Any game in which you have a small powder keg of gunfire at your disposal shouldn’t be scary. It certainly shouldn’t be creepy. It shouldn’t have you slowly stalking a dimly lit corridor packing a beefy shotgun in anticipation of the grim, blood-soaked ghoul that’s lurking around the corner.
But FEAR 2 does manage to scare even when you have an assault rifle pointed at the shadows. Like the original shooter it’s a strange mix of standard FPS gunplay and graphically gory horror; it’s Rainbow Six Vegas meets Akira by way of The Ring and the old head-exploding shenanigans of Eighties’ legend Scanners. And when you have that melting pot of influences, you know that you’re in for a shock or two.
This sequel begins where the original game left off, or rather 30 minutes before the end of the first game. Your squad is sent to the head offices of the sinister Armacham Corporation to take Genevieve Aristide into protective custody, only for things to get very weird. The starkly real corridors become a warzone in seconds: windows shatter, bullets rip apart the furniture and the action crackles with a sharp intensity. Then you start seeing things. Weird things. A girl flickers into view; the screen turns blood red and you’re guided into a secret lab. Ten minutes later, there are more shootouts, more headaches, more blood red visions and then from the penthouse window you see the city explode in a cloud of nuclear chaos. What a way to start a game.
What follows is a montage of visions that set up the game’s key story arcs. Demonic surgeons hack away at Sergeant Becket’s body (the hero); viewed in first-person, you’re in his bloodied size 10s. Are they demons? Are they real surgeons trying to save Becket’s life? Are they Armacham surgeons experimenting on his mind for some sinister purpose? Who was the girl in the office? Why the secret lab? What is Aristide’s dark secret and who is Snake Fist – the deep-throat source that led you to the office? Answer’s are forthcoming over the course of the game’s 10 hour journey, and unlike recent story-driven shooters (Resistance 2, we’re poking your lumbering confused plot with a massive stick) you won’t find yourself fumbling for links between scenarios or trying to work out why character X just tore the head off character Y. Which is a relief.
For anyone who played the original FEAR and found themselves jumping every time Alma cropped up – the creepy girl on our cover who had a knack of appearing sporadically, tearing the flesh off anyone in sight and disappearing through a wall – then there are answers to many questions in this sequel. Monolith are adept at creating a believable world that holds a strong story together, then giving you the tools, the big hot led spewing tools, to tear apart that perfectly conceived fiction. Monolith’s ‘thing’ is to take everyday places and screw around with them. The game begins in an office like any other that has a hidden lab where all manner of experiments have taken place.
The staples of Monolith’s games are all here. There’s the primary school with a vast underground bunker beneath it housing telepathic experiments – if you got sent to the head teachers office in this school you never came back. There’s a hospital that’s anything but hospitable where a hit squad runs riot trying to suppress the truth by peppering the staff with bullets, and bodies skewered on surgical instruments litter the rooms. There’s a maze-like tube station, a clinical cold environment that looks amazing lit by torchlight and hides its fair share of twists. When was the last time your commute involved fighting off trapped spirits and psychic hit squads?
This sequel also takes Monolith outside of its safety zone. This is a bigger, more ambitious shooter than the original. The nuclear explosion that kick-starts the game means that a third of this shooter is set in a desolate wasteland. But this is Monolith, remember, and even among the city ruins there are some shocks.
Emerging out into a street we saw a civilian, briefcase in hand, waving down a taxi. Odd. How many taxis do you get in a nuclear wasteland? He turned, looked at us and shrieked. As he did so, the dead bodies of the Armacham soldiers that littered the street reared up, staggered at us and started taking pot-shots. The innocent-looking civilian was their puppet master, the soldiers his deceased shambling show. But who was controlling the puppet master? And why?
What struck us as we played FEAR 2 was the attention to detail – it’s incredible. Every level features numerous set pieces that will shock, surprise and have you clawing at the trigger in frantic response. There are minor moments: a Boeing careens overhead, engines on fire, crashing into the city out of view. Later you’ll be fighting for your life in the burning wreckage of the same airplane.
One moment that made us jump came midway through the subway mission. At one point we emerged from the train tracks to see a crater above our head revealing the sky; the cars had fallen into this hole and lay in front of us. One bus hadn’t fallen, but was teetering on the edge, and as we moved forward rubble began to scatter down about the bus. Nothing happened. We inched forward, more rubble. Nothing happened. As we picked up some pace and ran for the new tunnel, the bus came crashing down. We had a split second to inch away and watch it crunch into a heap in front of us.
If FEAR 2 were just a series of corridors that lead to wincing set pieces then it wouldn’t be a great game… Resistance 2 did just that and never managed to get the blood pumping. Behind the set pieces, weird visions and the twisting story arc is an incredibly deft FPS setup. The developer has over eight hit first-person shooters under its belt and understands how to make its guns go off with a bang. The general feel of FEAR 2 is weightier than the likes of Call of Duty and Resistance, feeling more like Rainbow Six Vegas. The AI is more tactically acute and there aren’t any random respawns, so each room becomes a tactical, trigger-spamming challenge. Each weapon can be tailored to suit the situation too, with rapid and burst fire for spraying rooms or targeted shots for more focused close encounters.
These guns are heavy. The bullets crackle from the barrel and affect every part of the environment. Loose a few rounds into an empty room and tiles will shatter from the walls, glass will smash, and bodies will dance as you riddle them with shots. Bigger guns have bigger effects, pillars will fall apart and bodies will be ripped in half. This is a gory game.
The old Penetrator gun has been replaced by the Hammerhead; both are nail guns that will pin an enemy to the wall, leaving him writhing in pain and firing his gun randomly, the floor sparking and walls cracking in dust as he does so. Add in genuinely intelligent enemies who will turn over tables for makeshift cover, flank you and even run in fear, and every gunfight in FEAR 2 feels like a tightly formed miniature set piece all of your own making. If there’s one thing that FEAR 2 isn’t short on, it’s epic moments.
The only real downside to FEAR 2 is that it doesn’t do anything drastically new. The SlowMo effect returns – you can slow time as a by-product of the operation forced on your character at the start of the game (the part we described where your character is on the operation table surrounded with demon surgeons). It’s a neat tactical ally that enhances the gameplay, especially on higher difficulty settings. Slowing time briefly to escape danger or snipe fast targets adds a genuine tactical advantage to many gunfights. But it’s nothing new; this feature was in the original game.
As were many of the enemies you’ll face – there’s a new wall-crawling mutant, but by and large the Armacham forces from the original return, all once again controlled telepathically by Alma from some hidden lair for reasons unknown. It’s the same problem that all sequels face. The gameplay can’t change too drastically as that’s what we want more of, so FEAR 2 delivers everything we loved in the first game, but implemented better and on a bigger scale.
Visually, this is a more dynamic game. Each mission is a subtly constructed segment of story with a look and feel all of its own. The early stages are caked in blooming and blurring - it’s slick and comfortable. But as we dug deeper into the game, the fuzz would lift and show the world in stark, crisp detail. The mech suit stages, in which you control an Elite Power Armor are fun, almost stress free segments of violence. All that tension built from stalking eerily lit corridors is vanquished in a brief moment of unrelenting, smile-inducing carnage. Rather than distract from the atmosphere, the EPA sections vary the pace, offering an outlet for your trigger fantasies.
For horror and action fans, there are lots of reasons to play FEAR 2. The game also answers many questions raised by the original shooter and does so with Monolith’s familiar flair for storytelling and detail. But it is a slow burner and you do need to buy into Monolith’s world of fictitious evil corporations holed up beneath schools and offices everywhere tinkering with telepathic child devils that will sooner pull the skin from your bones like you’re a KFC chicken wing than skip rope. But what’s not to buy into with a scare around every corner, graphic set pieces to battle through, and a tight, subtly-paced script. We can wholeheartedly say that FEAR 2 is gruesomely good fun.
Feb 10, 2009