Pop quiz. What’s harder to do: follow the plot of F.E.A.R. 3 or pronounce the game’s stylised title, F.3.A.R.? Trick question, actually. They’re both surprisingly easy, although one will require you to have a bit of knowledge about the events of the previous F.E.A.R. titles, while the other will leave you sounding like you have a speech impediment when you insist on saying ‘fi-three-ar’.
F.E.A.R. 3 kicks off nine months after the events of the first two games and Point Man -- the bullet-time-loving protagonist from the first game that still has no real name -- is having the crap kicked out of him by a couple of Armacham Security guards who use the Geneva Conventions as toilet paper. Cue the Shyamalan-like entry of Paxton Fettel -- brother of Point Man and in a semi-afterlife form that still has the head wound from where his bro shot him -- to liberate the protagonist from his heavy-fisted guards. From here, Point Man’s mission is to hunt down his mother and all-round-creepy-chick Alma to offer her a 12-gauge abortion before she gives birth to the Apocalypse and further populates the world with her horrific apparitions.
From the explosive jailbreak opening of the game, right up until the third level, you’ll be made fiercely aware that Warner Bros. has leant more on the side of action than horror. There’s a general lack of sinisterness in the first hour of the game, which is off-putting for anyone hoping for a return to form of the strong balance between horror and balls-to-the-wall action that made the first game so memorable. Except for the ever-awesome presence of the bullet-time ability in the first two levels (and, of course, the rest of the game) and the occasional Alma appearance, you could easily believe that you’re not playing a F.E.A.R game at all.
But that’s not to say you won’t be having fun. A new back-stab ability offers one-hit-takedown incentive for sneaky/flanking players, the first-person cover mechanic (as opposed to games that snap into third-person when using cover) takes some getting used to but works well most of the time and close-range slow-motion shotgun kills never get old. The cover system was held back from perfection by the frustrations of contextual cover (really annoying when you’re in the thick of it and the game says ‘no’ to what should be cover) and having to snap into low cover before being able to vault over it.
On the topic of novel content, they’ve also thrown in a leveling system that makes use of specific achievement milestones that throw more experience your way. For instance, scoring a lot of headshots, favouring a certain gun over others or getting a lot of kills in slow-mo will help you to earn bonus experience that helps to rank you up faster. Every rank rewards you with new abilities (slide and jump melee attacks early on) or ever-handy passive abilities such as faster health regeneration and increased sprint/bullet-time.
At the end of every level you’re awarded a score and, if playing in co-op (more on this later), this is compared to your human-controlled partner. You’ll earn additional points for beating a level under the target time and for performing various categories of notable achievements throughout the stage. In co-op, the competitive-cooperative approach to gameplay also influences the ending of the game, offering interesting incentives for uncooperative gameplay and a healthy dose of replayability.
In fact, the cooperative element of F.E.A.R. 3 is a big part of what makes the game shine. I say part, because any of the eeriness or in-game tension that can be experienced in single-player—and there are some skin-crawlingly creepy levels and sections of the game—are essentially nullified when playing with a buddy. Couple this with the fact that the end-of-level comparison makes you more likely to work against each other (by rushing in to score more points) than cooperatively, and you’ll find yourself missing a lot of the smaller scares because of the breakneck pace that co-op plays out at.
The real fun is in playing as Paxton Fettel who has a supernatural approach to combat that sets F.E.A.R. 3 apart from most co-op experiences. As a semi-ghost, Fettel can levitate baddies, possess them, hurl spiritual projectiles and even temporarily render Point Man immune to damage. The latter point and baddy levitation are great moves for players who actually want to play cooperatively, while the others allow those who do not to take a similarly aggressive Point Man approach to combat. Being able to possess from a distance means that Fettel has some fantastic flanking potentiality; it’s just a shame that the linear level design doesn’t often encourage this.
But the F.E.A.R. series is one of the few that needs to have a corridor-shooter approach to level design in order to maximise the claustrophobia and manage those all-important scares. Speaking of scares, a randomised scare mechanic means that certain sections of the game will offer or withhold particular ‘BOO!’ moments to enhance the tension and encourage repeat play-throughs. And there are some genuine reasons to replay F.E.A.R. 3 beyond the scares, too. Namely, improving on end-of-level scores, besting suggested level times and how differently the game plays in co-op (especially as Fettel).
It’s worth noting that the AI was particularly impressive in sections of the game. I played through the game on the hardest difficulty setting, and while it wasn’t terribly challenging in most parts, there were some bits that offered a suitable challenge. Soldiers, in particular, use cover, blind fire (which players cannot do, apparently), flank, work as a team and even sporadically slide into cover or action dive through windows to try and best you. The biggest nullifying factor for the mostly impressive soldier AI, though, is how easy it is to counter ev-er-y-thing with the careful use of bullet-time. Even the smartest foe will struggle to survive the perfectly lined-up headshot while he’s forced to move in slow-motion.
Aside from the cooperative campaign, you’ll also be able to jump into multiplayer with one of four modes. Each mode is, unfortunately, limited to a maximum of four players; so anyone hoping to relive the gory bullet-time-infused slugfest of older F.E.A.R. titles will be disappointed. All four multiplayer modes are cooperative derivatives, with a competitive spin thrown in for good measure. Three of the four modes are rather uninspired and borrow heavily from tried and tested multiplayer formulas.
Soul King and Soul Survivor have taken inspiration from Halo multiplayer modes (Headhunter and Infection, respectively), while Contractions is a few goose-stepping goons shy of Nazi Zombies from Treyarch’s last two Call of Duty outings. Both Soul game modes get boring fast, while Contractions at least provides some frantic entertainment with some interesting new ideas for the ever-popular multiplayer horde modes. The aptly titled ‘Fu**ing Run!’ play mode is the most original and fun of the bunch and requires you to sprint and shoot your way from start to finish as you’re chased by Alma’s hungry Wall of Death; if one teammate goes down, you all fail.
Sure, F.E.A.R. 3 may not find that fertile middle ground between action and horror that preceding titles have nailed in much more successful ways, but when it gets it right, it gets it really right. I was laughing my arse off through the game’s more memorable action set-pieces and felt genuinely tense through some of F.E.A.R. 3’s better-produced ‘haunted house’ sections; all of which were complemented by a near pitch-perfect score that transitioned from creepy to epic (and back again) with relative ease. It may not be as wholly engaging or enticing in its storytelling as previous F.E.A.R. outings, but I’m still keen to jump back on the action cloud of a game that’s infused with a horror lining.