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A great F.E.A.R.

F.E.A.R. leapt out from behind the TV to scare gamers witless and ruin their underpants in 2005. Amalgamating elements of Hong Kong action films like Hard Boiled with the Japanese terror of The Ring, Monolith hit the nail(gun) on the head. Apart from a large number of grey corridors, it was a tremendous game and one that has had many playthroughs.

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That same year Monolith let loose one of 360’s greatest games, Condemned. One of the 360 launch titles, it told the tale of an SCU agent trying to survive after being framed for the murder of two colleagues as the city descends into anarchy. This was a sinister, depressing and nasty piece of work; I loved it. With two mind-blowing IPs by their side, Monolith announced the inevitable sequels.

The follow-up games were an anti-climax. Since No One Lives Forever 2 Monolith hasn’t been proficient at creating sequels. Much of what was cherished in the originals was removed or changed. Individuals featured in the first games were missing or reimagined (bastardised) soulless shells of their original moulds. Anger still resides deep inside due to the changes made for Condemned 2. No longer an innocent guy caught up in other-worldly happenings, you stepped into the shoes of an alcoholic Dave Grohl look-a-like whose partner had miraculously lost a shed load of weight and had serious facial reconstruction. Stereotypical characterisation may be expected in big-budget Hollywood movies, but in games with adult content it has no place. Worst still, the stories had been ruined. The mature, mysterious story of Condemned turned into sci-fi nonsense where vibrating car hubcaps bolted to walls drove people insane, and monks who’d watched Scanners were conspiring to control the cities from underground lairs. It was, to be polite, pathetic.

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F.E.A.R. 2’s timeline crossed over with the end of the first story, introducing new characters. The protagonist gained the same superhuman powers of perception and speed, killing what made Point Man unique. Why take one of the main traits of a character and then give it to another? Critics still praised both games upon release but when the coffin dust had settled it was clear that the sequels were inferior to the originals.

In F.E.A.R. 3 the original protagonist, Point Man, returns without his mask. It didn’t succeed in the Judge Dredd film and it hasn’t worked here. With no surprise given their track record, minor thought has been given to his importance. Parallel to the changes that Ethan Thomas undertook between sequels in Condemned, Point Man’s new look has killed the mystery behind the character. Also, how did he previously fit on his mask with that head of hair?

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Like any good roller-coaster, horror needs to time its scares well. The atmosphere needs to be assembled layer by layer, slowly weaving itself and capturing the audience’s attention. It’s like a game of Kerplunk. Remove or add a layer at the wrong time, at the wrong pace, and you’ll just be creating a load of noise with no impact. Jaws was a movie that experimented with this idea of using sound to scare the audience. With the scares being randomised this time, the developers need to ensure they get it right. Simply rolling dice and randomising if a light will flicker or a door will suddenly shut is high-risk. Unless this is an intelligent piece of software it could destroy the scares a pre-determined experience could, and has previously, provided. In an attempt to increase the scare-factor further, the third game in the series brings in a classic horror director to work on the cut-scenes.

Any fan of John Carpenter will tell you that he’s had his day, as well as many of the other leading horror directors of the time have. Creating such monumental pieces of cinema such as Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, his career started to slowly fade out following the flop of The Thing. It may be one of the greatest horror films ever made but it failed to make an impression upon release. The films he’d make following this rarely had the same quality. When news was released that Carpenter would direct the cut-scenes for F.E.A.R. 3 visions of Resident Evil 1 came flooding back. Live action cut-scenes break the reality the game creates, and poorly directed ones won’t help either.

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The Saw series may be a cycle of awful films, but co-creator James Wan’s trailer for Dead Space was an example of how to do it right. Wan used the style created by the game’s engine to weave together a brilliant trailer. This was a perfect illustration of how to do it right and gather interest in a game. Promotional footage of F.E.A.R. 3 does the opposite. Looking generic already, the CGI featured in live-action screens looks to be lifted straight from the game itself and the footage looks amateur. Creating a ‘film-like’ experience in a videogame does not mean putting in real-life action scenes. F.E.A.R. was a towering achievement, and like Max Payne, embraced its influences in a mature way. Sliding under bullets, slowing down time and watching the shockwaves of explosions ripple through offices was epic. We do not need the introduction of live-action scenes that feature no interactivity and do nothing more than break the immersion. If a game is built to create tension and atmosphere, how will this work when your version of the world is interrupted by Carpenter’s? What if the actors carry the characters in a different way to how we have been playing them or they simply look nothing like their in game counterpart? We are not amused.

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche

All isn’t lost into the dark abyss yet. The reins for F.E.A.R. 3 have been handed over to Day 1 Studios, who were responsible for the console ports of the original title and the brilliant F.E.A.R. expansion pack, F.E.A.R. Extraction Point created by Timegate Studios. The impressive tale told in Extraction Point was completely ignored by the sequel. A shame, as these events were more accurate and authentic to the original story than Monolith’s own effort. Extraction Point remains one of the greatest expansions released for a game, and hopefully Day 1 Studios’ experience from porting it to consoles will help them craft a successful sequel of their own.

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Expectations for F.E.A.R. 3 are low. The lean controls from the first will most likely not return and with a bigger budget all guns will no doubt be blazing towards a sequel more heavily focused on explosions and ‘cat in the cupboard’ scares. Perhaps these low expectations will work in Day 1 Studios’ favour if they really do manage to deliver the goods. After the nerve racking Amnesia there is still clearly bowels full of work left to be done.

The author of this fine article

is the Deputy Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in December 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @shaneryantb.

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