Sunday, January 12, 2014

More F.E.A.R.

A couple posts ago, I broke my strict retrogaming format and wrote up an almost-sorta-modern game, F.E.A.R., a strange hybrid of FPS & horror game. Since I was sort of on a F.E.A.R. roll, I decided to give the two lesser-known sequels a shot. Today then, we'll take a very quick look at F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and F.E.A.R. 3 (no subtitle.)

F.E.A.R. was released at the tail-end of the PS2/Xbox generation, in 2005.  It retained the older, Half Life style of FPS gameplay, that of walking into rooms, shooting shit up, grabbing ammo, and guzzling health packs. F.E.A.R. 2 was released in 2009, in an entirely different era of gaming. Its contemporaries were COD: Modern Warfare 2, Assassin's Creed II and Infamous, yet F.E.A.R. 2 still retains its predecessor's formula, albeit with a significant graphical update.

F.E.A.R. 2 has truly entered the era of Next-gen graphics.

The first F.E.A.R. game ended with the scary girl from Ring Alma Wade dropping some kind of Akira-style psychic nuke on the town of Fairport, then presumably killing the protagonist and the few remaining supporting characters. No surprise then, that F.E.A.R. 2 introduces a brand new protagonist, a standard issue FPS military dude named Sgt. Becket. The game's opening act takes place during the events of the first F.E.A.R. game, as Becket and his squad break into the luxury penthouse of the CEO of Armacham Technology. If you recall your F.E.A.R lore, you'll know Armacham was the evil corporation behind the whole supersoldier/Alma fiasco. At the level's end, you see Alma nuking the city, and you get knocked unconscious and squirreled away to some hospital with a city-sized top secret research facility in the basement.

You encounter evidence of all kinds of weird experiments in F.E.A.R. 2

Now, I don't pretend to understand the plot of the F.E.A.R games, but this time it somehow involves Alma returning and harassing you with spooky hallucinations and flashbacks. Also, the Replica soldiers return, though I have no idea who is controlling them. And, in a shocking plot twist, it turns out Sgt Becket is also the subject of an illicit supersoldier project. In F.E.A.R you traveled from location to location via helicopter, but in the sequel your ride has been downgraded to a humble armored transport vehicle. Locations seen the the game include the destroyed remains of Fairport, an elementary school which has yet another secret research laboratory in the basement, and best of all, a nuclear power plant which houses (once again) a secret research laboratory.

Horrible products of human experiements gone wrong fill F.E.A.R. 2.

Gameplay wise, F.E.A.R 2 is almost exactly the same as the prior game. Use guns, grenades, and slow-mo to take out groups of enemy soldiers, who shout things like "He took out the whole squad!" on their intercoms. Between firefights, expect to see freaky hallucinations, specters appearing/disappearing, lights getting dim, and so on, as Alma tries to fuck with you.  You actually get a few "hands on" encounters with Alma, as she runs and claws at you, and you need to frantically tap the mouse button to beat her back. These QTE events are one of a few new gameplay features in F.E.A.R 2. There is also one cool scene set on a moving train.  And best of all, you play one section from inside a heavily armed mechsuit, which is capable of raining massive destruction down upon enemy forces. Other that that, expect to do a lot of climbing ladders and hitting switches.

Among the coolest parts is operating a powerful mech-suit.

The one area that distinguishes F.E.A.R 2 from the original is its visuals. Aside from the obvious improvements in PC graphics in the intervening four years,  the developers have put a lot more eye candy into this game.  The storage rooms, service tunnels, and courtyards of F.E.A.R have been replaced with much richer environments.  The elementary school, for example, is crammed with books, posters, children's drawings, overturned desks, etc. The streets of the destroyed town of Fairport are suitably grim, with crashed airliners, piles of rubble and its residents turned into silent ash statues. There's much better use of large scale environments, particularly when you must make your way down the edge of the massive crater where Alma set off her A-bomb, or when you encounter the imposing cooling tanks of the abandoned nuclear facility.

F.E.A.R. 2 contains a good amount of striking visuals.

F.E.A.R 2 is also a bit gorier and grimmer than the first game. Aside from blood and guts spilling more liberally, the theme of human experimentation, in particular experimentation on school children, is pretty disturbing. While not as original as its predecessor, it's probably the most enjoyable of the F.E.A.R games to play in 2014. However, what would a F.E.A.R game without a totally WTF ending?  Like the first F.E.A.R., the game feels likes it's setting you up for a final boss fight against Alma.  I should point out Alma appears in the second game in adult form and struts around nude most of the time.  The game's climax (heh) finds you running around in dream world while engaging in QTE battles with a former team mate. However, the little cutscenes makes it clear that while this is going on, Alma is... how shall I put this? ...riding you like a wild pony.  Yep, you basically get raped by Alma in F.E.A.R. 2. The battle ends abruptly and the final image is the visibly pregnant Alma grasping your wrist and forcing your hand to touch her stomach.  UGO even put in on one of their click-baity lists, this one about weird game endings. (Monster Party also made the list.)

Alma mostly appears in her adult, butt naked form.

Someone must have liked F.E.A.R 2 because two years later a sequel was produced, not by original developers Monolith, but by a smaller company called Day 1 Studios. Previously, Day 1 had worked on the console ports of F.E.A.R, and had also produced a little loved FPS called Fracture in 2008. Perhaps as a result of the development changing hands, F.E.A.R. 3 (or F.3.A.R., as the title screen actually says) changes up the formula quite a bit. It also rewrites the story a bit, bringing back several characters from the first game, despite that fact that every single person in that game died. Yes, the "Point Man" is back, having somehow shaken off Alma's mid-air attack at the the end of F.E.A.R.  He's been captured by Aramacham and is being kept in a South American prison. I don't recall the game giving you any good explanation for this. I'm also not sure why Armacham has a prison in South America.  F.E.A.R. 3 begins with a cutscene of Paxton Fetel coming back to "life" in ghost form, complete with the Deadman-like ability to possess living people.  He's on pretty good terms with the Point Man, despite having been killed by him, and even helps him bust out of jail. Fetel acts as the narrator/tutorial dude/travel guide guy throughout the game, frequently materializing and giving you some advice. As for the Point Man, he's gone from a faceless pair of gun-wielding hands to an angry looking, bearded guy who appears in the between level cutscenes.

This is you, in all your cutscene bad-assery.

F.E.A.R. 3 goes out of the way to give your nameless character a bit of backstory, including between level flashbacks depicting the childhood of Fetel and Point Man while being raised as super soldiers. You get your first glimpse of how much different F.E.A.R 3 is going to be from its predecessors quite early in the game. F.E.A.R. 3 is very much informed by newer FPS games, and features a slower style of gameplay involving heavy use of cover.  Instead of running into a room and mowing down enemies in slow motion, you'll find yourself crouching behind crates, waiting for enemies to poke their heads up for a second so you can fire a round or two into their skull.

Many, many boxes and crates to hide behind.

Add in a regenerating health system and you've got much longer, more deliberately paced firefights. The slow mo also feels sort of gimped; either you move slower while it's turned on, or it runs out sooner. I'm not sure which. The result is that you spend a good deal of time slinking around behind boxes, since stepping out into the open will get you sliced into tiny pieces by a hail of bullets.

On top of this, F.E.A.R. 3 tosses a an achievement system that has popups appearing every 2 minutes congratulating you on using cover for 60 seconds or killing two enemies using slow motion. This ties into an RPG style experience meter, which grants you longer slow mo meters, the ability to hold more ammo, and so on, as you "level up." This is done by finding certain glowing corpses, which you can "psychic link" to. I'm not sure what exactly the "psychic link" is, but it makes the corpse disappear and grants you experience points. I actually think F.E.A.R. 3 handles this better than the earlier games, in which you increase your health/slo mo bars by snooping around in out of the way corners, looking for glowing syringes. Another interesting feature is the ability to replay a level as Fetel, who uses psychic powers instead of weapons.

F.E.A.R 3, the RPG?

At times, F.E.A.R. 3 is barely recognizable as a horror-themed game at all. After you escape the dreary prison level, you end up fighting Armacham soldiers in the sun-drenched streets of an unnamed Latin American town. This level would not look out of place in a COD game. After hijacking a helicopter and flying it back the US (what kind of range do helicopters have, anyway?) you soon end up duking it out with more soldiers in a typical middle-class suburban neighborhood. In the first half of the game, the F.E.A.R. secret laboratories and and dark service tunnels are entirely missing. Alma, and some other scary ghost/monster thing, turns up from time to time, but the horror content has been dialed down a bit.

It is, however, extremely gory. Disgustingly so.

Despite this, there is plenty of creepy stuff in F.E.A.R. 3, much of which is based around apocalyptic anxiety. The freakiest level in the game's first half takes place in a ruined Costco, which has been taken over by zombie-like gangster/skatepunk cultists. Some pretty creepy stuff pops up in this level: banks of flickering wide-screen TVs, weird shrines everywhere, human carcasses hung on meat hooks in the freezer. The quasi-undead cultists continue to come after you even once you've blown off limbs, and eventually start strapping dynamite to their chests and bum rushing you. These guys appear without any explanation, but eventually Fetel theorizes their brains were "burnt out" by the Alma induced nuke. The influence of 28 Days Later and similar apocalyptic narratives can be heavily felt in these levels. The net result of all this is a game that feels less like earlier F.E.A.R. games and more like.... well, a lot of stuff that isn't F.E.A.R.

The destroyed Costco is one of the better levels.

I'm not saying F.E.A.R. 3 is a bad game. It's a reasonably decent FPS with a bit of spooky stuff in it. I wish it fit in better with the previous games. I wish the it made even the tiniest bit of sense. (A US city is destroyed by a huge explosion, has subsequently fallen into mass anarchy, and weeks later a private corporation's security forces are going around killing survivors? Why hasn't every available US Army/National Guard been deployed to the area? Has the US government somehow collapsed?) It also just seems wrong the way the game makes Alma & Fetel into good guys, more or less. Alma actually appears and rescues you from Armacham forces early in the game.  Apparently Alma's end-of-F.E.A.R. 2 pregnancy figures into the game at some point as well.

Trashed suburban homes represent anxiety over the death of the middle class.

Bottom line: I initially decided to to plow all the way through F.E.A.R. 3 just so I could say that I finished it. However, around halfway through, after almost completing a lengthy level, the game lost my save file and made me restart the entire level. Yep, F.E.A.R. 3, just like F.E.A.R. 2 does not allow you to manually save your game, but instead using a single slot autosave feature. I'm not sure what happened, but I wasn't willing to replay that entire area, and I just called it quits. No big loss, I guess.

F.E.A.R.: I give this a solid B
F.E.A.R. 2: B+
F.E.A.R. 3 : C+

There you have it, the F.E.A.R. series in a nutshell, minus the expansion packs. Now you don't have to play them yourself!