What is most astonishing about F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is not its poster-child of horror: that Gothic-looking nine-year-old child look is about as familiar to anyone who has seen any of Hollywood's reinterpretations of certain Japanese Horror flicks. Nor is it astonishing that F.E.A.R. 2 fails, like so many sequels recently, to convey any narrative points of significance. Nor is it astonishing that the prominently-advertised mech segments feel as out-of-place as any player of the original F.E.A.R. would have imagined them to feel. No, what is astonishing about F.E.A.R. 2 is how little of what made F.E.A.R. such an engaging and refreshing first-person shooter is present.
One of the commonly-echoed complaints about the original F.E.A.R. was the "bland" or "repetitive" level design that filled the game's superb single-player campaign. As heavy into the supernatural as the game's narrative got, the gameplay always remained grounded in, more or less, a commonly-understood vision of reality. As such, a large chunk of the game took place in abandoned or decrepit buildings, office buildings, warehouses, garages, corporate atriums, and other such staples of modern life in any large city. Other than the decrepit buildings, though, the environments in F.E.A.R. were all highly representative of everyone's commonly-understood idea of an office, a warehouse, a garage, and so on. The prime example of this are the office levels which make up a decent portion of F.E.A.R.'s campaign: there are a number of cubicles and office floors which are in clean, tidy order when a player enters them. Some of the cubicle phones have messages on them for the former occupant of the cube and, through these, a portion of the game's narrative is told.
What made these areas interesting is not that their surface appeal is intriguing, they're offices after all. These environments are intriguing due to how these offices were put to use when enemies came flooding in though doors, windows, and ceilings. Suddenly cubicles became cover. Glass was shattering from every window or glass panel, sparks were flying from broken computers and monitors, and giant holes filled the walls (example). It was an arena of chaos that was once an everyday environment.
Developer Monolith's solution to the lack of variety by the midpoint of F.E.A.R. was to make nearly each and every level of F.E.A.R. 2 into the kind of levels that video gamers everywhere have come to expect. As such, Project Origin has a hospital that is conducting secret experiments and, eventually, is shown to only be accessible via a giant underground lair. It also has an elementary school level (which is used, primarily, for horror purposes rather than the combat it would have been ideal for) where the nurse's office is, really, an elevator that goes down into a secret lab. Basically, F.E.A.R. 2 attempts to moonlight as No One Lives Forever 2 and the intense, horror atmosphere that the game seems to want to create is damaged as a result of the player working his/her way through levels that could have come from Evil Genius.
Ultimately, it's the level design of these various environments that causes F.E.A.R. 2 to suffer the most. I won't get too technical as to the actual design of these levels, because Steve Gaynor already has and, what with being a game/level designer himself, his thoughts are incredibly detailed and well thought-out. I want to draw particular attention to one quote that relates to enemy awareness when a player enters a new area:
As the player approaches an encounter space, he should be able to observe its major features and devise an initial plan of attack. This means that the entry point should feature a vantage point, often elevated, that illustrates the layout of navigable space, cover points, and interactive objects. [...] The opposite experience is often encountered in F.E.A.R. 2: as the player steps through a doorway into the fight arena, enemies are already aware of his presence and spraying the entry point with suppressive fire. What options does the player have now? The only valid ones are to retreat and use the edge of the entry door as cover, or to dash blindly forward into a hail of bullets, which is most often suicide.
F.E.A.R. 2 adopted this nasty trait that its predecessor avoided at almost all times: Call of Duty-ism. Instead of allowing the AI to decide its proper course of action (with some "nudging" through triggers and attraction points) once the player makes his first move, F.E.A.R. 2 instead ushers the player forward into battle -- essentially assuming the responsibility of first strike. Instead of allowing a player to wander into an area that is already filled with enemies and observe the entirety of the environment in safety before taking his first move, F.E.A.R. 2 seems to almost always convince (or assume) that the player can deal with all of that using the slow-motion mechanism. What happens as a result of this is that there is no planning phase; it's just the reaction and the attack. And while the slow motion feature does afford a player more time to scout out his surrounding and use cover, the more likely course of action for any player on his first time through the game is that of killing everything around him that means him harm. As a result, the cover system that F.E.A.R. 2 clumsily offers the player goes almost entirely unused.
Monolith also tries to awkwardly intersperse active horror sessions into the F.E.A.R. 2 without evolving their playbook of scares and, in some cases, appearing to put less effort into getting into the heads of the players of the game. The first F.E.A.R. did, to my memory, an admirable job of splicing some cheap scares and some intelligent placement of the token creepy girl. There was one moment, which was partially ruined by the game's demo, where a player was walking down a sewer catwalk and comes to a ladder; the distance between the walkway is too large to just jump down, so most players would simply use the ladder that was present. As soon as the first-person camera adjusts to show the player's hands on the ladder as he would begin to climb down, Alma, the creepy little girl in the red dress, is shown standing at the very spot the player just walked by. She doesn't growl at the camera or attack the player or anything, her presence is enough to accomplish the scare. The moments in F.E.A.R. that are devoted to the supernatural events that occur when Alma is reaching out to the player character are generally quick but, aside from that, also reveal very important elements for the game's narrative.
In F.E.A.R. 2, Monolith exploits fairly large chunks of any given level as atmospheric pieces. There are segments of the level where no traditional combat with enemy soldiers occurs. Instead, the game will throw all sorts of postprocessor effects at the player which represent the player-character's psychological battle with Alma. These effects are both frequent and distracting and what seems like a clever use of technology at first quickly becomes a trite abuse of said technology. It's unfortunate that this is also the case with the atmospheric segments as a whole. Their integration into the game as a whole is rarely seamless; essentially, once a player sees Alma then a "horror" segment is underway. Alma will walk in plain view around a corner, the player will do the same since it's his only method of progression, and then either the music will spike and nothing will happen, Alma will appear at the end of this new hallway, or Alma will, for some absurd reason, run at the player and a quick-time event will ensue where the player has to rapidly mash his melee button. The stark contrast that exists between these segments and the combat-heavy meat of the game renders the atmospheric or horror mood of these segments, both feelings that the game generally fails to deliver on, works to completely defeat the purpose of their existence. As soon as the postprocessor effects go into overtime, the UI or the flashlight flickers, or Alma flashes into view, F.E.A.R. 2 is telling its players "Okay, it's time to be scared!"
There are also segments in these atmospheric level segments where the player required to shoot ghosts. The shooting of these ghosts is, as one could imagine, a thoroughly awkward affair where a player is forced to put a bullet into a barely-visible ghost that viciously attacks the player if he fails to, uh, re-kill the ghost. The primary issue with having these ghosts as enemies is that there are certain areas in some of the game's levels, typically near some sort of major atrocity (like a nuke or a plane crash), where there are "good ghosts" that represent the souls of the recently-departed. These ghosts never attack the player and do not need to be shot. These sorts of ghosts are actually used to greater, and less absurd, effect than the ghosts that litter the atmospheric level segments, but their coexistence with their angry brethren is an awful design choice that serves to simply confuse their usage.
Monolith made extensive changes to the core combat mechanics for F.E.A.R. 2 that, most likely, is a result of fears that the original game's combat didn't fare well when it was ported to consoles. I didn't personally play the console ports of the original game, but I've heard nothing but bad things which sort of stands against the positive reviews that I'm reading now. The combat in the original game was, however, very PC-focused. The game was almost centered around the tactical and tactile benefits of a properly-placed head shot. Every weapon in F.E.A.R. was of such a high caliber of power that the load out a player chose to employ through his trek through the single-player was based purely on preference and available ammunition. As I played through F.E.A.R. I kept the dual-pistols on my person at all times simply due to the tremendously gratifying head shots they delivered and the well-done feel of the weapons.
F.E.A.R. 2 went a different route with its combat that made its arsenal into a more joystick-friendly affair. Every weapon has a fairly large kill box (area of bullet spread) that makes allows for more forgiving firing. It's an understandable design change that makes absolute sense for the primary platforms that F.E.A.R. 2 was designed for. I played it on PC but it was always Monolith's intentions to craft the game for a console playing experience. What Monolith also did is to make head shots less valuable, make every weapon generally less powerful in general, and to seemingly reduce the weapon variety. There are two types of automatic rifles, two shotguns, and then the stereotypical FPS arsenal: single-shot flamethrower, a nailgun (far weaker than the original game's equivalent), a plasma cannon (BFG9000), missile launcher (given when big guys are near), sniper rifle (scope, bang, etc.), and a laser (charge up and slowly burn at enemies until they die). With the exception of the sniper rifle, none of these weapons actually offer a rewarding play experience and they're almost all only offered when there is a specific scenario coming up that requires them.
Trying to be a stereotypical first-person shooter is actually what F.E.A.R. 2 does best. It has vehicle segments where there is a convenient mech lying around without a pilot that the player gets in and stumbles clumsily around a landscape wrecking havoc. It has a segment where a teammate is pinned down by snipers and the player needs to get a sniper rifle and take out those pesky snipers indicated by laser sights. It has turret segments, one of which plays hard rock music with commentary from a nearby teammate. What?
Monolith's original F.E.A.R. is a game which is widely recognized as one of the finest action-focused first-person shooters made in recent years. Yet, F.E.A.R. 2 is a game that almost seems to be ashamed of its predecessor and make penance for the wrongs that it committed by distancing itself as much as possible from it. It wants to be Ringu, Call of Duty, and the archetypal video game all at once. But it does all these things without realizing all of what made its namesake such a popular name amongst gamers in the first place and the cohesion that was necessary to create such a game in the first place. At its best, F.E.A.R. 2 is a disappointment to fans of the original game, but at its worst it's nothing more than an poorly-assembled, though fantastically well-produced, amalgamation of bullet points from any major first-person shooter in the last few years.
And when the time comes, we'll talk about the pure absurdity and gall of the game's ending.