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First Thoughts: F.E.A.R. 3

Longtime readers of my blog are likely familiar with my great appreciation of the F.E.A.R. video game series, originally created and launched in 2005 by Monolith. The original game, which was the subject of one of my first reviews on this site, was succeeded by two expansion packs and a full-blown sequel in 2009, the latter of which I also reviewed.

Avid gamers may be aware that a second full sequel just arrived in stores last week. Known simply as F.E.A.R. 3, or by the kitschy leetspeak “F.3.A.R.” depending upon which side of the box art you’re looking at, this installment was produced in concert with John Carpenter of Halloween fame, who helped consult on production of the cutscenes.

It’s also the first full F.E.A.R. game to be entirely developed by a studio other than Monolith.

I won’t lie to you: the loss of Monolith on this project caused my expectations to sink and precluded me from preordering the game. I don’t just love the unique setting, storytelling and immersive cinematic presentation of F.E.A.R., I also love almost all of Monolith’s back catalog for the same reasons and recognize that they are a huge part of the reason why the F.E.A.R. games are good at all. Even ‘Lith’s very first game, 1997’s Blood, had set pieces that immersed me like no other game of that era. I had my doubts as to whether F.E.A.R. 3’s new developer, Day 1 Studios, could pull this off.

But you know how a junkie’s mind works: no matter how much he tells himself that he’s going to swear off the juice, when someone dangles it in front of his face — especially with a sweet deal attached — all resistance usually crumbles. And so it was with me, less than a week after F.E.A.R. 3 launched and I found myself in possession of a $35 gift certificate for Best Buy. Needing a bit of self-reward after an intensely grueling week at work, I decided that F.E.A.R. 3 would fit the bill.

I’m headlining this post with “First Thoughts” because last night was my first chance to sit down (in a darkened room with a set of headphones on, of course) and step back into the world of F.E.A.R. As such, I’ve only gotten through the first couple of intervals and thus don’t have a complete picture of the game. A full review will likely come later, but I felt like there were some quick impressions that I wanted to get off my chest first.

F.E.A.R. 3 hurls you immediately into the action without delay, after a very brief recap of key events from the series’ backstory in the voice of Paxton Fettel, your evil brother. Interval 01 finds you, once again playing as Point Man from the first F.E.A.R. game, incarcerated in a makeshift Armacham prison facility. This facility is staged in what appears to be an actual abandoned prison somewhere…in Mexico, South America or someplace analogous.

At least, those are the closest guesses I can make as to the locale, given the Spanish-language (or Portuguese?) complaints of fellow incarcerates, the decidedly not English signs, and the sprawling slum town that you escape into at the beginning of Interval 02. No explanation for how Point Man got here from Fairport — the last location he was known to inhabit — has yet been given. I have to admit, this irks me.

Nearly straight away we are treated to the news that your former F.E.A.R. squadmate and medical expert, Jin Sun-Kwon, is not dead after all. (And she’s still voiced by the same actress, which is a bonus.) Those of you who played the original F.E.A.R.’s first expansion pack, Extraction Point, know that she was killed along with your other squadmate Douglas Holiday. So, in literally the opening seconds of the game, we discover that the events of Extraction Point are apocryphal. (I did some checking on this, and yes, apparently Monolith declared that the expansion packs were not considered canon back when they developed F.E.A.R. 2.)

Incidentally, little details bother me, so here’s one now. At the beginning of F.E.A.R. 3 Interval 01, as you pick up a fallen guard’s communications earpiece, you learn that Jin is still alive because she’s radioing through it for assistance. Problem: Jin’s still in Fairport, a city that even the other prison guards refer to as “up north”, and you’re at this prison in someplace like Brazil. What’s the range on these ATC comm units, anyway? Is it measured in hemispheres? Further, why is a F.E.A.R. agent’s communications being picked up by ATC radio gear? I have a hard time believing these ultra-secret government operatives use open frequencies.

But enough detail-oriented nitpick tangents — let’s touch on the gameplay, which can be summed up by saying that Day 1 Studios has created a very competent action shooter. The weapons feel, handle, animate and sound off realistically and shooting up the joints you find yourself thrust into is still a pretty satisfying experience. There’s almost never a moment when the firefights aren’t frenetic and harried, with enemies doubling back around you and coming at you from all sides. I also found it interesting that when you’ve got bad guys pinned down, and they occasionally peek out to take potshots at you, they don’t always peek out in the exact same place. This makes it harder to camp out with your gun drawn to wait for their next stop-and-pop.

While the controls and movement feel lighter than F.E.A.R. 2 — and a bit more like the original F.E.A.R., if anything — the cover mechanic feels clunky and frustrating. F.E.A.R. 3 employs a cover system by which you can crouch behind countertops, hide behind walls and so forth, then peek out and shoot at your enemies by using the left trigger. This is a common tactic in shooters today, but I seemed to have a much harder time grappling with these controls than I normally do. My biggest complaint is that once you’re in cover, you have to make a lot of minute adjustments to your position in order to peek out and shoot, or transition from one bit of cover to another. I get that F.E.A.R. 3 is an FPS and not a third-person action game like Gears of War, but GoW does a much better job with its cover mechanic. (It is even perhaps the gold standard.)

The enemy AI is pretty good, as mentioned, but it occasionally does dumb things that remind me of shooters gone by. For instance, enemy soldiers on a catwalk above you might cluster directly above your head and just stand there, since the engine is informing them that they can’t open fire due to the obstruction of a solid floor between them and you. Despite this, they don’t often seem to try to flank you or get across from you. More likely, they may try to come downstairs and bag you, so it’s not a complete AI failure. Still, it reminds me of guards in Wolfenstein 3-D piling up in a closet because you’re on the other side of it in a room that’s inaccessible from that part of the level.

Overall, though, F.E.A.R. 3 is a pretty good shooter. But if you read my reviews of F.E.A.R. and its first sequel, you know that my favorite thing about F.E.A.R. is the spooky atmosphere and sense of dread that the immersive environments and tense situations convey. From what I have seen so far of F.E.A.R. 3, that is all but gone. Although some seemingly half-hearted attempts are made during the first Interval to break up the action set pieces with some spooky corridor-crawling, the effect seems like a sideshow. The music is way over the top (Nathan Grigg, where are you?), the jump scares are anything but scary, and half the time you don’t even see what’s supposed to be scaring you because you weren’t looking in the exact direction you were supposed to in order to see it. This is just shitty design!

If you’re looking for a sense of dread, you won’t find it in Intervals 01 or 02. This is in stark contrast to Interval 02 of F.E.A.R. 2, “Isolation”, in which you awaken disoriented in a deserted hospital and quickly learn that an ATC death squad is murdering everyone there in an extreme case of corporate ass-covering. It probably took me longer to play through “Isolation” than any video game chapter ever, because I was genuinely amped up, overcautious, disturbed and anxious about everything that was going on. Occasionally I’d run into nurses or doctors who were being chased or executed right in front of me and I was genuinely angry, wanting to avenge their deaths. In F.E.A.R. 3, I’ve already run across a few dead civvies who were executed by ATC security, and I’ve felt nothing. They just look like puppets propped against the wall, devoid of expression, devoid of any kind of set piece — smeared bloody handprints, etc. — that tells the story of how they died. Nothing. No detail.

And that’s really what it boils down to. More than anything else, F.E.A.R. 3 is missing Monolith’s near-preternatural attention to detail. Shoot and kill a guy and he screams, but if you put a second bullet into him, the scream immediately cuts off. (What is this, Wolfenstein 3-D again, where there was only one sound channel?) Most of the animations seem jerky or unnaturally fast. Doors fly open in a completely linear fashion from start to finish. There’s not as much FBA (Full-Body Awareness, where you can see your character’s own arms and legs performing actions) as there was in F.E.A.R. 2. The voiceover of the ATC guards has been taken to almost teenage levels of camp and curse-ladenness — and not even in a clever way, like F.E.A.R. 2’s “all available fuckups” line that had me laughing. This may all sound petty, but Monolith got all of this stuff right, and it’s not until it’s missing that you really notice how irksome its absence is.

Part of what had me immersed so completely in the previous F.E.A.R. games, particularly F.E.A.R. 2, was the deep and disturbing backstory that Monolith had created. Gamers who preordered F.E.A.R. 2 even received a 62-page “Field Guide” that served as a dossier of backstory data written from an in-universe perspective, complete with scribbled notes from Armacham’s chairwoman who was privy to some of the company’s most macabre experiments. By contrast, F.E.A.R. 3 comes only with a “manual” that is exactly two pages long and consists entirely of the requisite legalese. There is not word one in there about the game itself.

Now, I understand that this is a lot of very in-depth judgment to make about a game with which I have only spent about two hours, total. I also hear tell that the beginning of the game pushes a lot of pure action sequences right up front, and saves more of the story- and character-developing cruft for later. I am particularly looking forward to meeting up with Jin and learning more about Michael Becket, F.E.A.R. 2’s player character, who I hear makes an appearance. Perhaps by that part of the game, more of my appetite for disturbing backstory and creepy weirdness will be satiated.

I should also mention that F.E.A.R. 3 supports two-player cooperative play through the entire campaign, plus a number of compelling-sounding multiplayer modes (including one called “Fucking Run!”, if you can believe that), which most reviews have found quite appealing. In order to make the most of my purchase, I hope to be able to experiment with the multiplayer a bit, particularly campaign co-op, in which the second player takes on the role of Paxton Fettel and his unique abilities. But for singleplayer-minded gamers like myself who were hoping that F.E.A.R. 3 might defy the odds and offer more of the wonderful, tense and spooky atmosphere that Monolith has been serving up in spades since 2005, I fear — ha, you see what I did there? — that you’ll be as disappointed as I.

With the first two Intervals, anyway.

For now, I’ll play some more of the game and post some updated thoughts later. But if you’re looking for an early verdict on this one, all I can say is, “wait and see.”

Update 7/5/2011: Interval 03 proved to be a vast improvement over F.E.A.R. 3’s initial two chapters. I look forward to having more positive reactions to share in my final review of the game.