Updated: Feb 2
We are now officially in the season of Autumn - or ‘Fall’ for our friends across the pond - and the mercury is starting to drop. In short, it is getting cold. Cold has been used both thematically and as a gameplay mechanic in many games over the years, sometimes to great effect. Join me as we take a look at some of the standout games, or levels therein, that have implemented cold particularly well.
Note that I am excluding winter sports games from this roundup. Why? Partly due to there being so many of them that the list would become huge, and partly due to my disinterest in sports games in general, which has resulted in my relative lack of experience of them.
With that out of the way, let's jump in. (Remember to wrap up warm.)
1) Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising
2001’s PC exclusive Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising was a curious blend of real-time strategy and third-person vehicular combat, similar to the earlier Carrier Command games. It started off in familiar enough early 21st century RTS territory, fighting tanks, helicopters, AA turrets, and the like. Its setting was the temperate and semi-tropical islands of the South Pacific. However, by the halfway mark, the weather changed drastically, with temperatures dropping well below zero. The cause?
Spoilers in 3… 2… 1…
The aliens that aren’t aliens were terraforming the area to make it more hospitable for them, and far less hospitable for us. This marked a significant jump in difficulty and a subtle change in gameplay due to the new and tougher enemies you were now facing.
Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising is one of the few RTS games with a decent plot. This was reinforced by well-written dialogue and superb voice acting, featuring the stars of ‘70s British TV Sci-Fi series Blake’s 7 and the 4th Doctor Who, Tom Baker. In my humble opinion Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising is an underappreciated gem of a game.
Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising Longplay
British sci-fi actors in a British sci-fi game. Peak British 'sci-finess' achieved
Video by World of Longplays
2007’s Crysis for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 was very much a game of two halves. The setting for the first half was the tropical Lingshan Islands in the Philippines sea. Here your Nanosuited protagonist was fighting against the occupying Korean People’s Army, who were armed with the usual early 21st century weapons of war; tanks, helicopters, IFVs, and of course lots and lots of cannon-fodder infantry.
Spoilers in 3... 2...1…
We discover they were there to locate a buried artifact which they thought would grant them unlimited energy. It transpires that the artifact was a giant alien space ship that had been lying dormant buried under a mountain for the last two million years. The ship's inhabitants, the Ceph, were none too pleased about being woken up. They were even less pleased about how much we had polluted their planet. Why do the Ceph consider Earth to be their planet and not ours? Because they were here first - by two million years.
The aliens had weaponized cold. Not only did they fire shards of ice (flash-frozen from the moisture in the air no less) they created an ‘ice sphere’ which covered most of the island, turning it colder than the Antarctic. Many of the unfortunate humans caught within it were flash-frozen solid - if you walked into them, they shattered, Terminator 2 style. Even your Nanosuit could not protect you from this cold indefinitely, and you needed to periodically find a heat source - such as a barrel fire or a burning car - to bring your temperature up before you froze to death.
There are two key reasons why I feel this was such an effective ‘ice level’. Firstly, it radically changed the game’s aesthetics, ably showing how a simple drop in temperature could radically alter the environment, and secondly because the cold was not merely cosmetic - it had consequences on how you played the game.
The advent of the ice sphere also marked a drastic shift in narrative, tone, and gameplay. You were no longer in semi-realistic near future war sim territory, you were now plunged into a full-on sci-fi setting, combating gelatinous zero-g aliens and their levitating robot war machines.
It also changed the overall direction of travel. In the first half, you were on the offensive, starting at the coast and then fighting your way into the centre of the island. In the second half, you were very much on the defensive, simply trying to survive and escape the island by getting back to the coast. You went from being a somewhat overpowered aggressor to being a comparatively underpowered victim which was a sobering experience, which I expect was the point.
Crysis Full Game Walkthrough
04:36:45 “Baby its cold outside…”
Video by Gamer Max Channel
3) The Thing
Set in the Antarctic, the sub-zero temperatures would soon prove fatal to you and your team should you stray outside for too long. This trapped you in the vicinity of the research station, as any attempt to escape it on foot would result in freezing to death.
What’s more, the freezing weather forced you to stay inside the narrow confines of the base’s buildings as much as possible. Unfortunately for you, the Thing entities were also sheltering indoors, thus forcing you into close-quarters combat with them, just like in the movies.
I feel the cold was particularly well executed in this game as it provided both narrative and gameplay mechanical reasons for forcing you into proximity with The Things. Everything else being equal your best defence would have been to keep your distance from them.
The Thing Longplay (NSFC)
Just to be clear the original film was called ‘The Thing’. The prequel movie was called ‘The Thing’ and the sequel video game was called ‘The Thing’. Confused yet?
Video by TurkishBullet19
4) Fire & Ice: The Daring Adventures of Cool Coyote
Although ice worlds in platform games are not uncommon, rarely have they been executed so well. For a start, Fire & Ice’s ice world is its first world. As such, the ice world-specific gameplay mechanics it introduced could not be too taxing. For example, platforms made of ice would melt given time, but that time limit was generous. What’s more, they could be made to respawn by simply going back to their spawn point - the levels were expansive and there was nothing to stop you from revisiting areas.
Thankfully there were very few areas where you could die by falling off the bottom of the screen, so even if a platform did melt under your feet, or if you slid off it, the results were rarely fatal. Fire & Ice suffered few - if any - of the Designs Sins that plague many platform games.
All too often platform games introduce their ice worlds as a late-game challenge, with rapidly melting platforms and an inertia sliding mechanic so slippery that they become artificially difficult and frustrating to play - Super Turrican, I’m looking at you!
Fire & Ice’s ice world made full uses of winter tropes, such as Inuits throwing snowballs at you, enemies on skis, and falling icicles.
The concept of using cold was central to the rest of the game as well, even the sections that took place in the Egyptian desert. For a start, Mr C Coyote could not defeat enemies by simply jumping on them ‘a la Mario or Sonic. Instead, he needed to freeze them first by bombarding them with balls of ice. Only once frozen was it safe to jump on or otherwise collide with them, which would cause them to shatter. However, you had to be swift, as it would not take them long to thaw out and become a threat again. Continuing with the theme of weaponized cold, the game’s version of a smart bomb was a giant exploding snowflake.
Random name drop - I had the pleasure of meeting one of its designers, Andrew Braybrook at a video game convention when I was a child, where I was able to ‘get hands’ on with the game which he was proudly showing off at the time.
Fire and Ice CD32
You may be wondering where those ice balls are coming from? His ‘23 and Me’ results show that he is one-quarter Llama, and they appear to be coming from his mouth. I think we can guess what he is doing then…
Video by World of Longplays
5) Max Payne
Few games bleed more style than 2001’s multiplatform Max Payne, released on PC, PS2, Xbox, macOS, Game Boy Advance, iOS and Android. Although the winter snow did not affect the gameplay, it did paint New York in a different light, with the bright pristine snow contrasting well with the dark and moody ‘film noir’ tone of the game.
The blizzard also provided a superbly chilling backdrop to the game’s comic book style cutscenes. What’s more, it was an inspiration for Max’s inner monologue, resulting in such genuine wordsmithery as “Freezing wind tearing at my face like sandpaper and razors”.