With its storied history, Monolith has a reputation for being creative and action-oriented in crossing genres and telling unique tales set among some of the most unexpected set pieces. Some fans fondly recall the brilliant anime-flavored escapades as a giant mech and as its irresponsible pilot in Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, while others may reminisce about their time as a secret agent working against the nefarious forces of H.A.R.M. in the spy spoof, No One Lives Forever. With Condemned being a combination of "CSI" and "Fringe," Monolith blended FPS expectations with haunting tales of terror.
F.E.A.R. took it further by replacing rebar clubs with automatic rifles and missile launchers as it introduced the world to Alma, a little girl who was hell-bent on vengeance after her father used her in a part of Armacham Technology Corporation's newest product line. The X-Files-with-guns inspired nightmare isn't quite over yet, especially when you have a military contractor as vast as Armacham working overtime to keep its skeletons locked in the closet. As in James Cameron's "Aliens," now that its audience knows what to expect, Monolith has pulled out all the stops with plenty of explosive firepower to cut the strings on Armacham's golden parachute.
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin takes place several moments before the end of the first game, ignores the events from the two expansions, and stars a completely different hero. As Sgt. Michael Beckett of the ATC's private army, your group was supposed to help investigate the occurrences in the original F.E.A.R., but plans suddenly changed, and the team found itself tasked with taking Genevieve Aristide, Armacham's president, into protective custody. It seems that someone wants to clean up the corporation's dirty laundry and is starting from the very top.
Most of the narrative is told through well-voiced in-game cut scenes and radio messages fed through Beckett's headset. Overheard conversations further add to the immersion. Some scenes feature gloating villains or the horrific hallucinations that Alma inflicts on the player to mess with your head. Small pieces of intelligence data are also hidden on each level, adding to Beckett's PDA storehouse of information on everything from weapons to project reports.
Much of this detail is fun to look through, but it requires both chance and a small measure of patience, whereas most Rambo-trained soldiers will gloss over it as they charge through the game, leaving gaps in the narrative. The story continually plods forward, but its delivery can make it feel as if it were leading the player by the nose.
Having experienced Alma's psychic nightmare the first time through, my nerves weren't rubbed as raw in this go-round. Monolith still manages to work in a few creative chills that force the player to blindly grope his way through darkened halls or confront the abominations forged by Armacham's experiments. Newcomers who have never played the original title will probably get the most mileage out of the scare factor, while others may feel the familiar frights giving way to more bicycle-kicking, lead-spitting action.
Monolith's artists play with the theme in delivering nearly every scene, subtly suggesting that something much worse lurks beneath the seemingly normal surface. Libraries, laboratories, an elementary school, and an amazing battle on a titanic tram system that would make Black Mesa proud: There are plenty of fantastic venues to battle through, demonstrating the developer's knack for building secret places that feel as if they were drawn from declassified Cold War blueprints. There's even a visual blur effect that is used to add a cinematic touch to the player's movement and explosive action. Not all of the effects or graphics are as sharp as some of the backdrops, though, and a few come across kind of flat, but the world of F.E.A.R. 2 manages to successfully look like an urban/industrial nightmare gone very wrong.
Aside from the impressive window dressing, the basic FPS formula routinely hits all of the usual marks and remains relatively unchanged from the first game. A HUD fills the screen with a visor-like outline, displaying everything from health, ammo limits, the sprint bar, and the number of health packs in your inventory. There's no regenerating health here, but your sprint and reflex gauges refill themselves after some time. Nearly standard FPS controls make it easy to get into the action, and Monolith throws a few twists into the environment to keep things interesting. There are also Quick Time Events to help break up the action, requiring the player to mash mouse buttons to win events, such as a grappling fight with a key baddie. The gimmicky feel of the QTEs was difficult to shake.
My temporary AI partner warned me about shooting a power box but, being somewhat trigger-happy at the time, I did it anyway and watched as the electricity arced out and fried anyone who may have been standing a little too close. There are plenty of environmental traps like these that the player can use to blow up, electrify, fry or knock over bad guys. The game doesn't shrink from the gore factor, either, as bodies blow apart and litter the ground with juicy bits. Beckett can only carry four weapons at once, but finding ammunition was almost never a problem and the availability of health packs was fairly good. Saves are handled by checkpoints, and not all of them are conveniently spaced, forcing you to repeat certain firefights.
Beckett also has a killer kick that he can use as a jumping melee attack and a sliding kick with which to break the knees of unsuspecting bad guys. He can execute a roundhouse kick when the enemy gets a little too close for comfort, which is always a fun option. He also has a reflex ability that slows down the action for as long as the reflex gauge is filled, allowing him to wipe out entire squads by moving faster than humanly possible; this ability can easily become abused as you stumble across upgrades that extend the duration of the effect. Beckett can also turn over tables and other objects to create makeshift cover, but this feature was sometimes rendered pointless when the environment already offered more convenient and safer cover.
Almost as an apology to Shogo fans, F.E.A.R. 2 also throws in giant mechs to pilot at certain points in the game. Like walking tanks armed with limitless missiles and bullets, these are something of a guilty pleasure to use in grinding down the game's gaggle of enemies. An enemy mech that you may have had to fight on foot before can be reduced to junk in seconds, and entire parties of heavily armored enemy soldiers fly apart from the force of being hit with hundreds of rounds. There's no need to hide in this mode, so players get a break from all of the sneaking, hiding or horror, which can be something of a welcome relief. It's somewhat odd, though, that Alma doesn't try to freak you out while you're wearing several tons of armored death.
The by-the-numbers enemy AI allows soldiers to take cover while using their deadly accurate grenades to stay at arm's length, forcing you to come after them. They also tend to take on the same cover that their dead partners may have used mere seconds before, not realizing that the pile of bodies at their feet should've convinced them otherwise. The tailored monsters in Armacham's arsenals, however, add a welcome degree of weirdness. Some will climb on walls, skitter across ceilings, or turn invisible and strike when you least expect it; this keeps the action from feeling too repetitive, despite how well the environment sets up each one.
After about eight to 10 hours, depending on how you play, the end of the game is somewhat disappointing. It certainly earns a trip into the "Outer Limits," but the title felt as if it had exhausted itself by the final scene, leaving players with little sense of closure as they wait for the next game.
Online, players can participate in matches of up to 16 players across a variety of standard modes, such as Capture the Flag and a Conquest mode, where two teams vie to take over control points in a level. Armored Front is a variant of Conquest, but in this case, a suit of power armor is spawned for both sides to use as a part of their strategy. Both ranked and unranked play are available, although a GameSpy account is needed for ranked access. On crowded servers, the action was fast and relatively lag-free, although the small number of maps doesn't present much variety. There's an active community of players, although the lack of a consistent patching mechanic meant that nearly half of the servers were one version off and inaccessible. If you exit a game or lose the connection with a server, you're dumped into the lobby and forced to refresh the server list. It's exciting for a few minutes of play, but it offers very little else aside from the F.E.A.R. 2-inspired environments and power armor, so long-term prospects are somewhat grim.
Microsoft's "Game for Windows" label continues to confuse gamers about what it's supposed to bring to the table. On some games, it means Achievements and a link to Microsoft's Live service, but on others, it's just that: a label behind which stands an ambiguous set of standards. In F.E.A.R. 2's case, despite having the GFW label, instead of using the Live network in any capacity, it uses Steam to unlock the game and assign it to your account. This allows players to run it without the disc, which is not a bad thing. There are Achievements, but they aren't tied to your Live account and are treated as in-game milestones, which players opposed to anything Microsoft-related may not mind so much. The only reason I see for labeling this a GFW game is its cross-platform release on the Xbox 360 and PS3.
When the burning plume of smoke from the last battle clears, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin's fan service delivers plenty of reasons to sign on with Armacham's best. It delivers plenty of freakishly explosive action atop the apocalyptic table set by Monolith's artists, despite its back-to-basics feel. Players eager to step away from fighting another war or blasting an endless number of aliens might be able to overlook its by-the-book mechanics and immerse themselves in the twisted world of Alma's nightmare. Monolith has provided plenty of lead-lined blankets to hide behind.
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