Thursday, February 26, 2009

F.E.A.R. 2 Review

As you might have noticed from some of my earlier posting, I loved the original F.E.A.R. And although they weren't as good, I even had some fun with the two F.E.A.R. expansions, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate. So if there was one game I was really excited for this year, it's F.E.A.R. 2. So how does it stack up?

In short, very well, but it's not without its flaws.

F.E.A.R. 2 begins close to the ending of the original F.E.A.R, and since the expansions weren't created by Monolith, they're tossed out of F.E.A.R. canon. You take on the role of Michael Beckett, a special forces-type on a mission with your buddies to retrieve Genevieve Aristide, the president of Armacham Technology Corporation. Those of you who played the first game will remember that Armacham is the company responsible for creating the Replica soldiers you spent so much time shooting at in the first one, the company responsible for making Paxton Fettel their psychic commander, and the company responsible for taking a little girl named Alma, locking her away, getting her pregnant, taking her babies away for projects, locking her back up, then throwing away the key and terminating her life support. You may also recall from the first one that, whether she's truly alive or dead, Alma's pretty pissed.

Although the game doesn't really require you to have played F.E.A.R. and know all the details, the story does suffer a little bit in that it does expect you to know enough about Alma. Remember, the first F.E.A.R, while it did make you jump, didn't rely on it. It was about the atmosphere generated by seeing creepy visions without knowing the meaning and piecing together Alma's story while chasing Fettel. In F.E.A.R. 2, the cat's already out of the bag (or the undead psychic is already out of the Vault, as it were).

While this does take away some of the mystery, F.E.A.R. 2 makes up for it by ramping up on the atmosphere. Basically, F.E.A.R. 2 is scarier than the first game. The game makes better use of its environments, including a creepy elementary school. The music is creepier. It adds new enemies, including ghosts, Armacham experiments gone awry, and perhaps scariest of all, a kind of zombie that animates dead bodies. And while, in the first game, you eventually learned that Alma really didn't do anything besides show you creepy visions, Alma will actually attack in this one.

There are other improvements as well. You can carry four weapons now instead of three, and just like the first game, all of the weapons have a visceral sense of lethality to them. The AI is smarter, and enemies will use cover better, attempt to flank you, and accurately toss grenades to flush you out from your own cover. Naturally, the graphics are greatly improved from the original. There's a lot more variety in the levels than the endless basements of the original game. And information isn't from answering machines. This time, you find bits of info you can read, and your HUD will highlight them if you're close enough to them, so you won't miss too many.

There are some things in the game that other reviewers seem to have had issues with. Yes, there is a certain amount of head-bob in the game. It was barely noticeable to me. Yes, you do drive a big mecha. I don't know where the big gripe is here... there were enemies with mecha in the first game; why shouldn't you be able to drive one? Yes, it's true that the game isn't really scary when you're driving one, but that's not a bad thing. It doesn't make the game less scary, it gives you a break. The two (and only two) brief times you drive the mecha, the mecha is like a sanctuary, and leaving it to go inside a dark and crumbing building, knowing that you're leaving that safety behind, adds to the experience. And yes, there are quick-time events. But they're hardly the big deal that they're made out to be. Unless you count mashing the melee button to shake an enemy off of you a QTE (which I don't), there are only two in the entire game, and both are actually pretty memorable "boss" fights. And even those two aren't timed sequences of buttons, but more like mashing a button until you're in the right position, then hitting another button.

While I don't consider those gripes to be flaws, there are some issues I do want to mention. I've already mentioned that the story is weaker (although the ending totally makes up for it). At times, the music would change sharply and I'd get that radio static that meant something supernatural was happening, but I missed it because I was looking in the wrong direction. The game is also a lot easier. Armor is everywhere, and it seems to take more punishment so that your health rarely goes down. You can carry less health packs, but often when you're hurt and enemy with drop a health injector that instantly refill some health. The extra weapon slot wasn't that useful... for most of the game, I still used the assault rifle or a shotgun. I took the Hammerhead (the successor to the Penetrator from the first game) in another, since the Penetrator was my weapon of choice against more heavily-armored foes in the first one, but I could have finished the game without firing it, since I usually took a heavy weapon like a laser or rocket launcher in the fourth slot, to be used on the heavies in this game. The on deviation from that was when I would occasionally swap an mostly empty heavy weapon for one of the areas with snipers, as a sniper rifle was pretty much necessary to take them out. After avoiding it for so long, I was a little bummed that the PC version required me to install Steam, register the game with Steam, and be online to play it, even though my copy is a retail box copy. And lastly, you can tell it's a console port. Leaning, a move from the first F.E.A.R, is gone in F.E.A.R. 2 because there's nowhere to map it on the 360's controller... which you can use on the PC version, as it falls under the Games for Windows banner. The most telling sign that it was developed for consoles first, though, is that the game only displays in 16:9 widescreen. If you have a 4:3 monitor, the game is confined to a band about one third the size of the entire screen. Even if you have a 16:10 monitor (which most widescreen LCD computer monitors are), there's a little bit of empty black space at the top and the bottom.

In the long run, these complaints are minor nuisances that keep a great game from being perfect. Like the previous F.E.A.R. games, F.E.A.R. 2 is a competent enough game that the shooting alone would make it a solid game. If you take the time to sink into it's atmosphere, though, it becomes a game that's scarier, if not quite as good overall, as the original.

Final Score: A

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