When you name your game FEAR, it had better be scary. The original FEAR jumped on the J-horror bandwagon and practically copy-pasted the black-haired ghost girl from The Ring, and it worked well the first time around with its “is she there out of the corner of my eye?” antics. The effectiveness of Alma, the FEAR series’ villain, has diminished significantly over time. Part of the problem is that “creepy little girls” aren’t creepy anymore – we’ve been there and done that to death. The other part of the problem is that she’s not even a threat – she just pops up now and then to yell “Boo!” but she is utterly harmless. FEAR 3 confuses atmosphere with terror: atmosphere is only scary if it actually contains tangible threats.
Above: Oh noes...
As a shooter FEAR 3 holds its own just fine, using the previous games as its foundation. As a single-player experience it does almost nothing to improve on the series’ formula, keeping mostly the same enemies, similar mech suits, almost all the same weapons, and the same scare tactics. As a co-op campaign, the game becomes significantly more interesting, but we’ll talk about that in a bit. Despite the lack of changes to the formula, the shooting is still solid, the slo-mo is still satisfying, the gore is nice and crunchy, and the weapons have hefty power. The level design still hasn’t strayed all that much from the much-criticized “gray corridors” of the first FEAR – sure, you explore suburban houses, a Costco-like store, a huge bridge, and even a forest, but much of the time you’re still in monochrome corridors.
We really dug the atmosphere throughout the game for aesthetic reasons, even if we didn’t find it actually scary. A walk through a meat locker, creeping between slightly swaying slabs of beef, is a really cool touch. Tiny details like altars of candles and teddy bears or the rustle of scurrying rats bring a nice combination of the mundanely realistic and the utterly surreal. The weird part is that even though these atmospheric elements look and sound great, they are rarely actually creepy because the game telegraphs its “haunted house” sections so obviously. You’ll be moving through a level and it becomes all too clear you’re in the “haunted house” part – we call it that because this section invariably bumps up the atmosphere, has things jump out and try to spook you, but there won’t be any actual danger. When you know for certain that the next few minutes of the game will not contain any actual enemies, then the atmosphere and jump scares lose all their power.
Above: This room full of TVs is an example of great atmosphere... but then nothing interesting happens in it
There are a handful of times when the game breaks from this formula and actually has enemies show up, but none of the enemies in FEAR 3 are remotely scary. We already mentioned how Alma has lost her scare factor (plus she never attacks you), but there are essentially only five other enemies in the whole game: soldiers (not scary), cultists/cannibals (could be scary, but the design of them is not scary at all), mechs (obviously not scary), gargoyle-like monsters (scary if you’re eight years old), and finally, a mysterious, somewhat hideous thing that stalks you relentlessly. The latter enemy is the only one that had potential to be scary, but its “disturbing” design is totally generic – it looks like a reject from Silent Hill, with no eyes and the seemingly required mandibles of all grotesque beasties these days. It also makes non-frightening appearances, showing up over and over but not attacking. A major problem with this creature is that it’s so generic that we actually had no idea it was supposed to be a unique, nemesis-like enemy until almost the end of the game – we just figured we were running into different monsters of a single type. When your nemesis doesn’t even register as a nemesis, it’s time to consider a redesign.
We need to emphasize after all the bitching about the lack of scares that FEAR 3 is still fun to play. Firefights with the regular soldiers are almost always engaging, with well-designed “arena” type rooms to move about in, find cover amongst, and especially flank enemies in. The AI is smart and will do things you don’t expect. There are also the sections where you drive powered armor, both small and large, and these moments are always hilarious and fun - stomping along and literally turning enemies into red mist with your massive cannons doesn’t get old. The game also does a good job of making you feel like an intimidating one-man army – blow a guy’s leg off and the other soldiers will freak out in terror, and whenever you take out every guy except one he’ll say “My whole squad’s been wiped out!” which makes you feel like you’re the bad guy in a horror movie.
Above: Giant, crumbling bridge plus mech on mech action means this level is fairly awesome
So the campaign is variable in effectiveness: it’s decently fun as a shooter, but fails to deliver as a horror game. If you know the only way you’re planning on playing FEAR 3 is as a single-player campaign, it’s a competent but skippable experience. Of course, if you’re a devout FEAR-head you probably won’t want to miss out on the familiar experience and progression of the story, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking. However, if you plan to join up with other players, FEAR 3 becomes considerably more interesting.
Normally we’re wary of co-op in a horror setting, since not being alone can reduce the fright factor a lot, but FEAR 3 already isn’t scary when played alone, so going co-op means you’re not losing anything. The gain is significant, though (and we should note you can play online or split-screen). While the host player controls Point Man and plays the same as in single-player, the second player controls Fettel, Point Man’s ghostly brother. Fettel starts with no weaponry, but he can shoot ghostly beams from one hand and use the other hand to paralyze and levitate an enemy (and he can hilariously levitate a guy and proceed to snipe him at the same time). He can also create a temporary shield around Point Man. The most fun, though, comes from his possession ability. When his meter is full, a tap of a button sends Fettel screaming across nearly any distance to inhabit the body of an enemy (accompanied by an always satisfying evil cackle). You only have limited time inside the body before the screen starts to darken, and then the body explodes and you’re a ghost again. However, dead enemies leave souls behind, which are like “extended time” powerups, letting you stay in the body longer. The great part is that your weaponry changes depending on what you possess, and you can even possess a cultist for some zombie-like melee frenzies.
So if you have a friend, the co-op campaign is definitely worth a play – the decent core of the game becomes elevated to something quite good. After that, if you want to dabble in multiplayer, we highly recommend it. While FEAR 3 doesn’t offer the deep character progression or fierce competition of the “big” multiplayer shooters, what it does offer is some seriously creative and unique game modes. We should note that two of the game modes – F**king Run and Soul Survivor – are only available through an unlock code that’s free with a new copy or as a purchase, so it’s another “don’t buy the game used” incentive.
F**king Run is appropriately named, and incredibly tense. In this mode Alma has released the Wall of Death, which looks like a relentlessly creeping fog full of ghostly screaming faces. Four players must work together to get to each checkpoint ahead of the Wall, and if just one player falls victim to the fog, everyone loses, so you really have to stick together and make sure to revive teammates that go down. It’s not just a race, though: there is a shit-ton of enemies in your way and they spawn differently each time. It’s a frantic scramble of sprinting and briefly stopping to gun down foes. You don’t have time to keep an eye on the Wall, but you’ll know it’s there: as it gets close you’ll hear an ominous thumping sound like a heartbeat inside a womb, and when it’s really close your screen will turn gray, making the whole affair extremely nerve-shredding. For added insanity, turn up the difficulty and the Wall will move faster.
Contractions is a mostly typical survival mode, with a few added twists. Between waves of enemies you can repair doorways and also venture out to collect ammo boxes. After each wave a fog inches inward and thickens, making it harder to see and also more dangerous to explore. Finally, Alma herself shows up occasionally, and in an inspiration clearly taken from Left 4 Dead’s Witch, you have to avoid looking at her or she’ll temporarily daze you so you’re slow and partially blind.
Soul King is possibly our favorite mode – this time it’s competitive, but with a bizarre structure. Everyone starts out as a specter and has no ability to harm other players. AI enemies spawn in and your job is to kill them and accumulate souls to become the soul king. First you must possess an AI, and then you can attack other AI or enemy players – killing a player makes them drop half their souls, so they are juicy targets. A neat tactical addition is that you can jump from one body to the next whenever you want, but entering a body means you won’t get the souls for killing it, so you only want to do it if you’re in danger (or if you see an opportunity to jump behind an opponent). Soul King is fantastically frenetic, with last-second flips of who is the soul king.
Above: Well, you can't say it doesn't get gross
Finally there’s Soul Survivor, which is essentially an infection mode, but again has its own twists. Here, four players start out as soldiers, but before a round starts Alma appears and ominously points her finger at one player. That player is “corrupted,” meaning they’re whisked away and transformed into a specter. Now the other three players must survive an onslaught of AI for a set amount of time, while the corrupted player can possess AI. The fun is that the defending players can’t tell who the enemy player is amongst the AI, and the corrupted player’s job is to take down defending players and then approach the body to corrupt it. If successful, another player joins the ranks of the specters. Playing as a specter feels gleefully evil as you creep about and stalk the defenders, trying to separate them so they can’t stop you from corrupting the fallen.
So, FEAR 3 is a mixed package: a competent but bland single-player campaign, plus a considerably better co-op campaign, along with some creatively fantastic multiplayer modes. If you’re easily scared by horror movie clichés you might get scared by the attempts at creepiness, but we didn’t find it scary at all. Strangely, for a game called FEAR, it’s the non-horror elements that are the strongest, and it’s worth playing if those are the elements that will be the bigger draw for you.
Jun 21, 2011