Hello all! Last week’s game was an N64 classic that was alternatively manic and relaxing. I preferred the relaxing part, but to each their own.

Today brings us a somewhat obscure PS2 shooter I found in a bargain bin once.

That PS2 Magazine quote so undersells this game.

Cold Winter is a PS2 game developed by Swordfish Studios, who also made the inexplicable 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand (which is better than you’d think). In Cold Winter, written by comics scribe Warren Ellis (writer of the increasingly relevant Transmetropolitan) you play as a blank slate of an SAS agent named Andrew Sterling. Sterling’s task is to stop an organization called Greywings, led by John Grey, from launching nuclear weapons all over the world. Grey’s plan is to create a nuclear winter, causing future generations to be intrinsically afraid of nuclear warfare.

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It’s a more interesting plot than you would expect, given the basic cover art up there and the fact that this was the kind of game you’d typically find for ten bucks in a big bin at Toys R Us, like I did. Even though at its core, Cold Winter is a basic shooter, you see things you wouldn’t see in other shooters of the era, like, say, Black. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.

As I said, Cold Winter is a more or less basic FPS. You explore levels and shoot enemies. It’s a little more complex than other shooters of its time; you can kick over tables to create cover, and you need to watch out for enemies flanking you—a tactic you seldom see AI doing even today. There’s a healthy amount of weapons to choose from, but none of them really stand out; they’re all of the same pistol/machine gun/shotgun archetype, but they feel powerful, which is a tough feeling to consistently create. You ever play a game where the guns don’t feel like they’re doing a whole lot? Older Hitman games come to mind (don’t take that the wrong way; I love Hitman).

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Cold Winter has a decent-sized campaign; not long by any standards, but long enough, with a couple of interesting levels. A sniper filled canyon and a journey with a hazmat suit come immedaitely to mind. There’s also multiplayer, but like virtually every PS2 shooter save Tribes: Aerial Assault, it’s mostly forgettable. In short, as far as gameplay goes, what you see is what you get with Cold Winter. Which is not to say it isn’t fun.

I mean, what surprised me about Cold Winter, and why I’m writing about it here, is how complete and focused it is. It’s brief, and it’s basic, but it’s also...competent, for lack of a better word. What I expected from buying this game for cheap was a brainless shooter I could blast through in a weekend and forget about. What I got was a shooter that kept things simple, but damned if it didn’t work so well. Maybe it’s a “less is more” approach? But the game plays well enough to keep you playing till the end. Lots of (similar) guns, well-designed levels, not a lot of fringe minutae details like collectibles. That’s fine, really; if we needed to collect everything in every game, we’d never finish anything. Sometimes it’s great to play a game without much else except the action; no, not every game should be like that—that would be awful. But some games, the ones that know what they are, should be.

What I also got, by whimsically throwing away $10 on this game, was a different type of plot one might not be used to with such a loud FPS, especially a PS2 shooter like this. I mean, I went in expecting a kind of wartime plot, maybe a Big Bad that you had to fight at the end in a convoluted, messy boss battle. Instead, thanks to Warren Ellis, we got a poignant, somber rumination on nuclear war. The specter of ludonarrative dissonance looms about a bit, as the story doesn’t always sync with the gameplay; indeed, the plot is a bit of a slow burn, focusing much on John Grey, the antagonist. Here, in this loud, straightforward murder-fest, we have a kind of sympathetic villain; John Grey actually has a noble goal in mind (ending nuclear war forever), but he’s misguided and going about it in the absolute worst way possible. It’s easy to sympathize with him, while at the same time condemning him; the ends certainly don’t justify the means in Grey’s case, and I think deep down, even he knows that. Invariably, he only wants what’s best for his granddaughter and her generation, but he chose the most horrible route in that goal.

See, I can’t believe I wrote all that about the villain in freaking Cold Winter, a game many of you probably didn’t know existed. It’s far from the best game in my collection, but it is one of the biggest surprises. The plot is exceptional, and the game holds up well enough to see you through to the (fairly good) ending.

Also, John Grey is voiced by Tom “The 4th Doctor Who” Baker, so it’s got that going for it, which is nice.

Thanks always for reading! I have a Twitter and I like talking to people, so follow me!

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Next week brings us a classic PC adventure game based on a popular sci-fi TV series. I really can’t be more specific without spoiling it. Someone will guess it :)