F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin review
FEAR the unknown... and the millions of bullets flying at you
When it comes to the horror genre a good number of the more well known series play from a third person perspective - either a playable view behind the character or that awful fixed camera option. Yet it feels like first person would be the more ideal choice, putting the players squarely in the shoes of the poor sap that is due to be victim to whatever supernatural forces the developers care to drop in. FEAR 2 goes that route, putting us closer to the horror than other games would as we deal with the dangers of Alma.
Some initial things that struck me were the lack of a couple of options that I tend to use in PC games. The first is that there doesn't appear to be a windowed option, which isn't a deal breaker but it's a shame that I had to play in full screen. The other is a lack of controller support. I'm sure the collective gasp of the PC FPS enthusiasts just shook the Earth there, but truth is I just prefer having a controller in my hands for most games so it's disappointing that the game doesn't recognise it. A key mapping software is a fine workaround of course but native support is always preferred.
Window options aside, the game supports quite a hefty resolution setting and the graphics in general are very good. The environments look great, painting each area in the theme of destruction that you want from the setting. The fact that a lot of objects aren't bluntly static but can be slightly affected like shooting chunks out of pillars is neat. The little touches like crumbling rock and small fire flickering around the place add to the experience. The HUD is clean and useful, giving you all the information you need for combat without getting in the way.
The characters in the game have been modelled well too. The few monsters you do face certainly have the inhuman qualities about them, while the various soldiers and the NPCs you come across are distinctly human-like. Then there's Alma, who looks human while clearly showing inhuman traits about her as well. Pulling that off visually is quite the accomplishment. The effects that play out, especially of those showcasing Alma's heavy psychic interference, are brilliant. A few times during play, the physics seemed to get confused which resulted in defeated enemies getting lodged in objects and even one time where a dead body was bouncing loudly on the floor for no reason (where it clearly wasn't an intentional player mind screw), but not enough to completely break immersion.
In terms of the atmosphere FEAR 2 definitely starts off on the right foot. You're put into a squad of soldiers but find yourself separated. Initially this is all simple run and gun stuff, but a few strange things in the vision and audio works to unnerve the player. The game doesn't feel like it even needs jump scares at this point and it's totally right. Subtle plays keep the tension high. When shit hits the fan the action moves to a seemingly abandoned hospital and the creepy vibe continues.
Unfortunately, as the game progresses it seems to struggle a lot with the pacing of the horror factor. When Alma is around I definitely felt on edge and yes, it definitely spooked me more than once as well. Sequences involving her are very well done. There is the odd other moment that doesn't seem to directly involve her that get it right too, like one area where your flash light stops working and all you're left with is flickering lights in a wreck of a room strewn with death and ethereal threats lurking around. On the other hand, most non-Alma scenarios just seem to fall back into general shooting territory where you're too busy shooting soldiers in reasonably well light areas to concern yourself with shadows and the like. In a game like this, I can't help but feel that this is somewhat missing the point and the two elements feel like totally separate games mashed together. Give me scary or give me all out action, but don't try to awkwardly straddle the line between them.
Still, the music is pretty appropriate for the theme most of the time. There's the odd moment it decides to go all energetic battle themes during a few of the major enemy encounters, but fortunately the rest works well to pull you into the experience. Sound effects are excellent too. You can hear explosions going off and structures crumbling as you play. The supernatural stuff like your comms receiving static bursts and creepy voices are present too for that extra kick. There's also a lot of voice work, both from the conversations you get from NPCs as well as the general enemies who shout around orders in response to the player's actions.
When it comes to the shooting action, players have a decent selection of weapons and grenades on offer. These come in the standard variety like handguns, machine guns and shotguns, as well as more impressive options like missile launchers and some kind of flame thrower. On a downside, you're limited to carrying only four types of weapons at any given time, excluding grenades, so soon find yourself having to choose whether to hold onto the longer lasting rifle or opt for the significantly more damaging flame thrower. As a result of that I found myself not really having that much of an opportunity to use some of the really badass weapons for fear of not having enough weaponry to deal with the regular mooks.
That said, there aren't really that many of what you would consider elite mooks anyway. The majority of the enemy forces are basically your typical soldiers with weapons very similar to your own standard options. They demonstrate some fairly good intelligence, as they will make use of cover, dash across openings while spraying gunfire and lob grenades to flush you out if you spend too long hiding from their line of sight. Fun to fight but understandably not requiring big guns to take down. Then there are the few inhuman enemies that are more inclined to just rush you where a few well placed shotgun blasts to the face will deal with them. In all there are only really two types of elite enemies in the game and only one that I felt that the more powerful weapons gave me an almost necessary edge.
Like the enemy, the player also has a few smart tactics they can use, although the effectiveness varies. The biggest ability allows players to slow time to limited periods of time, making it easier to line up shots. It's pretty cool and a handy aid for players struggling, though some may think it a little cheap. The recharging power gauge for it does prevent abuse of it, even if you are collecting the items that increase the size of the gauge. There is also the ability to take cover, which including being able to knock objects over to create more opportunities for cover. While pulling over vending machines is cool, it didn't really feel as useful as simply hiding around a corner and popping out to fire a few bullets at enemies. There is a handy zoom feature that most weapons benefit from which can be used to more accurately target the head of that unfortunate soldier who appeared in your sights.
Ammo distribution errs on the generous side for standard weapons and grenades. Any time I thought I was about to run low I tended to run across a cache of supplies to restock on, or I could replenish ammunition from soldiers at a faster rate than I was expending it. Special weapons are the exception since the game rarely throws these things at you, but this isn't a problem. Likewise, medkits and body armour seemed to have a similar generosity about them. Granted I was playing on the easiest setting because FPS games aren't really my forte, but there weren't many times I lacked armour and far fewer times I had less than 3 medkits in reserve. I'm sure the higher settings would work against that to some degree though, but perhaps not to the extent players may expect from a horror game.
The level design does feel pretty solid. You end up running through a wide variety of locations like the narrow corridors of an abandoned hospital, the more open city areas left in ruins and the sprawling walkways of the hidden complexes. The game progresses in various directions so you're constantly having to consider paths heading below and above in addition to the more straightforward compass directions. The layout of obstacles also feels fairly natural, with debris and makeshift barricades blocking off routes you're not supposed to take. Progression is mostly linear with little room for exploration. When you do have alternate paths most of them tend to lead to dead ends with some possible items as a reward for deviating. On the plus side, it does mean there are few opportunities to get yourself completely lost as your route is usually clearly defined. Some of the set pieces involved can be impressive too. At one point I was having to carefully make my way down the remains of a collapsed bridge. There were no enemies to deal with, but it was great working out where I could descend while having a good view of the destruction below.
There's a couple of special elements to mention designed to feel rewarding for the all out action. There are times where you get to pilot one of those large armoured units that give you trouble, granting you access to infinite usage machine guns and rockets as well as a constantly recharging shield. It's quite a lot of fun curbstomping your way through the enemy forces in one. The sections where you have to use the turret to shoot enemies isn't really good though. Despite infinite ammo once again, you're rooted to the spot and can't really move around to dodge gunfire so I couldn't wait for those particular sections to be over with.
That said, there aren't really that many actually puzzles or the like to deal with. Sometimes your path will be blocked with some kind of hazard, such as gas escaping a pipe that is set ablaze, and you're then tasked with finding something to disable it, like turning a gas valve off. None of it is really rocket science. The game also often throw objectives at you designed more to point you in the right direction rather than being extra tasks to deal with.
Disappointingly, the game only seems to support a single save file, which seems very silly when you're playing on a system where storage is a non-issue. This means you can't really start another playthrough without wiping out your current one, which would especially be a pain for those seeking to game share with family members on the same PC.
The story felt a bit hard to grasp. Part of this might be that I haven't played the first game in the series and this one just drops you right into the thick of the story. You're part of a task force attempting to reach someone involved in some incidents before other special forces reach her first. Then shit happens and then you end up trying to reach your fellow squad mates while dealing with a creepy women who seems drawn to you and then blahdeblah blah. There is a lot of backstory you can dig up about everything though, which comes in the form of data disks scattered around throughout. The environment itself does a good job of providing elements of the story too. When you arrive at the school it initially just plays out as a hiding place for a NPC. As you explore you realise that the school itself holds numerous dark secrets.
The stand out part of the story for me was Alma, as I gradually learned about who she was, how she was involved in everything and why she kept appearing where I was. Despite the interactions with her going the route of OMFG SHE'S HERE I'M SCREWED she was definitely the character I was the most interested in. By comparison, I found it hard to care too much about the others. The most notable friendly NPCs - that being "Snake Fist" and squad leader Stokes - have little interaction with the player so they don't really seem to go beyond their assigned roles. You do get the odd radio transmission from them, but not enough to really flesh them out. The antagonists other than Alma also seem to have little presence. You see them in the first few parts of the game and then they mostly vanish entirely up until the final areas of the game, apparently content to leave all the work to the mooks. I'm not sure why I'm supposed to care about finally confronting one any more than I did about replica soldier 851 whose blood I'd just used to decorate the walls two rooms earlier. The ending is also obvious sequel bait, which may be a little annoying if you're not actually sure if you want to invest in FEAR 3 too.
While I think some of the stuff could have been executed better, I did find that I enjoyed myself playing through the game. Perhaps not entirely for the reasons the developers had intended, but the fact that I wanted to go back in and keep progressing is a good sign.
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