There have been a mix of reviews for the game around the interwebs, but I approach reviews as a gamer, not as a reviewer. I look at a game as an average Joe. So how did Monolith do this time around? Find out after the jump.
The original F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon was released in 2005 to much praise; it was a first real step in meshing standard first-person combat and exploration alongside a real horror theme. Whilst taking out evil dudes, as is the wont of an FPS, you were also deeply rooted in a world of the paranormal which extended well beyond the usual tricks of flicky lights and strange noises. Monolith cited many classic Japanese horror productions as an influence for the tone they were hoping to set in the game, and for all intents and purposes it succeeded in giving gamers a whole mess of action coupled with some real “make-you-jump” moments. In F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, Monolith have again tapped into that vibe in the hope that gamers will again be shooting scared.
In an interesting move, Monolith have all but ignored the two expansions that were released after the original F.E.A.R. – Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate – as they were not created by Monolith themselves, and were considered by many to be piss-poor franchise milkings. Instead, in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin the story starts about a half-hour before the end of the original game. Instead of reprising your role as the nameless “Point Man” of the original, who was part of the F.E.A.R. team (a special ops unit that deals with the paranormal and generally spooky shit), in F.E.A.R. 2 you play as Michael Becket, a Delta Force squad member.
**SPOILERS FOR F.E.A.R. FIRST ENCOUNTER ASSAULT RECON***
In the original, you learn how the Armacham Technology Corporation tried to create legions of psychically-controlled cloned soldiers, called Replicas. Originally, the controller of these troops were to be eventually bred from an 8-year old girl named Alma, the daughter of Harlan Wade, the founder of Armacham. Unfortunately, her psychic abilities were too uncotrollable and did more harm than good, forcing Wade put Alma into an induced coma and seal her in a containment unit at the age of 15 where she was left to die, before which she was forced to have two children, the “prototypes” who would be used as future potential Replica commanders. Although Alma died physically, her presence remained, and twenty years later, throughout the game you were witness to the carnage that ensued as Alma raged at her death and the theft of her babies, and Armacham tried to cover its tracks. At the denouement of the game you learned that the “Point Man” was, in fact, one of the children Alma birthed, and the last thing you saw was a massive explosion that took out most of the city of Auburn, home to Armacham.
In F.E.A.R. 2, events start just before the explosion. You mission starts as you are to recover Genevieve Aristide, CEO of Armacham, who is hiding from Replica and Armacham troops trying to kill everyone off to cover up the truth. From the beginning, Becket has no knowledge of the events that transpired in the first game, nor of the reasons for any of the shit going down around him. This is actually very handy, as if you haven’t played the original game as the entire backstory is pretty much explained to you as you go. As you work your way through the game, you learn about Armacham and Alma, and start to find that Alma seems to have a strange interest in you.
The story itself is very well packaged and constructed. In F.E.A.R. there were mostly hints at what was going on, and it wasn’t unusual for players to come away with only a dim understanding of what was going on. In F.E.A.R. 2, thanks to intelligence items you pick up as you go and also in-game chatter form the main characters the game manages to weave your own real-time story and the backstory together nicely, filling you in about the past as you lean about the present.
Much of what made F.E.A.R. so good is retained, thankfully. The slow-mo ability akin to bullet-time that the Point Man posessed in F.E.A.R. – explained by his heightened awareness and strong psychic powers – makes a welcome return. However, in the original the pace of the combat was so fast that you pretty much had to use this slow-mo ability in every single encounter to avoid wasting ammo or dying, and this quickly became a chore. In F.E.A.R. 2, ammo is in better supply, and the frenetic pace is slowed down just enough that the use of slow-mo is actually now a choice, not a necessity – giving the player a better feeling of being able to beat the AI in a clean fight. Now you can choose to use it only to make a nice clean headshot, or when you are surrounded by a large number of foes. You could, if you wished, actually play the whole game without using it (as a testament to how utterly necessary slow-mo was in the original , you actually earned an achievement in that game for playing the whole game without using it once).
The mood and feel of the original is also retained, with a few tweaks. You will spend a lot of your time in dark, gloomy locations, perhaps with only a weak or flickering light-source. The use of lighting in the game is very well executed and does not really come close to getting over the top or corny. There is just the right balance of gloom and dark and also light and open – more so than in the first game. In F.E.A.R., whilst praising the horror feel, many criticised the setting – what seemed like an endless trudge through identical office buildings and warehouses. In F.E.A.R. 2, thankfully, these reappear but are joined by outdoor settings, a nuclear power plant, a hospital, a subway station (I kept expecting to Jackie Estacado lurking about somewhere in there) and most remarkably, an elementary school. The school conjures up best the strange asynchronicity of the everyday and the other-worldy paranormal that permeates through the game. Seeing a blood-coated, dimembered corpse lying next to a water fountain, in front of which is a tiny footstool for the youngest pupils to stand on to reach the water spout is jarring, to say the least. The level design and lighting, combined with the excellent audio help to avoid the “how much more” feeling the original game gave you, and helps to keep you looking in every corner to make sure nothing is going to leap out.
The gameplay is fairly similiar to the original, but has been tightened up somewhat. Ammo is more liberally available, so you are not having to budget your fire at all. Combat is the same – standard first-person fare with the slow-mo time as icing on the cake. Thankfully, some activities have been ironed out – you no longer have to “use” a ladder, for example, just walk up to it. And when you want to descend, the camera simply moves to simulate you turning around and mounting the ladder – probably the best ladder-mechanic I have so far come across. F.E.A.R. 2 now also incorporates something which, frankly, I can no longer enjoy an FPS without: iron-sights. Well played, that man! Gunplay is very good, with most all the weapons feeling appropriately heavy and powerful. Despite a good slew of different weapon types, the more unique weapons suffer from a lack of supply. The Hammerhead is the equivalent of the first game’s bolt gun, and although it is amusing to nail a dude to a wall, frankly the weapon is too slow and underpowered to be of much use. And the laser and pulse beam rifle thingy appear so infrequently and carry so little ammunition that they are all but worthless (and usually appear at a moment when they are not particularly relevant). You will no doubt stick to the standard SMG (good indoors), assault rifle (good outdoors), shotgun (good indoors and for ghosts, mutant things and ninja dudes) and sniper rifle (no explanation needed, I hope) anyway.
AI in the original game was praised very highly for its ability to try and outwit and outflank the player, and in F.E.A.R. 2 much is the same. Enemies will take effective cover, and will try to get the drop on you when you are distracted, often attacking from more than one direction. One aspect of the AI that has to be pointed out is when you set an enemy ablaze, either from the napalm gun or from an incendiary grenade. The enemy will flail about, patting himself down frantically (there is also a “patting himself down frantically” sound effect to go with it) and rolling on the ground to extinguish the flames. If there is water nearby, the enemy will move to that to try to quench the fire. In a nod to realism, the NPC will also drop their weapon whilst they flail and panic, and if they are successful in putting the fire out will pull out a pistol and use that instead. The AI will also try to make sure that whilst trying to take you out it preserves its own life, and is also keenly aware of its surroundings. You will often see an enemy launch itself over a handrail on a catwalk or ledge to get away from you and to cover.
Sound is well implemented, with all the weapons sounding approriately loud and powerful. It is used most effectvely in the creation of atmosphere (especially in the school) and to try to give you the all out scary shits. At one point in the elementary school, you hear an echoey breaktime bell and the shouts of children running out to the schoolyard only to open a door to an empty and abandoned corridor strewn with evidence of the children who were. Often , the audio guys mess with you to mix things up, adding audio cues that get you revved up for some kind of encounter, only to find that nothing happens. But sometimes, it does.
I feel I should draw attention to the graphics. I have read reviews that have stated that the visuals are not really an improvement on the original game, and that they are not spectacular by current standards. Actually, I think I disagree. The graphics in F.E.A.R. were, at best, clunky, with good lighting. in F.E.A.R. 2, the graphics are fantastic, with very good lighting. I was more than satisfied with the look of the game, and I feel that the visuals helped draw me in completely. The designers put a lot of effort into the tiny details – especially in the school – and gave the settings a real practical and believable feel . If, like me, you like to explore as well as fight, you will find nothing but engaging treats if you take the time to wander through the levels slowly, exploring every room and corner, looking at everything there is to see. It makes for a more absorbing experience, gives a better feeling of loss and abandonment, and therefore helps to increase the mournful, horror atmosphere of some of the more poignant locations. Often, the minutiae of the visual game world tie into the story – all I will say is pay attention to the three study groups in the elementary school . And look for a very familiar face on a poster listing the “Fantastic First Graders!”. The devil is in the detail.
And lastly, I should mention the Mech sections. Although the idea of piloting a big-ass Walker in an horror FPS seems a little out of place, it is actually incredibly good fun and the highlight of the game. You get to wander – a little – through the ruined streets of Auburn in this big, hulking mech that has twin gatlings and shoulder-mounted missile launchers, laying waste to scores of Replica troops. It is super fun, super messy and looks fantastic. I can has moar now plz kthx bai! They are placed in such a way that they follow intense creepy dark interior levels, and serve as a very welcome break and change of pace, where you can forget creepy shit and just go in all guns blazing.
So, all good? Well, mostly. Although the story is very good, and engaging, some of the dialog is a bit corny and shallow, and some voice acting a little wooden. Suprisingly, we even get a sub-par performance from good old Jen Taylor (who voiced Halo’s Cortana). I found myself thinking not “Wow, that’s Cortana” but “Wow, Jen sounds like she phoned this one in.”. Amusingly, Monolith seem to have a thing for Halo cast members – David Scully , the voice of Sergeant Avery Johnson, was in F.E.A.R..
And although F.E.A.R. 2 does mix the settings up a little more, there still are a lot of offices and warehouses to go through. The levels set outside are actually very good, if a little linear, and it is a shame that F.E.A.R. 2 does not explore these more open settings more often. Still, the more open levels are presented at just the right time, enough to give a nice change of pace from the corridor-crawl sections.
The ending, without giving too much away, is not quite what you expect. If, like me, you hate boss-battles, then you will find the ending just right, if a little shocking and “wtf?”.
And what about the scary stuff? Well, this was always going to be a tough call. In F.E.A.R., we hadn’t been through the mill before, so we got the genuine scares. If you have never played F.E.A.R. , you may get the genuine scares and jumps in F.E.A.R. 2 from time to time. But try as they might, the developers haven’t really found a new way to get those who played the original on the edge of their seats. You may not be scared like the first game, but at least the horror moments are better integrated and make more sense in terms of the story this time around, and are still very, very well done. Ironically, the horror elements are better at making you feel empathy, pity or sorrow, even loss, than they are out and out fear. But, that said, that is still quite a powerful thing to be able to pull off.
So all in all, what do we have? A very good, very fun and very well made FPS that tries to put the willies up you, but maybe doesn’t quite get there. I did jump once. Surround sound and LOUD is definitely recommended! FPS fans will enjoy the campaign for what it is, but beware: once you have played the game through, the horror and spooky dark corridors become just a route to take to get to the next fight, a break in the action. They joy of this game the first time around is the exploration. After that – it’s a really good shooter. Thankfully, most times the fight is good enough to go through the “not spooky the second time around” stuff again. Definitely a game to add to your collection.