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.