LINUXGAMES

Cold War

Review by Micks

There was a time when many of us thought Cold War for Linux would never see the light of day. DreamCatcher Games, the game’s original publisher for the Windows platform, decided they didn’t really care for the (already finished) Linux and Mac OS X versions all that much (not to mention problems arising from use of certain copy prevention software which I will get to later) and Cold War shipped with only Windows binaries included on the DVD ROM back in September 2005.

Mindware Studios, the Czech Republic-based development team behind the game, however, refused to give up and released a Linux demo which was also intended to serve as a public beta test. While the two full game levels included in the demo might not have been the most appropriate choice, it got Linux Game Publishing interested in Cold War. After several weeks of negotiations an agreement was reached between DreamCatcher & LGP. LGP then announced that a boxed version of Cold War would be made available to Linux gamers who hadn’t bought the Windows version later in the year.

The game was then subjected to more beta testing, several annoying bugs were eaten by LGP’s beta testing lizards. After many rounds of bug eating, the replicators were finally tasked with copying the gold master for the Linux version. As the game has already been out for some time in its Windows and XBox incarnations, you may have come across several reviews already and have noticed that some (or even most) of them found Cold War to be lacking in several respects. The two main reasons quoted were:

a) technical issues caused by employment of the StarForce copy prevention software
b) the fact that Cold War is not Splinter Cell

Let’s address these issues first and see if they have the same (if any) importance to us as Linux gamers. First of all, the StarForce question is irrelevant: while this software (or “rootkit” if you prefer) is obviously a sound contender for the most annoying piece of code ever, it simply isn’t present on the Linux DVD, consequently we are spared any of the cool features experienced by Windows users. Destroyed DVD-ROM drives or overall system responsivity reduced to maddening sluggishness (wait, wasn’t that an OS feature?).

Ok, so how about Cold War poorly pretendulating Splinter Cell? The easy answer to this is there’s no Splinter Cell on Linux, so you may as well shut up and stop comparing Linux versions of games to Windows games which are unavailable on this platform. (Honestly, I’m fed up with Linux reviewers whining about how the xyz game is older or weaker than zyx game on Windows — if you want to play Windows games, you’re free to dual boot or sell your soul to Transgaming). The comparison here is mistaken from the beginning. While Cold War and Splinter Cell are both from the stealth action genre, it’s awfuly superfluous to expect Cold War to be a Splinter Cell clone, then bash it for not being what you expected it to be. This is a separate game with its own virtues and design aspirations. Comparing the two games is as foolish as comparing Splinter cell to Metal Gear, then complaining with all of your mighty wit at the disappointment of the gameplay. Splinter Cell isn’t Metal Gear, Cold War isn’t Splinter Cell.

Cold War follows the story of a freelance reporter Matt Carter. Matt looks like he had been taking extra gym lessons at school, yet avoids using violence if it can be prevented. Rather than an AK-47 stolen from the special forces commandos; his weapon of choice is his wit and knack for creating unlikely gadgets from totally random resources. Both of these characteristics relate him in spirit to the ever-resourceful Angus MacGyver (and while this particular comparison is as tiresome as ubiquitous, it’s also rather fitting.)

Creating various gadgets is one of the key gameplay activities: to create a new contraption Carter needs to first gather “tech points” by collecting plans and blueprints, mostly found in scientists’ quarters, kgb officer’s briefcases or simply lying around on the porter’s table (carrying complex technical documentation on you for added flair was obviously common during the cold war era). Their number is limited and you have to choose carefully which gadget blueprints are going to be turned into developed into physical gadgets and eventually employed on any level. Once you’ve got a gadget ready for production, you need to collect resources (such as an alarm clock and appliance parts for a luring device) and finally combine them to create the contraption. The devices are divided into various levels of complexity and a higher level is only made available after a certain number of gadgets of the previous/lower level have been invented. This is one piece of game play which isn’t present in the demo.

Your choice of devices is crucial. It influences your style of play, as most situations in the game can be tackled in various ways, and, generally, some ways are most of the time easier (or simply more elegant) than others. Using a slingshot with a tracking bug to determine enemy movement even when they’re out of sight, then running quickly at the right moment might prove invaluable. Unless you impose futher restrictions on yourself by choosing one of the alternative game modes, you could as well try and simply shoot your way through. This is not only a rather boring way of playing the game (and definitely not one intended by its designers), but also horribly frustrating at times, since the higher level enemies (namely the spetsnaz) wear much better armour than you do and are extremely hard to overcome especially when you’re substantially outgunned.

If you have tried the demo, you may have come under the impression that Cold War is a difficult game. This is not entirely true. While the demo contains two full levels from pretty far into the storyline and no real tutorial to show you how to play, this is not the case with the full game which offers three difficulty levels, ranging from mildly stupid to extremely cunning enemy AI (and trust me, sneaking past four fully alert spetsnaz at “hard” is a real challenge,) and a nice introductory tutorial explaining game mechanics as the plot develops. You can further raise the difficulty by opting for one of Cold War’s special game modes, including “pacifist” (no killing allowed), time limit and “ghost” (limited amount of alarms allowed per level). My advice is: if you want to try the demo, have a look at the manual available online from LGP in .pdf format.

Unless an enemy is killed, they will eventually come to and start searching for you. There are three levels of enemy awareness, displayed in the lower right corner of the screen where you can also keep track of your health, current stealthiness and other important statistics. The red alarm level of enemy awareness means the opponents are actively searching for you, which might be just the time to use one of the special hideouts scattered across the map. I’m not sure whether you can actually be found in there, but in any case, these come in pretty handy at higher difficulty levels. Looking out through a crack in the car trunk while you hear the spetsnaz walking by and muttering “he must be here somewhere” makes for quite a bit of an adrenaline experience.

Regardless of the type of play you choose, you’ll want to use your X-ray camera. If I didn’t know this one was supposedly invented by some evil KGB guys, I’d swear it comes straight out from Q‘s laboratory. (I still think they stole the design from him). You can use the camera to see through walls, knock out enemies by targeting their brains and even blow up things. On one occasion you’ll even use it to determine a patient’s diagnosis. My guess you’ll decide he needs a deep sleep from which he will probably not wake.

The graphics are fairly impressive and Mindware’s own Meng engines scales well even on moderately aged hardware (you should still make sure your GPU supports all necessary OpenGL extensions); the demo has exactly the same hardware requirements as the full game, so you can use that to check out performance. The lighting in particular works really well, rather unsurprisingly for a stealth-based game. The light sources unlike the infrared cameras, however, can’t be manipulated, which is one of my few complaints. Being able to take out the lights, then blow up things with the X-ray camera would be exhilarating.

The game takes place in three principal locations with lots of variation brought in by the designers. You’ll be forced to revisit certain places under radically different circumstances. Keeping your eyes open will often pay later, when knowing the shortcut might gain you the three seconds necessary to complete the mission. Having more enemy types or locations would be certainly nice, the game offers enough content as it is; interiors, exteriors, weather effects — you name it. Cold War clearly concentrates on gameplay; rather than providing a realistic stealth experience it aims at recreating the atmosphere of a slightly over-the-top spy movie circa 1980s, complete with tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, basically every spy stereotype you can think of and music that wouldn’t be inappropriate in a James Bond movie.

If anything, this is what is to be expected of Cold War — a highly playable yet funny take on a spy thriller, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously — having fun is encouraged. All of this combined with a solid 20+ hours of gameplay (not to count the possibility of replaying in a different mode and at different difficulty level for a very different game experience). I’m torn between a final score of 8/10 and 9/10. There’s the lights you can’t take out and the fact that we haven’t seen Midware’s engine show everything it’s capable of just yet, a few more types of enemies wouldn’t be bad either… Well, I’ll just give it 8 out of 10 penguins and a honourable prize for the most enjoyable Linux gaming experience of 2006 so far.

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Screenshots:

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