Whilst Alfred Hitchcock may argue that "there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it" Monolith studios appear to be all for the bang. Ever since those mutant dogs jumped out the windows and munched on Chris Redfield's ankles computer games have regularly assumed that being scared means jumping out of your seat. Games such as the early Silent Hill titles largely take the opposite route, first establishing atmosphere then slowly building the tension via relatively subtle cues. Opinion becomes divided and game designers seem to be required to make a choice: sudden horrors or slow-burning terrors?
The F.E.A.R (First Encounter Assault Recon) series takes several cues from the Resident Evil-school of survival horror gaming, where graphic images and sudden shocks take priority over steady pacing and slow-building apprehension. Being a first person shooter seems to dictate that a significant portion of the game be constructed around action; as such the guns are required to have (relatively) plentiful ammo, and the adversaries large in number. Whilst this makes the action all the more entertaining, it makes the player the most threatening thing in the game-world and the monsters should be scared of you, not the other way around. These contradictions between action and horror suggest that there has to be a compromise, with both elements at risk of being undercooked. So can F.E.A.R 2 merge these two opposing forces and deliver exhilarating action alongside genuinely frightening moments?
On the surface, F.E.A.R takes influence from classic eastern horror conventions, with the main antagonist (Alma) sharing more than a few similarities with characters from Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge). Scratch beneath the exterior though and both character and plot take more after the western remakes than the original. This copy of a copy seems to have lost some impact in the process.
F.E.A.R 2 continues more or less from where its predecessor left off, integrating the finale from the first game into the overture of the second. As a new protagonist (Sgt. Michael Beckett) you and your team are sent to retrieve Genevieve Aristide (a key figure from F.E.A.R) and place her in protective custody. As events move forward you become entangled in a well-travelled plot involving super-soldiers, physic shenanigans and a large number of items found on the action-horror plot checklist. Without playing the original game, it becomes rather difficult to follow the plot and much of the exposition is revealed via text data files collected throughout the game. Collecting these files is not a requirement and unless you're a meticulous side-quest hunter, most will go uncollected and the plot is best understood by visiting Wikipedia.
Both the visuals and the audio are of good quality (without requiring time travel to purchase a new system) but nothing really shines when compared to other 2009 FPS titles such as Modern Warfare 2 or Fallout 3. There are a few moments where the atmosphere successfully builds up the fear factor. As Beckett experiences nightmarish visions the psychotropic visual effects can be genuinely immersive and the game really comes alive. Unfortunately, most of these moments gradually become increasingly formulaic, creating cracks that allow the horror to slowly drip away.
Gameplay does offer some fun (if not exactly groundbreaking) features. The time-slowing mechanic allows for some wonderfully excessive bullet spraying, and gives you that extra moment to construct highly gratifying headshots without demanding expert marksmanship. This mechanic backfires slightly in terms of the horror design though, as Becket's near-super human ability reduces most encounters to outright slaughters as you gleefully blast your way through anything that bleeds. The health system proudly defies the all consuming Call-of-duty-system of regenerating health, in favour of traditional first-aid packs and armour. However, whilst this does support a more conservative and apprehensive shooting style, the abundance of health and ammo (on medium difficulty) means that a mid-level gamer should rarely have less than full everything - which again reduces the threat any enemy can pose and consequently squelches the actual fear (of F.E.A.R).
AI works well overall, with enemies capable of flanking manoeuvres and utilising cover effectively. Most adversaries react quickly and shoot accurately and are also proficient in evasive movements, making combat without the time-slowing mechanic rather challenging (and ultimately very rewarding).
A bumpy movement mechanic and uninspiring weapon system provide some small additional niggles and it is clear that since we're dealing with the supernatural, realistic shooting and strategy are not a priority for this game. However it should not be said that the game is not fun to play, and whilst not in possession of the vice-like grip Half-life 2 had on our attentions, F.E.A.R 2 should have more than enough going on to keep you playing until you reach the end.
So merging survival horror with FPS action remains for F.E.A.R 2 an unconquered territory, with the two elements experienced alternately rather than together. Overall, recommendation of this game ultimately depends on your personal preference towards both action games and the survival horror genre. If you're looking for accessible shooters and sudden shocks then F.E.A.R 2 should scratch that particular itch. If however you require steady pacing, find greater terror in the anticipation or prefer more tactical combat, this may not be the game for you.