Cold Case Files review
"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.
The gameplay itself is further marred by agitations such as waiting a pre-determined amount of time for test results to come back from the lab, which of course can only handle one test at a time. You'll also do research on the lab computer, but if the game registers the results as "evidence", it'll automatically send it to the evidence room... without even displaying it there on the screen! And as if playing hide-and-seek with evidence isn't bad enough, you'll also need to trigger various hotspots or locations by asking your chief for "help". Ironically, this led to the only time I was even remotely stuck in the game, as I refused to ask for assistance, not realizing that the game was demanding it of me. I guess the game didn't want to run the risk that I'd hurt myself with a thought of my own.
It should be fairly clear by this point that we're dealing with a game of no substance, but does it at least have beauty that's skin-deep? Well, graphically the game doesn't fare quite as poorly as the other aspects, but saying "it could be worse" is hardly a ringing endorsement. The pre-rendered backgrounds are fairly clean and moderately attractive, though static and not overly detailed. The character models, however, leave a lot to be desired. Many are oddly shaped and proportioned, including one elderly lady who looks like a middle linebacker in full equipment. All of the characters look like they're wearing bizarre, texture-less hair hats, and one character's nostrils wiggle up and down when he speaks in the game's one (unintentional) moment of hilarity. Unfortunately, even that isn't enough to disguise the fact that absolutely no effort was made to lip-sync the voices.
Speaking of voices, the acting in the game ranges from pretty good to nails-on-a-blackboard awful. The bad performances are either poorly accented or over-exaggerated, but fortunately these are relatively infrequent. Your own character never speaks, which makes sense, as I doubt the developer felt we'd have that kind of intelligence. Sound effects are nondescript, but the gentle background music is one of the game's better features, though even that gets repetitive before long.
The interface itself is every bit as user friendly as you'd imagine a game requiring zero thought would have. The game uses first-person perspective with node-based movement, but no spherical panning. In fact, no panning at all. Now THAT'S investigation! Moreover, in many locations there isn't even a "back up" control. Instead, you'll have to access the handful of location icons available in the lower corner of the screen. If it seems odd that you should have to re-enter the same location because you can't actually step backwards, you're right. But you're thinking too much, so stop it.
If you're wondering how long this inspired package of gaming goodness lasts, I can't imagine it taking anyone much longer than two hours from start to finish. That doesn't include commercial breaks, because the commercial advertising is ever present on-screen, in the form of a large and distracting A&E logo. However, for those selfish, insatiable gamers who don't feel that two hours is good enough, A&E has now offered a free bonus case for download. Don't get too excited by the gesture, though, as the new case is more of the same, and the download may very well take longer than the case.
Ultimately, the most regrettable thing about Cold Case Files is that for all my criticism, I didn't hate my time with it. It has a tried-and-true concept, a legitimate licence, and respectable (if low budget) production values. It's neither frustrating nor glitchy, and I've spent more time cursing other games than I did playing this one. So this game had potential. Unfortunately, it handles everything so casually and carelessly that not one single feature is worth recommending when all is said and done.
With no real challenge and only superficial gameplay, Cold Case Files earns the label "adventure game" mostly by virtue of not actually being anything else. It's tempting not to review it at all, being better suited for sweeping under the rug, forever forgotten and ignored. But sure enough, some adventure-playing, A&E-watching, detective-loving chump is going to stroll down a store aisle one day soon and see a game that looks "just like CSI." You might be that chump, so consider yourself forewarned. Go home, watch the show for free, and save your money for much, much better games.
A complete waste of the Cold Case Files licence, with no redeeming features. File these cold cases under 'W' for 'What were they thinking?'