There's nothing easier than firing a gun. Point at something, pull a trigger, and a bad thing happens to that something. Throughout human history, if one person wanted to kill another, they needed one of two things: the element of surprise, or a physical advantage (size or skill). The invention of the handgun has rendered both of these factors irrelevant. Now anyone can kill anyone else at any time by just pulling a trigger. So why do console controllers make it so difficult to do in First Person Shooters?
I'm a FPS junkie. I love the genre. I can't get enough of shooting people in the neck. I've played every FPS of note since Terminator, and most of the bad ones too. Ever since "free aiming" was introduced by Terminator: Future Shock, mouse technology has ensured that the FPS remain strictly the domain of the PC. Ports of PC shooters have tended to be watered-down, simplified versions, and the number of great console-only FPSs can be counted on two fingers, three if I'm being extremely charitable.
Console players are forced to choose between the frustrating inability to hit anything, or auto-aim so pervasive that it strips the game of any sense of accomplishment. To excel at a console FPS requires a steadier, more careful hand than anything other than the most realistic driving simulaton. Despite all this, I continue to flock to them, and finally my patience has paid off, because Cold Winter is, bar none, the best First Person Shooter ever released for the Playstation 2. And given the looming deadline of the PS3, it's likely the best there ever will be.
At first glance, the game might not seem like anything special. A strictly realistic shooter set in the recent past about a secret agent shooting people in a generically dusty country doesn't exactly set the originality alarm buzzing. The game's relatively humble premise belies the quality on display in every aspect of the production. This is a game made by professionals, working at the top of their game. Nearly every aspect of this game is better than it needs to be, and the game stands as a perfect example of how a by-the-number First Person Shooter, when done right, can truly be a thing of beauty.
Cold Winter has all the bells and whistles of a modern FPS, including a decent physics engine and relatively shiny graphics. The level design is perfectly adequate for a linear game. If there's never really an option about which way to go next, at least the areas themselves are well-designed enough that I rarely felt like I was just killing the same person in the same room over and over again, which is always a danger in this type of in game. Firearms are also extremely well represented in the game, with a wide variety on display all of which look and —more importantly—sound as threatening as they must. This game might actually be something of a milestone as it contains both the PN 90 and the G11, the two sci-fi looking guns famous for appearing far more in videogames than in real life conflicts. There are also silenced weapons available which have no practical use in the game other than to suggest there was a time during its development when stealth was going to play a much bigger role than it currently does.
There's no sneaking to be done in this game. It's a straight blast-fest from beginning to end, which puts that much more pressure on the enemies to be both compelling and challenging enough to hold the player's interest. Just how accurate the enemies should be is always a troublesome thing for videogame developers. Too inaccurate, and the game feels simple and unrealistic; too accurate, and it feels incredibly cheap. Cold Winter manages to find a perfect balance between these extremes.
Enemies will often miss the first shot, but rarely the second. I didn't see too many advanced tactics on display— flanking, covering fire, and the like. But the enemy is remarkably good at using cover, even if they sometimes get confused and put their backs into an explosive barrel or—in one early level—a set of widely spaced prison bars. The enemy's effectiveness actually provides a nice smokescreen for graphical shortcomings; they're sufficiently deadly that the player will rarely get close enough to notice just how many of them have the exact same face. Add this to the fact that enemy heads have the habit of exploding like a ripe watermelons when shot, and someone could play the entire game without ever noticing that they were fighting an army of clones.
One of the key reasons the console first-person shooters have always been so much more difficult then their PC counterparts is the lack of a quicksave feature. There's always a sense of security in PC first-person shooters: no matter how deadly situation I find myself and I always know that if worse comes to worst I can simply jump two minutes back in time now armed with knowledge of the ambush that awaits. Lack of hard drives (or stubborn refusal to use said hard drives) left console players unable to utilize this tactic, so console shooters were made simpler through the addition of things like Halo's personal shields or Rainbow Six's hit points.
Cold Winter has a similar feature. In addition to body armor, players have access to an endlessly refillable health bar. Even on the brink of death all players have to do is find themselves a quiet location and press one button to completely recharge their health over a period of seconds. The thing that separates this from, for example, Darkwatch's blood shields, is that its use is completely optional. Less skilled players will find themselves able to beat the entire game without dying (provided they don't stray too near any cliffs or explosions) while experienced players can play the game strictly realistically, surviving only as long as they can keep stealing body armor from the corpses of fallen foes. This option seems to have been the intent of the developers; the game even rewards skilled play with more armor. Opponents killed cleanly with head shots will leave behind a more intact bulletproof vest than one killed by a Molotov cocktail.
While its rock-solid post-Halo game design makes Cold Winter a pleasure to play, it's the game's story that really makes it stand out from the pack. Yes, it actually has one! Not only that, it's told surprisingly well for an FPS, and it actually features such startling elements as well-written dialogue and an interesting character. There's a real touch of professionalism to the story that's seen far too rarely in games. The story blends nihilism with an almost religious awe of SAS "hard men," takes place in a post-nationalistic world, and features some of the most well-intentioned super-villainy of all time, all of it wrapped up in one long H.G. Wells reference. The fact that all of these elements work so smoothly together is a credit to the game's script, and I wasn't surprised to find Warren Ellis' name featured in the end credits. Actually, from a content standpoint, this is just a well-written M-rated James Bond game. Which means it's like a James Bond movie…only people get stabbed in the eye with pencils.
With the exception of a small item collection scheme which allows players to build their own grenades, Cold Winter offers nothing distinctly new to the FPS market. Instead, what it brings is excellent design, good storytelling, and eight to ten hours of entertaining violence to a console that's never had it so good. Serious FPS players have always tended to shun the consoles in favor of their PCs. Now they finally have a good reason to pick up a PlayStation controller.