Lights off… check. Surround sound on… check. Teddy bear within reassuringly easy reach… check. Right, scare me. I dare you.
FEAR 2 is Monolith’s direct sequel to its well-received horror FPS from 2005. You play Michael Becket, part of a Delta Force team sent to arrest the President of the (evil) Armacham Technology Corporation from the first game. Michael’s undiscovered psychic abilities, though, soon make him susceptible to unsettling hallucinations generated by the Ringu-like Alma character from the original – now escaped from the vault where she was being held. The huge explosion that ended the first FEAR coincides with Michael being captured and manipulated in order to increase his abilities and “tether” him to Alma. The game then becomes a race against time to discover ATC’s role in the creation of a psychically controlled army, and learn how to destroy the lank-haired Alma (shampoo and conditioner might just do it).
The story is far better told than the first game’s disjointed effort. Voice acting is strong and the relationships between the members of the squad – particularly between Michael and Keira Stokes, the female lead – feel genuine. With objectives well defined, and the narrative path to the climax handled deftly, the story is one of the game’s high points, even if there is one glaring occasion where the main characters take a high dosage of stupid pills. Situation: member of Delta Squad starts acting weird, wandering off and humming like a nutjob. Coincidence: presence of homicidal maniac ghost girl, known to possess, kill and turn people batshit mental. Nope, can’t be any connection, obviously.
It’s refreshing to see a group of soldiers portrayed as human beings rather than profanity-laden hunks of shoulder with Ronnie Corbett’s head on top. Becket’s silence when others talk to him does jar on occasion, but the thinking behind it is presumably that you should be reacting to the game’s scares yourself rather than have the character do it for you. Given the revelations in the story, it becomes easy to emote with Alma even when she’s scaring the bejesus out of you. For a videogame, it’s a surprisingly compelling tale.
Combat and scares are at the core of the gameplay experience. The former relies heavily on a Max Payne-esque slow motion mechanic that makes every encounter with enemy soldiers an exercise in ballestic ragdoll physics, environmental destruction and gore. It’s quite a sight to behold, as blood splatters over the walls, individual bullets fly towards their targets, and the room explodes in a shower of detritis. Use of slowmo is rationed and slow to recharge, and this provides the challenge, as encounters are relentlessly fast and furious when taking place in real-time, with the enemy AI utilising cover and flanking effectively. Strategic use of your special ability is therefore vital to avoid being cut to shreds. Soldiers are the mainstays of the foes you face, but there are also visits from nightmarish ghosts and scuttling experimental abominations to break up the standard combat.
A rather old-fashioned health system is in use, but handily armour and medkits are left lying around all over the place. Curiously there’s no proper cover mechanic despite the presence of a myriad of objects in the levels to hide behind. Maybe it’s a concession to the advantage the slowmo ability already gives you, but the combination of this and the health system leaves the impression that Monolith hasn’t quite moved with the times in all areas.
Weapons-wise, there’s a mix of assault rifles, pistols and shotguns, with the brutal Hammerhead (read: nail gun that has a pleasing habit of pinning people to walls) and a couple of futuristic prototypes available later on. The occasional sniper sections are hilariously telegraphed (“Oh look, a sniper rifle’s propped up against this wall. I wonder what’s about to happen?”), but for most encounters any combination of weapons can get you through, though you can only carry four at a time.
While the action side of the game is often thrilling, it’s not the main draw. FEAR 2 lives up to its horror game billing with graphical and audio tricks that permanently set the hairs on the back of your neck to their “rise” setting. These can be as subtle as the HUD slightly flickering, a small controller vibration, a full-blown hallucination of Alma’s past as she swings happily on a swing in a washed-out field (a repeated, important motif), or a simple shock like a sudden stab of discordant noise.
Once the implied scary rules have been established early on, the game cleverly plays on your preconceptions. The screen will flicker but nothing untoward will happen, or something disturbing will hit you with no warning at all. This misdirection keeps you on edge, and the superb soundscape and dark, grim settings establish a cloying fog of menace that rarely goes away. Monolith’s greatest achievement here is to make you think that bad things are happening even when they’re not. This is a game where you inch forwards rather than run; where you see something in the corner of your eye and shuffle back as a result, afraid to move on until you’re absolutely sure nothing’s going to leap out at you. It’s a masterful exercise in psychological manipulation from the developers.
Thankfully there is occasional respite from the unease in the form of jumping into some mech-style Power Armour (think Robocop’s ED-209) and laying waste to hordes of enemies, or manning the turret on Delta Force’s APC. These sections are gleefully over the top and the feeling of sudden empowerment is glorious. They’re a welcome release of tension, and an example of how Monolith has thought about pacing throughout the 10-12 hour campaign.
The original game’s office and warehouse settings were bland enough to make Slough Trading Estate look like the Bahamas, and while some progress has been made, the environments are also FEAR 2’s weakest point. There are some well-realised locations, such as the scorched earth of the ruined city above ground, but other levels – most notably an early underground setting – are repetitive, drab, and linger on well past their sell-by date. There’s also little environmental interaction outside of the weapons-based destruction, and certain perfunctory mission objectives, such as finding valves to turn off gas pipes, are lazy padding in both idea and execution.
When all the game’s ingredients come together, though, FEAR 2 is superb. The school stage, for example, features an almost perfect mix of action and suspense. One set-piece in particular is unbearably tense, as you follow a ghostly presence who indulges in some extreme poltergeist scareathon antics with the lights and lockers. It’s terrifying. The lead-up to the game’s climax is another standout – a brilliantly paced exercise in scares and combat, with the only misstep being those irritating staples of modern gaming: namely a disappointing final battle, and an ending that isn’t really an ending.
Even the levels that look more open funnel you down a narrow, linear path, but the game gets away with it, just as it manages to overcome some dated gameplay mechanics with its atmosphere and presentation. At times the reference point for Monolith’s work is (whisper it) Valve: past masters at knowing when, where and how to make the gamer think a certain way, have a certain reaction to an event, or construct a gaming moment that everybody remembers.
While not a perfect game by any means, FEAR 2 is an intelligent and f**htening experience that also features extremely enjoyable combat. On balance it’s the best FPS I’ve played since Half-Life 2 Episode 2 Paragraph 2 Subsection 2, and a real step forward for Monolith. Teddy bears on standby, everyone. You’re going to need them.