“You’re like free pizza at an anime convention. She can smell you and she wants to consume you,” the mysterious Snake Fist crackles through Delta Force protagonist Michael Becket’s head mike as Becket is busy fighting off hordes of enemies. That greasy-haired ghostly psycho girl Alma is back in Monolith’s sequel to the original F.E.A.R., a first person shooter so good that it gave Half-Life 2 a run for its money. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin begins with a bang and before you know it you are frantically blasting your way through all comers in a fight for survival in which the pace barely lets up. Given the task of catching up with the devious and elusive Genevieve Aristide, president of the sinister Armacham Technology Corporation, plenty of obstacles are thrown in your way, including ghostly gun-firing apparitions, ‘replica soldiers’, machine gun-toting bots and mutant human monstrosities, stark naked save for what look like very, very dirty underpants as they negotiate walls like spiders and come at you with unnerving speed. Alma is always lurking and worse: getting all close up and personal in her desire to chow down on Becket as he ventures further into the horror.
The influence of the Japanese Ringu series of horror films has always been clear in the figure of Alma and as the narrative unfolds in similar disjointed flashback style we learn more about her tortured origins. The cutaways are to the point and the pace never drags because of them, although they demonstrate the first caveat in an otherwise excellent FPS: as the revelation unfolds, the jaw remains relatively un-dropped.
Monolith has taken great pains to open out the gameplay experience, to free the player from one dingy and constrained corridor after another, and the scrapping you do amid the rubble up top under a post-apocalyptic sky is great fun. This is in large part due to the AI of the special forces enemy; they dodge, move back and forth, press forward and if you are foolish enough to think you can hang around and take pot shots at one Kevlar fetish dumbhead after another, think again. Not only will they flank you, they’ll lob grenades at you while doing it to flush you out. Random saves are out, you have to reach instant waypoint saves, otherwise it’s right back to the last one if you croak it. You are also limited to the number of weapons you can carry at one time. These include an excellent sniper rifle, useful in a great set piece, cat-and-mouse, laser-sighted sniper battle within a massive hangar. Awards are unlocked as the game progresses. In all honesty, I never used them nor was I ever really sure how to, or if I could. The same goes for the return of ‘reflex time’. I was too busy blasting like crazy to hit the Ctrl button most of the time. But you should: the gore is as ripe as the language, and looks spectacular in slow motion. Exploding grenades distort sound and vision with a balletic slo-mo mayhem that would make Sam Peckinpah proud.
The game is at its best in the copious firefights, which are consistently exhilarating. The fight on the out-of-control tram is splendid (and only made better by the fact that you can hear but not see the horror waiting ahead). Probably the standout moment here is the one that gives a whole new meaning to the saying “Don’t shoot me, I’m only the piano player”. This brings me to the second caveat: for a game with FEAR so bold in the title, it didn’t exactly have me leaping out of my seat – perhaps because Alma is now a known quantity, and because the jump-factor triggers were not as varied as they could be. The trashed school environment was perhaps the scariest and most atmospheric part of the game, with an inventive use of sound and sudden ghostly appearances. And that music room. Maybe with a desire to open out the environments there was some trade-off with atmospheric horror, and the law of diminishing returns does begin to work its killjoy effect. A large part of fear is anticipation, and a bit more of that would have been welcome. The “nope, even though the rubble is only about two feet high, you can’t go there” linear feel of parts of it didn’t help, either. And while the game began with a bang, it did end with something suspiciously like a sequel-poised whimper. In fairness, I haven’t touched the multiplayer; I’m still replaying various levels of the full game even now, so good are they.
The original F.E.A.R. was an FPS classic; F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is a worthy successor. Perhaps tellingly, by contemporary comparison with the original it’s not such a system drain, but it still looks great, sounds great and plays great. As for scary, well… Dr Evil might call it the Diet Coke of scary. Come what looks like the inevitable sequel, it would be good to get that full sugar rush of fear to go with what is already a big juicy slice of gaming pie.