Thursday 28 June 2012

F.E.A.R. 3

The Title Screen

F.E.A.R. 3 is a first-person shooter released in 2011, developed by Day 1 Studios. It is the third standalone instalment of the F.E.A.R franchise and was released for Xbox, PlayStation and PC. The singleplayer campaign can be played co-operatively, but it does not alter the story or levels in any way. This review is on the singleplayer, with no co-operative assistance.

Disclaimer : This is an adult rated game featuring fairly graphic violence at times and some occasional adult themes (but nothing too extreme). There is occasional use of strong language. 

The First Thing
My initial impression of the game was unfortunately marred by a few issues. The menu does have full mouse support, but does not feel particular intuitive. The options menu is fairly ok but I had to edit the FOV in the options.cfg. Including natural language explanations for each of the values was a nice touch though and is something I have not really seen before. It did not take long to tweak things, but is an annoyingly common start to console focused games on PC.

Plot & Devices
Set after the events of F.E.A.R. 2, Point Man (F.E.A.R. 1's protagonist) is being tortured for information about the location of Jin (the technical officer of the original F.E.A.R team). Point Man's deceased brother, Paxton Fettel, appears as a ghost and helps him break out of jail. Point Man and Fettel then embark on a mission to return to Fairport; although their motives are quite different. Armacham is still trying to keep the mess quiet and the brothers must fight their way through to find their mother, Alma.

Paxton Fettel  and Point Man. Alma's sons

The plot of any F.E.A.R game has always been a bit hard to follow. To give the story of F.E.A.R. 3 any sort of context the other two games will need to be played, or at the very least researched (Note: the two expansions of F.E.A.R. 1 are not considered canon by the developers). Perhaps in recognition of this, I feel the storytelling in F.E.A.R. 3 is greatly simplified in contrast to the previous games. There are no emails/voice logs to find, or NPC characters to talk to. Story progression is dealt with in between levels through cinematics and it generally feels as if the story is less emphasised than in the previous games; despite featuring some significant events. 

The Game
F.E.A.R. 3 has gone in a slightly different direction from the first two games. One major change is the move to regenerating health. The player no longer has to find health or armour packs leading to health management being removed from the gameplay. A cover system has been implemented which is interesting as cover systems are more the purview of third-person perspective games. The player can activate cover mode behind objects/walls where they will find it easier to peak around or over, but it is never felt that this is how combat is supposed to be done. It just becomes another option and avoids the problem third-person shooters have where cover provides an advantage over enemies due to increased visibility.

Atmospheric environments

The horror element of the game has definitely changed as well. Whilst it is true that emotions are largely subjective, a lot of the horror elements have been substantially toned down, or removed; the most noticeable being interaction with Alma. She certainly appears in the game but infrequently and not in the same sinister way. Aside from the last level, there are also no large hallucination sections. The torch does flicker a lot, the screen often has grainy filters and some of the environments are quite atmospheric, but it is not realistic to place F.E.A.R. 3 in the 'horror' genre.

There are two playable characters, but Point Man is clearly considered the protagonist. Much of his gameplay is the same as the previous games. The player can carry two weapons and three types of grenades. Ammo crates are found consistently, so most of the time the player has the choice of which weapons to carry. Point Man still has his ability to slow down time for short periods, providing a massive combat advantage. He can also perform a mêlée attack that has increased damage when performed from behind.

Paxton Fettel psychic gameplay

Paxton Fettel has a few different abilities, but can not slow down time. In his regular form Fettel can raise individual enemies off the ground, blast things with a low damage psychic attack and mêlée. If he has enough psychic energy he can possess enemies. From there the gameplay progresses much like Point Man without the time slowing ability. Every dead enemy allows Fettel to 'top-up' his psychic energy, and if he runs out, or 'dies' he is returned to his original form. At any time he can choose to return to his original form by exploding the body he is possessing for a small energy cost, however he can permanently die when not possessing someone and it is harder to kill someone without a gun.

In the previous titles items had to be found in order to upgrade abilities. This has been removed in favour of a new upgrade system. Enough accumulated points will "Rank Up" the players character and improve some abilities. The player obtains points by performing certain feats, or "challenges", in each level; such as getting a number of headshots, back-stabs, kills without taking damage, etc. There are also points for locating hidden items, mostly found by exploring. Although due to the extreme linearity of the game, secrets are never that extensively hidden.

Like F.E.A.R. 2, a couple of levels have Power Armour suits to use. These sections invite the player to use the suit to become quite a destructive force. Harder enemies will feature in these sections like attack helicopters, armoured assault vehicles and other enemies in Power Armour suits. The suits have two types and both have primary and secondary weapons with unlimited ammunition, but are subject to overheating if continuously used.

Fighting a helicopter in the Power Armour

Graphically the game is not as impressive as one would come to expect from a game released in 2011, but it is good enough. There are some very nice backgrounds at times and the texture quality is not bad by any means. The cinematics are a little strange and their models have a slightly unrealistic quality about them. The soundtrack is very atmospheric and the effects are solid giving the guns a weighty feel. The voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag; Paxton Fettel is good but some of the other characters are unpredictable in quality.

I did not find any problem with mouse control and only needed to adjust sensitivity down a small amount. All keys are fully rebindable, although a couple confusingly conflict (for example the 'activate cover' keybind cannot be used for any of the Power Armour abilities, even though the Power Armour cannot 'activate cover').

Wrap Up & Negatives
Many of the negatives of F.E.A.R. 3 are apparent only in comparison to its previous titles, but considering it is the third title in a franchise that is fair criticism. F.E.A.R. games were known for their horror theme and detailed story woven with gameplay. This time the horror feels tame, and the story has been completely removed from the gameplay, in favour of cinematics - that are not even that good. I realise that to tie up the story of the previous games was no easy task, but that does not account for a bland, uninspiring and frankly confusing ending.

Alma is there, but she just doesn't feel the same

The game is "overly linear". Yes, the previous games and shooters in general are linear but in F.E.A.R. 3 it becomes a problem. My biggest frustration came from doors that would mysteriously close after passing through. This was especially irritating if there had previously been two choices of direction and the chosen one had resulted in the closed door, preventing full exploration. My guess is this is some sort of loading limitation relating to console hardware. Some doors are simply non-intractable whilst others are marked "Locked" which indicates they will be opened later. The game is full of badly disguised contrivances to control events and pace and after a while you find yourself waiting for them which is a huge failure in level design.

Levels are not well connected and result in the feeling of just being passed around set pieces; coupled with a far fetched plot, it feels that F.E.A.R. 3 crosses the line into 'bad' storytelling. The levels are not bad in of themselves but for example, starting in an airport feels strange when the previous level ended by falling off a bridge in a Power Armour suit. The game is also short, taking me just over five and a half hours to complete and that included almost full exploration.

I did enjoy it, but it could definitely be a better F.E.A.R. title. The lack of horror and absence of a gripping story woven into gameplay was depressing - there are so many first person shooter games these days, I don't see why F.E.A.R. felt the need to sacrifice its uniqueness to be more like them.

Alma has one of the most interesting video game stories and I felt this title did a disservice to her and the franchise in general, and that made me sad. Still, it was a reasonable and polished shooter and I had fun with it - which at the end of the day, is all we can ask.

And it's not like it's the end of the world...

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