The Final F.E.A.R.
By Josh Snyder
If there is a running theme throughout this series on the F.E.A.R. trilogy (Part I, Part II), it is that each game is a reflection of the time in which it was made, a commentary on how the first-person shooter (FPS) genre shifted from design that focused on the strengths of PC gaming to design that focused on the strengths of console gaming. If that same narrative is followed with the final installment, F.E.A.R. 3, then the franchise has little of importance to say, other than PC shooters are dead – long live console gaming.
Of course, the PC shooter is alive and well, as evident by the fact that Team Fortress 2 has now outlived an entire generation of consoles, along with the excitement over the recent announcement of Overwatch, the latest from developer Blizzard Entertainment. Therefore, viewing F.E.A.R. 3 in this light would mean simply reducing the title to little more than a footnote in what has otherwise been a successful franchise.
But that would be doing a disservice to this game, as it was picked up by a new developer and released during a time when many once-established elements of both the FPS and horror genre were changing. To say that F.E.A.R. 3 is a representation of the FPS genre in that time and place would be false, but it would be correct to say that it is an accurate representation of the chaos that often engulfs the world of video game development. So how do we evaluate this troubled entry then? For reasons both good and bad, F.E.A.R. 3 is best viewed in a vacuum with its predecessors so we can better understand how the franchise changed, and when it is acceptable, if ever, for developers to abandon or alter the identity of an established franchise.
Defining F.E.A.R. 3
Developed in 2011 by Day 1 Studios, F.E.A.R. 3 shares two things in common with its predecessors: it continues the story of F.E.A.R. 2 (in which Alma is pregnant and now ready to give birth to a child, an event that will somehow destroy the planet), and it puts the player in the shoes of Point Man (if that memorable name doesn’t ring any bells, Point Man is actually the protagonist from the original F.E.A.R.). And that’s it; from this moment out, nearly everything about this title is drastically different than previous entries.
As mentioned, Day 1 Studios took over developer duties from franchise creators Monolith Productions. It is unclear how much input Monolith had in the development of the game, but it is safe to say that Day 1 Studios were more focused on keeping the franchise fresh in everyone’s mind rather than trying to recapture the success of the original F.E.A.R. This is a perfectly legitimate strategy – not every single game needs to be groundbreaking or genre-defining. At the end of the day, the game just needs to be good, fun, entertaining.
And what makes a FPS fun and entertaining? The same criteria that defined the previous entries – movement, feedback to the player and resource management. Day 1 Studios’s changes to these elements are a direct result of what came before in this specific franchise, therefore providing an interesting look into how a new developer can sometimes grow a franchise, while at other times losing sight of the defining traits that made gamers take note of it in the first place.
The Only Path is Forward
The most immediate change to F.E.A.R. 3 is how the player moves throughout the world. The hectic pacing of F.E.A.R., and the compromises Monolith experimented with in F.E.A.R. 2. (slower console-style movement coupled with easy-to-aim PC style weapons) are both long gone. With this entry, the F.E.A.R. franchise is one-hundred percent in console shooter territory. Even with a mouse and keyboard the movement is slow and deliberate, best suited to funnelling enemies into one point and blasting them away instead of popping in and out of cover to take them out at a distance. This change can be seen as both practical and an overreaction – many gamers were most likely to experience F.E.A.R. 3 on a console, and perhaps as a way to avoid the criticism of combat being too easy, which was the case in F.E.A.R. 2, the movement was slowed down while the number of enemies increased, resulting in much more difficult gameplay sequences, at least in theory.
In a strange way, these changes resulted in the most balanced gameplay between the two sequels. Day 1 Studios correctly addressed an issue with F.E.A.R. 2, which tried to be both a PC and console shooter, resulting in unbalanced gameplay that made the player feel far too powerful. But instead of drawing inspiration from the original, F.E.A.R. 3 instead took those console elements and drew them out to their logical conclusion. Guns hold far less ammo, and scopes are better suited for the slower gameplay and should only be used when firing at enemies from distance.
Unfortunately, Day 1 Studios changed the slow-motion ability in an attempt to compensate for alterations made to the formula in F.E.A.R. 2. The slow-motion meter was shortened, decreasing the amount of time the player can spend in slow-motion, which sounds great on paper but frustrating in practice. The duration is so short that slow-motion often feels useless, and when a mechanic has little to no impact on gameplay, the player will often ignore it or relegate it as a shallow attempt to connect this game to the previous entries. If given the choice, I would much rather a mechanic be overpowered and useful opposed to underpowered and useless. F.E.A.R. 3 would have a smoother gameplay experience if the slow-motion was removed, which goes hand-in-hand with console FPS design, but also runs the risk of losing a core element of the F.E.A.R. franchise. The ability is actually useful at moments in the final boss battle, but not enough that it justifies being included in the game. I would much rather have seen it abandoned, perhaps replaced by some other psychic ability that other characters have demonstrated throughout the franchise (such as the ability to briefly possess and control an enemy).
Where F.E.A.R. 3 really loses its footing is with unnecessary changes to the formula. The first installment provided players with branching paths through levels, and although these paths didn’t deviate in drastic ways, they often each hid resources that the player would want to collect, making backtracking through levels common. The same can be said for F.E.A.R. 2, although there were far less resources to collect so backtracking was reduced. Still, levels felt open and provided the player with the opportunity to explore every corner if they wished.
F.E.A.R. 3 throws this element out completely by introducing linear, one-path levels that close off at random moments, preventing any sort of backtracking. Doors close behind the player, aided by some unknown force, and could not be reopened. No warning was ever given, nothing in the level design hinted that these moments would occur. For reasons completely unclear, F.E.A.R. 3 shoves the player down one path as fast as possible, which at times makes it play closer to an on-rails shooter, something akin to Dead Space: Extraction. Given the focus on console design elements and the shift away from the reliance on slow-motion, many gameplay sequences played straightforward to the point of tedium. Walk forward, hold down the trigger, rinse, repeat.
What Am I Supposed To Do?
It would stand to reason that, with such linear level design, feedback to the player would be easy to accomplish. After all, there are only two directions a player can move on a linear level, and when doors permanently close off one direction, it leaves little debate as to where to go next. Yet somehow, at numerous points, the direction forward isn’t always clear, and yet at other points it is mind-numbingly clear. This dichotomy serves as evidence that, despite having two blueprints to emulate, F.E.A.R. 3 loses its way far too often.
At many points throughout the game, the only way the player can advance is by clearing the area of enemies which seem to randomly spawn from locations that, logistically, make no sense, like a radio tower or a closet. I often watched as enemies would pour out of these tiny rooms, one after the other, dropping as they ran mindlessly toward me while I hid in cover and occasionally popped out to mow the next wave down. Before long, boredom kicked in, and I became determined to figure out how to advance the level, and the answer was always kill more bad guys.
How many more? Who knows – that information is never conveyed to the player. Why can’t the player just run to the next area? No reason – that door only opens when it knows all of the enemies are dead. These invisible walls were just one of the many ways in which F.E.A.R. 3 poorly communicated information to the player. When the game does convey direction or an objective, it will literally do so with an arrow that tells the player where to go. There is no thought process involved – simply follow the arrows and gun the seemingly endless waves of enemies down until the next invisible wall falls, then repeat, over and over.
Similar to how this entry forced in the slow-motion mechanic, even though the gameplay did not need it, F.E.A.R. 3 also stubbornly refuses to include a mini-map or radar. While I appreciate that Day 1 Studios decided to stick with some basic elements of the F.E.A.R. formula, their changes in other areas, such as the never-ending stream of enemies, would be better suited if there was a radar, so when the player is stuck and doesn’t know what to do they can look at the radar and see that the enemy’s pathfinding has the final remaining enemy stuck on some random obstacle behind a building. A radar would also come in handy when dealing with enemies that can shoot out orbs of light onto the battlefield that somehow spawn additional enemies out of thin air. During those unnecessarily confusing moments, some direction from the game would have been helpful.
If these elements sound confusing and disjointed, that’s because they are. In an attempt to bring back the difficulty lost between F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. 2, F.E.A.R. 3 ends up a confusing mess at times, and nothing is more frustrating than a game that holds the player’s hand so tightly that they can’t stop and appreciate the world, only to suddenly be shoved into a locked door that screams “go here to advance,” with no key in sight. This lack of cohesion is most evident in how the player progresses from one level to the next. A level will end, followed by a cutscene that neither sets up the next level or concludes the previous one. Each of these sequences are variations of the first one – the player character will be doing something, like flying a plane of walking somewhere, destination unknown, and the antagonist from the first game (brother of Point Man), Paxton Fettel, appears as a hallucination and spews some cryptic nonsense that is never made clear, even after completing the game. And suddenly the player, who was just crawling through sewers, finds themselves in a suburban neighborhood overrun by tanks and soldiers, for reasons again never explained. If a developer is going to go out of their way to include a story in their game, they need to at least make sure the player understands what is going on and why. F.E.A.R. 3 does neither.
I Don’t Need No Body Armor
Resource management is where F.E.A.R. 3 strays furthest away from the F.E.A.R. formula, and does so in an inconsistent way. To start, there are no health packs or body armor, instead replaced by the two words that will send chills down the spines of traditional PC gamers everywhere – regenerating health.
Regenerating health was implemented in console shooters as an attempt to evolve resource management. Instead of scouring levels for health packs, the player could instead utilize the environment to allow them to navigate battlefields without dying. Strategically plotting a course through a warzone in Call of Duty added a new element to FPS design not typically seen in traditional PC shooters like Duke Nukem. In theory, the environment is a resource, and it takes knowledge and skill on the part of the player to utilize it to maximum efficiency.
Unfortunately, regenerating health in F.E.A.R. 3 doesn’t quite work the same way. On normal difficulty, the player can absorb so much damage and regenerate it so quickly that dying was something that happened, at most, once a level, meaning that planning how to navigate the already linear battlefields was something the player might do out of boredom, not necessity. Couple this with enemies who run straight at the player, ignoring their own well-being, and the player would be forgiven for thinking they were invincible.
As is common with console shooters, the player can only carry two weapons in F.E.A.R. 3. Again, this feels artificially limiting, but just like F.E.A.R. 2, the game goes out of its way to provide the resources necessary to clear an upcoming section of a level. Enemies sniping the player from a distance? Just pick up the sniper rifle lying on the ground. Giant mechs burst through the wall? Either get in your own mech or take them down with a rocket launcher.
The twist here is that this constant supply of weapons makes sense in F.E.A.R. 3, but for reasons that make no sense. For the first time in the franchise, the player starts each level without the weapons they held at the end of the previous level. No point in holding onto that rocket launcher – it will be replaced with a pistol soon enough. And this extends to common weapons as well – I am a huge fan of shotguns in FPS games, but even my shotgun would be taken from me, forcing me to spend the first ten minutes of the next level searching for my preferred style of weapon instead of paying attention to what was going on around me. When a game takes away items the player has collected and earned, and offers no reason and forces them to repeat that process over and over again, the frustration begins to take its toll.
While searching for my favorite weapons, I also noticed that F.E.A.R. 3 is stingy when it comes to ammo. When I did find a shotgun, it would only have 12 shells, and it would sometimes take me twenty minutes to find another shotgun to replace the ammo I would spend almost immediately, since enemies flock to the player in waves. The game attempts to compensate for this by throwing a wide variety of weapons at the player, but these too have little ammo and would often not fit the playstyle I was most comfortable with. At times I wondered if the original intent was to make F.E.A.R. 3 a survival horror game, which would have been a great way to keep the franchise fresh in everyone’s mind while also providing players with something new and engaging. But many other elements do not fit within the survival horror template, adding to the overall confusion of ideas. And what do those ideas communicate to the player? That resource management is nothing to worry about, the game will take care of it for the player, just pick up any old gun and go. At best this is a risky design choice, and in practice it is literally removing one of the three main elements that compose the FPS genre.
A Different Type of FEAR
Again, F.E.A.R. 3 should not be viewed as a snapshot of the FPS genre in 2011, but instead as it compares to the previous entries in the trilogy. When examining how it handles the three core pillars of FPS design, that framing makes sense, since the design choices are clearly in response to the changes made in the previous entry. But games are not made in a vacuum, and it’s clear that Day 1 Studios was influenced by other FPS games, and this influence had a direct impact on the identity of F.E.A.R. 3. And this influence is important when understanding where F.E.A.R. 3 loses sight of what makes a game a F.E.A.R. game.
If the original F.E.A.R. was influenced by Half Life, and F.E.A.R. 2 by Halo, then F.E.A.R. 3 draws most of its inspiration from Call of Duty, perhaps the most popular FPS franchise during the time F.E.A.R. 3 was in development. The problem is that this influence wasn’t properly understood or implemented. This is made clear when handling the scope of the game. The previous F.E.A.R. titles took place either in offices or in hospitals – environments that allowed for some open level design, but for the most part were smaller in scale. F.E.A.R. 3 can take place anywhere at any time, which means the linear levels are set upon a large, open backdrops, such as a crumbling city or devastated neighborhood. These gigantic set pieces would feel right at home in Call of Duty, but are so far removed from the previous F.E.A.R. games that, aesthetically, it feels like an entirely different game. Watching as entire city blocks fall mysteriously into sinkholes (again, for reasons never explained) feels over-the-top and shallow, as does the buckets upon buckets of gore that make F.E.A.R. 2 look like a child’s game in comparison.
But these elements are cosmetic in nature, unlike the leveling system that was forced into the gameplay. A franchise first, the player collects hidden items that give them experience points, which fill up an experience meter that eventually unlock new abilities, like the ability to carry more ammo or the ability to absorb more bullets. This leveling system is why Day 1 Studios took resource management out of the player’s hands – this system was meant to replace it, but it fails on every account. The hidden items have no impact on the gameplay – they only increase the time it takes to complete each level. The attributes that do increase make little sense logically, and increase at such a low rate that there is no sense of progression, the biggest sin of any leveling system. I didn’t notice a difference between my character from the start of the game to the end, other than I could hold a few more shotgun shells, which didn’t matter because my shotgun would mysteriously turn into a pistol at the end of each level and I would have to recollect everything all over again. I have always applauded developers for trying something new, but when those new elements fundamentally alter a game and turn it into something the franchise isn’t, it’s hard to celebrate them. F.E.A.R. 3 isn’t a game about progression – it is a F.E.A.R. game in name only.
An Enduring Legacy
The sad thing is, F.E.A.R. 3 could have been a really good FPS, but instead it is a bad F.E.A.R. game and a bad FPS. It’s perfectly fine (and encouraged) to want to make changes to a franchise, especially if it is a new developer and not the original team. But those changes need to make sense. F.E.A.R. 3 was an overreaction to the changes made in F.E.A.R. 2, and a game that didn’t understand what made franchises like Call of Duty so successful.
If there is an enduring legacy of the entire franchise, it is that F.E.A.R. not only represents the growing pains of a wildly popular genre, but it is also a reflection of the struggles developers face on a daily basis, distilled down into playable form. The lesson, ultimately, is that developers should stay true to their vision, even if that means making a corridor-PC-style FPS while everyone else is making epic Call of Duty-themed shooters. Never fear standing out in the crowd – that’s what makes the best games great.
Listen to the Theory of Gaming Podcast episode in which the hosts discuss the F.E.A.R. franchise.