F.E.A.R. 3‘s greatest strength, and it has many, is in its soundtrack. It’s not often that’ll you see a review begin with an analysis of sound, but damn it, it will this time. The score throughout the campaign very rarely fails to make an impression. Alternative takes on the original themes are cleverly integrated into the adrenaline filled fire-fights. And yes, the tin drums from the original return.
The low sound of wind rumbling and dark ambience is lovingly crafted to support and conjure emotion. In many ways, the sound is the real storyteller here. Entering what appears to be a normal house has you bolting around corners, the sound of footsteps pattering above your head as men consumed by rage smash up the rooms around you. The plot may not necessarily be fear inducing but the music score is incredible. And that includes the sounds of weapons opening fire. They’re so over the top that John Woo would be proud.
Headphones or expensive speakers come highly recommended to fully appreciate this audiophile dream. Every piece of music, even those with conventional instruments, has the F.E.A.R. vibe. It’s a series of titles that relies on the audio as much as its visual aesthetic to tell a tale and immerse you in its dark vision of the future. And in this aspect, Day One Studios have hit the nail on the head; or through the head in the case of one weapon. A CD of the ambient and soundscape pieces should have been included with the game; in fact, this should happen more often. Or at least an uncompressed soundtrack download code if companies want to continue to promote new game – rather than second-hand – sales.
Resuming your role as the mysterious and silent Point Man from the original game, your dead brother, Fettel, who you previously killed, joins you; though this time he appears to be helping you survive. Alma Wade, your mother, has been through a lot, and attempts to destroy her when she was already dead really haven’t gone down too well. She’s dead, pregnant and royally pissed, the convulsions of birth pulsing out energy of pure rage. In short, think Akira crossed with The Ring, but with Tequila from Hard Boiled as the main character.
The style of gameplay is essentially the same as it was in the first title, from 2005. Modern elements and influences are apparent though, with many typical design choices. You’re limited to two weapons and health now regenerates, view obscuring red veins stretch across the screen as you take more damage. There are no QTEs however, and all the scripted events are integrated well. If the world is collapsing around you there is no safety in pressing ‘X’ to escape – you’ll have to rely on your wits to survive.
A refined Active Cover system is now in play. You can hide behind cover, lean out to fire, quick-move between walls/barricades and leap over by following the hand-drawn commands that appear at the bottom of the screen. Playing this like an old-style FPS, strafing from cover, all guns blazing, won’t penalise you, and it’s nice to mix up the gameplay with a solid cover system. And what’s even better is that the melee combat remains and is easy to pull off. Entering ‘reflex time’ to flying kick a guard in the teeth, or leaping from cover and over a table to empty someone’s skull of brain matter with a fistful of shotgun lead is exhilarating.
The story takes place from a prison, to the underground and through the city streets as you search for your mother. The indoor, linear corridor sections open out into larger playing fields where the action scenes unfold. In one sequence you encounter some enemy forces after leaving a house. Entering a communal yard, the Armacham forces are seen searching the other houses. Plans to take them by surprise were quickly ruined when my flashlight caught their attention and all hell broke loose. Close to death from the rain of bullets, I leapt into a concrete shed, taking one soldier down with my knife and slamming the door shut. Suppressing fire through a grated window kept the opposing forces back, providing time to assess the situation and plan my escape. This wasn’t scripted, felt natural and was bloody brilliant.
While Point Man continues to keep shtum, the full body awareness works to keep you involved. When jumping the arms move to show lift and impact, and there is some physical interaction with switches and other environments. The melee combat looks great as you can see your body whilst sliding across the floor, or the full stretch of your leg as you connect a flying kick to some poor sod’s face. Oddly, there is no such animation for opening doors which is a shame.
There’s a brand new addition to proceedings, too. As soon as the action commences, achievement-like stats began to appear in the corner of the screen. For a series of games that rely on atmosphere this caused a serious frown. Upon completing one of the stats, however, there wasn’t an achievement award, but in-game points. Earn enough and you’ll rank up, gaining a new skill or ability. This ranking system works subversively, having you search every nook and cranny for hidden secrets. I’m not into collectables but this had me peaking around boxes looking for that next form of an XP bonus. Many of the stats have names dedicated to classic action and horror films too, which is a nice touch.
That explosion effect returns. Shockwaves ripple out from explosions and entering ‘reflex time’ causes some great effects, such as the air distortion from passing bullets. Beautiful lighting effects help cast a world of light and dark. Sunlight beams through boarded up windows, setting unusual strobes of light in the depressing environments. Point Man’s iconic shadow is present, although his reflection is no longer cast in puddles and water. There are some washed out textures in larger sections but the strong lighting and direction makes up for these short comings. Cutscenes bridge each interval, both providing current events and back story with in-game visuals and there are no live action moments, thank the Gods.
However, considering the game’s title, there isn’t much to fear. Many of the attempted scares are by the book, with things peering around corners and sudden bangs; it’s no longer blessed with the creepier moments of the original. Perhaps I’ve seen it all before. Then there are adolescent moments that cause a sigh, such as the words ‘I Hate You’ or other teenage-angst remarks displayed on TVs. It does have its moments, and is the scariest game so far this year, but the attempted scares are so constant you can become numb to it. A creature that follows you towards the end of the story is pretty frightening, though.
Day One have kept surprisingly close to the source material (although it’s still unexplained how Point Man got his head of hair in that mask), and do create oppressive moments of tension in-between the high-octane, Hong Kong action film inspired gun fights. A last-ditch battle in a basement and a warehouse full of TVs are examples of when the tension does pick up, but this is more due to the number of enemies spilling out from the darkness, and thanks again to the brilliant audio design that does most of the work in keeping you on your toes. But, considering this is the finale of a story, its delivery of the story is a mess.
The story is often convoluted and clumsy. What’s going on and what you’re after isn’t always clear. People from previous games make an appearance to drag the events along or fill in the apparent missing pieces. If they’d been swapped out with new characters it wouldn’t have made much difference. Which is a shame, as the time previously spent with these comrades should have had some emotional attachment, but in the end it was quite the opposite. Perhaps if Point Man had spoken we’d have gotten the missing half of the plot.
Fights against larger enemies often fall flat too. In two separate scenarios there were fights against what could be called bosses, unfortunately they felt unimportant and the theme of electricity that they shared was clearly a decision made for a reason, but one never explained in the muddled story. Clearly they played a role somewhere in this dark tale, but if they didn’t make an appearance it would have made no difference to how the story played out in the audiences’ eyes.
The story is of average length in today’s market. Surviving an interval of the story allows you to return as Point Man’s brother, Fettel, whose psychic powers make for a different style of play. There are both online and offline split-screen co-op for two people to join forces as the brothers on the search for their mother, for good or for worse. Add in the ranking system and this is a well refined package.
As well as co-op there are four brand new multiplayer modes. There’s no deathmatch or capture the flag clichés, and instead the focus is again on co-operative play. F**king Run sees a band of soldiers work together to escape a deadly cloud as waves of otherworldly enemies charge at you. Take too much damage and you drop to the floor, requiring the help of a comrade to lift you to your feet. To win you all need to survive; you lose if anyone is consumed by the deadly cloud. It’s nail-biting stuff, as the sound made by the approaching cloud is deafening and panic sets in; you’ll never want to look behind you.
There are three other modes too, each with their own unique maps. Contractions has you defend a set location from waves of enemies as a fog descend across the area. As the fog briefly clears, your team has a few moments to scavenge for weapons and board up windows. Soul Survivor starts with a ten second countdown, after-which Alma appears, pointing at one of the players who’s then consumed and re-born as a Spectre, able to posses and play as the enemy.
Lastly, Soul King has you all start as Spectres, battling to kill as many enemies as possible and collect the soul orbs they drop. However, the modes do lack the cinematic music of the campaign. Having a piece of music play as the rounds come to a close, or if you’re the last man standing, would’ve helped to create tension and more memorable moments.
The cherry on the cake is that you can play all of these modes offline, on your own or with a friend; perfect. And while not all the modes may interest you, there’s no doubt that Day One Studios should be commended for trying something new with the multiplayer, and including split-screen local play. If only it was four player split-screen, no matter how much the visuals were reduced to support it.
In all honesty, expectations for F.E.A.R. 3 were extremely low. The promotional cutscenes with real actors and the hiring of a film director and writer to boost the game’s profile were troubling signs. It appeared to be a car accelerating at a hundred miles per hour towards a cliff edge with no clear navigation; turns out it wasn’t.
Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong, and even more so when the final result is a worthy addition to a series started by one of the best games of this generation. For FPS fans that want a break from modern warfare settings, F.E.A.R. 3 is this year’s alternative – caked in blood, guts, mind blowing audio design and high-octane co-op action.