How do you make a co-op game scary? That's the question looming over Day 1 Studios, the developer behind the upcoming shooter F.E.A.R. 3. Having taken the helm of this supernatural action franchise from original developer Monolith, Day 1 is out to maintain the series' trademark horror elements while building a story campaign around the concept of two players unfurling a paranormal conspiracy side by side.
The notion of the cooperative first-person shooter is nothing new. In fact, it's a feature that's very nearly become a staple of the genre at this point. But for a horror game, it's an entirely different story. These games are built around the uneasiness that one player feels moving ever alone through dimly lit corridors, foggy forests, or whatever other locations disaster/aliens/zombies have struck. What Day 1 is aiming to do with F.E.A.R. 3 is take that uneasiness and uncertainty that a solo player feels and apply it to a fragile cooperative alliance.
F.E.A.R. 3 stars Point Man and Paxton Fettel, which are two names that won't mean much at all if you haven't played the first F.E.A.R. If not, let's bring you up to speed: These two are brothers with a rather rough history between them. Point Man was the first game's protagonist, a supersoldier operating under orders to kill Fettel, a telepathic wizard using his gift to slaughter innocent people. Despite being kin, Point Man carries out his orders and shoots Fettel dead. But that was the original. Things are a little different now.
In F.E.A.R. 3, Fettel returns as a ghostly figure haunting his brother's every move. He occupies a spooky middle ground between companion and antagonist, seeking help from Point Man to reach Alma, the mysterious female figure at the heart of the entire F.E.A.R. story. The reasons are uncertain, but it's nonetheless a setup that offers an interesting diversion from the usual cooperative structure. Not only is there an obvious tension between the two characters, but Fettel's powers and ghostly condition also make for a markedly different gameplay experience from the one to be had by his brother.
Those playing as Point Man should find the experience to be largely similar to the last two games, as you use a variety of military-issue weaponry and the power to slow time to deal with supernatural forces running rampant in an urban setting. New in F.E.A.R. 3 is a sticky cover system that maintains the first-person perspective as you snap in and out of cover. You'll use a single button for vaulting up and over to the other side of a cover object when swarms of enemies suddenly sneak up behind you. Then there's Fettel. Not only does the player assuming control of Fettel view a screen much more saturated in an eerie reddish hue, but he or she also has an entirely different skill set. Fettel can throw blasts of telekinetic energy to toy with enemies or toss them up into the air for a temporary stun. He can also possess people, taking control of enemies to assume their means of movement and attacks.
In his undead state, Fettel is capable of seeing things that Point Man can't see. Certain doors and passageways are only visible to the person playing as Fettel, and it's up to him or her to share this information with the other player. In the short term, this allows one player to take a different route through the level from the other, but we're not quite sure what the long-term consequences are if one co-op teammate decides to keep the fruits of these hidden routes to him or herself for the long haul. What we saw of the game suggests that the two players have little choice but to resolve their differences in light of the enemy soldiers trying to shoot both of them to death, lest they go at it alone against demonic beasts like the scavengers that come scurrying from dark corners as wild, possessed animals with no regard for brotherly disputes.
Like F.E.A.R. 2 before it, F.E.A.R. 3 has certain moments that will encourage you to temporarily trade in spooky on-foot treks through the usual paranormal bloodshed in favor of something a little bit more visceral. We refer here, of course, to the previous game's mech suit sequences. Rather than being the gameplay equivalent of a nice little reward after a tough chapter as they were in F.E.A.R. 2--what Monolith called a "palette cleanser"--mech suit combat sequences in F.E.A.R. 3 require more alertness and judicious use of ammunition. We were shown a battle with the two brothers in their own mech suits up against a single attack helicopter, and the chopper managed to be a formidable foe despite being outnumbered. From the looks of it, these mech sequences are a more central part of the game than they were in the previous game.
We like the idea of a game developer exploring co-op as something besides a basket of hugs and trust exercises-- something a little more uneasy and uncertain. Will F.E.A.R. 3 live up to that intriguing notion? We should have a better idea of how it all comes together as we get closer to F.E.A.R. 3's fall North American/spring Australian release date.