wtorek, 8 marca 2011

Short Review #18 & #18.5: F.E.A.R. + Extraction Point

Not a very short review, but here we go...

As you probably know by now, since I had to mention it at some point, I am easily scared. I wasn’t able to finish Dead Space because of that. I was a bit scared of Doom 3 because of that, and that’s not a very scary game. I had to postpone playing The Devil Inside several years because of that, and from today’s perspective, that game is hardly scary at all! It was my decision to best this small problem of mine. To try and beat it into submission by experiencing scary games. Last summer I bought many different games at a very good price from one of the Polish electronics supermarkets, among them The Suffering, Condemned… and F.E.A.R., along with the Extraction Point expansion and the Perseus Mandate solo expansion (as two separate boxes). Having just finished the basic game and the first expansion, here are some of my thoughts.

Let me address that fear thing first, I mean, it’s in the title so I guess it should be the first order of business.Is FEAR scary? Well, yes, it is. Is it as scary as I thought it would be? No, not at all. See, the scary stuff is there, and sometimes shows itself in moments when you don’t expect it. But I thought it wasn’t nearly often enough for the game to be a true horror-themed shooter. Don’t get me wrong – I was happy that it wasn’t overdone, as I probably wouldn’t finish the game. But from different videos around the web, from how the game was regarded, I honestly thought I would have to play in small doses to make it bearable, while I didn’t have any trouble at all (well, ok, some, but nothing major) with getting through the game.

The atmosphere is built by using lightning – you’ll see many a long corridor with flickering lights and completely dark areas which only your flashlight will unveil. The sound design also adds to the creepiness, with ambient music and the fact that pretty much all you step on can roll or slide on the floor which makes the ‘silence’ even more unnerving. It’s more of the Doom 3 / Bioshock school of scary – stuff will jump out at you, you’ll get some sound cues which mark that something eerie is going to happen and all that… but it’s not ‘Dead Space scary’ (even though, as you probably know, Dead Space also uses those cheap scare tactics). The atmosphere in FEAR isn’t as smothering as in that game and this is actually one of its shortcomings.

See, in Dead Space or Bioshock, the eeriness and thick atmosphere go hand to hand with the fights. They are two sides of the same page, they compliment eachother. In FEAR it doesn’t feel like it. The two elements work together, but its not a match made in heaven. Something’s lacking, something’s not connecting exactly right…

The combat itself is terrific. Its very fast, very brutal and rich in environmental effects, such as explosions, smoke, and pieces of walls or furniture. You really feel these weapons do real damage, and shooting them is a lot of fun. You get to duck into and out of cover, use grenades, and try to defend yourself while the AI attempts to encircle you (all you’ve heard about the FEAR AI is true – they are crafty, sneaky bastards). You can use melee attacks of different types, though to be honest I haven’t done that much, preferring to use the game’s bullet-time… oh, right. That.

See, here’s the thing. This bullet-time mode (which the hero can use supposedly because he has very keen reflexes) is a feature of the game in a large extent. I dare anyone to get through this game without using the option once. I guess it could be doable, but VERY hard. Slowing down the action is about the only thing which gives you the edge over the enemies when you are outnumbered. If you don’t use it, you get shot down very fast. But I didn’t really think it really befitted the game. Here you have a SF/thriller/horror game, and the protagonist can do stuff straight from the Matrix? When Max Payne did it, it has sense in a way – it was a meta-mechanic, something that was there and wasn’t really explained, more a sort of a cosmetic solution than a plot one. Here, the explanation gives it sense, but theme-wise, it still doesn’t quite fit.

The theme in general is quite disjointed. Not as bad as in a certain game I played recently (ekhemhaloekhekh), but still. Get this – its obviously a modern setting, or if it’s the future, it’s not very distant. But you’ve got an army of clones telepatically commanded by a special individual… that’s the premise and by itself, it asks a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief. But even when you accept that as a given, why are there robots in this game? And several types of them as well. And lasers. LASERS. I don’t know, it struck me as odd to match a modern setting with a SWAT-like special unit, add horror elements to it and say ‘You know what we need? Robots and lasers!’… I have the feeling that FEAR would work much better without those elements.

I have to mention something which is also a gripe many reviewers pointed out. The level design in FEAR is rather boring. You will spend the majority of the game going through very same-ish looking office spaces, unfinished buildings and warehouses. When the game throws you into a derelict building style location, it doesn’t keep you there long and the underground base you explore is pretty much a more high-tech rehash of the previous locations. If anything, this was a bit lazy – though it fits the story, and makes sense. At least this game doesn’t reuse the exact same locations as that * other * FPS did…

As for other stuff – the graphics have aged pretty well, though obviously stuff like Unreal Engine 3 blows this one out of the water, music is forgettable (some tunes are cool, but you can’t really recall them after you’ve finished playing), the sound design is good, but not ‘Company of Heroes good’ or even ‘Call of Duty good’… Voice acting was ok, some naughty swearwords added to the mature atmosphere of the game and fortunately weren’t overdone… it’s really refreshing to hear a solid ‘f**k’ in a game from time to time. There’s not a big choice of enemies, but the AI works wonders and keeps stuff interesting - while in other games fighting the same guys over and over again can become a chore, here it never becomes dull because of how ‘intelligent’ they are.

So yeah, FEAR is a solid shooter, but somehow it ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The scary sections are creepy and scary, if not outright terrifying (not much of them here, but they’re there), the atmosphere is great… and the shooting, action and combat are great as well, but the two don’t work that well together. I think it’s a matter of pacing – most of the game is fighting and after you’ve become somewhat tired of the Replica chatter, you get a scene or two to keep you on your toes, followed by more shooting. Those long action sections in the uninspired locations can become somewhat dull. However, the story is interesting and well told, and generally speaking the game holds up very well. This is a solid 7/10, a shooter all FPS fans should check out, though I’m not sure if it’s a good suggestion for people who are not fans of the genre, even if they like the horror atmosphere. Maybe it would be better if those people sat beside the FPS fans while they play this. This way, both parties can leave satisfied (as long as the horror fan goes to the kitchen to get a coffee or sandwich during the longer shoot-out sections).

What about Extraction Point? Most of the stuff I already said about the basic game applies, obviously, but some things are different. Most noticeably, the atmosphere. It is more scary and actually threatening than in the basic game, but it is different, more in your face, and less focused. There’s stuff happening which has you more interested in the plot, and some crazy stuff does happen – like when you can see a person basically being smashed around the room by an unseen force and then apparently devoured by some strange creatures. Extraction Point mixes stuff up, but unfortunately it’s not very good in telling its story. Some stuff isn’t resolved, though everything suggests that it should, and more questions are asked than answered. The story simply doesn’t add up in the end – you get a terrific, moving and autentically riveting final scene with Alma (seriously, I don’t remember being that moved by a video game for some time now), but when you try to track why that thing actually happened, you can’t – there’s no real sense to it, it just sort of happens. There’s also a certain type of enemy which is there for some reason, but you don’t really know why – it doesn’t seem to have any alliegance, but is blatantly supernatural, so * somebody * has to control it…

You get more types of locations here, so it's not only offices and warehouses, thought there is a good number of locations 'borrowed' from the base game. The scares here are better constructed than in the base game. They are also shown to you more often – not very much more often, but somewhat. If the basic game had this level and intensity of creepy stuff going on, it would be that little bit better. There’s still some strange discrepancy in the theme (you get to you a minigun and a laser rifle and fight against new types of robot enemies), but some stuff works very well. That Alma scene I talked about above is complimented by a great music background which makes it really cool. Some other tracks, however, are not that atmospheric and as far as they set the pace for the skirmish, they don’t really work for a wannabe-horror game. The game is also pretty short, at only around 5 hours. I guess that’s good enough for an expansion if you get it in a single edition with the basic game, but if I bought it solo I would probably be a little disappointed.

Anyway, Extraction Point deserves a 7/10 as well. It improves on some stuff which wasn’t quite as good in the base game, has an interesting story which actually has you invested in why certain things happen – even if it fails to deliver an answer in that respect, it’s still very enjoyable to watch its journey there. And the new scares are really spot on.

I actually didn’t enjoy FEAR that much when I started playing it, but once you get into the right mindset, it becomes a really good experience. Which is why I’ll attempt to get through Perseus Mandate over this week as well, just to get the first FEAR out of the picture. I’ll probably save Project Origin (FEAR 2) for another time – no point in forcing myself to play something if I can do it pretty much anytime. Still, I can’t say I’m particularly invested in the franchise – I know FEAR 3 is coming out, but I don’t think I’ll buy it before it gets really cheap.

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