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.
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 With Alma now a known quantity, paranormal secrecy has been replaced by a series of near-cliche bump-in-the-night scares and murky visions that do the unthinkable where a horror-themed game is concerned: They become predictable.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.
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.
Your instruments of destruction aren't spectacular, but they're varied enough to make shooting a pleasure, even when the flow of time takes its normal path. The two shotguns are particular delights; they feel weighty and dispatch most enemies with a single bloody blast to the noggin. The hammerhead is another delight, filling your foes with neon barbs and potentially affixing them to the wall behind. However, shooter fans should consider playing at higher difficulty levels, given that F.E.A.R. 2 feels noticeably easier than its predecessor.
The AI can offer occasional challenges, particularly in levels featuring intersecting corridors in which human enemies will flank you, use cover effectively, and tumble to the side should they find themselves gazing down the barrel of your automatic shotgun. They will also tip over furniture or other objects and use them as cover (a trick you can use, though will likely never need). However, enemy behavior is inconsistent; a table-tipping guard may not follow through, running away from his improvised cover rather than ducking behind it. Some enemies will blindly fire from behind low obstacles but may also do so when in plain view. The best adversaries are those not governed by rules of human behavior, such as ethereal foes that take shape as you enter reflex time. And in some cases, your enemies are so visually elusive that you're better off finding a way out of the dark environs that spawn them.
The most notable additions to the formula are a couple of armored-suit sequences in which you climb into a giant metal mech and riddle your attackers with machine-gun spray and rockets. These sequences aren't tough--you're a powerful death machine plowing down your weakling foes--but the mech controls nicely and you'll be treated to some impressive displays of environmental destruction and general chaos. You can move through these areas on foot if you like, so these levels do offer a bit of replay value, though you should take great pains to wreak fun robotic havoc when given the possibility. You'll also take control of the turret atop the squad's armored vehicle, but this weapon isn't all that enjoyable to use, and these bits feel like filler.
F.E.A.R. 2's multiplayer component also feels like filler, and though we've come to expect online play from most of our shooters, there's nothing special about this suite of lackluster options. For fans of the original, the most notable omission is that of the slow-motion modes, which brought reflex time into an online arena and made for some clever and enjoyable showdowns. Without these modes, F.E.A.R. 2 feels a bit hollow online, serving up helpings of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, a couple of Conquest variants, Capture the Flag, and a mode called Failsafe that owes a large debt to Counter-Strike. The best of these is Armored Front, in which a player on each team can hop into one of those robotic exoskeletons while his or her teammates capture control points. Otherwise, the shooting mechanics don't translate as well to a multiplayer environment, and the by-the-numbers levels are unimpressive. You have the ability to customize your loadout and level up in ranked matches, but this just isn't enough to breathe life into the musty online play.
You'll get the occasional heebie-jeebies from F.E.A.R. 2, but the magic of the first game hasn't been re-created here. It’s true that some of the changes in the new game seem like they were intended to address criticism of the first F.E.A.R.: tedious and claustrophobic environments, lack of enemy variety, and so on. Sadly, though these changes were made, the resulting sequel, while fun and well-crafted, seems to have lost sight of the strengths that made its predecessor so unique. Nevertheless, playing F.E.A.R. 2 is a worthwhile way to pass the time while we wait for the inevitable next installment.