You might not feel F.E.A.R., but you will have a good time

It might seem odd to you, but I don't think of "F.E.A.R. 3" as a horror game.

Yes, it certainly has a horror motif: Black and blood red fill dominant roles in its graphical palette. A psychic revenant in the form of a little girl named Alma Wade dogs your every step. Gruesomely dismembered corpses are part and parcel of the scenery. Gibbering madmen are counted amongst your foes.

And if you're sensitive about such things, yes, the game might give you the wiggins.

But to be honest, it's just not all that scary. Nerve-wracking at times? Yes. More than a little creepy? Of course.

Shockingly terrifying? Never.

And that's a good thing, because if it truly tried to be a frightening game, "F.E.A.R. 3" would probably have ended up a failure for several fundamental reasons.

The first is, it's a sequel. Players of the series are already familiar with the brand of horror found in "F.E.A.R." And such familiarity weakens any emotional impact the game could attempt to achieve through conventional means.

The second, the two characters the player can "inhabit" throughout the course of the game are, quite literally, fearless. The first, Point Man, is as about as deadly and unemotional as video game characters can get. The second, Point Man's dead brother, Paxton Fettel, is the malevolent psychic manifestation of a murderous cannibal.

Thus, if the game truly tried to be scary, players wouldn't be able to emotionally connect with their characters. In other words, I'd be on a very different mental journey than that of my in-game avatar, and things just would never click into place.

And such a disconnect becomes even greater when you realize that the ghostly Alma isn't a threat to our two "heroes." She's their mother and loves them, even if she is filled with a boundless rage she's directing against the rest of the world. Her frequent appearances aren't meant to scare; they're messages to her boys: "Come to Momma. I need your help."

It'd be easy to oversimplify the game as one big family reunion, but there's a lot more involved. After all, we begin with Point Man held captive in an Armacham prison. They're the company that tortured Alma until she became a living nightmare, turned Fettel into a psychotic, psychic weapon and trained Point Man as the ultimate soldier -- and then steered events so that he'd be sent to kill his brother after Fettel went far off the reservation.

Anyway, despite the fact that Point Man put a bullet through his head at the conclusion of the original "F.E.A.R.," technically ending his life, Fettel breaks into the prison and helps his brother escape. After that, it's a mixed scramble to survive as well as find out what's got mom so stirred up.
However, Armacham wants you dead or captured -- as valuable research specimens -- and Alma's power has driven many ordinary citizens completely insane, so plenty of enemies are ready, willing and able to stand in the brothers' way.

And, as such things go, they tend to be fairly competent as foes. Armacham's mercenary soldiers generally work together as a unit. Not only will they call out a player's position to each other, but they'll attempt to use group tactics to make life difficult, with some providing cover fire as their comrades charge or advance steadily up the flanks or both.

Plus, they routinely make great use of cover; they fling grenades like they were going out of style; and they've all got pretty good aim.

Alma-inspired madmen, on the other hand, aren't really big on tactics. They're the sort who'll just rush forward and try to take your head off with a crowbar -- if they haven't managed to rig themselves up as suicide bombers.

But Point Man and Fettel aren't exactly helpless kittens, are they?

Point Man -- the default character on your first playthrough of any mission in the single-player campaign -- is for the most part your typical hero in a first-person shooter. He can pick up and use any guns and grenades he finds through the course of the adventure, but he's just as vulnerable as any other flesh-and-blood being, so he has to make good use of cover if he wants to survive. (The body armor you could constantly collect in the previous games doesn't exist here.)

He also has the added ability of going into "bullet time," which boosts his reflexes so much that enemies seem to be moving in slow motion in comparison. It's a limited-use power, controlled by a gauge that discharges faster than it refills.

And, frankly, it's an ability I seldom think to use when I play as Point Man. Provided I've picked the right two weapons to carry around, such as a shotgun for close-range work and a heavy machine gun for more distant engagements, I just don't need to trigger the ability.

Once you finish a single-player mission as Point Man, you have the option of continuing forward in the storyline or playing through it again as Fettel.

Playing as the "ghost" isn't as different as it probably should be. Despite his eldritch nature, he's just as visible to the enemy as any normal corporeal being -- and bullets kill him just as dead.

Yet he's not physical enough to actually pick up a gun and fight back. Instead, in his standard form, he fires bolts of energy. They're not as rapid fire as a gun, but they will kill an enemy with a few shots. And they are far more damaging to mech suits and guys wearing force fields than any of the regular armaments in the game, giving Fettel an almost unfair advantage against some of the tougher enemies.

Speaking of unfair advantages, in place of "bullet time," Fettel can possess enemy soldiers for limited periods. While occupying a body, he can use guns and grenades as if he was regular flesh and blood, and if the body dies, it's no skin off his back. He just defaults back to his regular, spectral self.

In fact, any body he possesses will die in a gruesome explosion of viscera, when it can no longer withstand the otherworldly energies he emits. He can extend his period of possession by collecting the spiritual residue of enemies he's killed, but eventually his vision will darken and the body will go kablooey. He can, of course, possess someone else just as soon as his energy gauge replenishes.

As a result, a decent player can use Fettel in an extremely aggressive manner, charging him headlong into the thick of battle in suicidal rushes and disrupting enemy lines with sudden possessions.

It's almost unfair in comparison with Point Man. Scratch that. It IS unfair in comparison with Point Man. You see, how the story ends depends on who the better "scoring" character was throughout the game. And it's easy to score more with Fettel. So if you want to see Point Man's ending, it behooves you to play through as him before you take control of Fettel.

Or you can play through the story cooperatively -- either online or using the local, split-screen mode -- with one person in control of Point Man and the other Fettel. It's the exact same game as single player, though one additional power of Fettel's can come into play in a tactical way: when in ghost mode, he can "grab" most enemies and hold them helpless in the air, giving Point Man an easy shot.

There are a few other minor aspects to the overall game, such as collecting physic power from certain bodies for points (which can either be hoarded by the player that collected them or shared with his companion). And the point system leads to a "leveling up" system, where the characters gain a few bonuses as they progress. For instance, one of the first such bonuses is the ability to do a sliding melee attack.

And just as in the earlier "F.E.A.R" games, you'll occasionally find vacant mech suits, which you can climb in and pilot to great effect.

I truly enjoy the single-/two-player mode. There's something about the way the enemies keep pressing, with how a moment's carelessness carries a high cost, with how battle almost always rages at a fever pitch. And when it subsides, you sit back, breathe out a long sigh of relief and wonder, how'd I just survive THAT?!

"F.E.A.R. 3" has a multiplayer game too, thought it's not quite the standard stuff as it's built to be played by small units of people, generally up to four players.

"Contractions" is the most familiar mode, as it's extremely similar to the zombie games that have been tacked onto the "Call of Duty" series in recent years. You're attempting to survive successive waves of enemy soldiers that steadily get more dangerous. In between waves, you've got the opportunity to rebuild barricades they've shattered while pursuing you -- a necessity if you're going to keep from being swarmed.

A mode I'll retitle "Effing Run," on the other hand," is extremely original. You're being chased by a Wall of Death created by Alma, and if it touches any of the players, it's game over for everyone. So you've all got to do your best to fight your way through packs of enemy soldiers without breaking stride and make it as a group to the next safe zone.

I think of "Soul King" as a game of "Hungry, Hungry Hippos" turned into a first-person shooter. All the players are Fettel-like ghosts, capable of possessing enemy soldiers. The goal is to possess a soldier, then kill other soldiers and grab their life energy, which scores you points. You also want to steal the energy created by the other players' kills. If you die, you lose points. As you can probably guess, the player with the most points at the end of the round is the winner.

Finally, there's "Soul Survivor." While most of the players are working as a team to survive attacks by the AI-controlled combatants, one is automatically "corrupted" and must try to corrupt the others.

There's also a practice mode that lets you play any of the modes alone in order to learn the lay of the land, though "Soul King" and "Soul Survivor" aren't much fun played that way.

All told, though, the multiplayer is a refreshing change from the standard deathmatch, team deathmatch, etc., mechanics of most other first-person shooters. I'm happy to see they generally thought outside of the box here.

The result: "F.E.A.R. 3" is worth one's time.

"F.E.A.R. 3"
(rendered as "F.3.A.R." on the packaging)
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. (Reviewed on PS3)
Price: $59.99 consoles, $49.99 PC.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: If you are looking for frights, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a pulse-pounding, engaging shooter you can play alone or with a friend, as well as some interesting online action, buy or rent this game.
 

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
Top: Armacham's mercenaries hope to overwhelm Point Man by teleporting in to the battlefield.
Second: Paxton Fettel uses his psychic powers to telekinetically hold an Armacham soldier helpless.

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