F.E.A.R 3: Review

I wouldn’t normally do this but I think it might be reasonable to declare some bias before I start this review. Each and every game in the F.E.A.R series sits on a shelf in my living room on proud display. I’ve played and loved them all, and read and loved the comics. I’ve spent more time looking through the F.E.A.R wiki than you’ve spent looking through your fridge, and when Shaun first asked me to write for this site the first thing I did was write down a list of reasons why the first two games are so awesome and then try to pretend it was an article.

So when it comes to reviewing F.E.A.R 3 it’s not fair to say that I’m approaching the game from a neutral perspective. Assuming you are new to the series here’s a rough recap: F.E.A.R was originally a PC shooter developed by industry gods Monolith back in 2005, which was a year we used to have when we were younger. It was a bizarre two-part blend of military action FPS and J-Horror-inspired scare tactics, famed for its game-changingly good enemy AI and surreal visual set-pieces but suffering from uninspired locations and repetitive enemies. After some controversial expansion packs, an ugly legal tug-of-war, a multi-platform sequel with just enough consolitis to destroy the series’ reputation with the PC faithful, and too many delayed release dates for one man to remember, F.E.A.R is finally back for its supposed final chapter.

This time it’s under the guidance of Day 1 Studios, the company responsible for the console ports of the first two games and long-term ‘special relationship’ buddies with Monolith, who have presumably stepped away from the project due to their consistent aversion to producing games with the number 3 in the title. A shame, as I would have paid anything I own for Monolith to surprise us all with a game simply called ‘3′, containing Condemned 3, Blood 3 and F.E.A.R 3 combined into one glorious cross-over title. Alas that ship has sailed. Still, they have ‘given’ their original storyline to Day 1 for this release and have overseen the project in unspecified ways, so the presence of Monolith is still felt throughout the campaign.

As in the original games the storyline is mostly incomprehensible. Unlike the others, however, this release is packed full of cringeworthy dialogue and plot points so disappointing that I looked back fondly on the days when I didn’t have a clue what was going on. It’s a real shame especially as the creative direction is quite different from the series’ roots, so it has neither nostalgia, consistency nor quality on its side. Much of the advertising revolved around the hiring of John Carpenter as a ‘Horror Consultant’ and Steve Niles as script writer, so a vaguely decent plot might have been expected. Unfortunately the script is as unsophisticated as it’s possible to be.

I’ve never read or seen any of Steve Niles’s other work and I’m in no rush to rectify that after F.E.A.R 3. John Carpenter, on the other hand, was something of a personal hero for much of my teenage years and will always command respect from me. His contribution to this seems to be mostly commercial, if you’ll excuse my cynicism. There are no scares present in this game which are not either cribbed unchanged from previous entries or of much the same style, and there’s certainly no evidence of the finely orchestrated subtlety which defined Carpenter’s best cinematic offerings. What there is, however, is a series of internet PR videos trading off his name, an advert for his latest film included in the game’s box and on billboards in the game itself. I imagine he visited the Day 1 offices for a couple of days and doled out some generic wisdom, signed the piece of paper that says everyone makes money and moved on.

Luckily for F.E.A.R 3, and for the rest of us, this is one of those games which is so much fun that it’s “not about the story”. Not in that ideal Mario way where the game is better off without one, but in the way where it really could have been about the story if it weren’t so crap (Ed: so Mindjack then?). Fun is the name of the game this time around… well, actually it’s not, if it was it would be F.U.N, but my point is that the game has lots of it. You can approach the campaign in a few different ways and each option is substantially different, adding some real variation to subsequent replays.

First port of call for most players will be the Single Player campaign in which you play as Point Man, the genetically enhanced protagonist from the first game and first expansion pack. This mode plays very similarly to the original games, containing the same ingredients of gunplay, hauntings, lengthy action scenes and series-staple slow motion. After each level is completed as Point Man you unlock the option to replay that level as the ghost of his deranged and deceased younger brother Paxton Fettel, which brings some altogether unique new ideas to the table.

Initially Paxton is a ghost, capable of doing a few ghostly things like levitating people to make them easy targets or temporarily neutralise their threat whilst dealing with something else. Occasionally he’ll use that power on environmental objects to, e.g., levitate fire extinguishers into faces at extreme speeds, much to the delight of anyone controlling him at the time. He has a few other tricks up his sleeve such as shooting energy bolts, creating shields for Point Man in co-op and making the people trapped in his evil energy fields explode into showers of blood, but his defining feature is the ability to possess any roughly human-shaped enemy he can see as long as his ‘possession meter’ is full enough. Once he’s possessed an enemy he controls much like Point Man does, but a bit weaker and without slow-motion, and with the added incentive to move quickly as the possession meter starts to tick away – although he can refill it by catching the souls of people he kills whilst in that body.

Playing as Paxton actually reminds me more of Crysis 2 than it does any other recent game. Wait, hear me out. All of Paxton’s abilities put together give the player huge amounts of flexibility and control. He has too many tools to use them all at once and each of his many abilities has its own time and place; it turns the existing F.E.A.R framework into something akin to the tactical approach found in Crytek’s latest. Also like Crysis 2, it means that playing on the easiest mode is a delightful and carefree ultra-violent romp, whereas playing on the hardest setting is an unforgiving and brutal but tense and engaging slice of action and intellect combined, and each peg of the difficulty ladder between those extremes is suited to whatever balance of the two your mood demands.

This might be a good time to move onto the multiplayer modes because, like Paxton himself, they are most notable for the creativity and originality of their design. First and best is the Campaign co-op, where two players team up as Point Man and Fettel to go through the story mode. This is how the story mode was designed to be played and it’s probably the best way to experience it, though any sense of fear or tension is automatically lost with the addition of a second player. Both players ‘compete’ throughout to determine which of their characters ultimately achieves ‘their’ ending which adds an element of competitiveness to the proceedings, but for those who want old-fashioned co-op there’s nothing stopping you from completely ignoring this element of the design.

Both characters have access to all of their abilities from their respective Single Player counterparts; however, many of these abilities can be used in tandem for new effect. Fettel can levitate someone out of cover for Point Man to shoot, for example, or they can flank enemies by way of Paxton’s possession skill effectively doubling up as a way of teleporting to wherever he wants to be on the map, so long as there’s an enemy there he can see.

There are two other co-operative multiplayer modes available the first being the pathetically titled F**king Run, which is a brilliant race against time for four players as they charge through a level populated with enemies whilst pursued by ‘a wall of death’, a pulsating ash cloud which looks, sounds and simply is terrifying. It operates as a co-operative twist on the ‘Instant Action’ mode of F.E.A.R but substantially improved by the addition of this extreme external threat. My only complaint, other than the juveline attempt at any edgy name asterisked out to ensure that edginess is never truly achieved, is that it’s simply too hard (for me at least) with only one player, so in time this will eventually become unplayable. If it weren’t for this and the reliance on random internet match-ups I could have seen this mode becoming a staple of my gaming range for a long time, but the way it’s built unfortunately harms its longevity.

The other is by far the most popular – if we judge popularity by the number of available lobbies – and that’s Contractions, essentially the Zombie mode from World At War or Black Ops. It’s the only multiplayer mode that doesn’t shine with new ideas and invention so its a shame to see it colonising the multiplayer lobbies as comprehensively as it does. At the time of writing there are more Contractions lobbies than the other three put together. I won’t be joining in, though; I personally found it overly long and slightly dull.

The two remaining modes are competitive multiplayer and both trade on a similar set-up – a number of AI-controlled marines play an endless game of deathmatch and the human-controlled players control spectres (an enemy type not seen in the main campaign, but sharing similarities with Fettel’s gameplay). The spectres can possess the AI marines and duke it out against each other and the AI to either score points (in ‘Soul King’) or stop other players from escaping the level (in ‘Soul Survivor’). Both modes are a lot of fun, and both are interesting and original twists on existing gameplay standards.

Both do have flaws, unfortunately. Soul King has a points system that essentially relies on luck – they may as well remove scoring and just encourage players to enjoy themselves in this arena for five minutes rather than arbitrarily pick someone to be the winner at the end. This hardly matters if you ignore the points though – dive in and have a blast, good times can be had. The other, Soul Survivor, is probably my favourite of the quick game modes as it shifts from co-operative to competitive as the game progresses, with players starting as marines and swapping to spectres as and when they get picked off. Unfortunately if you play it with a bad group of players it becomes an exercise in frustration as the game sits on its laurels and never moves. I’ve had players on the Spectre side refusing to move so the Marine team have to hang around and wait for the clock to tick down, and I’ve had the Marine team all suicide in order to join the Spectre team, meaning the game ends there and then. However, find a decent group and this mode is tense, tactical, action-packed and refreshingly different; a microcosm of F.E.A.R 3 as a whole.

All of the multiplayer modes are let down by an appalling lobby system where each player has to search for a very specific game type and map with the options they want. It’s quite frustrating, for example, that you can’t just look for ‘Soul Survivor’ games, you have to specify which map you want to play on too, meaning it takes multiple searches to find one game. Regardless it’s worth muddling through this poorly-optimised system to play every game type at least a few times.

Overall F.E.A.R 3 is a very mixed bag. The campaign is fantastic but is quite literally only a couple of hours long. But then you can play it again and it’ll be an experience so different as to feel like an all-new game… but still disappointingly short. Replaying levels trying to hit the points targets adds replayability, but by then you’ve probably already played these levels at least twice and are starting to lose interest. The multiplayer modes are all great but after a few games you can retire from them with good memories and no real desire to return to any time soon.

I would hesitantly recommend the game to a fellow F.E.A.R fan, but the people for whom I would most passionately recommend it is anyone who says “all FPSs are the same”, “I’m sick of CoD clones with no imagination”, and other such commonly-heard complaints about the staleness of the genre. For all the game’s flaws, Day 1 Studios have gone above and beyond the call of duty in terms of creativity and that’s where this game draws its life from. Unless you have an obsessive need to purchase it soon, though, I’d say it can probably wait until it’s gone down in price. Brilliant though it may be it’s also a fleeting foray into brilliance that quickly runs out of steam, arguably before it really gets started.