Console Yourself: FEAR 2
“I hope she’s not going to start using our fears against us or something. That would suck.”
Format: 360, PS3, PC• Developer: Monolith• Released: Feb 2009
After a rather uncomfortable birth, everything seemed to be going right for Monolith’s sequel. The legal complications that looked set to deny the game its rightful name were resolved at the last minute, meaning that “Project Origin” regained its always-destined title. Unfortunately, the heroic efforts on the part of publisher Warner Brothers to ensure that their newly acquired franchise was released in all its glory have been frustrated by a game riddled with basic errors of design.
With original hero Point Man “indisposed” after the conclusion of the first game, one Sergeant Michael Becket enters the fray, along with the rest of his assault squad. Sent as backup to the original game’s F.E.A.R. team, they instead find themselves diverted from the first game’s climatic fire fight in order to take into protective custody Genevieve Aristide, the head of the local branch of Death Limite- sorry, the Armacham Corporation. The company’s board have decided to eliminate all traces of their clandestine experiments in Auburn, personnel included, and your job is to keep Aristide alive long enough to testify. Of course, that’s not to say she doesn’t have an agenda of her own…
It’s important to remember that FEAR isn’t a horror series, any more than Half Life is a science lesson- the trappings are to give a flavour for the action, and to distinguish the tone from its competitors. As a straight military-coloured shooter, however, the game has a number of problems, not least the downplaying of the main source of enjoyment in the original title. In FEAR, Point Man’s emerging psi-powers manifested themselves as a bullet time gameplay mechanic. As with the presence of the game’s signature ghostly little girl, the move didn’t win any awards for originality, but was implemented with sufficient competence to offer considerable entertainment. For the sequel, however, Monolith has consciously decided to downplay this aspect of the game, feeling that it distracted from the title’s other strengths. The problem is that doing so leaves a bland and uninteresting piece of work, reminiscent of the generic James Bond FPSs that made it to market in the early part of the decade in the wake of Goldeneye’s success. The gameplay seems to be caught in an uneasy compromise between authenticity and fun, with the developers often adhering to the wrong side of the equation. The damage tolerances of the enemies are inexplicably old school, and look rather out of place amidst today’s realistic AI patterns and modelling. It’s all very well including code for enemies to limp to cover after being shot in the head, but the huge soak capacity of the opposing troopers means that even on normal, they’ll happily run around despite having two large depleted uranium shafts protruding from their skulls, courtesy of the hammerhead nail gun.
On the other had, there’s an unwelcome piece of realism in the way enemies are dispatched, with it being curiously difficult to tell whether you’ve killed your opponent. A slight audio cue is the only indication that Monolith provides, having apparently decided that the exaggerated rag doll death animations of much of the genre would look out of place. Combined with even the watered-down bullet time, the potential for confusion is considerable. It’s easy to be killed by a flanking action as you unload a clip into what turns out to be a dead body, or surprised as a foe shrugs off the headshot you previously inflicted upon him and comes out fighting. Wherever Monolith pitches a gameplay mechanic, they seem to have a curious knack of removing all fun from the equation. They even manage to make a mockery of the game’s tagline; “Fear Alma Again”. For the first half of the title, the antagonist is an entirely benign presence, only getting to attack Beckett once his superhuman abilities are advanced enough to initiate a button-bashing mini-game for resisting psychic assault.
So with disposable gameplay, is it worth turning up for the plot alone? Sadly not. The core problem is that Monolith utterly fails to take the game’s story anywhere new. To be fair, the conclusion of FEAR left the embryonic franchise in a difficult spot, with just about every mystery fully resolved. By the end of the game, the player was fully aware of both Armacham’s sinister experiments to create a weaponised form of telepathy and Alma, the “gifted” child who was tortured to death to further their research. Horror relies on uncertainty, and there’s precious little of it here- even the entirely new cast of characters are entirely brought up to speed by the end of the second chapter. Compounding this difficulty are the unbearably generic group of soldiers that Becket is billeted with and the problems of setting the game so close to the previous title’s locations. The former expects you to care about figures so loosely drawn that they don’t even qualify as characters, while the latter introduces scenarios that make 24 look like a bastion of scientific realism. A few minutes into the game, Becket survives the nuclear explosion that concluded the first instalment, through the cunning plan of hiding behind a pair of net curtains. Even a vague understanding of human biology is enough to dampen the credibility of scenes where the character wanders through the irradiated streets of corpses, and at one point Becket actually climbs down the face of the blast crater, with not an iodine pill in sight.
The developers seem to be working to deliberately puncture the atmosphere of the game, repeatedly failing to understand that less can be more. At Wade Elementary School, the (wholly unexplained) appearance of a young Alma, buried in the midst of the first graders’ self-portraits, is laudably unsettling. Unfortunately, the effect is ruined as soon as the player encounters the same poster in another room, pointlessly breaking the fourth wall by treating the image as just another wall texture. In fact, this scenario as a whole is a good microcosm for the puncturing of the game’s atmosphere. Whatever initial shivers affect the player on realising that Armacham have been injecting the children with experimental DNA-altering compounds dissolves on discovering a facility hidden under the school that Ernest Blofeld would have dismissed as too ostentatious. Such unnecessary complications are everywhere, as shown by Becket’s radio ham ally “Snake Fist”. Why have the character hide behind an alias when his true identity means nothing to Becket, or the player, while every third party he interacts with immediately deduces it?
The final nail in the coffin of the plot comes in its closing moments. At this point, I would normally caution readers that I’m about to spoil the ending of a game, but frankly the developer has beaten me to the punch. On finally reaching the Cerebro-like device that will boost Becket’s psi-powers so that he can destroy Alma, the surviving members of the FEAR team find themselves held at gunpoint by Genevieve Aristide, who then seals a containment prison with Becket and the undead witch trapped inside. The concept of a player character “loosing” their struggle is actually quite an interesting one, deployed to great effect by the Project Zero/ Fatal Frame series. The difficulty here is that Aristide’s duplicity is obvious from the very start of the game, with Becket being repeatedly warned that she would attempt to use him to lure Alma back into the containment chamber. The obvious absurdity of the situation is only the tip of the iceberg, with a middle-aged middle-manager managing to get the drop on two hard-as-nails solders ONE OF WHOM IS PSICHIC. The real problem is that there is absolutely no clue as to the consequences of this move. Has the containment field held, or collapsed as Snake Fist predicted? Is Alma about to absorb Becket at the end of the game, or does she have another purpose in mind? And why, after being universally condemned for the inconclusive ending to the first FEAR, has Monolith repeated exactly the same mistake?
The expenditure by Warner on the game, together with Condemned 2’s poor performance still make FEAR 3 a likely outcome, despite the mistakes on show here. Hopefully, the next game will be a more successful recapturing of the original’s deceptively simple balancing act.