Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More Like Project L.A.M.E.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is pretty much a disgrace compared to the original F.E.A.R. Gone are the intelligent, tactical fights, gone is the creepy horror atmosphere, gone is my fun. Project Origin just feels like a lame, phoned-in sequel that didn't even try to innovate like the first game did. I've got a laundry list of problems with it, but the big issues are the combat and the horror atmosphere, the two things that are supposed to be the most important aspects of this series. Overall, it's still an enjoyable game, but as a fan of the original, and as a fan of good, intelligent games, I'm obliged to call it out for its failures.

So let's talk about the combat, then. The original FEAR had good level design with intelligent AI. Fights took place in dynamic, complex areas that were more than just cluttered rooms, and the enemy AI worked to use the environment against you. They'd split up and try to flank you, and flush you out with grenades and suppressing fire. You had to use cover, leaning around corners and ducking behind crates, moving from place to place to avoid being flanked, and enemies did the same. You could save before a battle and play it three different times and have them play out very, very differently.

But now in FEAR 2, the level design mostly consists of big rooms where you stand still and let the enemies come straight at you. The enemies don't move about intelligently, they just run for the nearest cover and camp that spot, and then move into the open to get shot in the face several times. They often enter through a single, narrow doorway that you just aim your gun at and kill everything in one magazine. When they're not just running straight at you, they're cheap-shotting you from around blind corners as you explore, or running in from a secret door behind you after you've just killed everything else in sight. 

Most enemies are human replicant soldiers, the only variation among then being how much armor they're wearing and what gun they're using. Combat gets a little stale after a while because most of the time it feels like you're in copy/pasted scenarios, but FEAR 2 does occasionally mix things up. After long stretches of fighting nothing but replicants, they have you fight the cliche "fast monster than crawls on walls" enemy type, and sometimes you even fight ghosts. But the ghosts are never more than boring or lame, either because they'll slowly materialize in front of you and you just wait to fire a single bullet once it's done, or because they'll come out of nowhere and hit you before vanquishing themselves in an anti-climax. 

Easily the most artistic moment of the game. (from Wade Elementary)

And then there are the random sequences where you pilot a mech unit down the street shooting at trash enemies that only exist to die in a mist of blood. I'm not sure that it's ever been particularly fun to control a big, clunky, slow-moving vehicle, but FEAR 2's mech sections are especially yawn-inducing. On occasion you fight one of these mech units while on foot with ordinary weapons, and I guess these are a welcome change of pace, but there's always a rocket launcher conveniently placed right before a fight so that you can quickly dispose of the mech and then carry on without a hint of effort expended.

The difficulty options aren't well-tailored, either. Normal difficulty is far too easy, with enemies dying in just a couple of hits, barely damaging you unless they're hitting you with blind cheap-shots, and with you constantly tripping over ammo, health, and armor. Combined with the simplistic AI and level-design, it's just not that challenging or engaging. If you're looking for more intelligent, challenging gameplay, you won't find it in the game's only harder setting, because Hard mode only makes the game tediously hard; all it does is make enemies deal insane amounts of damage, forcing you to spend all of your time hiding behind a wall waiting for enemies to run out into the open like idiots. Tedious.

The sad fact of things is that FEAR 2 plays better as a casual run-n-gun shooter. I was disappointed with FEAR 2 feeling less tactical than the original game, and I wasn't having much fun playing in hard mode, either. The game became a lot more fun once I'd resigned myself to just playing in normal difficulty and playing it like a (dare I say it) console shooter. Which would make sense, considering the consolization at play, what with the original being a PC exclusive and the sequel being developed for consoles. I don't really have a problem with console shooters, but it's not what I expected from a FEAR game. 

So the combat basically sucks, but how how about those fearsome horror elements from the first game? It seems like those got toned down as well. The original FEAR wasn't necessarily scary or that much of a true "horror game," but it did have some good startling moments and a plethora of uncanny sequences that were enough to push you towards the edge of comfort, in like a Poltergeist kind of way. It was mostly a bunch of weird, unexplained phenomena in a dark, mysterious atmosphere, and that made it kind of intriguing, even if its actual horror elements aren't particularly original.

Anybody fancy a "Homeless Sandwich"? (Click to enlarge)

Alma was kind of spooky in the first game, and I was put on edge around her because she could actually hurt you, and you never knew what to expect when she was around. But in the second game, she's just not scary at all because all she ever does is briefly flicker on screen for a moment, or suddenly jump out at you and force a quick-time event where you mash right-click. She ceases to be scary when you realize that she's basically harmless and doesn't really do anything. It also doesn't help that her story has been explained more in the second game; things are generally spookier when they're unexplained. 

The first game's scary bits were embedded in very ordinary gameplay. You'd be cruising along doing your thing and then something strange would happen. It was unpredictable and things generally felt real. In the second game, a lot of the "scary moments" happen during more fantastical moments. The HUD flickers and distorts with static, the screen gets filled with bloom and motion blur effects, sometimes everything will turn orange, there will be weird filter overlays. All of these effects put you in a different mood that tend to ruin the horror elements, mostly because you realize that you're in a "horror sequence" instead of just being in ordinary gameplay. It comes off as too obvious and heavy-handed.

I played FEAR 2 at night with the lights off and while wearing headphones and was not scared. At all. I was never unnerved, never startled, never spooked. The attempts at horror in FEAR 2 are, for the part, fleeting and easily dismissed. Alma appears on screen in a blatantly obvious way and then quickly disappears. "Hmm," I say, "that was something" and continue on as if nothing ever happened. Everything was either totally predictable or inconsequential. 

Is that who I think it is?

Alright, there were actually two moments when I got spooked. Once happened almost randomly when one of those weird monsters-that-crawl-on-walls suddenly darted past the end of a hallway. I startled and suddenly felt ashamed of myself. The other moment happened in the one sequence that I would actually praise, where the lights go out and flicker very slowly and irregularly, like a badly damaged strobe light, as ghosts spawn everywhere and things rattle and scream. That was a good moment because it's one of the few occasions where I actually felt vulnerable. 

Next is the way the story is told. There's barely any story at all with only a handful of relevant "cutscenes" in this 10 hour game. Perhaps 90% of the game has you going on pointless detours and after red herrings. Which isn't really a problem, but a game's not going to win any storytelling awards when it's told entirely through text logs and text-during-load-screens. 

I'm no fan of text logs or audio logs in games, but these text logs are especially atrocious. As you explore you find "intel items" that you can read on your PDA, which is itself a stupid menu screen that doesn't integrate with the rest of the gameplay. The game pauses while you sit there reading the log; pick up an intel item, press TAB, and all of the ambient sound effects and music stop playing. It completely breaks the immersion of the environment. You'd think the least they could do is keep the ambient sound going or something, maybe make them into audio logs so you can listen to them while you explore.

I really like the framing of this shot in the theater.

Then there's the fact that exploration is dumbed down, no more secret areas to find with rewarding loot, there's this new protagonist Becket who ruins the uniqueness of the Pointman from the first game, there's the annoying "airlock checkpoint" save system with no manual saves, there's the stupid audio effects where you turn your back towards a talking person and they suddenly sound like they're on the opposite side of a huge cavern, there's the lack of leaning, there's the fact that the shotgun has no range, spread, or knock-back and isn't fun to use, there's the fact that melee attacks aren't useful at all anymore, there's the stupid glowing enemy effect when activating slow-mo, there's the stupid blue outline of the HUD encircling the screen, there'sthe messy-looking film grain. So many annoying problems.

FEAR 2 just feels like a "lite" version of the first game; watered-down with filler and not as tasty. It's still very playable and ultimately better than a lot of other shooters, but it's a disgrace to the first game that leaves me utterly disappointed. 

1 comment:

  1. FEAR 2 multiplayer component also feels like filler, and even though we used to play online for most of the shooters, nothing special about this series of lackluster options.