Scary Bit, Shooty Bit

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

The F.E.A.R. games are an excellent series of shooters that try and fail to serve two masters.
Recently I decided to work my way through the F.E.A.R. series, Monolith Games' current cash-cow franchise. Part of the reason was simple personal amusement; I enjoyed the first game back on my barely-adequate PC, and I wanted to give it another shot now that I have a machine that can run it (and the sequel) smoothly.

However, I also wanted to play through them because I was intrigued by the criticism leveled by most serious game critics, that the franchise was "not scary." The usual argument is that the fast-paced gameplay of the first-person shooter is incompatible with dramatic needs of horror, that it makes the player feel too powerful to be scared. As someone who enjoyed another horror-themed shooter, I was a little skeptical of this viewpoint. After all, couldn't a good designer properly exploiting all the tools of level design, game mechanics, and sound make you crap your pants even if you have an arsenal on your back?

My answer to this question, after playing both F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is that, while terror and high-octane FPS action may be successfully fused, the F.E.A.R. series isn't the one to do it.

F.E.A.R. - Long-Haired Ghost Girls Are Always Bad News

As the game helpfully explains in the intro screens, "F.E.A.R." is an acronym that stands for "First Encounter Assault Recon," a specialized tactical unit created around 2002 to combat paranormal threats to American national security. The game doesn't really do much with this premise though, and what little we see of the rest of F.E.A.R. makes it look more like a glorified SWAT unit than the BPRD.

The game slots you into the role of "Point Man," the newest nameless, faceless inductee to the organization, who receives a doozy of a first assignment. Apparently there's a major defense contractor known as Armacham Technology Corporation that's been working on a bizarre project to create an army of cloned soldiers that respond to orders from a telepathic commander. Unfortunately, their commander, a Jeffrey Combs-esque fellow named Paxton Fettel, has gone a bit berserk and has taken the clones out on a rampage, hunting down people working for Armacham. Your job, naturally, is to find him and kill him. In due course, events spiral out of control, and nasty secrets about the origin of Fettel and of the fate of a little girl named Alma start to emerge.

So, yes, the plot is ridiculous, a fact the game even lampshades right at the beginning. Indeed, with its combination of near-futuristic gunplay, walking powered armor suits, onryo-styled ghost girls, and curiously unspecific American setting, I'd joking assumed that the game was an adaptation of a manga series that never made it to North America. It also doesn't have much in the way of characterization; indeed, the expository voicemails you find and the victims of Fettel's wrath you meet are better drawn than your character or his associates.

Of course, plenty of games have been able to skate by on sketchy plots and characters before. Even F.E.A.R.'s clichéd plot unfolds nicely, with a trail of voicemail breadcrumbs slowly interlocking into an impressive conspiracy. The real question, then, should be if the gameplay and atmosphere make up for the weaknesses in story.

In terms of gameplay, F.E.A.R. is still a fundamentally strong shooter. The cloned soldiers, or "Replicas," as the game calls them, are quite competent, and know how to dodge fire, circle around the player, jump over or crawl around obstacles, and even not to trod on proximity mines. You also get the standard bullet-time ability that half of all FPSes have been using since Max Payne and The Matrix made it cool, though its use is almost a necessity given the foot speed of the average Replica. The levels themselves are rather linear, but there's enough space for you to slip around the side and catch a patrol unawares. You are also given a wide variety of unique weapons, all of which are actually useful in combat. You can stick with the meat-and-potatoes assault rifle/shotgun combo, or you can branch out with flesh-vaporizing particle weapons, fletchette-firing rifles that nail Replicas to the wall, or a repeating cannon that makes thing go boom. You're only allowed to carry three weapons at once, but for someone who's suffered through his fair share of mediocre FPSes, such bounty is an embarrassment of riches.

Sadly, the scares of F.E.A.R. are not as sublime. The developers certainly try, with occasional jumps to hallucinatory hallways and characters who whisper menacingly to you before disappearing in a cloud of ash, but it doesn't really work. The problem is twofold. Firstly, most of the game's environments do not provoke a continuous sense of dread. You spend most of your time wandering through unpopulated industrial sites, office buildings, and high-tech labs, and the most the game does to unnerve you is turn off all the lights and leave some ridiculously over-the-top blood splatter. They're all dark and lonely places, true, but there's nothing about them that is particularly unsettling. As an example, Armacham's corporate HQ, where you spend the middle of the game, seems more lifeless than terrible, filled with empty cubicles, gated corridors, and dim air ducts. Considering that this building was the site of an office shooting-type massacre, such emptiness is disappointing.

Secondly, when the game does try to scare you, there's a certain restraint in its approach. F.E.A.R. has gained a reputation of being a game that snaps back and fourth between scaring the player and gun battles, with no real attempts to mix the two. Whenever a haunting is about to start, you're usually warned by either a burst of static from your comlink or by a musical sting. The hallucinations themselves have their moments, and some have rather nice build-ups with poltergeist activity, but again most of them aren't all that jarring. The game does start to make a concerted effort to jolt you in the final level, when your arsenal is magicked away and the hallucinations and ghostly hauntings make a concerted effort to kill you, but by then the game is pretty much over.

A Brief Interlude - F.E.A.R. Extraction Point and F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate

I want to be brief with these two games, partly because they were produced by developers outside of Monolith (which has since declared them to be non-canon), but mostly because I haven't played them. However, I have a vague idea of what happens in them, thanks to the efforts of industrious horror Let's Player Helloween4545.

Before I begin, I'm going to spoil the ending of the first game here, because these games and the official sequel do it anyway. At the end of the day, it turns out that Alma, the little ghost girl that haunted you throughout the first game, was the telepathic daughter of Harlan Wade, a major researcher at Armacham. Moved by his daughter's plight, he brought her to work, had her sedated into a coma and placed in a sensory deprivation tank, and impregnated her with his DNA to create two children whom Armacham hoped would make dandy telepathic commanders. Alma, naturally, was rather pissed about all this, and decided to take her revenge several years after her death by commanding Fettel to find her body and release her from the tank. Point Man eventually kills Fettel, but Harlan Wade opens the tank anyway while trying to stop Alma, getting melted for his trouble. Point Man tries to kill her by blowing up the reactor powering her tank, only to fail and obliterate most of the city in the process. Oh, and her two children grew up to become you and Fettel.

Anyway, in the nature of expansions, the plots of both games are threadbare. Extraction Point just tells you to go to a hospital and get out of the city, while Perseus Mandate gives you the role of a nameless soldier guy with unexplained bullet time powers who's sent to stop some evil government guy from swiping a DNA sample from Alma. Fettel randomly comes back to life, so you end up fighting Replicas again for no reason. Perseus Mandate ups the irritation factor by focusing mostly on combat with a enemy called "Nightcrawlers," many of whom seem to have the same powers you do. There's new levels, most of which consist of reused assets from the first game, and most of the new material doesn't compare to the original.

The only reason I bring these game up is that the first one released, Extraction Point, actually makes a concerted effort to scare the player. There are far more trips to hallucinatory realms, and the imagery is increasingly strange and abstract. Certain parts of the city become infested with nightmare creatures, including spindly fast-moving wraiths and unpleasant Jacob's Ladder-inspired humanoids that, in one memorable sequence murder one of your teammates in such a horrific fashion that it may make you reluctant to ever pick up a gravity gun again. Alma also becomes delightfully bipolar in her attitude towards you, killing Replica soldiers that block your way in one part of the level, only to send wraiths after you half an hour later. It's not a good game, mind you, but it is actually trying to freak you out.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin - Alma, Eldritch Fangirl

F.E.A.R. 2, released in spring of 2009, was a bit of an odd duck. In some parts, there are definite signs that the developers have listened to criticisms of the first game and tried to rectify them. On the other hand, they have also tried to address these issues by simply amplifying the first game.

This time around, the game puts you in the role of Michael Becket, one of a squad of soldiers sent to take Genevive Aristide, CEO of Armacham and the instigator of the current troubles, into protective custody. Unfortunately, it turns out that this part of the game takes place just before the first game ends, so you get knocked out when the city blows up. You come to in a hospital, having gained bullet time powers through an unexplained operation, and you begin to fight your way out of the ruined city, learning about Armacham's rather unpleasant attempts to create new telepathic commanders and about the various plans everyone's concocted to contain Alma, who's taken a...shall we say...fancy to you.

Now, the fundamentals of F.E.A.R. 2 are as strong as ever. The armory is still nicely varied, and the enemies are still at the top of their game. The art direction has gone all-out to depict the trashed city, with the highlight of the game being a vertical descent into the blast crater left by the reactor explosion. Every location has been given loving attention, from the abandoned hospital to the wrecked streets to the empty subway system that seems to have wandered out of Condemned. You spend plenty of time off on your own, but those moments when you're with your squad build a nice bit of atmosphere, especially once your teammates start losing their minds.

At the same time, there's a sense that the increased budget has let things expand to the point of causing issues in the story. Armacham goes from a fairly plausible military and aerospace contractor to an Ultor-type megacorporation that virtually owns the city, has secret bases hidden everywhere, employs death squads in its internal security force, and is not only in the process of deploying an entirely new army of Replicas, but is also launching said Replicas into space. The streets are swarming with powered armor units you can drive around once in a while like a kiddie version of Mechwarrior. Oh, and all the weapons in F.E.A.R. 2 are far nicer than the ones you got in F.E.A.R., despite the fact that both games take place at the same time.

And the scares? Half the time, there's simply too much going on in the environments for you to be properly freaked out, whether gunplay or simple sensory overload. There are more enemies designed to be creepy (particularly the feral Abominations and the puppet-master Remnant civilians), which unnerve but are not that bothersome if you have a shotgun handy. The hallucinations have been improved, the visits to other worlds mostly giving way to visual and audio distortions with the occasional Alma-glomp attack. Probably the best levels, in terms of just unnerving the player, are the second third of the hospital level, when you reach the floor overrun by Abominations, and the elementary school level, which manages to create environments that, while perhaps not terrifying, succeed in making you want to leave in a damned hurry.

There's also a sub-sequel of sorts to F.E.A.R. 2, a bit of DLC entitled Reborn. It's a brief game chronicling the adventures of Foxtrot 813, a Replica soldier who discovers he's not quite like the others and gets involved in Paxton Fettel's efforts to resurrect himself. It isn't really all that different from the rest of F.E.A.R. 2, though the level design does approach the hyperbolic extents of the Painkiller games in some areas, and it has some of the funnier mission objectives I've seen in a good while.

The Bottom Line

At heart, the F.E.A.R. games are not about horror. Their attempts at psychological manipulation are crude compared to the Silent Hill games, and they never approach the heights of grand guginol that Dead Space and The Suffering effortlessly reach. All they really want to be are action games with a bit of supernatural flavoring, and at this they succeed. If you want have fun shooting things, then these games should be right up your alley. If you want to be scared, you'll get a few jumps and maybe a twinge of unease here and there, but you should probably look elsewhere.

Also, as just a general word to video game developers, hallucinations are only scary if you don't know they're hallucinations. If you want to make a player doubt his senses, you shouldn't do anything that'll make him or her realize that the world has become an illusion. You can't just have visual and audio noise or make a jump cut to a bloody corridor; it has to be insidious. Probably the only game I've seen that does this right is Silent Hill 2, which just has you walking into the basement of a historical society, through an underground prison, down several holes, and into a maze before the player realizes that none of these structures can possibly exist, and they have no idea where the hell James Sunderland actually is. That's how you scare people.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 15:33 on 2011-01-21
Nice review - I've not played F.E.A.R. 2 yet or any of the expansions but the F.E.A.R. writeup is a pretty good fit.

I replayed the first F.E.A.R. recently and was impressed by how fine-tuned the Replicas' competence is - they're competent when you'd expect them to be and go to pieces when you'd expect them to go to pieces, if you see what I mean. If you blunder into a trap they've set then they behave with decent teamwork and are quite co-ordinated, so they're likely to maul you, whilst if you're cunning and able to ambush them their behaviour is more chaotic (especially if you kill most of the squad, at which point you're left with one or two survivors radioing for backup and trying to avoid/get behind you).

But the game does markedly improve if you just treat it as an actiony FPS with supernatural fluff rather than a horror game.

Also, as just a general word to video game developers, hallucinations are only scary if you don't know they're hallucinations. If you want to make a player doubt his senses, you shouldn't do anything that'll make him or her realize that the world has become an illusion.

I actually think there's two problems F.E.A.R. suffers from here. Yes, the hallucinations are way too obviously hallucinations, but I can sort of go with that if the game ends up taking a super-trippy "anything can happen" route so if the designers can't manage to be scary, at least they can be interesting.

Unfortunately, F.E.A.R.'s hallucinations aren't just too obvious - they're also way too samey. Oh look, there's the little girl for the fourth time. Oh, there's Paxton in spirit form walking in a particular direction, I'd better search all the side passages he doesn't take because there's usually good bonus items stashed in there. Oh, another long hospital corridor, I guess I have to walk to the end of it veeeeeeeery slooooooooooowly. It just gets boring and repetitive, and when you combine that with the obviousness of the hallucinations you end up with the same kind of problem that Eternal Darkness had - when the hallucinations happen the first couple of times, it's interesting enough, but after a bit you're like "yeah, yeah, OK, it's a hallucination, wrap it up so I can get back to the game".
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 01:19 on 2011-01-25
Good point with the hallucinations, Arthur. Part of the reason I liked what I saw of Extraction Point was that they tried to get away from the recurring bloody hospital corridor and start making weirder dreamscapes.

Also, thinking of the Replicas reminds me of something that disappointed me slightly in the second game. In the first F.E.A.R., they were all under the command of Fettel, and they all had a sort of ultra-generic American soldier personality. In the second game, they're either under the command of Abominations (the aforementioned psychotic animal people) or Alma herself, who's become such a powerful telepathic transmitter that they just interpret her random thoughts as orders. There's potential there for the Replicas to start exhibiting strange new behaviors (or at least an excuse to indulge in serial killer-style stream-of-consciousness rants) that would make them genuinely scary, but the game never picks up on it.
Arthur B at 11:03 on 2011-01-25
There's potential there for the Replicas to start exhibiting strange new behaviors (or at least an excuse to indulge in serial killer-style stream-of-consciousness rants) that would make them genuinely scary, but the game never picks up on it.

Heck, it doesn't really do very much with the idea that the Replicas are extensions of Fettel in the first game. He straight up eats people in order to get at their memories like he's a Space Marine or something; there's plenty of scope for scares there if the Replicas all end up with mildly cannibalistic urges by extension.

It could even have interesting gameplay aspects - say, if you killed a Replica and left it on a patrol route and hid, you could watch as the patrol found their dead comrade and started nibbling on him to work out what happened, and then ambush them as they're chowing down.
Arthur B at 23:08 on 2011-05-27
I just finished F.E.A.R. 2 and I'm kind of disappointed. I thought the graphical presentation had improved enormously, which was a major factor in me playing it to the end, but I thought the combat hadn't improved likewise - the AI seemed a little dumbed down, the mech sections take too long, the bit where you're manning the turret on your APC seems to serve only to act as a way for the game to strip you of your armour and knock down your health as you sit there in clear shot of all the enemies getting hit by them.

As for the plot... I don't necessarily mind Armachem going full supervillain this time around, it suited the ridiculous hyperbole which was applied to every other aspect of the plot and helps amp the "this isn't actually a horror game, it's just a shooter with some stolen horror aesthetics". But it seemed supremely pointless, mainly because it doesn't seem to advance the plot. There are only two things that happen that progress the situation as of the end of the first game, and both of those are things that could have happily happened offscreen. (Also one of them is hell of squicky.)

I mean, it's pretty and all but I think it's a step back.
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