Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Review: F.E.A.R. 2 - Project Origin

When the first F.E.A.R. came out, I liked it pretty well. It was an interesting mixture of FPS with horror elements. Pretty novel stuff, and the first game I remember playing to incorporate at-will time distortion (though I now know Max Payne did it first, I didn't play it). It's been almost a year since they had a contest to name the sequel, so I'd really forgotten all about it coming out.. until it did just last week.

Nothing to complain about here, for certain. The Lithtech engine (with the Havok physics engine) is certainly up to par for latest gen games. Environments are incredibly detailed, the special effects (especially on slow-mo bullets, ghosts, that sort of thing) are absolutely top shelf. Really, it's the sort of production values that I'd expect from a high budget movie. The only blemish on the otherwise flawless visual experience is the movements of your allied AI characters, especially the female commander. Their ambulation seems artificial, perhaps contrived. While the movement is smooth, it still gives the impression of being stiff and mechanical. But it's a small gripe, and as you will be alone (so very, very frightningly alone) for the vast majority of the game, it doesn't detract very much from the overall experience. The enemy AI models are spot on. And the graphical representation of psychic phenomena and "ghosts" (for lack of a better word) are incredibly adept at making the surreal... uncomfortably real.

If you are going to build an atmosphere conducive to fright, you can't scrimp on the auditory angle. F.E.A.R. 2 definitely does it right on this one. The voice acting is top notch (the aforementioned female commander is also voiced by the same voice actress who voiced Cortana from Halo, Zoey from Left 4 Dead, and Cate Archer from NOLF 2... she kinda sounds like a bossy Zoey). The music is good at setting the tone and is high quality stuff, and the ambient noise really helps the atmosphere. There will be times where you'll hear whispers or laughter or crying that will set you on edge. There is definitely more than one "I think I just felt a little pee come out" moment in this game, and the audio plays a big part in that.

The old F.E.A.R. game had good gameplay, and the new game mostly improves on it. It's still a FPS with freaky paranormal interludes, but the psychic bits feel a little less contrived this time. There's less of the "oh look, a blank hallway, this will certainly have a paranormal cutscene in it" thing going on, though there are still plenty of little paranormal jolts to go at you. It's just you can't tell one is going to happen as often/easily as you could in the first, so they're more effective at unsettling you.

The old familiar "reflex time" mechanic is back, and just like before you really need to use the heck out of it to stand a chance. The enemy AI in this game is very good at hiding behind stuff and keeping you distracted while other enemies move to flank you.

There's also a bit of a different dynamic here. In the first game, your character spent much of his time chasing creepy little Alma... but this game picks up at the end of the first one with a different protagonist who sends most of his time being chased BY a now even creepier grown-up Alma. And while in the first, you weren't particularly sure you wanted to catch her... here you definitely know you don't want to be caught.

There's also some new things to toy with here. The laser weapon is kinda neat, and the armored mech levels are fun too (if a bit easy). The environments are much different than the first, which was mostly limited to the insides of office buildings. Here, there are city streets, industrial levels, underground tunnels, and yes, office buildings too. The action tends to pendulum back and forth between "this part is for normal fighting of groups of enemies" and "this part is for freaking you out with the supernatural" with the two rarely overlapping. What gets you is you can't tell when there's a transition until it's already made. There's a little warning sometimes about paranormal activity by way of flickering lights and failing hi-tech electronics, just like in the first one.

The only bad thing I have to say about it really is you can tell it's a "console FPS." It's difficult to put into words, but a dedicated PC gamer can tell, can just sense when a game was developed with a console in mind. It just feels different to play it, like it's on a leash. This feeling is also sharpened by other game devices - the game saves exclusively on a checkpoint system completely removing the player's ability to save (which also has the side effect of ratcheting up the tension, but I still don't like this dynamic), there's more weapons and armor lying around than in the inside of most military armories as well as enough first aid to heal you 5 times over what is necessary, and the game relies too much on fast-clicking quicktime events. It made me think of the "test your might" interstitial minigames from Mortal Kombat.

But, for the most part, It's a very engrossing experience and a fun game. I've tried not to spoil the story, because it's an integral part of the game as much as the action.
Verdict: A-

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