"Send in the CLONE!"
It was inevitable that the success of the Law & Order and CSI game franchises would lead to some form of imitation. And why not? Criminal investigation and adventure games are tailor made for each other, as players love sleuthing through intricate mysteries with complex, dramatic plots. Add in some modern-day forensic instruments and detective techniques, a few familiar names, a recognizable brand, and you've got a winning formula, right? That was certainly the philosophy behind the creation of Cold Case Files.
Unfortunately, returning to the Austin Powers cloning reference above, the result is the gaming equivalent of a Mini Me. To paraphrase, "Cold Case Files is exactly like the CSI games in every way... except 1/8 their size." Yes, while CCF manages to duplicate the structure, format, and design of its role model, it completely overlooks such minor details as gameplay, narrative, and quality content (oh, THOSE pesky things). Suddenly the formula doesn't look quite so appealing, and we're left to wonder what might have been had the game lived up to the potential of the A&E documentary series that inspired it.
For those unfamiliar with the show, a "cold case" is an unsolved crime, abandoned for lack of evidence and leads. Each hour-long episode, narrated by Bill Kurtis, follows a pair of real-life crimes as the cases are resumed and pursued by investigators. The program offers a very lightweight treatment of each incident, but it works well for television. The question for the game, of course, was how to create deep, compelling gameplay from a brief, passive TV experience... Too bad the developers didn't bother asking it.
Where Cold Case Files fails immediately is its inability to establish itself as much of a game at all. The premise is simple: you are an (anonymous) investigator for the cold case unit, and you'll visit old crime scenes, interview witnesses, collect evidence, do research, and piece together a convincing case to make an arrest. The setup sounds fine on paper, but the execution is dreadful. Each of the game's six cases is simplified to the point of staggering absurdity. The actual files you're assigned set new standards for the word "basic", and if the activities required were any LESS interactive, they'd be automated. In fact, many of them are.
Until now, I've been a staunch opponent of the phrase "dumbing down" as being unwarranted elitism, but in Cold Case Files, I've finally met my match. I mistakenly understood the "Teen" ESRB label to be the standard age rating, but surely for this game it refers to the required IQ. It's as if the producers decided, "we know the CCF viewers can handle a remote control -- let's give them something equally challenging!" Seriously, if you opted to change the default directory, the installation would require more intelligence than the game, because neither requires much more than clicking Next... Next... Next... Finish. On the plus side, this is one game you can brag to all your friends that you completed without a walkthrough. Of course, that means admitting you actually played this dud, so your credibility won't survive the ridicule.
Still unconvinced? Good for you; no self-respecting adventure gamer/wannabe detective would simply take the word of a ranting reviewer with no supporting evidence (although in CCF, you'd have to). It's hard to know where to begin digging through such fertile soil of ineptitude, but let's start with what pains me to actually call "story". I'm using the word loosely in any event, as there's no underlying plot linking the assignments. However, even as standalone cases, the narrative driving each investigation is far too weak, sparse, and even inaccurate to ever engage the player.
If the thought of such riveting crimes as motel and gas station hold-ups doesn't dazzle you, perhaps insurance fraud and bar room beatings will. No? Sheesh, tough room! Nevertheless, that's the sort of gripping drama offered by Cold Case Files. Of course, that wouldn't be so bad if the actual investigations led you through intriguing dilemmas filled with subtle clues, perplexing details, and suspicious characters. But no, there's nothing of the sort in CCF. Each case will have you visiting only a few tiny, barren locations (many repeated throughout the game), run through a checklist of questions with blatant plot devices posing as non-player characters, and pick up two or three inventory items that you are never able to examine or use yourself. Rarely is there any doubt about who the culprit is, as it's usually established so early and obviously that there's no cause for suspense.
Even worse than the generic cases are some of the atrocious inconsistencies and downright factual errors. Though working cases alone, occasionally you'll hear nearby comments voiced by your chief. This led me to start believing he was actually working cases with me, until the time he sent me a message immediately after making one such observation. Smooth work, detectives. But that's nothing compared to some of the other blunders. In one case, you'll be permitted a completely illegal property search. Apparently it's a little much to ask the writers of a police game to know something about warrants. Then again, this is the game whose subtitles repeatedly refer to one suspect's "burgelry" charges. Perhaps with that in mind, it's not surprising that most (if not all) of the cases would be laughed out of court based on the flimsy evidence you're able to procure, except for those resolved by shockingly idiotic confessions by the guilty party.
But wait, it gets better! At the end of each case, our A&E narrator Bill Kurtis offers a verbal congratulation for successfully arranging a first-degree murder charge. Now, admittedly, I'm no legal expert, but I can still say with absolute certainty that several of the crimes I investigated were anything BUT first-degree murders. These may sound like petty gripes, but rather than highlighting them as the worst of the offenses, I'm offering them as examples of just how little care and attention was given to even the most rudimentary aspects of the game.Continued on the next page...