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Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC - PlayStation 3 version reviewed
I really, really want to love F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. In many ways, it's a perfect sequel, taking all the things we loved about F.E.A.R, fixing many of the aspects that we didn't and adding new features and an extra layer of visual polish to enhance the whole experience. Unfortunately, it's not the sort of game that inspires such a strong emotional response. It's a likeable game and frequently enjoyable. It's a sequel that fans of F.E.A.R. can buy without too much concern. All the same, it's hard not to feel slightly disappointed. Maybe it's not Project Origin at fault - maybe it's us. We've been spoilt in the last three plus years by wave after wave of Schwarzenegger-sized first-person-shooters, and when F.E.A.R. 2 wades out it's a bit more Dolph Lungdren or Jean Claude Van-Damme.
If you played F.E.A.R., the elements of the sequel will be instantly familiar. The storyline frames the action of the original game, opening in parallel with the final act of F.E.A.R. then moving on to cover what happens next. As an all new special forces operative, Becket, you find yourself caught in the crossfire between the forces of the evil weapons corporation, Armacham, and the unleashed supernatural powers of its ghostly creation, the spooky Alma. Combat is still the main order of the day, whether Becket is pitted against Armacham troops or Replica soldiers under Alma's psychic control. Once again the game's first major selling point is its reliance on a cool slow-motion effect, where Becket can trigger a state of heightened speed and awareness in order to carve his way through enemy squads like an electric knife through a particularly rare Sunday roast. And, as in the first game, these bloody, bullet-time encounters are punctuated by weird, scary episodes full of nightmarish imagery and sudden disruptions to Becket's vision and environment. Think John Woo's Hard Boiled meets Hideo Nakata's Ring and you're not too far wide of the mark.
Project Origin does all this stuff, and arguably it does it better than the original game. The nightmare sequences are more varied and the imagery less directly indebted to Japanese horror, and there are still points at which the game successfully makes the scalp tingle with something like fear. Alma - now in adult form - retains her creepiness, and if anything F.E.A.R. 2 is more skilful in its merging of action and supernatural horror than its predecessor, throwing in new elements that successfully bridge the gap between the two genres. Fast-moving, freakish crawling mutants make for a nice change from the normal armoured troops, as do the ghoulish 'puppet-master' creatures who can resurrect nearby corpses and bid them do their deadly will.
Most importantly, however, the central game mechanics are just as much fun as they ever were. For a long time F.E.A.R. was my benchmark for FPS combat, for the simple reason that it pitted you against reasonable numbers of believably intelligent enemies who seemed capable of working together, but gave you a vital tool - slowmo - with which you could even the odds. Any F.E.A.R. player will remember the rhythm of the game. First, the recognition that you're about to face a battle, then the tension as you moved into position. Then came the release, as you triggered the slowmo and began your frenetic dance of bloodshed, blasting one guy here, swivelling to catch another, side-stepping and pivoting to target a third adversary, then leaping over a barrier and twisting to tackle the fourth guy lurking behind it. Then there'd be a moment of controlled panic as you scuttled for cover before the slowmo had worn off, followed by taut suspense as you waited for the slowmo guage to refill. This cycle would repeat until the battle was over, and it was onto the next hostile encounter.