Replicating F.E.A.R.

By Josh Snyder

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F.E.A.R. 2 sets out to top the original, and in the end serves as a lesson in how not to grow a franchise.

In my essay Finding F.E.A.R., I highlighted developer Monolith’s landmark first-person shooter (FPS), and how it still maintains relevance today by being a snapshot of the FPS genre during its most pivotal time. F.E.A.R. highlights the aspects of FPS design that defined the genre on the PC, while also hinting at the potential the genre would show as it transitioned to traditional console mechanics.

With the success of F.E.A.R., Monolith expanded the game into a franchise, serving as lead developer on the sequel, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. What’s fascinating is that, as the franchise progressed, it started to mirror what the rest of the development community was pursuing in regards to FPSs. Unfortunately, unlike its predecessor, F.E.A.R. 2 failed to capture the same sense of PC-to-console FPS transition, and despite being a solid and competent shooter, it’s clear that the console mechanics, which began to dominate the gameplay, were never suited for the type of game F.E.A.R. is at its core.

F.E.A.R. 2 teaches us that console FPS mechanics have their issues, and that developers abandoned PC mechanics too soon. In that sense, F.E.A.R. 2 is just as important as F.E.A.R., but for the opposite reason – it is a snapshot of a winning formula beginning to break. To better understand where F.E.A.R. 2 went off the rails, we must examine it through the three pillars of FPS design outlined in my original essay: movement, feedback to the player and resources. We must also examine how F.E.A.R. 2 handles the unique design aspects inherent to the franchise, and how Monolith grew those elements, or lost sight of them

Defining a New Adventure

Released in 2009, F.E.A.R. 2 takes place immediately at the conclusion of the original. Instead of following the adventures of the brilliantly named Point Man, F.E.A.R. 2 centers on Michael Becket, a member of the F.E.A.R. Delta Force unit. Becket is tasked with securing Genevieve Aristide, president of Armacham, the evil corporation behind the events of F.E.A.R. It is an interesting framing device, and perhaps a conceit by Monolith that the original player character mattered little in the experience of the original, and that in the sequel it could be just as engaging to see the same events from the first game, but from a different angle.

The sequel sets out accomplish two tasks. First, the story (which is, sadly, just as standard and trite as the original) looks to flesh out Armacham, the evil military-style corporation conducting experiments in an attempt to create psychically-controlled super-soldiers,  and Alma, the child who was their first experiment that, unfortunately, went very wrong. While the player does indeed learn more about both entities, it still serves as filler between scenes of horror and gore. Second, F.E.A.R. 2 sets out to bring the franchise firmly into the realm of console shooter. If F.E.A.R. can be seen as a PC shooter with console elements lightly mixed in, F.E.A.R. 2 is a console shooter that tips its hat at its PC roots. Viewed in a vacuum, F.E.A.R. 2 is a solid FPS, and by no means a poorly constructed game. But as a sequel, the way it handles the three pillars of FPS design leave something to be desired, most notably because the elements that made the original so great start to fade in this entry.

Running (In Slow-Motion) Man

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The console-style movement and PC-style weapons do not mesh well together.

The most defining characteristic of F.E.A.R. was player and enemy movement. The action was fast and chaotic, yet manageable; a far cry away from the slow, methodical pace of FPSs such as Halo. In F.E.A.R. 2, player movement is considerably slower, much more in line with console shooters. Each motion the player takes feels deliberate, instead of the frenetic movement of the original. The player character has a heft to him that makes navigating obstacles in the world a dangerous matter, as leaping over a piece of cover can leave the player exposed long enough to absorb enemy fire. This, of course, impacts how battles play out – as both player and enemy move slower, it is easier to survey the battlefield, and to spot enemies before they can sneak up on the player.

The emphasis on console-style movement means that much of F.E.A.R. 2’s combat take place in larger, more open environments, instead of narrow corridors. Monolith wisely uses these open spaces by allowing enemies to enter into the battlefield from multiple points that sometimes surround the player, ensuring that the tension that is lost from fast-paced corridor shooting remains in the form of large, expansive battles. However, these battles illustrate a flaw in the game’s design, more specifically in the design of the weapons.

For FPS games the design of the shooting mechanism is important. In F.E.A.R., most guns had well defined sights to aim down, or scopes that magnified the action considerably, allowing for pin-point accuracy. Because of its frenetic action,  aiming in F.E.A.R. would be an exhausting experience without these clearly defined features. In a console shooter, developers often nerf  weapons by removing many of these design features, to compensate slower gameplay often includes options such as aim-assist to help the player using a controller compensate for the lack of accuracy an analog stick offers. Traditionally, scopes on guns designed for console FPSs offer minimal magnification, unless that weapon is a sniper rifle (which is why these specific weapons are so highly coveted in games like Halo and Call of Duty). This ensures that the guns are not overpowered, as having the same level of magnification alongside slower movement and aim assist would mean that hitting an enemy from distance would be so simple that all challenge would be removed from the equation.

Unfortunately, the guns in F.E.A.R. 2 are designed with the PC shooter in mind, which means that aiming and gunning down enemies is ridiculously easy. The scopes offer a high level of zoom, there is little recoil on the guns and it takes fractions of a second to go from hip-fire to aiming down sights. Even with aim-assist turned off, hitting an enemy from across the level with a sub-machine gun, a weapon typically used for close-quarters combat, is a breeze. This makes each gunfight feel like the infamous lobby scene from The Matrix, in that the player can run forward, guns blazing, in slow-mo, and not have to worry about conserving ammo or aiming – the game gives the player plenty of resources, and practically handles aiming on its own. It certainly is fun, but it lacks challenge.

The slow-motion mechanic makes a return, and similar to the unbalanced gun design, it feels unbalanced. Just as in the original, slow-motion is activated by the player and runs on a meter – once the meter is depleted, the player has to wait for it to refill in order to use it again. Slow-motion allowed F.E.A.R. to maintain its chaotic pace without overwhelming the player, but in F.E.A.R. 2 it is broken, even it it’s fun to use. This does lead to one upside – the player is far less reliant on slow-motion as they can easily defend themselves without it.

This might seem like a negative to die-hard fans of the original – slow-motion was vital in that game, but it was not an infinite resource, meaning players had to be strategic with how they approached each battle. But its inclusion in F.E.A.R. 2, as unbalanced as it is, feels refreshing. In a way it was comforting to know that I could hold off waves of enemies even if my slow-motion meter was drained. Better yet, it became an option that I could use when I wanted to spice up the combat. All of that said, it makes the game unbalanced highly in the player’s favor, and is proof that F.E.A.R. was always meant to be a PC shooter first, not a console shooter.

What Did You Say?

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The level of violence and gore in F.E.A.R. 2 frequently goes over the top, sometimes to comedic effect.

When it comes to how F.E.A.R. 2 communicates information to the player, not much has changed from the original. There is no map, no radar, no navigation points to guide the player. That said, the changes that are implemented, unfortunately, guide aspects of this game into hand-holding territory. Although F.E.A.R. 2 never quite feels like an on-rails shooter, it doesn’t retain the lost, on-your-own sense that F.E.A.R. implemented to great effect.

The most notable change is the heads-up display (HUD), which overlays the screen in a distracting way. Beyond conveying the most basic information, the HUD is also composed of a series of blue lines that outline the player’s vision, which is used to represent the helmet Becket is wearing. Because the player is meant to view the world through this helmet, all of the information the HUD provides is displayed at an angle, which looks flashy but is a poor use of screen real estate. It is a similar case to how developer Bethesda changed the player inventory screen in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The way the information is presented looks nice, but because it takes up so much space, less information is conveyed. In F.E.A.R., when switching between weapons, the HUD was able to display what other weapons I was in possession of and how much ammo and the number of grenades I was carrying, seamlessly integrating this information into the persistent HUD. In the sequel, the player must hold down a button to see all of this information, because there is no natural place to integrate it into the HUD. It might seem like a tiny inconvenience, but it only serves to further remove the sequel from its predecessor, and not in a progressive way. Finally, the HUD also highlights items of interest in the level, such as weapons or reflex-injectors, items that, when collected, increase the total amount of time the player can spend in slow-motion. Revealing all of this is not only distracting, but wanders too far into hand-holding territory.

Oddly, the feeling of being led by the hand, as if the player were a little child, makes its way into the horror elements. Although being plenty violent, F.E.A.R. was a game that followed the less is more mentality. There were scenes of tremendous gore, but they were few and far between, and merely set the scene – the horror came from enemies lurking around any corner, and the random places Alma would appear, as if she were taunting the player. F.E.A.R. 2 mistakes high levels of gore with horror, as if the player should be afraid of the giant pile of random body parts strewn about every level. It feels like Monolith is telling the player “this is where you feel scared,” when in reality, it begins to feel a bit comical by the end of the game.

Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie!

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At certain points, F.E.A.R. 2 literally gives the player the best weapons in the game.

The most conflicted element of F.E.A.R. 2 is resource management. Traditionally, PC shooters were not as concerned with this as console shooters – the fast-paced nature of PC shooters provided plenty of challenge, and therefore hoarding ammo for two guns wasn’t necessary. In console shooters, however, resource management adds an interesting layer of challenge and strategy to the gameplay. In F.E.A.R. 2, Monolith never settles on which path to take, and the result can get a bit messy.

In this installment, the player can carry four weapons, up from three in the original entry. This allows the player to have at least one weapon for every scenario, such as short, medium and long range, as well as a big weapon, like rocket launchers, sniper rifles, or particle beams, to take out a boss. Because of the four weapon slots, resource management seems to be less of a priority… except when it comes to health packs, which are rarer than in the first game. Further, the player can only hold three, as opposed to ten in the original. It seems odd to limit health while letting the player go crazy with weapons, especially when there is still plenty of body armor lying around, meaning the player will only use those health packs during extreme circumstances. In those instances, three isn’t nearly enough, even with the slower-paced gameplay, and outside of those moments plentiful body armor means that health is never a concern. If health packs are going to be included, the player needs to be able to hold a meaningful amount, or they have to be useful outside of extreme circumstances.

In terms of collectible resources, there are still some included, but the total number has been reduced. Instead of searching levels for both reflex and health boosters, F.E.A.R. 2 only includes reflex boosters. But they are not a challenge to find, as the HUD helpfully highlights them for the player. Ultimately, these collectibles matter little because of their insignificant impact on the gameplay – the base-level amount of slow-motion is more than enough to get the player through any firefight.

The most damning evidence of conflict with resource management is how the game handles big weapons used to take down bosses. Although the player has plenty of weapon slots to keep at least one of these weapons on them at all times, the game provides extra for the player right before a boss fight, essentially warning them that a stronger-than-normal enemy is right around the corner, and if they aren’t prepared, to not worry. This misses the point of console-style resource management which is to sacrifice holding onto two useful yet weak weapons in order to have one useful, weak weapon and one powerful, highly specific weapon. This wouldn’t be a problem in a PC shooter, because the number of weapons the player can carry is often limited only by the number of guns in the game, but the rest of F.E.A.R. 2 seems balanced to console FPS mechanics. The result is that the most powerful, rare weapons end up having the most ammo, which again swings the balance of power unfairly toward the player.

A New Type of F.E.A.R.

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The mech sections are a lot of fun, and add a new level of action to the franchise.

The aspects of F.E.A.R. that stood out and made it feel unique (atmosphere, setting, gameplay) have almost all been overhauled in F.E.A.R. 2, and some of these changes seem odd at best. The setting is the most egregious offender – where the original took place in settings not commonly found in horror games, such as board rooms and cubicle farms, F.E.A.R. 2 takes place in all of the stock horror environments. There is the abandoned hospital, the creepy underground secret laboratory where untold, horrific experiments were conducted, the entirety of which is covered in buckets of blood. Where F.E.A.R. felt innovative and daring, F.E.A.R. 2 feels tired and cliche.

That said, there are some improvements to the F.E.A.R.-specific formula. The voice acting is considerably better , and although the character development is just as shallow, I could actually tell who was who this time around. If there was a downside to the first game, it could be that it felt like one long office raid – repetition definitely became a problem, and F.E.A.R. 2 avoids this by expanding the universe a bit more. Just like the original, this is still a war over who gets to control Alma, but unlike the first game, it actually at times feels like a war. Armacham is characterized as a private military company, and those elements are fleshed out in the sequel, and implemented into the gameplay, most notably via a couple fun and action-packed mech sequences, where the player pilots a large, robotic exoskeleton that is capable of mowing down waves of enemies with ease. It is little more than a power fantasy, but it ties into the themes of war being advanced to inhuman levels through technology, which gets to the core meaning of the F.E.A.R. franchise. This broadens the scope just enough to make the game feel like something bigger than an action-heavy episode of The X-Files and, more importantly, gives the game its own unique identity.

Similar, Yet Different

If the original F.E.A.R. was a snapshot of the genre during an important time, and how that transition can and should be handled, then F.E.A.R. 2 is a look into how the evolution of a genre isn’t always a smooth ride. It’s clear that the sequel was inspired by console FPSs likes Halo 2, in that it aims to balance open world combat on a grand scale while also honing in on up-close combat from time to time, in an attempt to humanize the experience. But unlike Halo 2, it forgot to implement some key lessons and features the original established, and the result is a game that loses much of what made the franchise a hit in the first place.

There is value in seeing how developers handle transition and change, even when that change isn’t a smashing success. Monolith struggled with F.E.A.R. 2, never quite sure if they should fully embrace console mechanics or instead keep the PC shooter roots in place. And that is fine – struggle and challenge are good things, and it would seem that the lessons they learned here helped them tremendously with their follow-up project, the current critical darling Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Therein lies the true value of F.E.A.R. 2 – it shows not only the flaws in what many consider to be a popular formula, the console FPS, but it will, for better and for worse, point out the cracks for you.