I just finished F.E.A.R. 2, and I am just about speechless. Seriously. What I just saw, I have never seen in a videogame, and everything that came before it was completely worth playing through. F.E.A.R. 2 is occasionally repetitive, but the one thing you can’t accuse it of, plot-wise, is giving you exactly what you expect.
Those of us who played the original generally enjoyed it, but many found F.E.A.R. repetitive. I felt it was the best action game that would ever bore the crap out of you; by the end of the game it was just a matter of “hit slo-mo, shotgun clone-dude in the face, repeat.” But in between the so-so gun fights with admittedly intelligent enemy AI, players got an incredible story with breathtakingly cinematic storytelling ability. Monolith, the developer also responsible for the under-appreciated Condemned series, has raised the bar with F.E.A.R. 2; the game features even more intense Alma-generated “visions”, the most startlingly violent quick-time events ever, and an ending that has to be seen to be believed.
Clearly, they started with the basics: the visuals are some of the best in the last year, their textures and lighting impeccable, details incredibly, ah, detailed. In the last game, the “ninja” clones had armor that was smooth, technical, helmets were solid and somewhat cricket-like. In the sequel, with the improved, more horrific atmosphere they don’t even have lips. Monolith clearly has taken everything up a notch. I will make this one criticism, or really just a recommendation: play with the brightness up. Not all the way up, but about three quarters. There is so much graphical detail in some of these character models and areas that they’re completely worth seeing in the light, and you lose nothing hiding in the shadows.
All that stuff leaping out of the shadows was a hallmark of the original’s gameplay, but in the sequel Alma doesn’t have the same kind of “she’s around the corner/walking on the ceiling in the background” kind of presence. I remember my moment of “I-heart-this-game” in F.E.A.R. was when I was crawling through some air ducts, John McClane style, and I came around a corner and she was crawling right at me, hand outstretched to claim my soul! F.E.A.R. 2 changes that strategy, trying to legitimately scare you less and trying to creep you out quite a bit more.
What the trade-off is there is that Monolith has crafted an extremely expectation-heavy atmosphere through a masterful combination of sights and sounds; as horror master Alfred Hitchcock put it, “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. Heading down a darkened elementary school corridor, ears picking up on twinges of violin and radio chatter, lockers doors start flying open as a wave of psychic energy passes through them; this is a more mature Hitchcock-style scare than the original title, and that’s something I can get behind. Audio plays a huge role in the creepiness, and playing it with surround-sound is highly recommended. The voice acting as well is top notch, and includes some familiar voices.
One of the criticisms of the original was that the environments of the game were repetitive, amounting to warehouse/office/warehouse, and I would agree. F.E.A.R. 2 changes the formula, to its great credit; the portions of the game that take place outside in the ruined city of Auburn are very well-designed, artistically and with regards to gameplay. It’s these sections that redeem the claustrophobic hallways that encourage close-quarters encounters that nearly always end in “slo-mo/shotgun/repeat”. There are a variety of other weapons you could use, including fancy-looking sub-machine guns, assault and sniper rifles, but the combination of the slo-mo ability and tight environments repeatedly conspire to put you within arms-reach of your opponents, which makes for good surprises but it also makes it really easy to just repeatedly shotgun your problems away.
That is too bad, because whenever the AI gets a chance to fight it really does shine. I’ve never been flanked in a game like I’ve been flanked in F.E.A.R. 2. I watched a group of enemies trying to pin me down while I returned patient, considered fire (as is my way), when I start taking fire from the rear: a clone-trooper I didn’t even see had done an end run all the way around a decent-sized cafeteria, through two doors, and flanked me. Right then and there I was officially impressed, but that was one of a very few chances they got to surprise me. In 90% of my firefights I utilized the “slo-mo rush”, as I refer to it, and the AI just never had the opportunity to surprise me. For example, one of the vaunted AI features is that they will flip over furniture to make dynamic cover, and that’s entirely true; conveniently, it just makes them easier to shotgun in the face. I think that the F.E.A.R. series could’ve benefited from dropping the slo-mo feature altogether, and replacing it with a cover system, or even nothing. As a feature, it makes the player pretty powerful; not quite invincible, but just enough that it makes the game fairly repetitive and easy.
F.E.A.R. 2 is a great game to experience. The storytelling stands among the best in the industry, the graphics are top-notch, the audio keeps your ears straining for the slightest demonic skitter while the music perfectly reflects what’s going on on-screen…and yet you will perform the same actions throughout the game over and over again. Is this a fairly common first person shooter problem? Maybe. You could make the same argument about COD 4, that you perform the same motions reflexively, but the difference is that COD 4’s action is compelling, pushing you through different environments and different situations, which F.E.A.R. 2 does, but not as well. While the F.E.A.R. series continues to push the boundaries on first-person storytelling, it stays solidly within the realm of typical first-person-shooter gameplay.