With F.E.A.R. 2, murderous moppet Alma Wade joins the ranks of horror’s “repeat offenders” and moves from a one-hit wonder to a franchise villain. “But Carl,” you correct, “Alma was already the villainess in two F.E.A.R. expansions, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate.” Well, according to the guys at Monolith, those two expansions were handled by Sierra, and thus are not part of the “true” F.E.A.R. canon. So nyeah...
Ignoring those hours you put into those two expansions, F.E.A.R. 2 runs slightly parallel to the final moments of the first game, where a reactor meltdown levels the city of Auburn. You play Michael Becket, a Delta Force operative assigned with taking Armacham president Genevieve Aristide into protective custody. After fighting off the Black Ops unit sent by Armacham’s board of directors to take out Aristide (thus burying the whole Alma Wade mess) and witnessing the destruction of Auburn, Becket and the rest of his squad are revealed to be pawns in Aristide’s scheme to re-contain the newly freed Alma, with Becket’s strong telesthetic signature being the homing beacon that Alma is relentlessly drawn to. There’s really not much beyond that, but the delivery of additional story elements via items scattered around the levels add some much-welcomed thematic elements that reminded me of movies like Patrick and Akira, in addition to the much-lauded J-horror themes that made its predecessor so infamous.
Alma, however, has evolved between games. No longer the pissed-off projection of a woman who has been in a medically-induced coma since she was 8 (hence the childlike appearance), Alma is instead a different type of terror: a nude, emaciated woman who simply will not take “no” for an answer. Despite her horrific appearance and relentless stalking of Becket, however, Alma manages to draw out the emotion that the best monsters are able to: sympathy. Like Frankenstein’s Monster before her, Alma is not driven by evil, but by confusion. She was exploited by Armacham and her own father, forced to carry her clone children to term in order to create better commanders for a psychic army. Sure, when she pops up to try and do god-only-knows-what to you, it’s pretty scary, but there’s a sort of sadness to all of it, as if not even Alma herself understands what she’s doing. Even her final act against you, which is incredibly disturbing on so many levels, bears a strange weight with it as if this is not her will, but will imposed upon her. There’s even a tenderness to it, which makes you question who the real monster was in all of this.
The strange headiness of the Alma subplot dovetails wonderfully with the game’s balls to the wall action. Combat against the scores of Replica and Black Ops soldiers is a gloriously frantic affair, a brutal ballet of blood and bullets that seems like a strange match to J-horror frights but somehow works on its own level. The tight controls are a great complement with the game’s handful of traditional weapons (SMG, pistols, assault rifles) and smattering of nontraditional weapons (lasers, pulse rifles) to take out both the typical enemies and the new supernatural foes, which bring F.E.A.R.’s horror angle front and center. The worst of which are the Abominations, mutated mistakes of the Armacham Corporation that are like a cross between Condemned’s crazed hobos and a spider monkey.
All of this is conveyed through the latest iteration of Monolith’s LithTech engine, which never slows down or hiccups, no matter how many particles, sparks, bullets, and debris are flying. Lighting is gorgeous, and character animation is smooth, although the textures get a little muddy here and there. Where the engine really flexes its muscles, however, is in its plentiful use of onscreen effects. Industry standards like depth of field are joined by features like dynamic ambient occlusion, realtime textured volume rendering, and slew of other terms whose names confuse and frighten me. What you need to know is that the game looks gorgeous, and its plentiful use of these effects helps elevate it into a much more convincing experience, especially in the numerous Alma-fueled hallucinations the game uses to unsettle the player.
While F.E.A.R. 2 may not be the ideal “horror” game (after all, there’s something about wielding a shoulder mounted rocket launcher and being able to slow down time that takes away that feeling of helplessness that great horror gives you), its unique mishmash of themes, gorgeous effects, and completely insane action make it completely worth the money.