Ever since I played my first title from Monolith Studios, I've been hooked on their quirky, unique and incredibly well designed games. From the spastic charms of games like the anime-inspired Shogo or the 60's spy motif of No One Lives Forever, to the hair-raising tension of games like Condemned and the original F.E.A.R., Monolith has always seemed like a studio who has the first person perspective mastered, and the market cornered on great shooter experiences.
Despite my love for all things Monolith, I have to say that F.E.A.R. 2, Project Origin is something of a let down. It's definitely not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, it's just something of a disappointment considering the how awesome the original F.E.A.R. was. I personally consider F.E.A.R. to be one of the greatest shooters ever constructed, holding it's own against such classics as Half-Life, Doom, and Halo.
Project Origin begins roughly thirty minutes before the end of the original game. This time instead of a silent protagonist with no name, you'll play as Michael Beckett, who is also a silent protagonist with zero personality. At the end of the first level you'll experience the massive explosion that marked the end of the first game. Soon thereafter, the creepy little girl named Alma and supernatural elements quickly make their return and all hell breaks loose. However, while the first game's storytelling was purposely vague and confusing, this title takes a much more cohesive approach. Most of the storyline is revealed through written intelligence reports strewn about the levels, but reveal staggering depth to the storyline. I dare not reveal much here, but throughout the game you learn much about Alma's past, how she became the terrifying spectre who stalks you throughout, and lots of very cool back story that was one of the few things missing from the original game. It's therefore a shame that the improved storytelling is let down by a short and wholly unsatisfying and ambiguous ending that clearly shows a sequel is in the offing.
Gameplay wise, it's hard to pinpoint what exactly has made Project Origin to fall short of the standards of its superlative brethren. On the surface, Project Origin follows the formula set forth by the original pretty closely; especially it's mixture of balletic shooter mayhem and creepy horror elements.
The shooting mechanics have carried over well for this second go around. Players will navigate the rather linear levels, shooting dozens of replica soldiers, all the while wield a plethora of cool weapons like a napalm cannon, an automatic nail-gun, assault rifles, shotguns, and a laser, just to name a few. F.E.A.R. 2 has an awesome arsenal of weapons, one that ensures that you'll never be bored due to a lack of interesting weapons.
Of course, the well known hook of the F.E.A.R. series is the ability to slow down time in order to turn the tables on your very powerful enemies. With a press of a button, time will slow to a crawl, but your ability to move and shoot will not be diminished, giving you a great advantage over your enemies. It's very important to make good use of this constantly recharging skill, because your enemies exhibit strong AI and the firefights running at full speed are extremely challenging and fast.
It bears mentioning though, that the AI doesn't feel as strong as the last time around. The first game had shockingly smart enemies, ones that would utilize the level design against you in extremely cunning ways. In the original I was consistently flanked by enemies while I had the others pinned down. While the AI this time around still knows how to take cover and doesn't do anything blatantly stupid, you'll never feel truly outsmarted and outmanoeuvred as you did the first time.
Despite the good AI, Project Origin is significantly easier than your average shooter. I played the game on the hardest difficulty right off the bat and didn't encounter any truly tough sections until the very last level. The average shooter fan should definitely consider starting on a higher difficulty.
Another disappointing aspect of Project Origin is the environments. The original game featured the office building level, that other office building level, a warehouse level, oh, and who could forget that office level? In this regard, Project Origin's environments are far more varied and interesting, but only when compared to its brethren. The level design here doesn't hold a candle to those found in games like Half-Life and Halo. Here you'll go to a hotel, an elementary school, a hospital, and a couple of laboratories. It's all expected. The levels also seem more linear than before, with not as much room to explore and play with.
It's also disappointing that the environments are not nearly as interactive as they should be. Items in the environment can be toppled over for cover and such, but there is a distinct lack of destructibility. Monitors can survive onslaughts on bullets without a scratch, you can't knock payphones off their hooks, and you can't topple cameras on a simple tri-pod. After experiencing the level of physics programming in other shooters, it becomes more difficult to maintain immersion with the environments how they are.
There are a few moments in which you'll get to enter some powered armour suits, which do a nice job of breaking up the corridor shooter portions. When you're in these suits, you have double barrelled chainguns, heat sensors, and lock on missile systems. The environments seem more destructible during these sections, and the action gets harried and intense whenever you enter the powered armour.
As far as the fear in its namesake, the game is surprisingly tame. There are certainly a few moments that may get under your skin and a decent shock or two, but Project Origin is surprisingly bland, especially when directly compared to its predecessor. Maybe it's just that the creepy black haired girl motif is way over done at this point, or maybe I'm desensitized by games like Silent Hill and Dead Space, or maybe it's the fact that you're a ridiculously powerful super soldier that kills the tension, but I had no trouble sleeping after playing Project Origin, something I can't claim after playing the first game. The game is about as scary as an English literature exam. If you've played the first one, then it's as scary as an exam you've already studied for.
Multiplayer is similarly lacklustre. It runs fine and the servers are nicely populated as of this writing, but it's all very bland. Gone are the cool team based modes from the original that allowed teams to manipulate time based on their performances. Here you have you average deathmatch, team deathmatch, and a smattering of other modes. The best is one called Failsafe, that owes more than a little bit to Counter-Strike. Worse still, every time you finish a match, the game dumps you back to the title screen, instead of letting you stay in the party you just played against. Overall, the multiplayer is certainly serviceable, and good for a bit of entertainment, but can't hold a candle to the heavy hitters on Xbox Live or PlayStation network, despite the presence of some very cool weapons from the single player. You're also given the ability to customize your own character's weapons, armour levels and such, making your online character play to your tastes.
Visually is where Project Origin truly shines. This is one of the best looking shooters seen yet on a console, bested by only a few select titles. The frame stays constant throughout, despite the loads of particle effects throughout. Textures are detailed and the architecture complex and exciting. Weapons are exquisitely modeled and the lighting effects really help the tension. Also, few things in gaming look sweeter than watching a grenade explode in slow motion and give off a bubble of destruction. The greatest visual achievement is the animation of Beckett himself. This game is certainly an accomplishment in first person animation. Every action corresponds with the animation you would expect if you were committing the action yourself, and even the camera shakes and tilts as it should. The well done first person perspective really helps the level of immersion in the game.
The audio is another area in which Project Origin is a resounding success. Voice acting is uniformly strong throughout the title, which is helped by some solid writing. Weapons all sound powerful and exciting, without drifting into excessive bombast. The audio truly comes into its own during the horror sequences, upon which you are assaulted from all angles by frightening sounds. This game definitely becomes scarier when played with a good surround system.
Did I have fun playing Project Origin? Definitely. So will you if you decide to give the spin. I just wish I loved it as much as the original F.E.A.R. It's just not the shooter revolution that the original game was, but to be fair, few games released in the four years since have achieved that status either. It's a solid eight hour shooter experience that likely won't hold your attention for too long after you beat it. At any rate, it's nice to have Alma sneak up on me again.