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Monday, August 24, 2009

Not a Review: F.E.A.R. 2

I finally got around to playing through the second in what is presumably one of many chapters of the F.E.A.R. franchise.* Overall, I thought it was a series of interesting moments instead of a cohesive game. Below are some other thoughts about the game and where it succeeded and possibly failed.

Spoilers may follow.

Jump scares actually work

There are lots of "monster closet"-style encounters in the game with specters and beasts of all stripes appearing while you're exploring the blasted city in the game. Most effective, I think, were the sections in the abandoned elementary school. The eerie calm and quiet of an only recently abandoned school was well used by the level designers in heightening the in-game tension.

While the actual construction of many of the levels left a bit to be desired, the tone was just right in many places making this player feel like he was actually in a horror scenario.

I hated The Man Without a Face

The game was such a wildly extreme version of the faceless protagonist - your character has neither an identity nor a voice. It was my hope that somehow this would play into the story which deals with mass-market replica soldiers and the anonymity of for-profit combat but by the end of the game it felt as though the developers couldn't be bothered.

The issue is obviated by the large-ish cast of characters barking story content at you throughout. Why are they talking while you (potentially) have a mouth yet can not scream? Strangely, the developers have opted to make their player character a set of hands with some guns and it really makes the whole experience feel disconnected.

Consider as a counterpoint the faceless protagonist of Bioshock - what was really special there was how thematically your having no face or identity made sense. For all intents and purposes, your character Jack had no identity prior to entering Rapture.

Rubble rubble (I'm sick of all this)

The game just before and then immediately after the nuclear explosion which occurs at the conclusion of the first F.E.A.R.. As a result, much of the city and outlying areas have been decimated by the blast with toppled vehicles, blasted ash remains, and still-burning fires littering the landscape. In some cases this presents for interesting level design, with teetering buses perched precariously over your head and upended buildings for you to navigate.

Still, more often that I'd like to have seen obstacles in the environment tended to come in two flavors: rubble textures and slightly un-jump-able railings and platforms. It really shook the sense of being a nimble commando part of an elite team of badasses. More troubling still is how the game lends itself to exploration but contradictorily has these weird artificial barriers slowing your progress.**

It sure is quiet in here...

Feeding the sense of isolation in the game, F.E.A.R. 2 almost immediately separates you from your team and has you rolling solo for most of the game. While it feels a little sloppy in terms of the story (you're part of an elite team of commandos that tends to split up at the first opportunity) it's highly effective in making you feel the loneliness of the entire scenario.

This is aided by the use of sound in the game with the judicious application of silence where necessary (or the occasional howling of the wind). Sometimes, small touches are enough to enhance the overall mood of a thing, and here's a place where the developers at Monolith scored a point.

The accidental rape story

This is possibly a place where the content of the narrative may have gotten beyond the creators, so please bear with me.

There's a certain strain of body control in the narrative with the victim becoming the victimizer (at least in Alma's case). There are a couple of layers of the strong gaining physical agency of those who aren't as strong. Your character is warned repeatedly that Alma wants to "absorb" you as she has done to others in the past. You're forcibly thrown into fugue-like states thanks to Alma, drawn/guided to the next point in the story.

Then there's the elementary school where we learn that many children were being groomed like Alma to be telepathic soldiers. The way it unfolds during the course of the stories is as a series of abuses perpetrated in secret without the consent of either the children or their parents. The Armacham doctors exert their control over the children, altering their very makeup in spite of the known debilitating repercussions.

The whole story boils down to you trying to protect your body from Alma who ultimately succeeds in gaining control of you long enough to impregnate herself in the game's closing moments. She's the game's ultimate victim and controller. From beyond the grave she's seeking vengeance for her years of forced imprisonment by her own father. She was impregnated multiple times to gain manageable progeny who could be mined for their abilities.

We're told late in the story that she wanted children of her own - while it's handled awkwardly and the final scene is at odds with all the threats of her absorbing your character - the final moments are effective and put new light on the multiple encounters earlier in the game where Alma attacks - no, assaults you, grappling you, trying to pin you down.

It's heady stuff and I wonder if the creators indeed this as a layer of text in the game.

*Henceforth to be known as The Deadly Adventures of Sexy Super Ghost Alma.

** Fallout 3 was another culprit with this kind of design - but it was less egregious there since there was so much more open space to explore compared to the spare corridors, warehouses, and hallways of F.E.A.R. 2.

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