Saturday, March 7, 2009

20cc reviews: F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

I was discouraged when I saw that Yahtzee reviewed F.E.A.R. 2 before I did, and no doubt did a better job of it. However, he reviewed Web of Shadows this week, even later than I did. I suppose we all fall behind at some point.

So here we are. Monolith has finally undone all of the evil that Sierra wrought on the F.E.A.R. series with the release of Project Origin. We can finally forget the horrible incongruities and plot holes, and the terrible abomination that was Perseus Mandate. Unfortunately, nothing ever seems to be quite as good as hoped.

The game began promisingly enough, and I was happy to see that the controls had been translated properly to the Xbox. The graphics have of course improved significantly since the original. The combat system remains fast paced and fun, the environments were often creepy, and I was happy to see many of the old Replica skins return from the first game. However, none of the old weapons return, which seems an interesting choice, since the two games take place at the same time, in the same city. Apparently the ATC troops and Replicas sent after Becket and his team were issued different weapons than those hunting the Point Man, and yet the weapons all work like those in the first game. It may seem minor, but these are the design choices that can ruin the immersion of a series. Similarly, there was one problem that I hoped we had seen the end of with Perseus Mandate. In the Sierra expansions, there were a number of weapons (the laser, minigun, grenade launcher and perhaps lightning cannon, though I don't remember) with no aiming animation. When the aim button was pressed, the screen simply zoomed in a little, and the weapon stayed in the same place. This raises the question of what exactly the Point Man is doing to aim. Unfortunately, the new (again reskinned) laser in Project Origin suffers from the same graphical oversight. On the other hand, it's a terrible weapon overall, so there isn't much lost. The old game's fast paced combat is complimented by a new cover system that allows the character to flip over tables, desks, filing cabinets, and other objects to use as cover, much like the Replicas did in the first game. While it adds to the look of the fight scenes, it's next to useless tactically. Several objects can only be interacted with from a certain side, which isn't necessarily the side on which you want to take cover, and most of the time the toppled objects are too short to provide cover for much more than your knees. Even crouching, your head is clearly exposed to fire.

I noticed that the game remained consistently both easier and less frightening than the original. Combat is much easier without reflex time, but this is balanced by the fact that you don't have as much reflex time as in the original. The game keeps the difficulty fairly consistent throughout the game until one level, which is both very difficult and rather terrifying. (Spoiler alert: it's the schoolhouse. Doesn't it seem like the scary parts in games and movies are always in either schoolhouses or hospitals?) After that, the rest of the game is not very frightening, and only slightly harder. The difficulty did increase steeply right at the end of the game, with an actual boss fight. Such things are rare in shooting games these days, and while it was a gimmicky fight, it was less so than is often the case.

The main talking point is of course, the plot. The first game was rather hit or miss. I personally liked the story a lot, but I understand that it could come off as convoluted to someone who doesn't want to like it. Games like F.E.A.R. often have problems with plot, because of the terribly fine line between surrealism and nonsense. I spent most of the time with Project Origin feeling a little unsure of the plot. Without going into too much detail, it has a much different feel from the original. In turns, I felt that it was more logical than the first game's, or that they were really reaching for something new. Of course I was elated to see that Monolith found a new excuse for the Replicas reawakening that didn't involve Paxton Fettel arbitrarily being ressurecting.

Aside from the obviously new story, there are a number of stylistic differences. After the Origin Facility meltdown, the young, red clad Alma that appeared throughout the first game is replaced almost entirely by the older, emaciated Alma that appeared at the end of F.E.A.R. While I understand the symbolism, I rather miss the younger Alma, because, well, little kids are creepy, and her appearance underscored the influence of Japanese horror films on the game. There was also a thematic shift when it came to the protagonist's Alma-induced hallucinations. In the first game, the visions were of bloodstained hallways and hospital rooms, but in the sequel the material involves more natural imagery. There is one repeated image of a tree on a hill with a swing, and on several occasions, black roots spring from the ground to drag away Becket's unfortunate allies. It seems to me that, now that Alma has escaped Origin, her attention has turned to something more than simply freedom. She finds herself drawn to memories of her life before her imprisonment, and the hallucinations reflect this shift in focus.

I thoroughly enjoyed the earlier stages of the game. Unfortunately, as is so often the case (Condemned 2, for instance), the plot started to become unbelievable and the levels began to repeat. There were quite a few beautiful vistas of post-meltdown Auburn, but I started to get bored of them after I had spent an hour or so driving exo-suits through the streets and chasing a certain wayward teammate for three or four levels. I would have forgiven this slight staleness if the ending had been something really remarkable, but it wasn't. At some point before the climax, Project Origin crossed that line I mentioned earlier, and the ending was entirely nonsensical. I'll refrain from spoiling it, as I'm sure there are still some who would take offense, and I can't stand people who spoil stories. However, it seemed to me that Monolith was really being unnecessarily cryptic. The ending offered no closure, and it isn't even clear if Becket's objective was accomplished. It really isn't even clear how much of the ending actually happened, and how much was a hallucination, or rather there is really a distinction to be made between the two. Maybe they're trying to leave their options open for a sequel, but I personally believe there is no good way to end this story. This is probably as good as it will get.

I am again reminded of Youtube's failings. This is about the best video I could find for F.E.A.R. 2's psychological and combat aspects. Unfortunately, the resolution is too bad to make sense of the horror scenes, and the person playing is too bad at it to give a real feel for combat.

For my next horror experience, I'm considering the Penumbra series, a first person survival horror game available on Steam. It would be nice if those games could deliver a gem in modern day survival horror, but I remain skeptical. Of course I can still return to Silent Hill 2 every once in a while. I'll beat it some day.

Next week I should have a review of the Watchmen movie for you, and maybe also of the indie game Braid.

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