The image of a pasty-skinned, greasy-haired young girl has become an iconic one in horror films like The Ring, and the original F.E.A.R. introduced a similar figure with great success. Of course, that game gave its ghostly visions a chilling context, drawing you into the unnerving story of a paranormal prodigy named Alma and the horrific suffering to which she was subjected. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin returns to this fertile universe, but rather than scrutinize even darker reaches of the soul, it merely skims the surface, offering up a series of eerie visions without delivering a good mystery to bind them together. The good news for shooter fans is that the bullet-blasting core of the experience is sound, propelling you forward with enough intensity to keep the single-player campaign engaging. Most of what's here has been done better before, but the unspectacular elements have been stitched into an enjoyably moody first-person shooter that relies on rock-solid mechanics rather than true inspiration.
Blood is good. Blood in slow-mo is awesome.
After a short exposition, F.E.A.R. 2 picks up where the original left off--with a bang. The city is in tatters, and as Michael Becket of Delta Force, it is up to you and your squadmates to capture the elusive Genevieve Aristide, president of the nefarious Armacham Technology Corporation. Too much description would risk spoiling the game's few surprises, which are better experienced than narrated, though as it happens, there are few enigmas to unravel. F.E.A.R. 2's story paints itself into a corner, offering very little new to players already familiar with the Project Origin referred to in the title, and nothing compelling enough to wrap newcomers into its fold. With Alma now a known quantity, paranormal secrecy has been replaced by a series of near-cliche bump-in-the-night scares and murky visions that do the unthinkable where a horror-themed game is concerned: They become predictable.
Because the pacing and story layout of the game can be a bit predictable at times, F.E.A.R. 2's real scares come from its atmosphere--and this actually works, sometimes. Expect to jump out of your seat on occasion, when your flashlight flickers and ghostly visages surround you, or when staccato orchestral chords signal the emergence of abominations as they break free from their confining cells. Other attempts at scares just seem stale, given that the game's pacing and level design foreshadow these encounters, therefore emasculating the necessary sense of surprise. However, the excellent sound design is never to blame. A variety of creaks and groans gives ebb and flow to the sense of tension, and musical swells and increasingly hectic clatters and clangs will get your pulse pounding when needed. Unfortunately, the visuals don't paint a picture dour enough to match. Some areas are shrouded with moody environmental shadows, in which light and dark contrast to excellent effect. In other levels, the lack of ambient lighting and accompanying silhouettes are noticeable, and the surrounding frights just feel flaccid. The PS3 version in particular suffers from some rather unfortunate aliasing and occasional dips in frame rate, which further detracts from the atmosphere.
The level design also falls victim to a fair bit of predictability, though to F.E.A.R. 2's credit, you'll break away from the endless office corridors of the original and journey through a greater variety of environments. These areas are usually just as claustrophobic, but they won't often deliver that spine-tingling fear of the specters lurking beyond the reach of your flashlight. Trekking through the rubble of decaying city streets is a good change of pace, but the ultraconvenient manner in which the debris holds you to your narrow path is a familiar design ploy. Similarly, there's no more excitement to be found in F.E.A.R. 2's same-old subway than that of any other game. It's at its best when it leaves these stale tropes behind and builds on its roots as a corridor shooter, such as in a nail-biting sojourn through the halls of an elementary school that hides unspeakable horrors. Entering a dusky music classroom to find a hideous mutant pounding on the keys of a piano with abandon is a singular moment, and the ensuing battles are ripe and exhilarating reminders of the series' explosive origins.
This is a malpractice suit waiting to happen.
Those same inhuman atrocities will spawn clones while emitting ear-splitting, disorienting roars, and others scurry about at super speeds--though as it happens, you've got a helpful skill at your disposal that helps manage nimble and sluggish foes alike. Like the protagonist of F.E.A.R., you can activate reflex time, which slows the action to a crawl and lets you battle your enemies in a bullet-time ballet. You've seen a similar mechanic a lot by now, but it's skillfully done here. Grenade explosions create impressive visual distortions, bullets leave an airstream in their wake, and spoken dialogue and sound effects grind to a muffled crawl. Landing headshots in reflex time is particularly enjoyable and gives F.E.A.R. 2's gruesome levels of violence a temporary starring role. Foes erupt in red gushers, staining the walls with blood and flailing around in their final moments, an effect made even more effective by robust (and occasionally oversensitive) rag-doll animations.