Objectively Lukewarm, Subjectively Fun.

19 Feb

vgd_fear2_01

Playing through a game is a subjective experience.  Everyone will do something slightly different: go a different way, use something different.  These series of seemingly random choices have an enormous impact on how the game ends up being played, creating an intense moment for me and a lame moment for someone else.  This is what Left 4 Dead’s director AI amplifies.  Maybe I used a health pack too early which made it incredible to barely survive a fight, while someone else was just cruising through with full health.  

I played FEAR 2 on hard, and I’m quite sure it influenced my opinion of the game — when something is hard to overcome, even if it’s objectively badly designed, it feels great to overcome it. Your lukewarm, scrupulous playthrough might have revealed a game that needs to improve on much, fails to some degree at many of the features it had hoped to attain.  And that’s all true.  But in my playthrough something made me miss some of the problems — fun.  Something went really right or really wrong with what was intended, and I was plunged into gunfights you didn’t have.  I didn’t jump when you did, or I jumped when you didn’t, is what it comes down to.  To that end I’m not hoping to convince anyone of anything, but this is what it was like for me.  It might not be that way if I play it again.  It probably won’t.  And I’ll start to notice all the problems — something I did that provoked me to write this.

FEAR 2 is a slow build.  FEAR 2 has worse level design than the original.  FEAR 2 has worse weapons than its predecessor.  FEAR 2 has less tactical enemy encounters than the first.  The story delivery is meh.  The cover system is useless.  At first glance this game seems broken. But what FEAR 2 does do is change a laughable horror plot into a chilling science fiction thread through a great story delivered in the worst way possible.  It uses excellent  visual storytelling to paint scenes, and delivers rare moments of gaming zen from within a quagmire of generic, frantically reactionary gunfights. Playing through just over half of the first game what I got out of it was this: clone army + tortured little girl = juvenile horror videogame plot.  There were startling scare mechanics in place and deeply terrifying ‘cutscenes’ placed throughout the levels —  I was even impressed by the enemy soldiers’ dialogue — but the story was so stupid it became less scary.  The game itself was fun, and I logged quite a few hours into multiplayer (which actually had modes that leveraged the game mechanics, like a free for all where one player controls the slow-mo).  FEAR 2 did a list of things right.

The Story

While the way in which FEAR 2 connected its narrative to the first FEAR (using the first game’s ending as the first big plot point) was impressive, the game otherwise seemed to deliver the same sort of slightly disappointing experience.  At least the gunfights were fun, and it looked great, so I carried on. The first three quarters of the game are just OK.  I slowly absorbed the story through the little bits of text items scattered throughout the levels.  Alma (the little horror girl) is the daughter of the guy who started up Armacham.  Yawn.  I’ve never seen the guy, so I don’t feel emphatic at all about this strange father/daughter relationship.  Until I found one specific piece of text, then the story changed for me.  This whole project was an attempt to accelerate human evolution, artificially engineering Alma into another species which would eventually replace the inferior species: us. So now it made sense.  I had to glean the information from a stupid collectable item and just read it (some narrative delivery, Monolith), but now it was a real story.  Alma’s father didn’t do anything terribly unusual.  He really believed he would be giving his daughter the chance at being the next step in human evolution.  He didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  It was at this point I just made myself forget about the whole ‘psychic commander, clone soldier’ story.

The Level Design/Visual Storytelling

Over three quarters of the levels in this game are forgettable little rat mazes with a few encounter zones.  But there is a point later in the game where the level design becomes inspired.  As you move into the epicenter of the nuclear blast, everything changes — pacing and encounters included.   There is a point where you’re walking down a street, and at the end of the street the world drops off, ala Silent Hill.  It just drops straight down.  It took me a few seconds to realize what this was, and that this was the correct way to go.  So you start down this precipice, actually struggling with the new vertical environment, trying to find your way down.  

As you move further down you look up to see a wall of smoke in the distance, swirling into a massive mushroom cloud.  When you look down you stare into the brown dusty abyss, and some sort of creaking bus or tram car detaches, skids down the crater, and disappears before it touches the bottom. There are no enemies.  This is ground zero.  The flickering ethereal forms of the people killed in the explosion wander through the wreckage in crowds and stare at the mushroom cloud, as if their tortured minds remain to lament the destruction of their bodies — Alma’s anger does not permit them to leave, they suffer with her. Eventually you reach a ‘science facility’.  You fight up and down a tram screaming down a dim tunnel before finally engaging the emergency brakes and being thrown to the very bottom of the facility.  After the tram fight I couldn’t stop seeing the Half-Life influence, intentional or not, that made this underground compound ominous.  This place seemed to me like another Black Mesa.  And like Black Mesa, the best part for me was escaping assassination.

The Zen Encounters

This is all thanks to one enemy: the invisible replicant, err, ninja.  Besides the quick and kind of cheap mutant freaks that crawl on all fours and jump at you, the ninjas are one of the only enemies designed to kick your ass without mercy.  On Hard they will kill you in about two hits, they’re almost completely invisible, will hunt you in packs, and as I found out for myself, will kindly electrocute you should you resort to bashing them in melee.  They will jump down from some place over your head, somersaulting back and forth dodging gunfire and leaping back to avoid grenades.  Sometimes they will even flip over you and execute you from behind. In one particular instance I was standing on a large lift as it, well, lifted up.  On its own kind of a stupid thing — why not just take a ladder, what is this lift for?  But as I was asking myself that question I thought I saw something.  I turned around, saw a pair of red eyes and a shimmering Predator outline, and died succinctly.  

I discovered they actually spawned on top of a tall gate that sat at the final destination of the lift, and my strategy became to throw an incendiary grenade at the top of the gate so I could make out some of the assassins when the fire outlined them.  Epic games of cat and mouse ensued as I led them around the facility (I had no health packs and the lowest life left you can have, and was saved to the checkpoint), backing myself into corners and looking for a shimmer as they tracked me.  A figure would appear above me and to my left, disappear behind something, then seconds later would flip down to my right and attack me. This is a game that allowed me to be stalked by what amount to Predators, and I am extremely grateful.  It’s just perplexing why they only give you an encounter like this once or twice.

The Bad Ending

You know an ending has failed when it doesn’t live up to a player’s expectations.  I don’t want to ruin the situation that takes place, because it is kind of neat, but with the use of visual imagery and the way the plot seems to be turning, the way the story ends is unacceptable.

In Conclusion

But still, this is one of the best single-player shooters I’ve played — ever.  FEAR 1 was fun but it wasn’t a good ride; it made a better multiplayer game.  FEAR 2 is all about the experience, and while it does a patchwork job of it, it still manages to come together.  What’s surprising is that lots of bad design decisions actually provide lots of fun.  In what’s becoming an era of over-designed game experiences (Prince of Persia, Mirror’s Edge), FEAR 2 is a welcomed ‘generic’ shooter with its bar-health system and ‘throw-you-into-a-room-full-of-badguys’ mentality.  An old shooter updated for the console generation, is what it is.

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