BITMAPS 74: FEAR 2 does what other horror games can’t

Bitmaps

Scary Forest

For all the lamenting I’ve done about games losing old school personality and charm, I sure do feel like an old man now, who is repeatedly asking where his glasses are while they innocently ride his pate. Monolith Productions, the fine folks behind Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, No One Lives Forever, Blood, and recently Condemned and F.E.A.R. hold it down. They make fundamentally awesome games, and aren’t afraid to put weird little jokes and offbeat humor in their games. Playing their games always takes me back to that golden age of western gaming when developers treated their games more like postcards collectively wishing gamers were “there” than sterile projects that needed to earn as much money as possible. Upon finishing F.E.A.R. 2, I kept hearing Your sound card works peeerfectly, I wonder why.

 

Heart attack

Hear that? That’s my stomach growling.

Once the sound byte ceased to echo in my ears, I started to ruminate on some of the smarter design decisions in F.E.A.R. 2. There were a number of concessions for the console market I could’ve done without. The giant HUD and brackets surrounding all items were necessary inclusions for people that were reclining on a comfy couch instead of a cramped computer chair. Additionally, the game’s frame of view is much smaller than the first. If you played the first FEAR on the Xbox 360, you probably noticed the game looked sort of fisheye-ish. This looks normal on a PC due to being six inches from the screen instead of six feet.

I used to defend the PC as a gaming platform at levels bordering on irrational. Naturally, such things would have irked me to no extent. Luckily my attitude on such matters has softened a bit (though not being able to re-sell titles activated on Steam is a bit of a kick in the privates). Perhaps a year or two ago this game would have launched me into a rant about PC gaming that nobody would’ve cared to read. Luckily the softening of my temperance has lead to a piece nobody wants to read about the intelligent design in F.E.A.R. 2.

Solutions

Most games seeking to scare players encounter a fundamental conflict in design. For someone to be scared, they must feel helpless and vulnerable. After all, why would you be scared if you felt strong and empowered? This is why people in horror movies never just get a damned pipe and beat the crap out of the guy with the knife. However, in a video game, there’s nothing a player hates more than being helpless. We play games to feel effectual – and convincing a player there’s nothing they can do to any given enemy subtly undermines a player’s enjoyment. Take the ghosts in Silent Hill IV – they were immortal, but more annoying than scary. If they posed a legitimate threat, they would’ve destroyed any enjoyment because players would die constantly.

Clean it, punk!

The sign makes a good point, why aren’t YOU mopping?

F.E.A.R. 2 gives players both effectiveness and helplessness by neatly dividing the gameplay – something for which it has been criticized for in the past. The gameplay consists of segments in which the player can absolutely shred waves upon waves of faceless drones, and then a hall-of-scares segment in which they are tormented by crazy psychobitch Alma. Players cannot harm Alma, and shooting at ghostly apparitions only causes them to disappear. The player is never given any indication that they are harming these forces, merely deferring them slightly. In this manner the player gets to both feel badass when shotgunning a chump’s face off, and panicked when assaulted with bleeding walls.

Not only does this allow Monolith to deliver both sides of the seemingly conflicting gameplay, but also highlight the differences due to their opposing natures. Players go from stapling grunts to the wall with a rail spike-launching gun to encountering an enemy they can’t even shoot, much less kill. Going from an unstoppable killing machine to a tormented little toy is a striking contrast. The converse of that is also true. After going through a segment of the game where a player is battered about, finding some enemies is a great way to relive stress – in that special I’m-going-to-turn-you-into-red-mist way.

Red mist

The game also annoys and then satisfies the player. For the first half of the game, the player is constantly running into a stereotypical ham-fisted military sergeant guy. I don’t remember his name, but he had a crew cut and a cleft chin – and I can’t remember exactly but I wouldn’t be surprised if he perpetually had a cigar in his mouth. We’ll call him Sergeant Bicep. Anyway, Sgt. Bicep is always ordering his guys to attack you, closing doors in front of you, and generally being an all-around dick. Once you finally catch up to this guy, you participate in a close-quarters fight before you blow his head off with his own gun. The game keeps you at arms length from this guy while he acts the biggest chode possible, but once you finally get up to him, you get to wreck him in the most gruesome way possible – very satisfying.

Snake Fist IV

Snake Fist had hair in the first movie – also, I hope this is one of the developers.

I also appreciate Monolith’s restraint in the QTE department. The game is very cutscene-light, and that’s only when using a very liberal application of the term. More conservative interpretations would put the game at having no cutscenes at all. Movement is only taken from the player on a handful of occasions, and button-mashing sequences are always contextually fitting and suitably frightening. While other games have taken to forcing players to hit a button at binary pass/fail segments in mostly non-interactive cutscenes, F.E.A.R. startles you by having Alma jump in your face, all shrieking and hissing. Mashing the melee button is analogous to frantically smacking the girl trying to get her crazy naked body off of you. I bet she smells awful too. I’ll hold certain bitterness in my heart towards Monolith for creating awesome games in the past and not creating sequels for them – no, I don’t care that they didn’t sell, and probably still wouldn’t – but at least they’re still creating great games. F.E.A.R. 2’s eyebrow-raising ending certainly leaves the prospect of another sequel in the air (as well as an awkward morning-after conversation with Alma), so here’s hoping Monolith doesn’t somehow lose the rights to the title before F.E.A.R. 3 comes out.

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