Wednesday, 9 November 2011

F.E.A.R. 3

Post-Launch Review
F.E.A.R. 3
Developer: Day 1 Studios
Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Released: June 21 2011 / August 6 2011 (PC)

FEAR 3 is the third entry in the FEAR series of FPS horror games. As either the Point Man or Paxton Fettel from the first game (or both in co-op), the player fights their way through Armacham security and corrupted citizens to reach Alma, a pregnant poltergeist whose child could destroy the world. It sounds kind of silly when I put it like that, but honestly, it's a logical step from the first two games.

At Launch
The game received mostly positive reviews. The shooter gameplay and atmosphere were praised for being solid and fun if not revolutionary. The co-op and multiplayer components also received positive feedback, with many reviewers calling the multiplayer the best part of the game. It was criticized for cutting back on the horror and scares of previous instalments in the series.

Post Launch
There were a few bug fixes, nothing major. No DLC.

The Good
Shooter Bits
As always, the shooter component is solid. The two unique aspects present since the original — slow-mo reflexes and kicking — are still here, as well as a cover mechanic. There are no innovations here, but the gameplay is solid, fast-paced, and fun.

Kicking (ass)
This might seem like a weird thing to have its own section, considering that it's a mechanic that's been in the FEAR franchise since day one. But it's a mechanic I just love so much and that so few shooters have: kicking. You have your standard melee knife attack, but you also have a jump kick and a slide kick, both of which function as instant kills against standard enemies. The jump kick is neat, but the slide kick is where it's at -- you can not only kick people but dodge enemy fire when moving between cover, and look cool while doing so.

I know it's been done in other games, but I just love kicking in a door, watching the splinters slow to a near-stop, and shooting the three poker players in the head before they've gotten over the shock. It's a very rewarding, cinematic experience.

The FEAR series is, in my opinion, fairly unparallelled at establishing a creepy atmosphere. It's not always scary; there's just this pervasive feeling of general unease. Streaks of blood but no body; a huge dark room where the only light sources are flickering TV screens; a prison where inmates are mostly quiet but will suddenly shout and throw cans at you from their cells as you pass by.
One of the series' strong points has always been lighting, especially the use of mobile shadows. The dark spots are very dark, and the bright spots are very bright -- the high contrast is pretty creepy. And it's always freaky when the shadows start to move around you.

Silent Protagonist
In the first game I was occasionally bothered that Point Man didn't just say something when all of this creepy stuff kept happening to him and no one else seemed to see it. In this one, though, it really works well. Your creepy dead ghost brother who you murdered in the first game hangs around and keeps trying to talk to you, but you only give him these looks, or ignore him entirely.

Competitive Co-Op
In co-op play, you're trying to clear the level, but at the same time you're both competing for the best score. At the end of the game the scores are tallied and the winning brother determines which ending you see. It's a pretty neat idea and one that works quite well considering the characters and motivations involved.

Paxton Fettel
Playing as Point Man with his slow-mo enhanced reflexes is fun. Playing as his ghost brother is more fun. You follow most of the same rules as Point Man — HP, you're grounded and can't pass through solid objects, etc. You get an energy blast ranged attack that's OK, as well as a melee. You can suspend enemies in the air and continue shooting at him or other targets, which allows you to hold up a target for your co-op partner or to disable an enemy while you shoot at his friends. It's also great for lining up easy headshots.
But most interestingly, you can possess enemies and go into normal FPS mode. You get a limited timer that can be replenished by collecting some kind of spirit thing from enemies you kill, and you have regular hit points as well. When the host body dies you're returned in its place as Fettel, so you have to manage your time and spirit energy well to make sure you don't end up caught in a crossfire. Possession lets you be a lot more reckless since dying in a possessed body doesn't kill you, so Fettel can possess someone and draw fire by going on a cowboy shooting spree while Point Man hits them from behind. It's a very cool mechanic. Fettel chuckles evilly whenever he possesses someone, and you may find yourself doing the same.

Satisfying and Interesting Trilogy Wrap-Up
The three FEAR games are actually very different from each other. The first is the most outright scary, with long segments of lonely exploration and terror. The second, focusing on a different character in a secondary FEAR team, is less scary and more creepy, with a greater focus on combat and action. The third is a trippy action-packed return to the characters from the first game that essentially morphs the trilogy into a story about family (a very creepy one though). It's actually really cool to play through the whole trilogy to see the differences in style and narrative structure between each game.
FEAR 3 has two possible endings: the Point Man ending and the Fettel ending. Both are pretty neat.
This is what trying to find a multiplayer game is like.
The Neutral
Conceptually, the multiplayer looks very cool. There are four game modes: Soul Survivor, in which one player is a ghost and tries to possess and corrupt the others while they try to survive against the ghost and AI soldiers; Soul King, in which everyone is a ghost and you fight each other via possessions for points; Contractions, a co-op survival mode where every “contraction” brings a wave of enemies and thickening fog; and F*cking Run!, another co-op mode where the player team fights their way through waves of AI soldiers before the advancing wall of death reaches them.
So like I said, in theory, that all sounds cool. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't find any multiplayer games to join. There's an offline practice mode which allows you to try out each mode, but I'm guessing the number of enemies scales with the number of players, so it's not exactly action-packed by yourself.
In practice, the multiplayer is not a selling point unless you have a few friends who want or have the game as well. If I'm wrong and the lack of games was due to some mix-up on my end, please correct me in the comments, but unless someone does, I'm calling online multiplayer completely dead.

Unresolved Plot Threads
There's a lot of stuff from the first two games that pretty much just gets ignored in FEAR 3, including almost the entire second game. Personally I was not too concerned with it, since FEAR 3 recasts the trilogy as the story of Alma's family, so it doesn't bother me that I don't get to find out what happened to some of the side characters. It might bother you, though, if you're into continuity issues or want to see all the threads resolved.

The Bad
Lack of Horror
FEAR 3 just isn't as scary as its predecessors. It still does a great job of building a creepy, unique atmosphere, but the shocks and scares of the previous games are mostly absent, with greater focus on combat. I'm thinking this is due to the co-op: long, lonely wanderings through abandoned buildings aren't as moody or interesting when you're playing with a friend.

Challenge Notifications
This is really a subsection of “Lack of Horror” but it's important enough to have its own bit. The game's challenges, while fun and introducing a bit of a level-up mechanic, are not at all conducive to horror. When you're picking your way through the electronics section of an abandoned store, completely dark except for the flickering monitors reflecting off pools of blood and candle-wax-shrines, it kind of breaks the mood to get a pop-up telling you you've collected enough items for a point award.

This is maybe a weird criticism, which also applies to FEAR 2. In the first game, the lighting system was very high-contrast with sharp edges, even with soft shadows enabled. I thought this system lent itself well to the horror atmosphere. In the second and third games, though, the lighting system and focus seem almost fuzzy a lot of the time, with light sources providing a soft glow rather than a stark, isolated pool of light. Maybe it's just me, or maybe I'm remembering the first one wrong, but I don't find the fuzziness works as well to build atmosphere. It's not as scary.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it, but only if you've played the first two.
FEAR 3 is heavily dependent on knowing what happened in the previous games. If you haven't played the first two, you'll be pretty confused as to who these characters are and what exactly has happened. If you have played and enjoyed the first two, you'll be happy to hear that FEAR 3 is more of the same: excellent gameplay with a unique atmosphere. And if you can get some friends together, the multiplayer would be pretty cool.

As a final thought: I really like this series, but I hope that if it continues, FEAR 3 remains the conclusion of the story of Alma and her family. I'd like to see the original core concept revisited and expanded upon -- an elite military first-response unit for investigating paranormal threats. Maybe make a series of games where each mission seems unconnected but they come together in the end or something, but focus on something new. I guess we'll see what happens.

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