On the eve of F.E.A.R. 3’s release, Andrew Bryant sinks his teeth into the previous entry into Alma’s world.
Back in twenty-odd-five, an American computer game developer famous for kitsch 60s spy shooters and FPS based on cult Disney properties made a game about a girl. This wasn’t any normal girl though – this was a girl so wronged she took it out on the world.
Riding high on the tails of hype generated by the remakes of The Ring, Monolith’s game about a damaged girl with psychic powers, violent slow motion shootouts and a Special Forces group with the worst example of a backronym ever seen (seriously… Assault AND Recon?) was a delicious mash-up of John Woo, sci-fi and J-horror.
Taking many of its cues from Half-Life, F.E.A.R.’s main selling point, along with its oppressive atmosphere, was a heavy emphasis on emergent combat, driven by an environmentally aware AI that could outflank, overwhelm and outsmart the player. The plot was subtly driven by voice-mail messages and abandoned laptops that revealed portions of the game on the fly without stepping in the way of the gratuitous bloodletting and shocks.
Of course, nothing is perfect. Too much time was spent shooting up identikit office space, a problem multiplied by said shooting being directed at identikit bad guys. Then there was the muddle caused by Activision merging with Vivendi and the subsequent clusterfuck caused by Warner Brother’s last-minute purchase of Monolith, separating them from their license. Two dreadful expansion packs followed.
Roll on 2009 – Activision Blizzard cancels their officially unofficial F.E.A.R. 2 without revealing a single piece of information about it and WB reacquires the license, effectively reuniting mother and child – quite apt really. Monolith didn’t even have a hard act to follow – a bit more enemy variation, more open levels, more consistent (and constant) action. Sounds like a cakewalk!
F.E.A.R. 2 casts the player as Michael Beckett, your regular ops guy who just happens to be good at what he does (and doesn’t happen to be a loose plot end that Vivendi added during their awful mission packs), dragged into a plotline that starts 30 minutes from the end of F.E.A.R. – Your mission, infiltrate a block of flats to retrieve a character crucial to the plot before a bunch of security guys gets to her. Wait a sec – block of flats, security guys – this doesn’t bode well. You don’t even have slow-mo to spice things up (yet)!
Things quickly go down following the epic ending of F.E.A.R. when ATC’s underground ‘Vault’ went thermonuclear, convenient events transpire and you’re stuck fighting your way out of a huge underground hospital facility under siege by more ATC security guards. Once you reach ground level, you’re fighting through some admittedly quite interesting ruined streets against *sigh* Replica soldiers. You know… the ones that were defeated when you killed one of the main antagonists in the previous game? Oh wait; these are the next model up who have conveniently been activated by Alma…
It’s like the design team simply decided to continue the story whilst simply papering over the cracks that plagued the original game – most notably, the nagging boredom brought about by literally fighting endless clones in boring grey warehouses and office blocks. Even the consistently excellent combat engine can’t help when you fall asleep between the fighty bits!
There has been a bit of spice added to the proceedings in the form of mech combat, but it’s a far cry from the true mano-a-mano stuff seen in Lost Planet or Monolith’s own Shogo M.A.D. (sequel please Monolith!). The bullet point on the box sells the E.P.A., basically your generic big stompy robot with unlimited ammo, recharging health and Gundam-style cluster missiles. Nothing much is left of the bad guys but red paste, which is fun to start with, but the moments when you are handed the keys are stilted, sandboxed and, unfortunately, too easy.
On the occasions when you are facing superior firepower, it often comes in the form of light mecha, which are more (in the name of fairness) ED-209 than Gundam. Like the foot-trooper counterparts, the AI driving these machines certainly tries to mix things up – cover is blasted to pieces by a hail of minigun fire and running up stairs isn’t an option thanks to hydraulic legs, but when such a challenging foe can be defeated by a rinse-and-repeat cycle of disabling it using the convenient pile of shock grenades sitting in the corner of the room, it loses its edge.
Basically, such disappointment sums up F.E.A.R. 2 – what was great about F.E.A.R. is carried over, some of the more elaborate set pieces are absolutely fantastic, the map design in places is marvellous and when the scares really are scares (and not just telegraphed quick time events) they can leave you badly shaken. It’s just a shame that the payoff for putting up with the lulls is so weak – the game doesn’t even attempt to match F.E.A.R.s epic ending, although it does bring its own… err, shall we say, unexpected event – an ending so hideously disturbing that Monolith and WB have nothing but my utmost respect for carrying it off and not deciding to water anything down for a larger market appeal. I’d still rather try and outrun another nuclear explosion though!
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin can be picked up for an incredibly reasonable price these days, making it an easy recommendation (especially if you can get it in its SE guise, which includes the original F.E.A.R. in a nice tin) but when playing through, it’s almost impossible to shake off the nagging disappointment that follows you throughout the game. More so than any other game in memory did I find myself screaming internally at the monitor, wishing Monolith, a seasoned developer who haven’t actually done that much wrong in their career as a top-tier developer, had done the obvious.
Let us just hope that the universal ‘above average’ reception F.E.A.R. 2 received will lead Monolith to push Day One Studios to solve the franchises issues, rather than side-step them completely. I’m all for a ‘generative scare’ system if it works, just make sure I’m not being endlessly shot at by clone soldiers in another office block. That’s progress!