US: 21 Jun 2011
An adult human watching a horror film knows better than to expect the first extended, creepy, quiet scene in the movie to end in a river of blood. When the film is still establishing its relationship with the viewer, it is normally doing its best to ensure that the viewer is off balance, that the question of where and when the true scares will happen remains an open one for the duration of that film. There’s a buildup that needs to happen, a series of false starts lulling the audience into a false sense of security. When you’re expecting to be scared and your expectations are fulfilled, it’s just blood and gut, really. A true shock happens when the rhythm is broken and the apparent safety of a given scene is shattered.
This would seem to be the reason for the slow start of F.E.A.R. 3 (or F.3.A.R. if you want to play along with the cover art’s interpretation), but one can’t help but wonder if the developers of this horror experience let the buildup go on too long. It’s too easy to start up the campaign, start playing, and quickly become jaded.
I can’t imagine that anyone who starts playing F.E.A.R. 3 is expecting Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 666, but that’s what we get for two stages anyway. The player, known here only as “Point Man”, runs around a dilapidated building and picks off human soldiers. The player has some bullet-time power, but for the most part it’s cover, aim, shoot, repeat. Some of the soldiers are ready for you, and some are not, but it’s all soldiers all the time, being taken down with the standard regiment of pistols, semi-automatics, rifles, and heavy artillery. The next stage takes place in a city scene where you start on the ground but eventually end up on the rooftops, again picking off soldiers 20 at a time, again with the same set of weapons.
Granted, the game never lets you forget that you’re playing a horror game given that your undead brother Fettel keeps showing up to randomly kill a couple of soldiers for you, and series mascot Alma shows up in the corner of your view just often enough to get you to double take every single damn time, but the absence of actual horrific elements is still pronounced.
After this point, the horror seems to kick it up a notch, but again, the buildup is so slow as to turn any dread the player might be feeling into utter indifference. There are only so many variations on the “squad of zombies, half of which have explosives strapped to them” patterns before they all start blurring together no matter the environment in which they occur. The music does its best to keep the player involved, kicking up to a fast-paced military-sounding backdrop for the most intense firefights and adding orchestra stabs for the jump cuts, but it never quite gels. The player came into the game expecting a horrific experience, and forgoing the horror almost completely while trying to compensate for it with a few jumpy sequences, most of which take the action out of the player’s hands entirely, isn’t the way to achieve that.
Still, this is where the game’s very title may well be working against it. It is a F.E.A.R. game, and as such, we expect to be scared. Rather than concentrate on the sort of atmosphere and experience that would achieve true scares, however, it seems that Day 1 opted instead to make more of a game out of F.E.A.R..
This attention to the play experience is subtly applied to the single-player experience. Over the course of any given level, statistics like the number of enemies killed with a given weapon and the number of seconds spent in bullet-time are tracked by the game. Surpass a given number of any of these stats means accomplishing one of the game’s many “challenges”, goals that when fulfilled increase the player’s experience level, which in turn increases the player’s life, bullet-time store, and potential ammo stash. The player is scored based on the number and type of challenges achieved in a level. The game elements are not hidden or camouflaged here, which again does not help the atmosphere but does at least give the player a constant sense of accomplishment.
The surprise, however, is in the multiplayer play, an element of the game that’s easy to miss if you’re not, you know, reviewing the thing. Horror games are known far more for their single-player campaigns and stories than their multiplayer elements, which don’t tend to be all that different than their counterparts in the Halo/Call of Duty/Battlefield/Resistance series, to the point where it’s hard to blame anyone who plays this game without ever realizing the treasure hidden in the forms of the various multiplayer modes.
The two-player cooperative campaign is extremely well done, in that it gives the two players two distinct characters to play: one will play as the traditional single-player character of Point Man, and the other as Fettel, who uses magic brain attacks to torment and disarm opponents. The two characters complement each other very well, and the experience can’t help but feel like a collaborative experience. The multiplayer exclusive modes are well done as well, effectively masking their more derivative characteristics by highlighting the innovations. “Contractions” is Horde/Zombie mode with bonus Stephen King-inspired fog, “Fucking Run” is Horde/Zombie mode with a bonus “wall of death” and a “nobody’s allowed to die” clause, and “Spectre” and “Soul King” modes are essentially Infection-style modes, except that you’re turning other enemies to your side to take down your opponents rather than turning your opponents themselves. All of the modes are limited to intimate little parties of four players, and all of them are a blast with a decent group of players.
Still, the question of whether F.E.A.R. 3 can garner any sort of following for those nifty modes remains, as it’s difficult to entice a player to stick with a game for the multiplayer when the campaign, despite getting better as it goes, leaves a bad taste. F.E.A.R. 3‘s slow-burn is too slow; a few thrills at the beginning could have gone a long way.