Developer: Swordfish Studios
Meet Cold Winter's Andrew Sterling, a grizzled, battle-hardened former SAS man turned MI6 operative. Billed as an anti-Bond, Sterling is about as far removed from the stalwart silver screen secret agent as you can get; he's got a gruff demeanour, he dresses without flair and he swears like a docker.
If you thought international espionage was all about flash cars and sharp suits, think again; Cold Winter's storyline is unflinching, uncompromising and very, very bloody indeed. Fortunately, it's also cleverly constructed, laced with intrigue and backed up with some of the finest gunplay to grace PlayStation 2 yet.Sterling begins the game incarcerated in Chang Prison, China, having been caught spying on a military installation. MI6 is denying all knowledge - no surprises there - and Sterling is being gruesomely tortured while awaiting execution on Chinese New Year's Eve. After Danny Parish, an old pal of Sterling's from the SAS, helps him to break out, Sterling agrees to take on assignments for Parish's private security firm.
The first job is to go after a weapons conglomerate suspected of dealing arms to terrorists but, as Sterling goes to work on the bad guys, things become decidedly more complicated. Without dropping any spoilers, the plot breaks down into three distinct threads, which are cleverly unravelled and then woven back together as the game progresses. For an FPS, it's a surprisingly sophisticated narrative structure that adds a good deal of suspense to the on-screen action.Cold Winter sticks out from the console FPS crowd in a number of other ways. Shunning the usual 'run and gun' approach in favour of a more strategic shooting experience, it's clearly a game strongly influenced by PC shooters. What's really clever is the way it takes elements from some of the best first-person shooters on PC (the environmental interaction and tactical firefights of Deus Ex, the atmosphere and pacing of Half-Life, the goriness of Soldier of Fortune) and melds them into a cohesive and accessible whole.
The game's impressive level of environmental interaction means that you can pick up sturdy items like tables and crates then drag them, throw them or use them as cover (it also means that you can flush toilets, throw fish at people and more besides, should the mood take you). Given the unusually sharp wits of the enemy AI, who'll use cover themselves, jostle for better firing positions and flank you at every opportunity, it's generally a good idea to make full use of your surroundings.If this all sounds a little too tactical and hardcore for your liking, fear not. Despite the depth of its gameplay, Cold Winter is one of the most fair and generous games you could hope for. Frequent checkpoints mean that you'll rarely need to re-cover more than a few feet of ground, and this is just one of Cold Winter's ways of helping you out.
A friendly little waymarker always points the way to your next objective and Sterling's health pack can be used as often as is needed (providing he's got the time to administer it). That's not to say that Cold Winter is a pushover - try getting an A or B rating on every level if you really relish a challenge - but rather that it's a perfectly balanced game that delivers a consistently agreeable play experience.
That said, 'agreeable' is probably a rather odd choice of adjective for a game as relentlessly gruesome as Cold Winter. This is not a game that shies away from the effects that bullets have on the human body - in fact, it seems to positively revel in them.
Thanks to rag doll physics, enemy bodies quiver as hot lead sears into them before flopping lifelessly to the floor. Blood sprays everywhere and it's not uncommon to see limbs and even heads blown clean off, particularly when using the shotgun. I may be mistaken, but I'm sure you can sometimes hear a disconcerting squelching noise when you score a hit.
All of this, plus Sterling's aforementioned colourful language, gives the impression of a game that's worked hard to earn its adult rating. It's not for the faint-hearted and it's certainly not for the younger player.
During the course of his bloody and violent quest, Sterling encounters over 30 real-world weapons, from humble pistols to assault rifles, shotguns and grenade launchers, although he can only carry a maximum of two at a time. Dilemmas often present themselves as a result of this system ("Do I trade the semi-automatic for the sniper rifle?"), but it's in keeping with Cold Winter's tendency towards realism.
Aside from weapons, the rest of Sterling's inventory is hand-crafted by the man himself, using an ingenious 'item combine' system. Find a few rags of cloth, an empty bottle and a fuel can, for example, and you have yourself a Molotov Cocktail. As always, the game is completely obliging and user-friendly when it comes to these combined items, with a small on-screen icon telling you when there are new objects to be made.
The single-player game boasts over 15 generously sized levels set across eight beautifully realised environments. Powered by the ever-reliable RenderWare, Cold Winter is very easy on the eye. A ranking system for each level, based on accuracy, hits taken and suchlike, provides ample incentives to re-visit past missions, but there's also a wealth of multiplayer options to keep you playing too.
Offline, up to four people can play split-screen via a Multitap, but it's the online play that'll really get pulses racing. Up to eight players can engage in tactical gunplay over 12 distinct maps, with over 30 player skins to choose from and a variety of modes for both individuals and teams.