Review: F.E.A.R.

Reviewed on PC.

Do you wish your tactical room clearing shooter was a little more spooky? I have the game for you.

In F.E.A.R., you play as an operative, who is part of an organisation that deals with the supernatural called First Encounter Assault Recon (or F.E.A.R.), who obviously wanted a cool acronym. At the beginning of the game, you are sent to eliminate a telepathic cannibal named Paxton Fettel, whose name sounds too much like a sort of posh meal to be threatening. Fettel has assumed control of an army of clones and assaulted a technology company. Over the course of the game you uncover the company’s dark secrets, and are increasingly pursued by a spooky J-horror girl. The premise has a lot of potential, suggesting a sort of gritty Ghostbusters, but the horror sections are brief and divided up by long stretches of military shootouts. The tone is muddied further by the inclusion of Hong Kong action elements, like bullet time and martial arts moves. If the game indulged a bit in the silliness of this mix it would have been more enjoyable, but it is played completely straight. As a result, it feels like it could have been split into two or three games with more congruent tones: a psychological horror game, a tactical shooter with impressive enemy AI, and a goofy action game with slow motion flying kicks. Some of the story is filled in by listening to people’s answering machines, but unlike the System Shock/Bioshock method of having an audio log play while you explore, you have to stay near the phone, hurting the game’s already poor pacing. The characters are all dull, which is saying something when the villains are a telepathic cannibal and a psychic demon child, and the story as a whole is just not that interesting.

F.E.A.R. regains some goodwill with it’s gameplay. It’s a first person shooter where you take on squads of soldiers that work together rather than single enemies placed around the map. These enemies are notable for their smart AI, which allows them to perform actions like flanking, sneaking, blindfiring, and crawling across the room. The enemies also shout orders and call out what you are doing, which respectively give you an opportunity to respond to their tactics and make encounters more believable. The squads feel like a genuinely challenging and intelligent enemy, particularly on higher difficulties, and so outsmarting them feels very satisfying. The problem is a lot of the game has you fighting the same squads repeatedly, and this can stretch out for long periods of time without any sense of progression. There are several enemies that aren’t copy-pasted supersoldiers – heavies, drones and robots – but these are rarely seen, and soak up way too much damage to be fun. At a few points you fight off supernatural enemies, and I think there should have been more of these skirmishes so the game would inch a little closer to the genre implied by the title. Another element that ratchets up the tedium is the environments. Almost all of the game takes place in either an empty warehouse, or an empty office, and it’s made even worse when you are forced to backtrack through these places. The levels can get so repetitive that I lost a save and was sent several chapters back, but did not realise for a while. If F.E.A.R. was a fully-fledged horror game, setting it in a single office building would create a complimentary feeling of claustrophobia, but shooters often need some sort of variety to keep things fresh, whether it’s new enemies, environments or mechanics.

The weapons are generally enjoyable to use. As well as the standard fare of pistol, SMG, battle and assault rifles, you get a shotgun that feels extremely powerful and occasionally turns foes into sickly red mist. Later on you get access to some more exotic weapons: a nailgun that pins people to walls, a beam cannon that simultaneously incinerates and electrocutes victims, and a sort of revolving cannon. These make gunfights a lot of fun, but having a cannon that causes people to evaporate removes any tension from the horror moments when spooky girl is walking towards you in slow motion. In addition, all the automatic weapons have awful accuracy and recoil, so during many combat encounters I wished I could just have a normal gun that wouldn’t praise the sun the moment I pulled the trigger. On a similar note, the melee attacks are amusing, but are rarely useful, since flinging yourself towards enemies is a good way to efficiently get killed, and so you only do them if you’re getting bored and have a health kit to spare. One other annoyance is the fact that the lean function doesn’t extend far enough, which means you have to expose about half your body when trying to shoot from cover.

F.E.A.R. puts emphasis on visual spectacle to support it’s Hong Kong action stylings. Opening fire will cause dead enemies to ragdoll, sparks to fly, dust clouds to form and broken glass shatter everywhere. The effect is amplified by activating bullet time, which makes the chaos seem almost choreographed and sort of beautiful (maybe not the evaporating people). The blood-soaked psychological sequences are also pretty interesting to see, even though they don’t ever feel threatening.

I did have some fun playing F.E.A.R.; overcoming the early gunfights made me feel like a tactical genius with lightning reflexes, but the experience lost a lot of impact after it started to seem like I was hitting quickload every time I cleared a room. On a technological level, F.E.A.R. is pretty impressive, and the AI outshines most games released since. Ultimately though, I can’t recommend a game that has a relatively short run time, yet feels like it’s dragging.

Recommended? No

Review: XCOM 2

Reviewed on PC.

XCOM 2 is rather unique. There aren’t many games where you can assemble an elite squad consisting of Emperor Palpatine, Arnold Schwarznegger, Bob Ross and Ainsley Harriet, and then send them on missions to destabilise an authoritarian alien regime.

The year is 2035, and Earth is under the control of aliens. In this timeline, XCOM, an organisation of elite soldiers brought together to combat extraterrestrial threats, were quickly overwhelmed by the invasion that took place in 2015. At the beginning of the game, remnants of XCOM recover their commander from captivity and then get to work winding the aliens up via guerilla strikes. On the whole it’s a bit more gritty than it’s predecessor; the voice acting and writing is more straight-faced, but I quite liked the slight cheesiness of the original Bradford, Vahlen and Shen.

Gameplay-wise, XCOM 2 is pretty much the same gripping mix of high-risk turn-based combat and base management, with a few additions to justify a new instalment. The combat has more of a focus on playing offensively and taking risks, as a large number of missions have a pretty strict turn limit. In the mid-to-late game, this has the intended effect of putting a reasonable amount of extra pressure on you, but early on, the turn counts can make some missions seem overly punishing and sometimes almost impossible. The early game encounters are particularly cruel in the fact that enemies can have access to mind control and can make soldiers panic, and your rookies have little chance to resist. The first months are the most difficult, so be prepared for several restarts while you learn the ropes.

The faster pacing is matched with a stronger emphasis on close range combat. Among others, rangers are equipped with a powerful sword, heavies now wield grenade launchers and snipers are arguably more effective using pistols. These weapons are crucial in dealing with numerous new and redesigned enemies that will charge at your troops in the hopes of smacking them with a stun lance (stun lancers have been added to the list of enemies that can fuck themselves). Base management is a bit different from before, in that you move about the world map and scan for supplies in the time between combat engagements. While everything in this part has a parallel in Enemy Unknown, it took me a bit more time to understand how everything worked. Weighing up the pros and cons of launching a mission is something I had to do more, and I let many alien attacks go ahead because Arnie was in the hospital or I would rather fly in the opposite direction to pick up supplies. One area that has been massively expanded is the character customisation. Now you can have your soldiers look more varied than broad male #1-#5 and sensibly dressed female, and it even goes as far as to let you pick a personality type and write a biography about their love of hallucinogenic drugs.

One of the big selling points of the game is the fact it has full modding support, which allowed my soldiers to spurt random quotes about the dark side of the Force in response to my order to move. Many mods expand the character customisation further, with plenty of character voicepacks, weapons and armour. There are minor tweaks, and ones to replace your soldiers with giant pigeons. Of course, a bunch of mods just aim to deal with the flaws in the game. Speaking of which…

XCOM 2 hasn’t fixed problems present in it’s predecessor, and has thrown in a few fresh ones for good measure. The game is rife with technical issues. The one you will be dealing with most is how much of a strain the game is on your hardware. My frame rate was hugely inconsistent with and without V-sync, and lowered settings didn’t really improve things. In a turn based game, frame rate issues aren’t too much of a problem, but are still unpleasant. Another huge issue is the amount of time wasted. The load times are excruciating, and you’ll see a plethora of them, especially if you quickload regularly to erase your stupid moves. Many times in combat there will be an awkward pause between actions, and I have to wonder how many hours of my current fifty are just the points where the computer took five seconds before going ‘Oh shit it’s my turn, sorry.’ The camera is still a little clumsy to use at times, especially when trying to look inside buildings and aiming grenades. There are also points when the camera will be wrenched away from you to focus on something that can cause you to misclick if it happens at the wrong time. Similarly, your control is restricted while the scientist or engineer looks at something and says ‘That’s interesting,’ but in the form of a much longer speech. The worst example is when Central Officer Bradford grabs the camera and reminds you that letting civilians die is bad with the same line you’ve heard six times before. There are also clipping issues, times when someone will shoot through walls without a line of sight and a few occurrences when a model would flash out of existence.

A more minor complaint is that I don’t feel the soundtrack is as strong as the one from Enemy Unknown. It uses a similar blend of ambient, electronic and orchestral elements, but aside from a few moments, it didn’t seem as memorable.

Ultimately, XCOM 2 felt like an expansion to Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within, and I enjoyed most of my time with it. The games in this series just have a really satisfying loop of tense combat and thoughtful management that make them hard to put down. The modding support and more in-depth character customisation add a lot of value to the engaging core gameplay, but the numerous technical issues and some points where things can feel a little unbalanced brings it’s recommendation down from highly to an ‘If you liked Enemy Unknown, get it, if you haven’t played Enemy Unknown, play it, it’s great.’

 

Recommended? Yes