In 2005, Monolith offered players a new take on the glutted FPS genre: a shooter with deep roots in Japan-native horror films like The Ring (Ringu) and The Grudge (Ju-on). F.E.A.R., short for First Encounter Assault Recon, put players in the role of a never-named Delta Force recon squad pointman, who in the course of his more prosaic military objectives was beset by hallucinations – some of them physically real – involving a strange, red-clad girl named Alma. Rather than give away too much about the original, I’ll simply say it’s worth a rental as catchup work for the sequel.
F.E.A.R. 2 deepens and expands the story begun in F.E.A.R. (though not directly continuing it), offering a meatier adventure and sampling more flavors of classic horror. The second game begins in a way players of the first will find quite familiar; Michael Becket, an Armacham Technology Corporation military field-operative, given minimal orders and information, finds himself thrust into an unexpectedly dangerous mission which quickly goes terribly wrong. This time around, rather than operating alone, the player is a member of a 7-person team. The initial objective is to take Genevieve Aristide, president of ATC, into protective custody; the player’s squad isn’t told why (the actual reason is related to the events of the original F.E.A.R.). Deployment on this mission actually takes place just a few moments before the climactic events of F.E.A.R. 1, so needless to say the situation changes quickly shortly into the game. Becket and his squad find themselves fighting for their lives against heavy odds, but humans running around in body armor rapidly become the least of their worries.
As with the prior game, Project Origin offers players a Reflex Boost ability which effectively slows down time. Given that the player is heavily outnumbered in many of the game’s battles, this ability makes the gunfights a blend of fairly standard fast-paced action and slower, more precise shooting and moving. Enemy AI behavior isn’t truly groundbreaking, but does feature the environmental interaction of the first game, with soldiers actively creating cover or choke-points by pushing over background objects. New to Project Origin, the player is also given this environment-moving ability; a tap of the X button at the right places and times will tip over a table, slam a heavy refrigerator or file cabinet on its side for use as cover, or move obstructing objects out of the player’s path for escape or exploration. It’s a neat gimmick, but unfortunately that’s all it really is; all objects aren’t interactive, and positioning to use the ability seems needlessly finicky much of the time. There’s also no Rainbow 6 or Gears of War style cover-interaction system, so the cover creation system all too often just feels like a waste of time. It’s more efficient to simply use your reflex-boosted speed to kill the enemies more swiftly (and often creatively), giving yourself breathing room by creating safe space rather than cover. The reflex-boost ability is upgradeable over time, with a few gauge-increasing injector units scattered clearly in the player’s path as the game progresses and many more hidden off the beaten track. Once enough boost is obtained, using reflex-boost does at least add an element of fun and creativity to the gun battles. It’s one thing to just mow down a room full of enemies with your superior firepower; quite another to weave a slow-motion ballet of destruction using several weapons and your augmented melee abilities to their max.
In an improvement from the first game, Project Origin doesn’t limit itself to set-piece gun battles against clone enemies in specific (albeit well-designed) environments. The horror-movie element plays much more heavily into the actual gameplay this time, with a fairly good selection of non-human enemies lurking in certain sections of the adventure. Lighting, sound effects and music are used to great effect here – the game will make you gasp or flinch a few times, especially if you’re running it on a good home theater system. It shouldn’t spoil too much of the surprise to say that Project Origin takes a few pages from Resident Evil and maybe even Fallout 3, while also writing a few of its own. Some of the enemies, while creepy, are also neat and worthy of a nod for interesting artistic and game-mechanic design. Sadly, the best of these encounters are few and far between, but the game’s overall spooky psych-out vibe is never far out of reach – music and environmental sound keep your nerves fairly raw most of the time. Environments are also, for the most part, very well-designed and interesting to see and explore. The bombed-out remains of an elementary and grade school, which proves to be pivotal to the plot, will likely linger in your memory for a good long while.
Another notable change from F.E.A.R. is the inclusion of turret and vehicle sections. The turret segments – very few in number – are strictly standard fare. The vehicle sections, for giant robo fans at least, are much cooler since they involve power-armor suits bristling with heavy weapons. These armored suits have been one of the more anticipated features in Project Origin by those who have played prefinal builds, and taken strictly for what they are, they won’t disappoint. The armor’s “display screen” is well-represented with video fuzzing effects and a nice IR camera mode. Scenery viewed from the armor’s camera looks quite different simply through Becket’s unaided eyes. Though far from indestructible, the mechanical armor is also thoroughly bad-ass in game terms, enabling the player to blast through extremely heavy opposition without breaking stride. The armor sections are perhaps a bit too simple to play, but they are enjoyable.
Like the original, F.E.A.R. 2 throws several storyline curve-balls at the player as the game progresses, and a couple of really big ones at the end. It’s an enjoyable ride getting there, too, for the most part. Atmosphere isn’t perfectly built and maintained throughout the game’s missions, and the pacing could definitely be better in a few specific places, but good foley work and surprisingly competent voice-acting will keep you involved with the story and central characters. Alma, who was largely a mystery figure in the first game, comes more and more fully to light as Project Origin’s story progresses, though much is still unknown about her when it ends. You might be surprised to find some sympathy for her, too – sure, she’s an unbelievably powerful psychic who is responsible for terrible atrocities, but she’s also a hurt little girl who’s been abused for years. It will all make sense as the story unfolds, and you definitely won’t be a fan of Genevieve Aristide or ATC when the shooting stops. Players who want to learn more about Alma, ATC and the events surrounding both games can pick up an moderately deep library of background information from “intel items” lying about. Some of them are almost impossible to avoid, others need to be searched out more carefully. In a very nice touch, intel and reflex-boosters collected on one play-through are already in your inventory on the next; so if you explore and see something lying around, you know you need it. The game does include 3 difficulty levels as well, and less-experienced players will definitely benefit from being able to play through a harder level with quite a bit more slow-time ability available earlier on. The most obvious thing about F.E.A.R. 2’s ending is that developers Monolith aren’t even close to done with the story of F.E.A.R., and you’ll probably be at least somewhat interested to see where they go from here.
Project Origin’s solo-player mode does have flaws, most notably pacing and detail consistency. Some areas of the game simply drag on too long, with the second sequence (the hospital) being the worst offender. The above-mentioned grade-school environment makes up for a lot of this; it’s clearly one of the sections on which a lot of development time was spent, and is definitely polished. Even so, there’s likely to be a time or two when you might just wish the game would get on with things, or that one of your remaining teammates could radio you a little intel about how to get out of the area you’re currently in. Strange as it may sound, the power-armor sections also almost feel out of place. It’s a little hard to maintain an environment of shock and fright when not ten minutes ago your protagonist was leveling half a city block with the flick of a trigger finger. That doesn’t mean the mech sections aren’t neat or interesting, just that they don’t entirely jell with the summative atmosphere of the game. You’ll also notice object maps and textures that just look weak compared with the rest of the game. This is perhaps made worse by how well some of the environment-building is done. Certain things will really stick with you, like walking into a deserted movie theater where the projector is still running, still casting the images of whirring blank film-frames onto a wall. The wall happens to have a hole in it which opens onto the devastated street outside, so for a moment there’s a weird sense of “what is real here?” When some of the set pieces are that good, a pavement texture that would be at home in an early PS2 game goes from being a forgivable gaffe to something of an ugly standout. The same problem applies to the human character models, especially hair and faces. I’m a big believer in console gaming, but this is a product that really is better on PC – when a seamless and convincing environment is so important, top-caliber horsepower really matters.
Project Origin’s multiplayer game is also a few steps shy of greatness. Available modes are for the most part prosaic; plant or disarm bombs, capture or defend control points, play flag tag, or just blow each other up in deathmatch or team DM. The one standout variant is Armored Front, basically the control-point game but adding a single suit of mech power-armor for each team. This is a fun addition, since the mechs are pretty dangerous and useful, but quite killable by a skilled team of non-suited players. However, the time-slowing powerup of F.E.A.R. 1 is conspicuously absent. It seems an obvious balance decision, but it would have been really neat to go ahead and give players the reflex-boost ability in multiplayer battles as well. Rather than slowing time objectively (almost impossible to manage), players could have been granted faster movement. The single-player mission’s last battle shows how this would work and look, as your opponent uses the reflex ability and is clearly moving much faster than a normal human. This omission may have been due to latency problems for network play; it just would have been nice to see the effort made. Even with the mech-battle mode, Origin’s multiplayer just feels somewhat bland. It is by no means poor or lacking in the potential for fun or competitive play; it simply doesn’t do anything you haven’t seen elsewhere, or do it better than the competition.
The same concern addresses the overall game, really. Fallout 3 and Dead Space are examples of other horror games which really nail the environment and atmosphere, as well as offering more realistic replayability (even given that both are solo-only games). Again, F.E.A.R. 2 is not at all a bad game, simply one that’s a few steps shy of the top benchmarks in a crowded genre. Fans of the first game will find a great deal to like, but others may want to rent or wait for a lower price. All this said, Monolith has a story worth telling here, and if you like creep-out horror this is a ride you’ll enjoy.