I remember scrambling through the terror-laden corridors and rooms of the first F.E.A.R. years ago.
Monolith had crafted a place that not only fed the blazing barrels of my arsenal but struck the chords of my spine with every twitching light and flickering shadow of something sneaking by the very edge of what my eyes tried to tell me was there.
It had action. It had a twisted story. And it had plenty of spooky creepiness chortling at my unspent bullets.
The second game felt as if it had less of an edge because now I knew what I was up against. But it still had managed to work in a few of its own bloody surprises turning what was already a deeply disturbed story into a full blown mental schism with its ending. The action, as always, was never far behind and had even been beefed up with big mechs as tuxedos of death for when the occasion needed them.
F.3.A.R. packs even more bullet dances into its narrative. Plenty of furious firefights…without any of the actual fear.
It’s just not that scary and it isn’t because of what I already knew. There’s none of the subtle, haunted house eeriness that the first game had nailed and which the second had brought back despite how light it’s own bag of jitters had weighed.
The third time out, there are one or two moments that almost rise to the occasion with hints of what might be coming, and yet when the watershed breaks, it’s all about the guns and less about tiptoeing around the next corner. That ambiance of supernatural uncertainty that the other two had managed to bring into nearly every scene was scared away by the amount of heavy ordinance taking its place. Not that there’s anything too wrong about that.
Because on the other side of the bloody coin, there are plenty of reasons to go in guns blazing. F.3.A.R. puts you back in the shoes of the Point Man from the first game, freed from having been captured by private security grunts sent in to clean up the city of Fairport for the Armacham Corporation. Why? Technically, everything bad that has happened to the city is pretty much their fault only they don’t want anyone to know about it.
The person who frees you, however, is Paxton Fettel. He was the bad guy in the first game, unless you also want to count Alma, the shared mother whose undying will is what had brought down the apocalypse on the city in the first place.
With Paxton by your side, or helping you along as a co-op partner online, the two of you go out in search of clues that will lead the both of you to your surrogate mother…Alma. See, after the events of the second game, she’s having a child and it’s the kind of kid that Armacham wants to turn into a weapon. Much like how you and Fettel were supposed to be. This time around, you’ll be calling the shots. Or your partner might by the time the two of you reach the end.
F.3.A.R. wasn’t developed by Monolith, though Day 1 Studios had worked with them on porting the first F.E.A.R. to consoles giving them experience with the series. Now wholly in charge of the third sequel, they’ve added a few welcome twists to the meaty shooting mechanics such as being able to co-op with another player through the entire campaign.
The series has never really had a problem with its smart AI soldiers who can duck, take cover, and move about as professionals calling out shots turning many confrontations into gritty, lead-lined throw downs. This time around, a point challenge system has made taking these adversaries out more important for the benefits that they will earn.
Killing a certain number of enemies with a particular weapon in a stage could earn you a bonus of experience. Finding secret hidden stuff, such as teddy bears or Alma dolls, can also add to your score. With enough points, you’ll earn a level that can come with bonuses such as increased health or extended bullet time focus. There are even co-op opportunities that play into the system such as sharing a psychic link over a dead body to cooperative kills.
All of this, in turn, plays out to the end game with the winner literally taking everything, lending a sense of urgency on either player’s part to decide whether to screw their partner or help them along to achieve the kind of end that either one can live with. On one hand, it adds a strong arcade flourish to the action. On the other, it almost feels tacky considering the series’ roots as a terror-filled FPS and not so much as a scoring machine.
After finishing a stage, the player also has the option to play through it again as Paxton Fettel. Since Fettel is a psychic ‘ghost’, his options are kind of limited. He can zap bad guys with psychic power, but it’s a lot more practical to simply slip into someone’s skin and shoot their friends from behind.
Though you can’t play through the entire game as Fettel until you make it through as Point Man first (unless you find a co-op spot elsewhere that allows you to slip into his bloody, ethereal shoes), doing it all over again as a malevolent psychic shade turns F.3.A.R. into a new experience extending its replayability.
Fettel’s shortcomings extend past not having his own body as well as being vulnerable to damage from enemy fire – which is kind of bizarre. But with enough juice, he can possess nearly anyone that he sees turning the tables on enemies in a heartbeat. This also comes with a price as the body Fettel is using will slowly burn out, though to help offset this he can harvest psychic impressions from those that he kills making him part vampire.
Multiplayer’s modes also make the most out of all of this psychic sorcery and good old fashioned gunplay. Contractions has a set of maps for co-op survival against waves of enemies with supplies dropped after each round that players can drag back to one of several “safety zones” to bolster their arsenal. There’s also “Soul King” in which players play for points, possessing soldiers and taking out the same in a bid to rule the point spread roost. “Spectres” pits four players against each other in a deathmatch-style confrontation and “F**cking Run” forces everyone to fight and run from a literal wall of death that is coming up behind them.
Contractions and Soul King are available to everyone, but to get the other two modes and to keep playing online past the trial, you have to use the passcode included with the game. So if you buy the game used, or rent it, odds are good that you won’t get the code and miss out on half of the multiplayer – unless you opt to buy one for around $10. Or get your own new copy.
There’s little to fear here, but it is an unapologetic frenzy of bullets and first-person mayhem that should tide over anyone until the next big shooter. For longtime fans like myself, the story isn’t as sharp as it was in the last two major titles, though ideas such as being able to play, solo or co-op, as Paxton Fettel allow F.3.A.R. to hold its own. It might not be all of the sequel that I wanted it to be, yet I can’t deny the fine time I had racking up the points and surviving the carnage to find that out, either.
WB Games / Day 1 Studios
Xbox 360 / PS3 / Microsoft Windows (reviewed on Xbox 360)
Rated: M for Mature