Let’s be honest: FEAR 3 isn’t exactly 2011’s most keenly anticipated sequel. The 2005 original was an excellent FPS and a deeply creepy game, but over the years it’s been largely forgotten while other franchises have stolen all the limelight. The 2009 sequel is arguably best forgotten; with its dated graphics and generic action, it probably more to damage the franchise than establish it. A third installment? We could take it or leave it, to tell the truth.
But here’s the surprise: FEAR 3 is good. In fact, it’s often better than good. Day One Studios, working with the original developer, Monolith, has crafted a stylish horror-themed shooter with a few neat twists, and while no one part is what you might call “best of breed”, the overall package is practically unmissable - at least for genre fans.
The single player campaign seems destined to be damned with faint praise in some quarters, and there are some good reasons why. It feels like a solid shooter, very much in the vein of the original FEAR, and what used to be the game’s biggest selling point - a time-limited slowmo mode you could kick in at the touch of a button - has since been copied in other games. Plus, while FEAR 3 is more varied in its scenarios than its predecessors, which had an unhealthy attachment to industrial complexes, research labs and office blocks, you’ve still seen a lot of it before. Look, there’s a slum and a war-torn suburb straight from Modern Warfare 2. Haven’t we seen the rusty prison set before? Could we have a few more monsters while we’re at it?
It’s also true that FEAR 3 is no longer all that scary. The whole Ring/Grudge aesthetic has, in recent years, been done to death. Bloody scrawls over the walls are so 2007. Most of the enemies aren’t actually that terrifying. It doesn’t exactly help that your hero, the Point Man, is the son of the previously scary Alma - hello Mum! - or that he’s accompanied by the undead spirit of his brother, Paxton Fettel. When you’re a member of the FPS version of The Munsters, its harder to feel frightened by weird visions and buckets of blood and the graphics, while perfectly in-step with what you’d expect from a 2011 shooter, are rarely in danger of blowing you away.
Yet, despite all this, FEAR 3 is an absolute blast to play. It all comes down to a combination of good pacing, an excellent AI which sees enemy troopers trying to gang up and outsmart you at every turn, and a great set of satisfyingly beefy weapons, all of which produce great results when fired directly into some poor goon’s head in lovely slowmo. The game excels at setting up situations where you’re forced to dig deep, hunker down and wait for your slowmo meter to recharge before rushing out, taking down three goons in a flash of action and putting the boot into the fourth as the slowmo juice runs dry. We sometimes forget that FPS games should make you feel like a badass action hero. In FEAR 3 you feel like a cross between Chow Yun-Fat in a John Woo movie and Jason Bourne, and you can’t really ask for more than that.
Plus, it still has the capacity to shock and scare on occasion. The central plot is a bit mishandled and the scary visions have lost their power, but a sequence around a creepy electronics store and warehouse, with zombies rushing in the light of refrigeration units and flickering TVs is as packed with chills and thrills as anything in the first FEAR.
All the same, FEAR 3 only reaches its full potential when you get other players involved. The headline feature is that you can play the full campaign in co-op mode, with one player still playing as the Point Man, but the other playing as Paxton Fettel. Fettel can’t enjoy the Point Man’s guns or slowmo powers, but he can throw glowing red balls of death, grab enemies and lift them into the air and - best of all - possess them. Possess the nearest heavily-armed git and you’re free to blow everyone around you into bits, or at least until your health or the possession meter run dry. There are risks, in that Fettel’s spirit form is weak and vulnerable once possession ends, but it’s a fantastic and very different way to enjoy the campaign. In fact, missions conquered by the Point Man in single player can be replayed with Fettel later, giving you effectively a whole alternative single-player campaign.
This would be enough to secure a recommendation, but FEAR 3 also throws in four multiplayer modes, all of which are far from the usual generic deathmatch tripe. For us, the star is Contractions. Reminiscent of Call of Duty’s Zombie mode or Left 4 Dead, it sees four players trapped in a building, facing waves of zombies, monsters and enemy troops. Each contraction brings a new wave, but between them you have time to repair the barricades and rush out to gather new supplies and weapons before the next rush starts. It’s frantic, thrilling and hugely enjoyable, and it forces players to heal and cooperate for the simple reason that, if they don’t, they won’t survive.
F***ing run, meanwhile, does exactly what it says. Behind you there’s a wall of fatal, hideously evil fury. In front of you are baddies that need to be slain. You run from the former, towards the latter, and if one of you goes down it’s all over. Do you really need any further explanation on why this might be fun?
Nobody’s pretending that FEAR 3 is an unalloyed triumph, but it’s a game that deserves to be played and enjoyed by as many people as possible. The single-player campaign delivers fabulous gunplay and a few good scares, while the co-op and multiplayer modes punch way above their weight. So many shooters are overhyped then underdeliver. Isn’t it nice to see one that does things the other way around?