No cameras. No voice recorders. No interviews. No screenshots released. No questions asked. To say that our invite to the world's first showing of the F.E.A.R. sequel beyond the iron walls of Seattle's Monolith was heavily policed is somewhat of an understatement. With a marriage to Vivendi Games now thoroughly annulled through Monolith's acquisition by Warner Brothers, and the franchise name of F.E.A.R. now lost in frantic lawyer-speak, the decision has clearly been made to let the still unnamed game speak for itself. Which it did: loudly, violently and often with slow-motion swearing.
It begins after the concluding explosion of F.E.A.R. (perhaps ignoring the timeline of Vivendi's faintly silly Extraction Point expansion pack) with the lead character dropping in and out of consciousness on a hospital operating table. Doctors struggle to revive you one minute, then you drop out of the real world (perhaps) and see shambling bodies gorging on your flesh. Up above, in the operating theater's gallery, a shadowy woman calls for ever more extreme efforts to bring you back to the living and slightly dead - defibrillators are brought out, special effects go crazy and you awake an unspecified amount of time later in that now-wrecked hospital (with a frequently recurring decorative blood stain motif) with a painful ringing in your ears.
What then becomes clear is that we're still playing a F.E.A.R. game - that distinctive boxiness of the corridors remains apparent, while explosion effects and glass shatters easily recall happy days past of slo-mo extreme violence. Do you still play the same character? Well that's up for debate. You wear the uniform of the Delta Force clones, a military man called Redd Schofield keeps on trying to contact you via radio link and scary psychic-imagination-child Alma still has a keen interest in you - but there's no definite answer. Certainly no answer when you're not allowed to ask questions.
A primary aim of the F.E.A.R. sequel is to up the original's already excellent AI, but this time you're not up against faceless clones but real humans. And not particularly nasty ones either, just regular guys trying to do their job cleaning out the hospital of nastiness. Because you're not the only nastiness that lies within. Lurching bodies skitter over walls, backflipping onto the edge of medical trolleys with the smooth moves of a jittering, undead Justin Timberlake. At our demo's close, one leaped on the lead character, swiping and clawing at his face - the developers clearly intent on shoving the action (for once in their words - I wrote it down) "right up in your grill." The appearance of a swirling array of gravitational special effects dragging the semi-deceased hospital porter into its guts and the heavy plod of an increasingly bedraggled Alma slouching up to stand over your prostrate body then signaled the end of a fascinating fifteen minutes. "We all fall down," solemnly intoned the little lady with a degree of finality, as the screen slowly faded to black.
With its clearly improved action and unremitting blood stains (now incorporating footprints, added hand-prints and Da Vinci Code style garbled hemoglobin-packed swirls and strange words daubed on walls) there is no doubt that in style at least, we're not a million miles from the original F.E.A.R. We're still indoors, too, although a movie that caught our eye certainly showed a battle with a giant robot in a wrecked city; so the primary complaint about F.E.A.R. (its endless claustrophobic corridors) may well be dealt with yet.
In short: color us impressed. The only question that remains... No, that's wrong: one of countless questions that we weren't allowed to ask that remains is how the opposition will react. With a further expansion pack and (who knows) perhaps even a potential "official" F.E.A.R. sequel in the works at camp Vivendi, the battlelines certainly seem to have been drawn at this E3. Just who'll take the first bullet-time headshot remains to be seen.
July 13, 2007