“What is this, Retro Gaming Month again?” I hear you asking. After all, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin was released way back in February of this year (2009). No, my friends — it’s just that I’ve only very recently completed the game’s single player campaign, and I was reminded yet again of why Monolith Productions is currently my favorite game developer. If you’re curious why that is, keep reading. If you’re not, then…um…eat a banana? Seriously, don’t let me stop you.
Back in November of 2005, I reviewed the original F.E.A.R., then a PC-exclusive title that was on the cutting edge of not only graphical and audio gaming goodness, but also featured some of the most engaging and challenging enemy AI yet seen. More importantly to a player like me, who appreciates the tense atmosphere of story-driven survival horror games, F.E.A.R. was dripping with paranormal spookiness, and featured that peculiar combination of modern military might vs. unstoppable supernatural forces that I love so much. It netted a 97% on the Oddball rating scale (a scale which, amusingly, never appeared again).
Not including the two expansion packs for the original F.E.A.R. (one of which actually continued the story from the first game), the sequel, Project Origin, was a few years in coming. When it arrived it was a cross-platform endeavor available for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Since most of my gaming these days revolves around the Xbox 360, that’s the version I’m reviewing herein.
In the F.E.A.R. franchise, Monolith has created an unusually deep series of expository events and backstory behind the actual games themselves, even going so far as to put together a 62-page “Field Guide” that was offered as a preorder bonus to purchasers of the sequel. In short, a very large, very old and very arrogant defense contractor known as Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC) has gotten itself into deep shit. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Armacham was commissioned by the CIA to participate in some of that agency’s “super solider” development projects. As part of the ethics-bending experiments of the day, Armacham created the concept of “replica soldiers”: mass-produced human clones meant as cannon fodder for military use, equipped with instant tactical training built right in.
Not content to stop there, Armacham also concocted the idea to produce telepathic controllers — specially-gifted men who could control entire armies with their minds alone. The circumstances around which they achieved this, however, were about as macabre as you can get. Suffice it to say, they involve school children, secret experiments on an unsuspecting populace, and, in the end, a mushroom cloud.
Ahhh, Armacham. Another company in the long list of greedy entities who failed to realize that when you fuck with nature, nature fucks with you.
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin puts you in the shoes of Michael Becket, a United States Delta Force soldier who is part of an elite squad known as “Dark Signal.” In a series of events that overlap with the last thirty-or-so minutes of the first game (I really liked this narrative overlap, incidentally — it makes for a near-seamless experience if you play the two games back to back), you and your team are sent in to take Armacham president Genevieve Aristide into custody. But things don’t go quite according to plan. You’re just beginning to realize that the situation is far more complicated than it looks, when suddenly all hells breaks loose: Across town, the secret Armacham vault facility has just self-destructed in a nuclear fireball (events that coincide with the finale of the first game). You and your entire team are knocked unconscious by the shock wave, and when you come to, you’re in a deserted hospital room.
Yes, it’s no secret that I have a very special and creepy fascination with hospitals, especially old and abandoned ones. The facility in which you awake isn’t old, but it certainly appears to be abandoned, and as you scour its corridors in search of your missing teammates — some of whom you can hear chattering over your comlink — it becomes more clear than ever that something is seriously wrong about this place. The moment that you see the hospital facility for what it really is was one of the more memorable “holy shit” moments in my gaming career.
From there, F.E.A.R. 2 takes you on a rollercoaster ride of set pieces, from a frighteningly familiar elementary school and a ruined post-nuclear city, to abandoned subway tunnels and top-secret Armacham laboratories housed in the base of an abandoned nuclear power plant’s cooling tower, of all the awesome shit. The locations are far more varied and interesting than those of the first game, which basically took you through a never-ending maze of industrial areas and office cubicles in alternating fashion. And of course, the graphics have been dialed up several notches, with some pretty impressive architecture, supernatural effects, and loads of atmosphere.
The popular “bullet time” slow-motion system introduced in the first F.E.A.R. is back again, and it’s revealed that Michael Becket (the player character) has the same sort of enhanced-reflex abilities that the Point Man had in the first game. It’s not until part way through the second chapter that his psychic senses are fully awakened, though, and as the game progresses, you come to understand just how you fit into the whole mess — and just how many pies Armacham Technology Corporation had its evil fingers in.
There is also, once again, some entertaining chatter between the other members of Dark Signal that you’re a party to (either willingly or unwillingly) through your comlink earpiece, although once again your character never utters a word. (“Why do I have to get stuck with ‘Bucket’?” gripes Redd Jankowski after being paired up with you for a part of the first mission. Don’t worry, he dies later.) You’ll also get some help in the form of comm chatter guidance from a man calling himself “Snake Fist,” who is later revealed to be none other than F.E.A.R. 2’s equivalent to Norton Mapes.
As far as combat goes — and this was one of the high points of the original F.E.A.R. — I can’t help but feel like the AI has been dumbed down somewhat this time around. I recently started up a fresh playthrough of the first game, and was impressed at how often I found myself getting flanked, with enemies doubling around behind me and attacking me from all sides. F.E.A.R. 2, by contrast, mostly makes itself difficult by throwing lots of enemies at you who can all take an ungodly amount of rounds before they fall. The battles become frenetic because you’re likely to have the last of your health blasted away the minute you try to reload. Never was this more apparent than during the cargo tram fight close to the end of the game, which was largely an exercise in frustration. (I should also note that I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting.) The enemies feel (and act) fairly stupid, or at least fairly average. And there’s a group of enemies called “abominations” that are of the “small, insanely fast and ridiculously damaging” variety that will make your teeth gnash in abject rage.
That aside, the combat is mostly satisfying on the hardest difficulty, though you’ll never get close to running out of ammunition. There are a wide variety of weapons to be found — more than in the first game — including some high-powered fun sticks like the Shark FL-3 laser that can cut enemies into pieces (and which warns you to throw it down and run away if the overheat light starts blinking, as “the weapon may explode”).
In perhaps the most entertaining addition to your arsenal, Monolith has included several segments where you’ll play from within a gigantic set of “power armor,” essentially a human-piloted mech with enormous vulcan cannons for arms and missile launchers on its shoulders. While the power armor is almost impossible to destroy and its ammo supply is conveniently unlimited, these segments provide a much-needed break from the tense atmosphere of the game and allow you to really let ‘er rip, so to speak, giggling like a kid as you completely destroy the environment around you. If the power armor gameplay was meant as a “test case” for a proposed sequel to Monolith’s 1998 mech combat game, Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, then I consider it a success. More like this, please! (Providing perhaps further evidence to that effect, there’s a character in F.E.A.R. 2 who can be seen wearing a “Shogo 2” T-shirt.)
I’d also like to make a special mention of F.E.A.R. 2’s musical score, composed by Monolith sound guy Nathan Grigg. The creepy ambient / industrial synth sounds that I loved hearing in the first game are back again, with perhaps 75% new material and some new mixdowns of previously-heard cues. As before, there are lots of eerie sounds, plenty of heavy percussion, and even a pretty cool Metallica-style “Snake Fist” theme that plays beneath one of your more destructive battles near the end of the game. Nathan Grigg is also the same guy who composed the whimsical, retro lounge-style music for Monolith’s No One Lives Forever games, proving that he’s as versatile as he is talented.
Here are a few samples from F.E.A.R. 2’s soundtrack:
The score couldn’t possibly fit the game any better. Considering that Grigg is in-house talent with Monolith (as far as I can tell, anyway), this continues ‘Lith’s tradition of full-circle development — they have a history of building all of their games from the ground up, from engine to sound design.
In the end, while F.E.A.R. 2 represents (in my opinion) a slight step back from the tactical prowess of the original, it continues the story’s grand tradition of creeping you out and making you crave more juicy details of ATC’s malfeasance at the same time. It’s chock full of cool new environments to explore, some fairly disturbing imagery (and concepts), and some pretty entertaining gunplay. Although the ending is a bit bizarre, I’d frankly be happy if Monolith churned out a F.E.A.R. 3.
Whether or not a third entry in the series ever materializes, I should point out that there’s a single player expansion pack available for the second game that puts you in the shoes of one of Armacham’s replica soldiers. It’s commonly known as F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn. I’ve purchased it but haven’t yet played it — I may post back with my thoughts on that once I finally get through it, but if it’s anything like what I’ve already seen in the main game, it’ll no doubt be worth the investment.
I was on such a F.E.A.R. high after completing the main storyline (including finding all reflex injectors and intel throughout) that I went in search of my very own Armacham T-shirt. (Yes, they exist. Cafe Press sells them, incidentally.) Coolest fictitious company since Union Aerospace, bishes.
If you’re as obsessed with the F.E.A.R. backstory as I am, you’ll find more fuel for your compulsions at the official F.E.A.R. Wiki.