Cold War

If gaming technology today had existed during the eighties in the last decade of the Cold War, what would the games have been like? Would we have seen a massive run of adaptations to titles such as an RTS Red Dawn or a Fallout style RPG based on The Day After? Or an MGS style gameplay idea with Firefox? Hollywood didn’t fail to pick up where gaming failed to do so, unleashing upon the world heroes and films such as those featuring favorite commie buster “Rambo” who did have games based on his exploits. We also had Dolph Lundgren’s ‘breakout’ film Red Scorpion, and Rocky’s bout with Dolph’s ‘Ivan Drago’ before the Politburo. Yes, there was no shortage of films based on the cause of freedom versus that of the ‘Evil Empire’. Consoles would return to the forefront of gaming, but by then Communism was replaced with Mario, Luigi, and one crazy turtle named Bowser. There was really no point to beat a dead horse even though we would also get Strider and the alternate history hit from Westwood in the form of Command and Conquer’s Red Alert later on.

But from the shadows sneaks Cold War from Mindware Studios, their first title. Can it bring some interest back into the Cold War as a war title can to WW2? Or will it disappear just like another political prisoner behind the Iron Curtain?

The traitor was interrogated on the Xbox. It is also available for interrogation on the PC.

Better Red…and Dead

Cold War takes place in 1986 as perestroika and glasnost ripple throughout the Soviet state and across the world. Matthew Carter is a journalist eager for a good story and soon he’s given a lead that takes him right across the Iron Curtain and into the heart of Communism. He doesn’t waste any time, sneaking into Lenin’s Mausoleum off of Red Square where he hopes to eavesdrop on a private meeting between the Soviet president and the unknown. He aims the camera to take a shot and suddenly discovers that it…ah…can see through flesh and bone like an X-ray. Not wanting to zap his subjects, he takes a test shot of an extinguisher near where they are standing and snaps his secret photo only to see the extinguisher explode.

This brings the attention of a squad of guards and before he knows it, he’s cornered and forced to surrender, the victim of a frame up and is soon taken to Lubyanka prison…the notorious home of the KGB. Fortunately he’s not alone. Two others were also framed by the corrupt KGB colonel who orchestrated the betrayal and now, reluctant allies are all that stand between Carter and death at the hands of a madman who wants to take control of the Soviet empire.

If you can buy that, then you might just be ready to save Carter and the world.

Caught on Film

The game is a sneaking action adventure behind the Iron Curtain and as Matthew Carter, the player has a host of options with which to work with. Carter is able to ‘sneak’ about, using shadow to stay hidden or quickly sprint across open ground to find cover elsewhere. If you can get him to sneak up behind someone, he can knock them out with a quick punch to the back of the head, dope them with ether, or eventually slit their throats once the journalist loses his sensibilities. There are also action points at many spots in the game where you can also perform certain actions such as hiding beneath desks or slipping through windows or small ducts to get to other areas.

Carter also has the uncanny ability to build things that would make MacGyver green with envy. As you explore the areas in the game, you’ll run across folders, briefcases, and tubes with blueprints. Some of the innocents you run across in the game also carry blueprints with them, revealed after you search them. Picking up these prints allows Carter to amass ‘tech points’ that can be used to open up gadget types from seven different tiers, each successive tier becoming unlocked after three gadgets from a previous one are learned so wisely choosing which ones to pick up and which ones to ignore is something to keep in mind. New gadgets that you learn how to make include mines made from bullets and cans, plastic bullets from plastic bottles and bullets, or dope swatches to knock out enemies with ether bottles and rags. To help feed his inventor’s habit, there are components found everywhere ranging from appliance parts, screws, cans, and plastic bottles so careful snooping is rewarded and is sometimes necessary to build your arsenal of freedom.

But perhaps the most useful tool that he has in his repertoir will be the X-Ray camera that he had somehow ended up and had nearly assassinated the Soviet president with. The camera has ability to see through walls and people in a limited range with the option to add a zoom function to it once Carter has managed to learn how. This particular function is very useful in seeing behind doors and, to a limited extent, through walls to observe the surrounding area to make sure that soldiers aren’t waiting for him on the other side. The effect is pretty cool, with a green tinted screen showing the outlines of corners and doors, and walking skeletons as guards and soldiers go on their rounds. Another function allows him to pump a burst of radiation into someone’s brain, knocking them out for a time. If the camera can see them, you can shoot them. You can also shoot cameras, temporarily knocking them out while you sneak past them. While the ‘scanning’ ability of the camera can be used for as long as you have juice (the camera is self recharging), the shot ability is limited by how many fuel cells you have left. Fortunately, you can make more as long as you have the necessary items and technical know how.

Stalinist Propaganda

But what would a sneaking game be without foes to sneak against? There are several enemies that will fight for the Motherland ranging from the regular guards, to KGB agents, to the feared Spetsnaz special forces of the Soviet military machine. All of them will be found throughout the game, walking patrols and protecting areas where journalists aren’t particularly welcome. Carter, however, is more than just your ordinary journalist. Apparently, his secret espionage skills are more than a match for anything that the Soviets can send against him. Whenever you approach a point of interaction like a corpse on the floor, you can engage a simple menu with a press of the button freezing the action as you decide what to do. This ease of control extends to much of everything else that Carter can do, whether it is deciding whether to knock out an enemy or dope him with an ether rag, open doors, or slip through windows. The game also allows the player to literally save anywhere which is convenient given that Carter isn’t bulletproof.

He also has the camera that can see through walls and a handy map system that can show him where he’s been. He can even tag foes with tracers if he’s got the tools and the tech points. The player also has a meter that can measure how ‘visible’ Carter might be in any given area, to help gauge whether he’s as hidden as he’s supposed to be or not. There’s also an indicator that shows you what alert status the area is currently at with three levels…green meaning everything’s great, yellow for caution, and red for when everyone is on alert looking for where you might be. All of this will be extremely valuable since Carter isn’t Sam Fisher. After about three shots, he’ll be another statistic for the rolls of the KGB. There are medical kits that can help bandage his wounds available if he can find them, though, keeping him from having to learn the tech skill that allows him to turn an explosive arrowhead into a cauterizing powder (I’m kidding, that’s not really in there). It’s still a very good idea to stay out of the line of fire as much as you can. Carter isn’t exactly built for war. Eventually you will be able to wield weapons that you pick up and use them against your foes, aiming and blasting away from an over the shoulder perspective but more on this later.

He can also sneak, run, and hide beneath furniture or inside lockers, taking advantage of the shadows and a snap of his fingers to lure foes into ambushes. Perhaps in a sign of the times that are fast approaching the Soviet state, the enemies in the game apparently had all of the same training, maybe in order to cut costs. The only difference being with the Spetsnaz who have night vision goggles and their protective helmets and gear making them a little more dangerous. But not by much. Carter can overcome these elite with as much ease as he can take out the absent minded security guard doing his rounds at Lenin’s mausoleum. There is also the matter of these enemies coming around after you apply said fist to the back of their head. You can drug the bodies with anesthetics that you might find, keeping them out for awhile longer, otherwise they’ll eventually come around and start making a fuss. Or you can put a bullet in their brain, but this isn’t an option early on in the game as Carter won’t shoot ‘innocents’ until later. Still, there’s no alarm system to circumvent if tripped, no extensive patrol patterns to memorize or any real consequences to worry about, no danger of leaving bodies out in the open to be discovered heightening the danger around you. Even the cameras are easy to avoid, sporting a bright red laser beam that trips a short alarm if it passes over you.

But wait…you’re still in Soviet Russia! Glasnost wasn’t that open, was it? Yet, Carter can leave bodies where they are…knocked out or dead, you decide…wait for someone to find them and observe as they launch a search for where he might be at, and then quickly dismiss the corpse by reporting back that you’ve gotten away. They’ll even try and kick the corpse to see if they can wake it up before wandering around for a few seconds on their search. That’s right. In the heart of the Soviet Union, perhaps sensing the winds of change, guards dismiss most of these incidents with nothing more than a cursory search and then quickly resume their posts.

You can try and create your own sense of reality by grabbing the bodies and putting them away somewhere if you want to avoid having to wait out the searches or drug them to keep them under, but I found myself pretty much leaving most everyone where they were later on in the game. Even if they woke up, or if someone found them, who cares? They quickly forget that they were attacked and head back on patrol. I realized later in the game that there wasn’t a real point to having drag bodies everywhere or take extra precautions if I could find a good hiding spot. Soviet Russia in Cold War wasn’t all that scary.

To further stretch your sense of disbelief, there are several occasions where the game scripts in opponents where there weren’t any before…or shouldn’t be any unless they had gotten past me somehow. Reinforcements I can understand, but not when they should have raised some kind of alarm because of the mess I left behind. Ironically, you can sometimes catch this with the X-ray camera if you know where to look. At one point I used to to scan past a door I knew enemies would be waiting for me. At first, I saw nothing…until I got close and saw them pop into existence and begin their patrol, finding the body that I had left behind.

Stalinist Propaganda

This is too bad because the world of Cold War is a lot more impressive than the people that live in it. If there is one thing that you can appreciate, it is that the title has brought Soviet Russia to life with exceptional set pieces.

From Lenin’s mausoleum to the offices of Chernobyl, the various areas of the game look and sound fantastic with creaking doors, humming machinery, and a kind of nighttime fog misting its way through underground tunnels. Thunder rolls in the sky, shadows darken hallways and brightly lit areas raise the hairs on your neck as you realize you have to try and run exposed to whoever may be looking in that direction. In Soviet Russia, the architecture owns you. It’s too bad the same cannot be said for those that live there.

The textures for our Soviet citizens feature blurred edges and smudging making it appear as if the character models were pressed and then had their clothes spray painted in low res. That red dot you see on the forehead of Spetsnaz soldiers? That’s supposed to be a red star. It might look better on PCs, but on the Xbox, that’s what you saw. The focus of the best work seems to have centered around the main character, Carter, who looks like the harried journalist that he’s supposed to be, but that’s still not saying much.

Animation is also another mixed bag. When you wield a weapon, the game shifts to an over-the-shoulder view which suddenly sees your character appearing to ice skate over the floor. There is also the odd speed at which the characters can move while crouched and while ‘jogging’…which is about the same speed. Sprinting is available for those short runs, but only for a few moments.

The sounds in the game are actually pretty good, with AK-47’s barking gunfire, pistols bursting with fury, and makeshift mines blowing up nicely in the face of your foes. The music, on the other hand, was a mixed bag and really didn’t do a whole lot other than act almost as ambient background noise. It was okay for the moments that it would play at, such as when it tried to create tension when someone heard you snap your fingers and slowly sauntered over to investigate, but on the whole, the score was just there.

You must Think in Russian. Think in Russian!

Okay, so the Soviet Union is suffering from some personnel problems. But Carter is on the trail of a possible Pulitzer here. The story has to be good.

Actually, no it’s not. The story is told in between levels through a series of static cell shaded 3D stills which are hard on the eyes and do little to build up the story in any fashion other than allow the actors to recite the lines for their parts. You’ll also start to wonder if the writers had actually done any research to give the story even a thin veneer of some credibility. From the beginning, you notice little things like the fact that the guy referred to as ‘President’ in the game looks nothing like Mikhail Gorbachev.

Wait, President?

Isn’t this 1986? I thought the guy was still the General Secretary of the Soviet Union at the time, but I guess that the title wasn’t as impressive. And the dialogue, while not as bad as Dolph Lundgren’s in Red Scorpion, most of what you’ll hear in the game comes close and much of the voice acting is as bland as a Siberian steppe. Hearing Carter, a journalist, pronounce Pulitzer one way and his Russian compatriot pronounce it the ‘correct’ way is only one minor example. There were more than a few tongue in cheek moments like this that add up.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be as bad if the title didn’t place as much emphasis on a real world situation as it stretched the credibility of everything else. You have really have to swallow a lot of other things that the game throws at you like the fact that the main character has magic hands, creating things like rubber bullets out of a plastic bottle and ammo in the shadows, or in building remote detonators and mines from bullets and appliance parts, all of which ask you to check your brain into a gulag. There’s also the matter of the Soviet military’s best being as dumb as rocks. Raising the difficulty of the title when you start only affects the damage that Carter receives, but it doesn’t make any of the enemies any smarter or feared.

All of this would probably not have meant too much if it the overall story had been better, or had better support from its characters. As it was, there wasn’t a whole lot there to help make your emotions swell with fear or disgust, tremble in delight at success, or care about any of the characters to any great degree. It was only there to just push the player into the next chapter, to give them an idea of what to do next. Most of the characters were flat and uninteresting, especially the main villain who looks more like a pencil pusher than someone that you’d actually be afraid of…unless he wanted to give you lead poisoning. When it did get to certain events that were world shaking, they did not have the impact that they otherwise should have. There weren’t many real surprises from the characters, only in their apparent lack of ability to add color to the story.

Much of the weakness in the story can also be blamed on the gameplay supporting the world it takes place in, but some of it still has to be borne by the paint-by-the-numbers plot itself which asks you to suspend your disbelief to buy the idea that a journalist armed with an X-ray camera is able to literally wander about the most secure locations in Soviet Russia. There are a few interesting moments where you use a security system to help guide a character to safety, carry another through a building avoiding patrols as you try to get them to the clinic, or in getting someone to safely follow you as you clear the way ahead to your next objective but it did little to sell me completely on the would-be hero.

You Will Lose

It’s hard to tell where Cold War is coming from. Is it trying to compete or stand alone as a sort of intro to stealth gaming? I’m inclined to think that it’s the latter.

Simple stealth mechanics and a world filled with foes armed with the intelligence of lemmings may appeal to players that have never picked up a Splinter Cell or have played any of the Metal Gear series, but veterans of these titles will find little to challenge them here and feel as if the title has taken a few steps backwards. While they might find the locales exciting, the story and the characters fail to take advantage of them as they follow a predictable plot in a Soviet Russia policed by morons. Despite all of its flaws, there was still some entertainment to be found. It was a little refreshing to play something that you didn’t have to take too seriously to enjoy and the crafting system is something that I would have wanted to see more of…as long as I didn’t think too much on it.

For the price that this currently asks for on the Xbox, players there might not feel as burned as PC owners might be. PC agents may be better served by looking up the previously released mission profiles of Splinter Cell or, if they have a console, pick up an old copy of Metal Gear Solid or its sequel for a much deeper, stealthier experience in the shadows behind enemy lines. Cold War has some things going for it, but not enough to leave the shadows cast by its peers.

- World 1-1