to get from checkpoint to checkpoint while killing all those "realistically contorting" bodies along the way. Shooting is the gut of the game, and it can be fun. Using the same dual-stick controls that most first-person shooters employ, Sterling's movement and aim are fundamentally solid. The game supplies a good variety of weapons, ranging from semi-automatic shotguns and silenced sniper rifles to molotov cocktails and anti-tank artillery.
No matter which armament you prefer, each does serious dismemberment damage. Be it a grenade or simply a 9mm pistol, the "realistic" rag-doll physics err heavily on the splattery side. Shoot an enemy in the leg and it detaches at the knee. Shoot an enemy in the head and it pops like a melon. At times, the fragfest can feel like a Mr. Potato Head shooting gallery. Still, the gore does liven up the firefights.
As the interview suggests, much of Cold Winter's environments are somewhat interactive. Most tables can be tipped over to create cover, toilets flush and faucets spill water. You can also drag big items (like dumpsters) or pick up and throw any of the hundreds of propane gas tanks that bad guys like to leave lying around. Though cover is usually unnecessary and opening drawers and kitchen cabinets have no real strategic value, it's pretty cool to watch an enemy flip a table over and hide behind it when they see you coming.
What your enemies have in smarts, however, they lack in aim and armor. While Sterling parades around taking bullet after bullet in the chest like a T-1000, his enemies fly apart like they were made of cheese. To make matters even easier, instead of using health packs or power-ups, Sterling has an unlimited supply of some mysterious yellow fluid that fully restores his health through injection. If you're going to ride the train, why not go mainline?
Not only are the enemies easy, but the tasks and objectives are straightforward and always indicated by on-screen markers. You will never wonder what you are supposed to do next, since the game quickly ushers you from one checkpoint to another. This means two things: (1) the lengthy exposition before each level about what you are supposed to do is completely unnecessary, and (2) you will fly through the game in eight to ten hours without much of a hitch.
And really, there isn't much more to the game. Although you might imagine an MI-6 agent being clever at espionage, there is very little in the way of stealth. Most enemies spot you immediately, and even silenced sniper kills give away your location. Perhaps this is why you were disavowed, Sterling - you couldn't sneak into a school for the deaf and blind.
The in-game graphics are a bit dated, even if the physics are flashy. Characters look like Goldeneye rejects and facial features seem shaped from Silly Putty. At one juncture, you are introduced to a thing that is supposed to be an infant, but looks much more like a piece of uncooked dough with eyes and a mouth. It's the stuff of nightmares.
There's nothing dreamy about the environments, either, although the Middle Eastern urban setting, with its flame-lit interiors and wall murals, stands out as being the best. The framerate holds up with only a few dips during intense firefights, but the movement itself is a little slow. Turning the camera feels more ponderous than most FPS games and can mean death when someone is creeping up on your six.
But if the single-player campaign is merely in the middle of the road, the online game is chilling on the curb. Not only does the framerate drop considerably, but rough lag plagues most matches. During one memorable fight, I unwittingly became invisible and indestructible. At least the frag physics are satisfying and the action can get pretty intense. Watching limbs fly through the air during a grenade launcher battle might be up there with the smell of napalm in the morning as a cherished violent pleasure.
Even so, the online multiplayer is significantly incomplete. Included among many omissions are the inability for a host to kick out problem players (like my own invisible, invincible ass), the inability to turn off enemy indicators that give away your position, and the lack of any kind of statistical memory with which to rate your performance against others. There's no reward system, so despite its quick and dirty presentation, it can become more like an exercise and less like a competition.
There's also no reward system for the single-player game. While there are a few optional side-missions that lend some variety to a basically linear experience, performing them only increases your "grade" at the end of the level. What does the grade do? Zilch. There is absolutely no incentive to getting the highest grades.
If you've read this far, you can imagine that Cold Winter is not going to get the highest grade from me, either. The game's a breeze, which might appeal to novice gamers and people for whom achievement is more highly-valued than challenge, but doesn't do it for those better-versed in the art of fragging. Despite its bold box claims, the juvenile gore and gibbing is really the best thing here. This interview is over.