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Written by  :  Sharafciger (42)
Written on  :  Apr 20, 2019
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars2.57 Stars

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95% Recycled Content

The Good

I ended up playing F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin almost by accident, after having initially sworn myself off the sequels of the original F.E.A.R. because of the inevitable paradox that plagues FPS sequels: the linear correlation between the number of entries in a series and the exponentially deteriorating quality of each successive installment.

Officially this is the second title in the F.E.A.R. universe, though unofficially we were inundated with F.E.A.R. content before this second installment ever released, when you count the two, non-canonical expansions not developed by Monolith Productions that succeeded the 2006 debut title (F.E.A.R. Extraction Point and F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate). In the span of less than four years, four titles developed by two different studios saturated the “creepy Japanese-style horror meets John Woo-esque shooter” market, and indelibly etched into everyone’s mind the image of Alma and her unstoppable psychic mayhem.

How you view the sequel to F.E.A.R. is inextricably linked to how you felt about the first game, and to that end, I will be comparing the two endlessly as I developed something of an unhealthy preoccupation with the first game and the two subsequent expansion packs, in what’s known as the “Vivendi Timeline” in fan lore. As opposed to the “Monolith Timeline” which disregards everything that happened in the expansions and treats F.E.A.R., F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and F.3.A.R. as the definitive storyline.

I’ve played those first three titles in the Vivendi timeline to completion more than I actually wanted to, given the expansions were developed by the now-defunct TimeGate Studios, whose legacy is steeped in controversy over their involvement in Aliens: Colonial Marines and their spectacular bankruptcy.

I still can’t put my finger on why I forced myself through those innumerable replays, though perhaps more than the chaotic gunplay and horror pretensions, I just thoroughly enjoyed being in the F.E.A.R. "Point Man’s" shoes (and the other protagonist's shoes in F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate).

Something gripped me about the way the first game’s campaign unfolded in a single night, and had you operating in perpetual darkness, treading through abandoned warehouses, shadowy high-rise offices and ominous research facilities. You were hot on the trail of carnage orchestrated by a rogue defense technologies corporation and their disastrous research into psychic enhancement and genetic-engineering, leading the nameless “Point Man” and the F.E.A.R. team to unearth the backstory of a monumentally criminal cover-up that could no longer be kept secret. It was that detective-like, crime drama-inspired angle combined with a juvenile, macho fantasy revolving around a lone underdog taking on elite military forces and otherworldly horrors, and defying all odds without any real explanation for your one-sidedness (until you delved into the bowels of the Armacham Technology Corporation and uncovered the skeletons in its closet).

Your secret was in your genes, as Armacham's chief scientist, Dr. Harlan Wade mentions in a brief flashback during the first game, “You will be a God among men.” Thus, you quickly began to realize there was more to the nameless, voiceless Point Man than meets the eye, that he was linked to this madness in ways he couldn’t even begin to fathom.

The atmosphere was deeply foreboding too, borne out of a gloomy level design that exuded suspense which reinforced the strong commitment to first-person immersion, with no cutscenes or in-game menus to detract from the gameplay, which at the time, was the closest video gaming equivalent to recreating the bombastic shootouts seen in The Matrix series or a Michael Mann film. Overlaying this, was in my opinion, one of the most underrated video game soundtracks of all time, not to mention an enemy A.I. that had no equals and still has few today. Of course, coup de grâce, one can’t leave out the literal wildcard of the entire story: the omnipotent Alma, and the inexplicable, unsettling paradox that is the small girl with a past all but erased, against whom, not even squads of the "blackest" of the black ops soldiers could stand up to. Fittingly, all of this was wrapped up in the veneer of a cutting-edge gaming engine in its day and the sum of all these parts was to me, an FPS that balanced its myriad of influences deftly while never wearing the same hat for too long, being many things to many gamers, and ultimately being one of the landmark titles in FPS history.

That being said, that was back in 2005 and the video game landscape along with my own personal predilections in gaming have evolved considerably since, so this being title number four in the series (whether Monolith cares to acknowledge the expansions or not), means only one thing: we have seen it all before.

F.E.A.R. 2 features largely the same environments, the same enemies, the same weapons, a familiar story with very similar characters to the first title, featuring the same scripted hallucinations and jump-scares interspersing the same, very linear, set-piece battles with Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC) or Replica forces commanded by another rogue military leader akin to Paxton Fettel from the first game. All the while your player character tries in vain for a majority of the campaign to accomplish the same objective, tracking down an elusive antagonist, as does the Point Man in the original.

Depending on your perspective, this may either amount to a nostalgic rekindling of past fondness or a completely uninspired regurgitation of the first game with a shiny, new coat of paint.

This where I feel it prudent to mention as well, that a behind-the-scenes legal struggle between developer Monolith Productions and publishing giant Vivendi, over the rights to the F.E.A.R. name, likely threw a spanner into the continuity and trajectory of the F.E.A.R. series, as did the end of Monolith as an independent studio. Monolith parted ways with Vivendi (or technically Sierra Entertainment, a subsidiary of Vivendi) after being acquired by Warner Brothers Interactive/WB Games in 2004, mid-way through development of the first game. As part of the terms, Vivendi owned the F.E.A.R. name thereafter and decided to peddle two hastily-executed expansions—that it had originally planned for Monolith to do—with the F.E.A.R. marque slapped on to maximize brand recognition and sales. After Vivendi’s own Armacham-like experiments in flogging the digital horse yielded lackluster sales, Monolith reacquired the rights to the F.E.A.R. name from Vivendi, just in time for the release of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, which would have been known only as “Project Origin” had it not been for Vivendi’s dumping of the IP. Vivendi themselves merged with Activision after the release of Perseus Mandate (and then disbanded again in 2013), and evidently whatever ambitions they had about branching out the F.E.A.R. canon into their own divergent mythos died with that merger, so from that point on, Monolith took a firm stance that nothing done in the expansions to the first game by Vivendi/TimeGate was officially recognized in their sequel. It’s unclear what impact switching publishers to Warner Brothers Inc. had on the direction of the series, but pushing it towards a more mass appeal, accessible title seems likely, given their catalogue of previously published titles being dominated by film and animated adaptions, very few of which can be considered risky games that defy mainstream conventions.

Leaving aside the arguably more interesting storyline of the game’s developer, the events of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin begin largely in parallel with the closing segments of the first game, during which the Point Man storms the Origin Facility containing “The Vault”, the containment vessel which Alma breaks free from and then proceeds to confront Point Man in a final showdown right before the entire site becomes ground zero of an ensuing nuclear-sized explosion which wipes out the crime scene that Armacham so desperately wanted to keep under wraps.

This time around you’re playing as SFOD-D (or Delta Force) Sergeant Michael Beckett, who is conveniently yet another freak of nature like the original Point Man (turns out he came from a very large family), gifted with incredible psychic and physical abilities: namely your superhuman reflexes that allow you to slow down time (referred to in the F.E.A.R. universe as “reflex time”) and out-maneuver your opponents, all the while making you acutely susceptible to psychic visions of that creepy little girl who won’t stop humping your leg like a rabid, stray dog.

Straight away you’ll notice the visor-mounted HUD as you step into the shoes of Sgt. Beckett through the prism of a drastically overhauled UI compared to the original game. Your player character dons a tactical visor that projects a heads-up display, a lot like the ones experienced in Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Star Wars: Republic Commando or Metroid Prime. This aesthetic change is far more style over substance, offering nothing more than fancier HUD elements and icons for the same player stats. Its readability is perhaps far better than the original game’s very minimalist, crude UI, though this artistic change apparently irked enough players to warrant a number of “No HUD” mods for F.E.A.R. 2. I can’t say it put it me off to that extent but the corresponding introduction of plot delivery via the immersion-breaking HUD menu that paused the action to allow you to sift through previously collected pieces of “intel” did sway my opinion significantly against the game (which I’ll save for The Bad section).

In fact, it’s chiefly in appearances where this follow-up to F.E.A.R. sets itself apart the most, as everything else remains overwhelmingly safe and familiar.

The graphics are quite passable even for today’s standards, which make it a far more approachable entry into the F.E.A.R. universe compared to its predecessor, which has aged far worse despite the same engine being used in both games (albeit a heavily modified one for F.E.A.R. 2).

The weapons look significantly better in terms of detail and animation than in the first game, which is something I never felt complimented the intensity of the shootouts; an arsenal of weaponry resembling plastic, cheap-looking toy guns. Notably, pretty much all of the firearms now feature red-dot reflex sights or proper scopes that you aim through, which gives the game a far more modern look that compares favorably with the “tacti-cool” trend of most shooters these days, in the vein of the Modern Warfare series. The arsenal still features a near-identical selection of your generic tools of the trade (rifles, shotguns and submachine guns) and some exotic Armacham prototypes much like the ones seen in the original and the expansions, but they all appear much more refined and well thought-out in their iterations this time around. Newly-introduced selectable rates of fire afford you some flexibility in grouping rounds at a distance, with single-shot and three-round burst mode available for a number of firearms, giving more discerning players an air of a tactical Rainbow Six-like shooter.

The FD-99 Submachine Gun I especially liked due to its insane rate of fire and three-round burst mode which gave it a very respectable range when used in controlled groupings, along with the Raab KM50 Sniper Rifle, which gave this series one of its most sorely-needed additions in the firepower department (a true sniper rifle) and absolutely tore apart enemies in a delightfully macabre way with reflex time-aided sniping making the game feel a touch like Sniper Elite.

A few of the new weapons such as the Laser Rifle and Pulse Weapon quite strongly resemble counterparts from the non-canonical expansions (which Monolith didn’t mind taking inspiration from in this respect), though their novelty is very short-lived due to scarce ammunition. The so-called “Automatic Shotgun” however is quite a disappointment, being in actuality semi-automatic, and the regular pump-action Combat Shotgun seems to be a step-down from its predecessor in the original, with a far shorter range and more inaccurate fire.

The new grenade types (Incendiary and Shock or Stun grenades), the ability to “cook” grenades (burning through the 5-second fuse before throwing to ensure an instantaneous detonation on your target) and the expanded 4-weapon carry limit as opposed to three in the original, round off the major additions to the combat dynamics and combined with the new-found ability to create cover during firefights, do genuinely add some fresh mechanics into a style of FPS that does back itself into a corner quite a bit with its claustrophobic level design and close-range gun fights that only leave so much room for improvement.

The interactable, environmental cover sort of lets you be the Replica this time around, as previously F.E.A.R.’s Point Man was unable to interact with environmental objects to enhance tactical possibilities, unlike his adversaries. Now you can flip tables, slide gurneys, knock over shelves or filing cabinets and crouch behind that larger surface area to deflect more enemy fire. The reality of this ability is not as useful as it sounds however, as you have to be facing the environmental objects from a certain angle to execute the requisite animation, so by the time you’ve found a piece of cover you’d like to utilize and have moved into position behind it, you’ve inevitably taken more hits than if you simply used that time to pick off the enemies shooting at you.

The original F.E.A.R.’s dismemberment system was a lot more rudimentary and only really made a noticeable appearance when explosives were used, but F.E.A.R. 2 has employed far more gruesomely elaborate damage and gore-modelling that you won’t fail to notice after just one or two large firefights. Blood and gore was never a key centerpiece of the original game’s gun battles, rather the environmental destruction and weapons effects, especially the particle effects, dynamic lighting, shadows and motion-blur really embellished the gameplay with a cinematic, Hollywood flair that made firefights such a sensory overload.

F.E.A.R. 2 on the other hand seems to go for a decidedly bloodier as opposed to kinetic, take on combat. Glistening blood splatters coat the uniforms and tactical vests of dead foes, fatally-wounded enemies will engage in melodramatic death animations such as spraying rounds into the ceiling via post-mortem spasms like a scene out of True Lies, opening fire on enemies positioned in front of walls results in a little re-decorative flair as highly-detailed blood decals change the paint job, and you’re able to eviscerate enemies down to their entrails and brains with the right firepower. As if that wasn’t enough gore-porn, severed legs and arms roll around the floor post-grenade detonation, the rib cages of certain enemies will protrude through charred and sheared flesh like carcasses hanging on a butcher’s hook and the aftermath of any large firefight seriously resembles a cheap slasher film.

In the largely superfluous Powered Armor segment of the campaign where you pilot one of the bipedal Mechs of the Replica forces, you’re able to mince Replica soldiers into a chunky, tomato paste consistency with a quick burst of your miniguns and one enemy type in particular, the ATC soldiers sporting Hazmat suits with gas masks, seemed to come apart like over-pressurized canned meat; bursting forth bloody gibs in every direction. It did take me quite a while to work out why a human torso would simply explode into smithereens from kinetically unremarkable calibers of firearms, until I realized the oxygen tanks they sported on their backs seemed to create intense pressure waves when punctured, hence dicing them into pieces.

To put it simply, like any FPS with a prominent emphasis on stylized and glamorized violence, whether it’s Blood Rayne, Soldier for Fortune II or Manhunt, it’s novel for about five minutes after which you either question what it says about you on a deeper, psychological level as you’re gleefully dismembering corpses or you just get bored of it. In most games of this nature I also question whether the investment into all of this ludicrous violence wasn’t better spent trying to fine-tune the gameplay or make a more engaging story, rather than giving us blood, guts and body parts in spades, as if it’s breaking new ground in the first-person shooter genre.

Overall though, F.E.A.R. 2 does perhaps look like the vision the first game’s development team dreamt of, with a lot more saturated motion-blur, depth of field, bloom and intense shader effects that do go hand-in-hand with the stylized John Woo/Matrix-esque mayhem that the gunfights try to evoke. The water effects and reflections that are showcased quite a bit in the second half of the game, particularly the distortion effects on your visor when you approach streams of water gushing from broken pipes, do compare very favorably with modern game engines.

The legendary F.E.A.R. A.I. seems to have survived the transition to the sequel intact and is just as spritely and surprising as ever, still making liberal use of very accurate grenade throws to flush you out from cover, continually flanking your position to force you to keep your head on a swivel at all times, and peppering you with one-armed suppressive fire from behind columns, corners, doors or over crates while keeping the rest of themselves behind cover. The A.I. is probably the single biggest saving grace for the gameplay as it seems evident to me that advances in FPS A.I. really did peak years ago, with the focus on multiplayer FPSs reducing the need for intelligent single player enemies, and giving us nothing more than non-electric pop-up targets that stand still and soak up ammunition in the now ubiquitous, heavily-scripted, “cinematic” campaigns seen in modern FPSs where the gameplay is an afterthought.

F.E.A.R. 2 follows the predictable and formulaic gameplay pattern set by its predecessor, with the any segment of the campaign falling into three kinds of categories: “shooting gallery” segments where Replica or ATC forces pour out of every nook and cranny of the area you’ve just wandered into, forcing you to hop from cover to cover while eliminating the multiple hostiles closing in on you from all directions. Next are encounters resembling “boss battles”, pitting you against a smaller number of far more potent foes in a slightly larger arena, namely the Powered Armor mech-like units that dish out incredible amounts of firepower and absorb never-ending amounts of punishment and F.E.A.R. 2’s introduction of a new enemy type, the Remnants, fast-moving zombie puppeteers akin to Doom's Arch-viles, that direct mind-controlled minions to attack you. The reprieve from all the running-and-gunning comes in the form of the third category of gameplay: the “horror” sequences featuring paranormal and supernatural phenomena and ghoulish, haunting visions, which then quickly give way to more gunfights. Occasionally, you’ll have to battle some of these ghoulish apparitions during the horror segments, but I use that term loosely as the ghost-like creatures that Alma’s presence summons take 3 rounds, if that, to dispatch (though they do irritatingly cheap-shot you in the dark as the game blacks out all ambient light sources during the hallucinations, so you’re prone to stumbling right into them). The garish and jump-scare oriented nature of most of the horror hallucination sequences falls flat in evoking a true survival horror experience, but I’ll admit one of the new enemy types, the Abominations (failed Project Harbinger specimens with alarming movement speeds and the ability to scale walls), were quite a handful and definitely did harken back to a purer, action-horror experience; something like Left 4 Dead or the Dead Space series.

The combat in F.E.A.R. 2 does have its moments and certainly can be fun and memorable, albeit in small enough doses to prevent you from succumbing to the monotony of spraying a hail of bullets in slow motion at the heads of the same enemies spawning in through a door or window for the umpteenth time. Eliminating an entire squad or two of Replica without taking any hits still feels as glorious as ever, and pulling off some fancy, Mortal Kombat-style kicks mid-shootout or managing to time a grenade throw so that it vaporizes a few birds with one stone, spices up the general shooting mechanics. Some notably fun battles include your first introduction to the Replica forces (the cloned super soldiers that respond to telepathic orders) in an underground Project Harbinger Facility's testing arena that resembles a tactical shoot-house or firing range, where Colonel Vanek (the Paxton Fettel of the sequel) lets loose wave after wave of Replica from their stasis pods, which pop up out of tubes in the ground like a game of whack-a-mole; all the while Vanek taunts you from overhead screens. There’s also a very enjoyable counter-sniping segment after Sgt. Beckett reaches the city surface post-Origin Facility explosion, which has you providing overwatch support for Lt. Stokes from high ground, as she navigates through city streets while dodging Replica snipers and ground forces. This definitely reminded me of some of the more complex battles in the first game which gave off a convincing multiplayer feel, almost as if you were facing human-controlled enemies.

Unusually for a game of this kind, it gets much better the longer the campaign goes on.

The first half of F.E.A.R. 2 strongly mirrors the first game’s overall look and feel, and especially the Extraction Point expansion, as the expansion is the post-Origin Facility aftermath experienced from yet another Delta team’s perspective and shares a lot of similar imagery in the level design.

Once you end up at Wade Elementary, a stronger element of originality, not only in the overall aesthetics of the environments but also in the enemy encounters, begins to take shape, with gun battles becoming more enjoyable for the most part (because the difficulty finally approaches something of an apex). The latter third of the game, especially after you take the elevator from the nurse’s office at Wade Elementary into the clandestine Armacham research facilities buried underneath the school, exhibit some highly challenging gameplay for once. The section following the introduction of the Replica Assassins (cloaked, fast-moving, Ninja-like enemies) that show up when you rendezvous with the mysterious "SnakeFist" character was probably my favorite part of the entire game; presenting a dynamic and fluid combination of different enemy types, intricately-layered spaces that offered a lot of divergent gameplay potential (with underfloor tunnels and multi-storied spaces) and a good assortment of cinematic flamboyance. It was in these particularly unforgiving enemy engagements in the late-game, like the underground tram ride to Still Island that has your moving rail platform being boarded by Replica from all sides while forcing you to run end to end along the carriage in order to decouple the linkages in time before the tram collides into obstacles, that made you realize what was missing from the cakewalk battles you blitzed through earlier on. It’s quite a shame that these flashes of creative brilliance that made full use of all the technical and gameplay potential of the A.I. as well as matching the first game’s relentless pacing, only occurred in the twilight of the campaign. I also felt that the abandoned subway section you navigate through prior to the tram journey, was actually one of the few intervals that ‘got it right’ in terms of atmosphere, hearkening back to the more “dark” and brooding feel of the original game.

On a minor point, the save system deserves praise in my mind for actually timing the automated checkpoint saves at very reasonable points in the campaign. Though I personally would have preferred the traditional F5 quick-saves of the first game, I can’t really say I missed them too much as I never had to replay more than a minute or two of progress in the event of dying. One glaring issue however, is that they did kill a lot of suspense and tension due to the fact that the game inevitably auto-saved right before any large battle, very obviously notifying the player with the “game saving” overlay that chaos that was about to commence.

The Bad

You may have noticed my deliberate avoidance of addressing the story previously, and that’s because it is the chief culprit for me taking a decidedly negative view of this game.

Though, all aspects of F.E.A.R. 2 from the gameplay, graphics and story are not above critique by any means, but the scriptwriting has unequivocally taken a nose-dive, which is problematic because F.E.A.R.’s story was never really the talking point of the game anyway, and in F.E.A.R. 2 it continues to rear its unwelcome presence whenever you’re actually trying to enjoy the combat.

One key difference that’s responsible for this is the switch from story exposition being delivered through voicemail messages and radio traffic that could play in the background as the player stayed in-game, to now being forced to pause the game by opening the HUD menu mid-playthrough, thus breaking immersion, so you can read inanely poor prose in the form instant messages, e-mails or journal entries. Scouring for these pieces of ‘intel’, with their dialogue reading like it was written in a circa 1990s, basement dweller's fan forum for the X-Files, highlights a painfully immature approach to the exposition. The voicemail messages and laptop data hauls that served as the story delivery methods for most of the first game did a much better job at keeping things focused on the main attraction, as the story was never meant to be a dense parable that warranted serious scholarly study, more so the dressing to help immerse the player in the dark themes of the sinister surroundings they saw.

The majority of the first game’s main cast were largely unseen, including those most responsible for unleashing the horrors of Project Origin upon the world, namely Dr. Harlan Wade, Genevieve Aristide and Chuck Habegger. They were only voices you became familiar with from the frantic phone messages relayed between Armacham’s corporate staff and the research facility workers in the last moments before the “Synchronicity Event” (when Fettel and the Replica unleashed hell), and save for a few sparse cameos from your F.E.A.R. team mates who showed up intermittently, you were left entirely on your own. Hallucinations showed you brief glimpses of Alma and Paxton Fettel but really, it was what the story wasn’t telling you explicitly that had more of an impact in my opinion, as you quite literally walked through the destruction that Armacham's senior staff insisted would never happen, and that in itself gave a far more credible and almost life-like air to the story of the F.E.A.R. canon. A clandestine research program into human cloning, and military exploitation of telepathic, psychic potential in genetically-engineered human beings directed by an incredibly corrupt defense technologies company was presented through the prism of a heavily redacted, classified document like something from a CIA MKUltra file, and that fits the events described like a glove. Nothing was really spelled out in great detail, so your imagination filled the void, in wondering what terrible fate befell all of the violently slaughtered casualties that resulted in the aftermath of the Synchronicity Event, and what loose morals and twisted ethics allowed any of this to happen.

Here in F.E.A.R. 2 you have this very literal and blatantly spoon-fed storyline that veers off into fringe-world absurdity, with the Armacham Technology Corporation resembling some kind of Orwellian, dystopian dictatorship that has an iron-clad hegemony over an entire city, rather than a top-secret defense contractor analogous to Lockheed Martin’s “Skunk Works” that specializes in emerging military technologies. Not that I didn’t suspend my disbelief while playing the original, but in this iteration, the series narrative has definitely “jumped the shark”, with Armacham having the entire city of Fairport bought and paid for, owning and operating schools, hospitals, nuclear plants, entire industrial districts and a never-ending supply of private military forces that you have the pleasure of liquidating. I understand they’re unethical, greedy and evidently flush with financial resources but seriously, people are going to notice nuclear bomb-like explosions leveling half a city and battalions of private mercenaries shooting up schools, high-rise penthouses and demolishing hospitals. Whatever alternate timeline of our world the F.E.A.R. games are set in, either the rule of law in the United States has given way to total anarchy or corporations have finally cut out the middlemen and replaced elected politicians.

By the time you’ve realized Sgt. Beckett and his team are cut from the same cloth as the madmen you’re trying to defeat and were guinea pigs in Project Harbinger (hence Beckett possessing the same inhuman reflexes and psychic potential as F.E.A.R.'s Point Man), the pseudo-scientific basis the story writers tried to cobble together to legitimize how Armacham managed to grow legions of test-tube super soldiers, seriously strains the boundaries of patience. There’s some psychobabble about chemically-lacing school children’s milk bottles with powerful drugs at an elementary school that operated as a front for a military recruitment experiment; thus evolving the Replica through multiple generations of covert behavioral and cognitive programming, along with intel entries on the medical and chemical basis for psychically-enhancing the genetic potential of gifted specimens in the human species via “telesthetic amplification” and bio-engineering.

Sifting through this heady mix of implausibility and incoherency just about makes you want to be institutionalized in one of these Armacham-funded, psychiatric nuthouses yourself.

This is basically material lifted from the pages of low-brow urban legend, that exists in the kind of far-flung theories about the Dulce base in New Mexico or the Montauk Project, revolving around these deep-underground military research facilities dabbling in human cloning, genetically-engineering all manner of preposterous superhuman powers and telekinetic magic into the genome of test subjects groomed from birth to become living weapons and lots of A Clockwork Orange or Manchurian Candidate-style programming through psychological warfare; with the researchers and scientists behind it all going mad in their quest to “perfect” humanity and succumbing to some fanatical, all-consuming obsession with their Frankenstein creations.

I get it. It’s supposed to be some “deep shit” Monolith.

A sick, government-sponsored experiment into basically doing every single thing imaginable to contravene every kind of weapons treaty or international agreement on scientific ethics that exists. Alma was forcibly impregnated as a child, locked away in an induced coma for the rest of her life and her offspring were mercilessly physically and psychologically tortured in order to examine every aspect of their biology, to use in the creation of the Replica.

I just choose not to care about it because it’s delivered through the prism of awkward ramblings and lame duck characters.

In fact, I actually began to understand and be intrigued by the story the most when I read the extra-canonical and fan-sourced information about it online, mainly through the F.E.A.R. Wiki (a source I highly recommend if you want to delve into the F.E.A.R. canon), which actually explained the events that unfolded in the campaign in a far more coherent manner.

The ending I’m more or less indifferent to, although from fellow reviewers’ commentaries, it seems to have been a massive point of contention amongst fans of the first game who felt that once again it left everything unanswered; though I feel like the original didn’t exactly set an illustrious pedigree to follow. The concluding moments of the original were perhaps even more ambiguous and hastily-executed: a massive explosion leveling the vault in the Origin Facility, along with half of Fairport, followed by a glimpse of Alma on your helicopter ride out of ground zero. I mean, it was about as open-ended as a finale could be, given Alma still wasn’t contained and Genevieve Aristide and all of the Armacham brass responsible for the Synchronicity Event were still at large.

Perhaps what the ending of F.E.A.R. 2 did accomplish was boldly going where no other FPS story had gone before, and boy was it bold. For posterity’s sake, I’m not going to spell out exactly what unfolds when Beckett enters the “Telesthetic Amplifier” on Still Island to confront Alma (it’s a Google search away), but sufficed to say, it feels like the gaming press were asleep at the watch when F.E.A.R. 2 released or never bothered to get to the end of the game, as I cannot see how, in this day and age of righteously indignant critics and mainstream hysteria over controversial content in video games, an ending like this didn’t garner far more controversy and negative attention. Alma’s interaction with Beckett at the very end was not only completely unexpected but stretched my already barely intact suspension of disbelief beyond breaking point, as I honestly could not tell if it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek or a serious attempt at dramatic flair. It wreaked of poor taste and shock-value for the sake of shock-value, in the same way the continual, hallucinatory glimpses of teenage Alma’s nude body juxtaposed with scenes of violent debauchery and vividly macabre deaths came across as some uninspired scriptwriter’s attempts at “edgy” content and pandering to teenage boys, but rather than letting it become a talking point, I prefer to pretend it didn’t happen, as analyzing this absurdity gives it credence, when it should frankly just be written off as the bizarre conclusion to an already comically-bad story. I don’t think it merits much serious consideration other than the freak inclusion of some acts that would garner a lot of other developers some journalistic flak.

Ultimately, F.E.A.R. 2’s story arrives at the same point as the first game’s does: a blank canvas.

They prove largely immaterial to the canon and IP universe as they both revert back to a status quo in which nothing has really changed and the stage is set for yet another sequel to piggy-back onto the cliff-hanger ending and perpetuate the disjointed, vaguely-attested tale of Alma and Armacham. In that sense, it’s neither an improvement nor a failure, as the first game also gave up on closure and suffered from a failure of imagination.

Where the first game did have F.E.A.R. 2 soundly trumped however was in the voice-acting, as the original’s voice-acting was on a level far above what’s on offer in the sequel.

The SFOD-D squad that Beckett belongs to is comprised of the same clichéd characters common to the FPS genre for over a decade now, and naturally, they’re as predictable as a porn film. Your teammate’s unwelcome appearances followed you around like a bad smell during the campaign, and anytime they made a brief cameo it was inevitably to express their unsuitability for their profession, lamenting about their bewilderment at battling supernatural entities and paranormal psychic quackery. It always begged the question of how elite these damned “black ops”, hand-picked units were when they literally fell apart like a house of cards the moment they all tasted combat. Quite unlike the supposedly seasoned Delta Force operators they were allegedly portraying, they sounded and acted like a bunch of college frat boys; full of cockiness until one by one, they’re confronted by Alma and her psychic maelstrom. Rodney Betters, Jin Sun-Kwon and the rest of the first F.E.A.R. team remained professional and level-headed throughout the events of the first game without resorting to hysterical, raving lunacy; the kind best exemplified by Lt. Stokes’ expletive-laden, angry outbursts that are supposed to pass for realistic banter but instead come across as a creative director confusing obscenities for “adult dialogue”, because more racy content equals more “maturity” apparently. Lt. Stokes unwittingly sums up F.E.A.R. 2’s story herself by responding to Keegan’s question of what is happening to them with: “Fuck if I know, but we’re in the middle of it.” That’s perhaps the only line of dialogue I identified with. It’s NPCs like these that make you wonder why an FPS needs them in the first place; older, straightforward FPSs like Halo were plenty entertaining without needing a forced NPC interaction every half-hour, like the kind in F.E.A.R. 2, where Lt. Stokes meets up with you and proclaims something to the effect of, “Hey Beckett, why don’t you wander off on your own again and clear 90% of the enemies from this next area? Me and the rest of the team will be sitting on our asses in the APC until you’re done.”

From memory there’s about five minutes in total in which Jankowski, Keegan and Stokes will actually engage enemies with you in combat but that’s the extent of their assistance, hence how or why you’re supposed to give two shits about these characters is beyond me, given most of them are consigned by the story to interact with the player as little as possible. Morales chauffeurs the team about in the APC, Griffin is quickly forgotten after he’s claimed by paranormal forces, Keegan is too busy losing his mind to deliver much coherent dialogue, Fox and Jankowski die early (the latter sharing the same name and a similar fate as the first Jankowski in the original), so that leaves Lt. Stokes and the mysterious “SnakeFist” to be the player’s radio companions for most of the game.

Why not make more use of the NPCs in co-op battles with the player, if you’re going to force concern onto us about these worthless characters?

Perseus Mandate already featured lengthy sections in the campaign where friendly forces battled alongside the player to good effect, given they used the same A.I. tricks and trademarks the Replica did. If there’s any game that should really make more use of NPCs directly assisting the player in combat, the F.E.A.R. series is definitely one of them, given that the A.I. is far from being the massive liability that it usually is.

The third factor in the triad of disappointment was the lack of difficulty.

This will be apparent to anyone who finished the first game on the Extreme difficulty level, which essentially puts most of the harder enemies on the same footing as the player character (having the same hit points and dealing more damage per shot than the player). Not to mention the much-more challenging expansions that featured masses of enemies, some with ridiculous movement speed and accuracy (e.g. the Nightcrawler Elite).

After the third or fourth time that I encountered a very conveniently-placed pile of body armor vests, frag grenades and extra ammunition immediately preceding and following every large firefight, it was abundantly clear to me that this game didn’t deserve to be taken too seriously and concentration was optional, as most of your tactical blunders, rebounding grenades and impersonation of a bull's eye in the heat of battle would easily be outweighed by the plethora of pick-ups the game lavishes upon the player. It was kind of silly how forgiving the game was towards player ineptitude, and I found reflex time more of a novelty than a necessity to actually eliminate the enemies without taking too much damage. Concessions also extended to the array of environmental aids littering almost every section of the game where a firefight takes place, with oil barrels, flammable gas canisters or pipes, pre-positioned explosives and other traps/hazards strewn about for the player to exploit to great effect, ensuring they rarely have a moment where their ammunition isn’t maxed out for their favorite weapon. With sufficient cover available, taking out entire enemy squads standing out in the open is easily doable without touching your reflex time reserves.

More to the point, most combat encounters (with a few exceptions) started to feel like a laborious chore the further into the campaign you progress, and rather than following the tried-and-true template laid out by the first game with you clearing out one room or hall or courtyard full of enemies and moving onto another objective, you get this game of whack-a-mole where ever-increasing amounts of enemies are thrown at you in an annoying “trickle” fashion with new waves of enemies spawning in from multiple entry points after you think you’ve downed the last one in a given firefight. It starts to take on a very grinding, tedious feel that becomes almost anti-climactic, as firefights seem inconsistent in both pacing and length, and the chokepoints the enemies spawn in from become enormous corpse piles as the player is basically encouraged to spawn-camp successive waves of Replica & ATC forces, once you’re able to recognize the tell-tale signs that a new wave is about to commence spawning from a particular entrance. This wildly variable rhythm to combat in F.E.A.R. 2 is probably what undermines the gameplay the most and stops it from becoming competitive even in the realm of cinematic, scripted, arcade shooters that practically play themselves. It’s just too easy to exploit the invisible triggers you activate that prompt more enemy spawns, to the point where the bottlenecks that the Replica funnel through easily become meat grinders, when enemies bunch up in narrow pathways and block each other's movement, just as your grenades and rockets hurtle towards these clusters of soon-to-be human wallpaper.

F.E.A.R. 2’s gameplay dichotomy of transitioning between traditional shootouts, boss battles and horror segments is a double-edged sword in many respects, in that it attempts to reprise the same purpose it had in the first game: to keep the player on their toes and stop the game veering into the category of yet another mind-numbingly generic, corridor shooter with bullet-hose gameplay against wall-to-wall enemy spawns. On the other hand, after having been through more than my fair share of that exact gameplay style in all of the preceding F.E.A.R. games, sometimes F.E.A.R. 2 zigged where it should have zagged I felt, and stayed in one mode for too long, making me question how much fun I was actually having and how much I was forcing myself along for the ride, just to get to the parts I actually wanted to play, like the very enjoyable counter-sniping segment after Sgt. Beckett reaches the city surface or the tram ride to Still Island.

It wasn’t only the first game that has the sequel trumped in many respects, as the two expansions to the original have certainly stolen a lot of its glory in hindsight. Canonical or not, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate really were the first F.E.A.R. on steroids and despite suffering from mind-blowingly bad storylines, they undoubtedly offered a greater variety of far more challenging and larger-scale battles. In particular, they emphasized how sustained firefights with a set amount of enemies felt far more satisfying to fight your way out of, than this incremental approach in F.E.A.R. 2 with more enemies spawning in, once certain triggers are met.

The problem with the staggered combat in F.E.A.R. 2 is that once the player has cleared at least half of the enemies from a given area (before the next wave spawn in), they’ve inevitably advanced forward and scouted most of the good cover positions available, have already found some of the overly-generous caches of ammunition/health/body armor, and have now stacked the odds disproportionately in their favour. As a result, they are now far more well-entrenched and well-prepared for battle than when they first encountered the enemy and had to play that guessing game of what to expect, how to react and how to maneuver. Once you’ve identified the readily obvious approaches of attack (enemies usually only spawn in from two or three entry points in a given context, usually areas physically inaccessible to the player), and you’ve advanced far closer to the enemy spawn points, the lopsided combat goes from a mildly engaging shooter to a silly camping affair. This is in contrast to the original game and the expansions especially, which would simply throw all of the enemies at you simultaneously, leaving you at a strategic disadvantage in terms of range, navigation, unfamiliarity with the environment and fumbling over which weapon to pick, making it an initially much harder fight, but with a consequently much greater payoff when you did find your groove and managed to outwit the enemy.

Despite the fact that Monolith did try to expand and enhance the gameplay possibilities available to the player in the sequel, with a new selection of weapons and enemies, along with tactical pretensions like selectable rates of fire, dynamically-interactable cover, plentiful weapon scopes, the ability to “cook” grenades and some plantable traps and stun grenades, it’s really all a moot point as these gimmicks are nowhere near thought-out enough for the player to rely upon them time and time again. Trying to play this game like you would Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield or a mil-sim like the ArmA series, with carefully-placed single shots, considerate use of cover and meticulous planning just results in a lot of frustration because “pray-and-spray” and “run-and-gun” are the operative words here.

The gameplay is best experienced as a casual romp through tried-and-tested FPS tropes, working best if you don’t take it too seriously, especially given the extremely claustrophobic shooting and balls-to-the-wall enemy spawns. Which is all well and good but you can’t help but yearn, as in the first game, for a bit more sophistication and maturity; as much fun as the shooting-spree, bicycle-kicking antics are, it does feel like you’ve exhausted the gameplay’s creative potential in about 2 hours. This is one of the few cases where I’d actually demand more dumbed-down, consolized traits rather than less, like regenerating health and an automatic cover system because it would fit part-and-parcel with the very streamlined, dumbed-down gameplay and it would firmly cement the game in the realm of an arcade shooter, so it could stop pretending it was anything but brainless action. Annoyingly, the one ability they did remove which I sorely missed was leaning, because the Replica and ATC forces have an incredible habit of nailing you with hyper-accurate shots the second you peek out from behind cover, even if it’s just your head that’s visible.

That’s not saying the enemies ever give you pause for concern nor make you question whether you might struggle with a particular firefight as your foes are mere lambs to the slaughter, and the sense of overpowering domination and their distinctly inferior status is constantly reinforced by their continual radio chatter cries of mercy and requests for reinforcements. These melodramatic theatrics feel egregious to the point of losing interest and totally at odds with the far more equal footing the Point Man had against the Replica in the first game, not just statistically by having the same hit points and dealing the same damage as most of the harder enemies, but also because the first game was far less prone to indulging the player in too much hero worship. It was clear you were a superhuman being, yes, but as a result the game would often trap you in a lopsided ambush, block the exits and give you pause for concern, as if daring the player to prove that they are in fact what the story makes them out to be, whereas in F.E.A.R. 2 you feel far too omnipotent and unstoppable and it’s you who is more often than not seizing the element of surprise and initiative.

On a final, less polemic note, the graphics overhaul comes with its own set of drawbacks too, and while it does give the on-screen carnage a firm leg to stand on even in 2019, nevertheless there is the recurring drawback of F.E.A.R. 2 sharing about 40-50% of the same 3D assets, models, objects and environments of the original, so if you remember the first game well, you’ll notice the same dull textures, objects and drab environmental design being reused ad verbatim from the original, where it was heavily criticized to begin with, and without much of a touch-up I might add.

It gives the game a kind of bipolar appearance in that some sections look like they’re from 2009 while others look circa 2005.

At certain junctures during the campaign it almost felt as if I was walking through the first game’s levels all over again, and not in a nostalgically fond way either. As I stared at the unmistakably identical-looking photocopiers, computer terminals, fire extinguishers, high voltage breaker panels, laboratory tables and office furniture that I had already walked by enough times to be able to draw it from memory in the first game, I was left questioning where else this lazy attitude of recycling prevailed in F.E.A.R. 2 (hint: pretty much everywhere).

For a game that features a heck of a lot of flames, explosions and smoke, the incredibly ugly fire particle effects and shaders do nothing but emphasize the LithTech Jupiter EX engine’s weaknesses. The effects produced by the Napalm cannon or Incendiary grenades looked especially anemic, resembling clouds of neon-yellow urine showering an area. Likewise, the original game’s explosion and motion-blur distortion effects looked far better, particularly for the fragmentation grenades, which just seem to give off a puff of low-res smoke in F.E.A.R. 2.

Perhaps the biggest aesthetic let-down wasn’t the lack of technical brilliance from the engine, but the lack of an appropriate art style.

The original F.E.A.R’s world was decidedly more bleak and grim-looking, which complimented the story's sinister undertones and the horror elements very well.

The original kept a more austere, gloomy veneer to its presentation of the city of Fairport, with urban decay and abandonment being highlighted through ramshackle, deserted and very foreboding industrial and urban landscapes. F.E.A.R. 2 on other hand introduced a lot more color and eye-wateringly, over-saturated bloom and lighting with the shadows feeling completely lacking and the world taking on more of a surrealist, acid-trip quality, rather than the cold, eerily sterile atmosphere that the first game pulled off very well. The obnoxious orange tint and psychedelic light-flickering that permeated all of the horror sequences also detracted from letting the environment do the job of making the player feel uneasy, and instead just frustrated movement and navigation. Somehow, the first game’s visuals just felt a lot cleaner, “crisp” and unpretentious, almost minimalist in a way, which allowed the gameplay to speak for itself and never distracted the player from the main attraction.

The Bottom Line

This game falls firmly into the category of what to play when you want to kill time, prefer not to be challenged nor think critically, while indulging in a digital ego boost of “Pro MLG” montage parody proportions.

It has all of the familiar FPS staples and gameplay mechanics you’ve mastered, so there’s virtually no learning curve, an adequately trite story that you’ll see coming from miles away, saving you the need to pay attention, and is polished enough that it doesn’t feel like a $2 reject-bin title you picked up just to satiate your impulsive consumerist urges. Though, that’s not saying much in comparing it to Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, and given the credentialed past of Monolith, this feels like an A-list actor’s paycheck movie: a creative abortion that takes no risks, keeps things safe and conservative and stimulates nothing but your muscle memory and twitch reflexes.

The only way I would recommend F.E.A.R. 2 is for those of you who missed the first F.E.A.R. back when it came out and wondered what all of the commotion was about but were perhaps hesitant to go back to a game from 2005 and find out it was yet-another, bland corridor shooter. Either that or you might be a “graphics-phile” of the first-degree, whose eye twitches whenever he sees poly counts too low or jagged edges too numerous. This may be the niche that F.E.A.R. 2 fills then, as its improved visual fidelity and modernized nuances do give new entrants into the F.E.A.R. universe a chance to experience the milestone the first game was in 2005 without being put off by the dated engine and rudimentary levels of the original. Since these games always hinged upon the visceral meltdown that was the in-your-face, Michael Bay-style action and gratuitous special effects, there’s no way for the first game to have the impact anymore that it did at launch, having been eclipsed comprehensively in the cinematic stakes by modern games, barring someone releasing a high-quality HD overhaul mod for it (which to my knowledge is still forthcoming). As I mentioned, the storyline doesn’t warrant much beyond a cursory glance, it’s the gameplay and A.I. that is the claim to fame of the entire series, so unless you can spare the time to play the original, the expansions and the sequel consecutively, my recommendation is to simply play F.E.A.R. 2 and enjoy it on the base level that highlights its strengths.

It’s easy to pin all of the shortcomings of the game on Monolith switching publishers and the legal hoopla over reacquiring the rights to the F.E.A.R. brand, and in fact it’s become the gaming industry’s go-to source of vindication for any game that doesn’t live up to the heights of expectation set by its former incarnations, but alas, that doesn’t quite cut it, as this was still done by Monolith’s own hand (unlike the expansions to the first game).

If this game had come from any other run-of-the-mil, FPS-centric developer, it probably would have been hailed as that developer’s break-through title by critics and I likely could have been more lenient and forgiving toward its flaws, but when it comes from a studio like Monolith, it’s quite hard to escape the realization that they can and have done better, because relative to their impressive body of work, F.E.A.R. 2 is not even in the same galaxy as their own personal benchmark for success.

In many ways, F.E.A.R. 2 gave me the sense of not being an entirely distinct game, but rather like a mod for the original or a fan-made alternate campaign; I hesitate to say it’s like a “Director’s Cut” or “Definitive Edition” of the first game, given the obviously inferior story, atmosphere and hit-and-miss gameplay compared to the first, but there is something of a tribute or homage to a better-told, better-played game underpinning this second installment in the F.E.A.R. saga. I felt that if the technical improvements, such as the upgraded game engine, the enhanced visuals and the new offerings in terms of gameplay mechanics (adjustable rates of fire, weapon scopes, cover system, etc), the new weapons and equipment, new enemy types and innovations lacking in the predecessor had been paired with the first game’s look, feel and difficulty, this combination would have been a unanimous improvement. However, for every step F.E.A.R. 2 takes forward, it shoots itself in the foot by dropping the difficulty several notches below even a casual, console FPS player’s standard, confusing cheesy amounts of gore for horror, and masquerading a rambling, incoherent narrative as serious prose.