F.3.A.R. has leapt into our lives with a butcher’s hook in its hand and a glint of innovative asymmetric co-op in its eye. But does it chill the blood, or simply apply a damp rag to our fevered brow? Allow me to turn dramatically to the camera and tell you Wot I Think.
It seems like a good bet that a bunch of F.3.A.R reviews kicked off by mentioning that John Carpenter was somehow involved in the cutscenes that make up the game’s interstitial plot-extruding moments. It seems also like a good bet that one of horror cinema’s most obvious names actually was waved vaguely in the direction of the game, but for all the evidence there is here it seems safe to believe – as I do – that he was “involved” in the sense that he was slowly pushed through the studio on an office chair while Day 1 Studios were putting the cutscenes together. Perhaps he glimpsed as a storyboard pinned up on the office walls, and he might even have seen a few frames of animation being rolled back and forth by one of the studio animators. Eventually, however, Mr Carpenter found himself sat in the car park as the studio doors closed behind him. His work was done. Time for lunch!
Sadly, I can’t sensibly entirely ignore F.3.A.R.’s strange plot, and so let’s break it down: you play Point-Man, again, who is the time-slowing supernaturally-strong killing machine from the first game. He’s had a tough life, it seems. And now, for some reason, you have been rescued by the ghost of Paxton Fettel, who was previously an arch-enemy, who is your brother, who you murdered at the end of game one. He is wearing whispy red bits this season, a look which is VERY popular among the newly ghosted. The motivation behind the subsequent happenings are entirely opaque as the pair then team-up to go back to where other stuff in the series happened, and so henceforth blahblahblahblah ghosts.
What this means is – excitingly – you can play Fettle in co-op! Cor. Central protagonist Point-Man, of course, plays his usual role of having no character at all (like a cranky Gordon Freeman with less to say) kicking people in the face, shooting them in the face, stabbing them in the face, shooting them in the face in slow motion, and shooting them in the face with a different gun, in slow motion, then shooting robots in the face, and later still using robots to shoot people (and robots) in the face. All of which is extremely satisfying. F3’s combat is solid and punchy and bloody. I like it. (Especially the sliding melee attacks, which are just splendid.) The cover system, which allows you to auto-crouch/lean behind cover, and duck between adjacent bits of cover, is pretty good, too. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once you’re familiar with the odd way you attach and detach (all in first-person) from the various boxes and overturned tables, it really does become a slick bit of manshoot play.
Fettel, meanwhile, is a ghost. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to use cover. Not least because one of his primary ghost abilities is to get shot by people. I am not sure how they can shoot a ghost, but they can, so he has to watch out. He can also get shot while he’s possessing enemies – which is a fun thing to do, because you take them over and gain their weaponry for a brief time. That makes a welcome break from Fettel’s own arsenal of lifting people into the air on a tendril of smoky blood, and zapping them with what looks like laser blood. You know, laser blood. I think that’s what it is. Anyway, if you don’t or won’t have a co-op chum to try this with then you can also use Fettel to replay the game with. Most of the single player can be replayed using old spookypants to complete the levels. So that’s good.
Those levels are moderately okay, too. The first couple of environments had me huffing with annoyance, fearing a repeat of of the blandishments of Fear1&2, but it soon delivers, with lashings of crinkly detail and scripted mini-moments, from rotting heads bobbing in the sewer, to terrified citizens slamming the shutters closed in the slums. There are even a few moments that excel, such as an electrical retail hall filled with hundreds giant TVs displaying themselves in a reciprocal loop of LCD glowingness. There’s serious talent here, and the meat locker sequence in particular caused me to shudder. There are also a few failures to signpost where you are going, and a few times when piles of boxes and stuff can’t be climbed, despite the fact that you were mantling up a wall two seconds before. These are minor tripwires in the jungle of superb corridor design.
So yes, all the rich environment and co-op shooty stuff basically stopped me from being bored with what is an excruciatingly linear shooter with practically no fright value whatsoever. Despite occasionally superb surroundings, the scary stuff is now tortuously difficult to raise a spine-tingle from. Many of the frights are non-interactive, so you know you are in no danger, and others are so heavily telegraphed that you are all-too aware that a giant skeleton-frog thing or a nu-gothmongous little girl are about to harmlessly puff into magic ash before your eyes. Other scares still are missed by looking the wrong way, leaving little more than the orchestral plinky plonk spider-music to inform you that you should have been restarting your heart.
While we’re on the subject of undermining atmosphere, I should mention the achievements and stuff. They are extraordinarily intrusive, and often just so vacuous and contrived that they seemed like a clown beating a drum next to you to celebrate the most basic facts about you playing the game. YOU HAVE CROUCHED BEHIND COVER FOR 100 SECONDS! Wow, what a fucking achievement. Thanks for notifying me during this intense firefight.
Amazingly there is actually some tension – if not actual terror – to be had from multiplayer. It genuinely is a bit of fun, particularly in a game mode called “Fucking Run!” which sees you running from a screaming wall of supernatural deathcloud which will pop anyone who gets too close. Unfortunately you are also facing hordes of suicidal enemies, bent on slowing your progress, and you must fight past them, reviving fallen team-mates as you go, to get to the end of the level. It’s genuinely great fun: panicky, silly, pacey. A splendid novelty idea, well executed. Well done those chaps.
If I was going to be genuinely irritated with the game, which I have not consistently been able to be, I would mention that the regenerating health bored me, and caused me to long for a game in which it was my purpose to hoover up tiny boxes with a red cross on them. I might also tell of being annoyed by the checkpoint-based saves, or the ridiculous spawning baddy sequences. Or the awful sniper bits, or the occasional poor ammo placing. None of that matters too much when the game is generally chortle-ripeningly pleasing to play.
In conclusion: I am not going to avidly recommend you go get this game, but I want you to remember that it exists, and mentally note that – were you disposed to enjoy the continued and repeated simulated death of nameless man-drones – you might just like it.
Right. That’s F.3.A.R. sorted out on paper, time to celebrate with a brandy and some MR James before bed!