F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
The demonstration code that I'm about to watch John Mulkey - Project Origin's lead designer - play through isn't optimised, so the loading times are longer than usual. This gives me a chance to write down the chapter synopsis verbatim. "Dr Ambrose has revealed that Aristide's plan will result in an exponential increase in Alma's destructive energy. Aristide has rejected the data and is intent on proceeding as planned."
I don't know what Aristide's plan is, just that she's the president of Armacham Technology Corporation and responsible for most of the deaths in the original F.E.A.R.. But, I've seen enough movies to know that - when a money-motivated suit rejects a scientist's worst-case scenario, you'll get a thrilling, worst-case scenario climax. And a smug scientist.
The strange corporate hydra that is Vivendi-Blizzard-Activision may still own the F.E.A.R. franchise in name, but in a presumed moment of stupidity they forgot to ask for the iconic star of the show, Alma. They managed to release two expansions that did feature her, and took the less-lauded components of F.E.A.R - the repetitive grey corridors and enemies - and created levels so void of opportunities for your enemies to flex their tactical intellect, that they looked stupider than they were. That's the last I'll talk of Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate - Monolith are certainly ignoring them.
The events of Project Origin promise to bring the player closer - physically and psychologically - to Alma than the flittering twitches of first game allowed.
Your team has been dispatched to retrieve Genevieve Aristide, the same data-rejecting president - who, if cast in a daytime TV drama - would be stupider than the mayor who refuses to cancel Mardi Gras, despite the warnings of a pair of plucky seismologists. John Mulkey explains further, without reference to rubbish TV.
"You play Michael Beckett." enthuses Mulkey, a man who's enthusiasm means that he's constantly smiling. "You're going in to rescue Aristide, the president of Armacham - the woman who restarted Project Origin and wakened Alma. It starts before the end of the first game, when you (as Point Man, the original game's protagonist) were headed into the containment facility and Wade released Alma and you had to destroy the facility to control her."
This means, mid-point in Project Origin, you'll get to witness the massive explosion that punctuated the end of F.E.A.R., and get the chance to extend your war into the burning streets of a newly bombed town. In some ways, Project Origin is similar to its predecessor. The guns have a similar look and the distressingly named Penetrator is back, albeit with a couple of tweaks. Mulkey explains that the gun was as popular in-house as it was with players.
"Our principle art lead's favorite thing to do was to go slow-motion, crouch under a guy, shoot him in the chin and pin him to the ceiling. Horrifying, but kinda like a pinata." The interface has a cleaner, curvier feel to it and the numbered health and armor has been replaced with the console standard of health regeneration. You still have the powers to slow time - although how you're able to achieve this remains unexplained, for now. An early scene showing you being operated on while Aristide looks on perhaps giving the strongest clue.
The game feels different in other ways. Monolith have engaged with their community - their "Name Your Fear" competition was the source of this game's title. Another thing that the fans wanted and are getting, are mechs.
Monolith have strong form in mech combat -10 years ago, Shogo: Mobile Armor Division won a devoted following with its manga-themed mech gunplay. Shogo is still played today, but would be far better remembered if it hadn't been released at the same time as Half-Life. So it feels like the inclusion of mechs is more a cock-eyed tribute to the meaty metal of Shogo titan the tense sinew we loved about F.EA.R.
A large part of the code I played was this new, mechanised combat. The power feels great - the terrain that felt solid before suddenly crumbles under the miniguns and rockets of your suit Men become ants and other mechs feel oddly tiny, making you feel more impervious than you actually are. Rockets steadily chip away at the suit's armour, and you're a sitting flesh duck when you're forced to evacuate.
As much fun as this is, it's hardly any definition of scary. Exhilarating, yes. Cool, possibly. But being the biggest bastard on the battlefield is the polar opposite of atmospheric terror. In the absence of any evidence of claustrophobic corridors and hallucinations, I had to ask Mulkey if this isn't going against the grain of what F.E.A.R. was about.
Fear Is All About
"F.E.A.R. is all about the crazy chaos of combat It's going into this crowded room, throwing in a grenade and hitting slow-mo," he reminds me. He's right of course - even with the nods to Japanese horror films, REAR. was as much an action movie as anything else. But excellent Al aside, it's the horror and atmosphere that sticks with you, years on. Surely they'll be recreating that?
"We'll still have the tension-building elements, and all that stuff," says Mulkey, with the practised vagueness of a man who knows that he's sailing close to forbidden topics. "In the first game we introduced the vocabulary of what we were using. You had the scary little girl, it was all creepy and she'd startle you. Now we've established that we can't really use the same tricks again."
But will Alma be developed into a more tangible threat? She's such an iconic figure that she's got to be developed somehow. "Alma will be more physical, she'll touch you more. It's going to be very personal and more up in your grill," he assures. "The first game's child manifestation was a projection of herself in her last moment of innocence. When her father imprisoned her, impregnated her and forced her to give birth to the player and Paxton Fettel. In this game, we're going to see her at the point where she was at the end of the game, as a hag, and as a woman."
One of the levels I'm allowed to play is the first level. This works as a tutorial, as you'd expect, but it also sets the tone of the game. Monolith are no strangers to the movie sensibility - pretty much everything they've done has been directly related to, or heavily influenced by, the love of a good movie genre. So, when the death-hardened Delta Force squad I'm a part of finds a dead body - possibly the result of Point Man's adventures - it's taken with nervous humor.
"It looks like they hit his aorta," the team's aspiring doctor suggests, and is roundly mocked for this absurd diagnosis. "Argh," screams one of my friends, "They hit my aorta!"
Waiting for the lift the atmosphere is cordial, friendly, even whimsical. So much so, that I decide to take a look at my fellow combatants close up. His models are better looking and this extends to the enemies you encounter in Project Origin. As mentioned, the same look of the previous game's enemies was alleviated only by the fact that they behaved so intelligently.
"On the first game, we didn't have the variety of enemies that we wanted to have. First, you'd have the guy with the face mask with one filter. Then you'd have the guy with two filters. One guy has blue armour and one guy has green. It's the reality of production that forces you to do what you can," explains Mulkey.
"So, one of the things we pushed for on this project was greater variety. Especially the idea that in character design, there's silhouette, color and motion. So, if we can get variety in those ways, that's great. So when you fight the Armacham guys, it's not 400 guys with short-sleeved shirts and mirrorshades."
I'm so busy inspecting my teammates and pondering the models that I don't notice the lift has arrived. The banter ceases as bullets fly past me into the lift. This causes my first nervous jump, but it's more down to the fact that I was behaving like a military knob-end. The level then becomes a series of combat set pieces and tutorials, as I learn to use my new moves.
F.E.A.R. made you aware of your legs -not only by looking down and seeing them, but by bringing them into view with moves like the slide. There's more of that in Project Origin, as you vault over railings and flip tables over to provide yourself with cover. This is something the Armacham forces did in the first game, and granting the player the same power helps to make an area feel like a satisfying game of table-flipping murder chess.
The world of F.E.A.R. has its own noises - just as Half-Life 2s health and power stations and the shout of Combine's forces are evocative to the point of bringing on a shudder, the enemy barks and instructions are similarly transporting. But while it's good to be back in the universe that shit me up all those three years ago, isn't it all a bit... bright colorful? And aren't these offices a bit... nicer?
"We've done some changes enginewise. F.E.A.R. was back when per-pixel lighting was like 'Holy cow, we've got to have that'. It made for an atmospheric game, but it was also very stark and shadowy. We loved it, but at the same time we hated it. There were times where you were fighting guys by shooting at their muzzle flash. This time we wanted to do something with more realistic lighting and softer shadows.
"That's not to say we're going to give you a bright game - it's just another tool. We're still going to throw you in the dark. There are still going to be the little-girl screams." And when he says "little girl screams", he means you, not Alma.
Rumours that the game might be more open-ended have been overstated - it's still all about getting from A to B - the real sandbox element comes from the unscripted Al.
"We really use the notion of the environment being able to play out in many different ways. You're not going to see maybe a 10th of what it can do, because the Al is reacting to your actions. You'll find you anthropomorphize the enemies, saying - 'You bastards, I knew you were going to do that!'"
This is true of the regular levels, although I have to say that the mech levels - by their overpowered nature -feel like a superpowered slog down a corridor. These are the levels that need to prove their place in the F.E.A.R. universe. Fun as they are, and fan-prompted as they may be, they feel anomalous in a world where you're supposed to be worried about your sanity, rather than your miniguns overheating.
So it was reassuring to see the hospital area, populated with the already well-publicised Abominations. Half BioShock spider splicer and half Silent Hill 2 mannequin, they move with much more fluidity and nauseating grace than their counterparts in Rapture, sliding up walls and launching themselves through doorways, before landing neatly on your face for a quick munch. Are there any more new enemies? The question is evaded by my hosts: there either aren't or they're being kept for a press event closer to launch.
As my day in Monolith HQ came to a close, I was convinced that Project Origin has taken a few chips out of the J-Horror camp and put them into the safer bet of the action movie. After all, the Western romance with movies such as Ring and The Grudge has evaporated. John Mulkey provides the reassurance I needed: "There is this moment that is going to creep you out, it's really nasty. Craig Hubbard, the lead game designer on the original game, has been doing a lot of story stuff for us, and he came up with this idea that t was so creepy that he had to go to the I president of Warner Bros, and see if it t would be OK to put it into the game."
He can't talk about it, which sucks, Mulkey admits. But having to ask the head of a corporation if something is too nasty to put in the game? Now that's promising.
Horror's where the money is
But what happened to the playful whimsy?
Monolith may have hit the big money with dark monstrosities like Condemned and F.E.A.R., but their past is littered with playful jewels. The stylistic adaptation of Tron 2.0 was a joy for nerd lingers of all generations, and No-One Lives Forever featured an exploding cat primed by a tap to the anus. Even 1997's Blood was more big, dumb bloodshed than any real attempt to scare.
As horror's provided Monolith with a path to the bigtime, does that mean they've lost their sense of playfulness? "Anyone who thinks that we've left behind the days of playfulness will be surprised," says Monolith CEO, Samantha Ryan, who started off in marketing before teaching herself scripting languages and taking on a role as a producer. Does that mean we'll be seeing a revival of ZONE favorite, NOLF? The mists of professional vagueness disappear for a second - the answer is no.
It's sure Shogo
Hello, hi-tech mech
The trailer quote from Project Origin says, "Ever since Shogo we've wanted to create a highly detailed and destructible environment that a mech could tear through with ease".
The response to that could go either way. First you can say there's a time and a place for mechs and that they're not the rock that beats the scissors of a dead witch. The other response is to throw a dozen hats into the air with the complete exuberance of climbing into a metal deathbox and letting off a hot cluster of rockets.
The counter-intuitive juxtaposition of scenarios - and if I ever say that again, kill me - is offset by the fact it plays so well, but I can't wait to see how the hell it all fits together.
Now, all we have to do is get the image of an undead scissoring witch out of our heads.
Download F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Why is that child stars always suffer so? It's the Macaulay Culkin effect: subject to an increasingly mediocre by-the-numbers career while bickering parents divorce and squabble over the cashflow. Spare a thought then for Alma Wade, preteen star of Monolith moneyspinner F.E.A.R.: a victim of a tug of love between her creators and her publishers Vivendi - but also paraded through an array of ill-fitting console treatments and absurdly bland expansions. Step-parent developed games that have not only besmirched her good name, but also made us heartily fed up with concrete walls and ceilings. I, myself, can't even go into multi-storey carparks any more without being physically and violently sick.
So why are we championing her return? For one thing, the Monolith brand of F.E.A.R.'s close-quarter gritty combat and Al has never really been bettered. For another thing, Monolith (who haven't been a part of the F.E.A.R. franchise since that climactic explosion took out Alma's cage and half of the city of Auburn) are remarkably candid about the original game's failings. Yes, the story was engaging, and yes the soldier Al was great fun to fight against, but for how long could lift shafts and corridors stay immersive?
"It was a frustration on F.E.A.R., not being able to get outside!" agrees John Mulkey, the game's lead designer. "We had a pretty indoor game. We were a claustrophobic game by design, but at a certain point tension becomes numbing. So we've decided to mix it up and to have these more open spaces, and you feel a little colour from the sky before going back to tight, menacing environments." Unlike so many prima donna developers, the 'Lith boys are responding to feedback from F.E.A.R. -meaning that there's a concerted effort to throw in more engaging and varied enemies outside of the endless soldiers, a mix of different locations, and a team you may even give a shit about.
"Plus, we really played out the whole 'creepy little girl walking across the hall in front of you' card explains Mulkey, as our conversation drifts to everybody's favourite psychically created eight-year old personification and crazed psy-power mental patient. "We've put a lot of effort and a lot of thought into the ways in which we can give Alma teeth. It's going to be more direct, and an escalation: not something you say Creepy little girl is not so creepy anymore...' to."
In another break from F.E.A.R. you no longer play one of PC gaming's amnesiac protagonists, you're a member of the US Army's covert Delta Force and your name is Michael Becket. Now Delta Force were the whipping boys in F.E.A.R. - the ones who were waiting in the wings, but then started leaking blood all over the place whenever a spot of the old Alma ultra-violence was required.
"Yeah, lie's a Delta operator," picks up Mulkey. "And at the beginning of the game it's actually 30 minutes before the end of F.E.A.R.. You're heading to the penthouse residence of Genevieve Aristide, because of all the things the F.E.A.R. team and the F.E.A.R. point man have been uncovering in the first game."
Obsessives may recall the voice of mysterious cigarette-smoking, femme-fatale Genevieve from the original game, she was the head of both the now-titular Origin project (mandate: lock up Alma - make her have babies) and the Perseus project (mandate: make her kid able to control an army of clone soldiers, and make him eat people while you're at it since that would be cool).
In fact it was her voice that closed F.E.A.R. with her telling a Senator that "the Origin situation has been resolved" and that "There is some good news, however: the first prototype was a complete success".
"She's very connected into what's going on - all the cloak and dagger and black ops. Explains our man from Monolith. So he might say that Alma has a grudge against her? "Oh yeah, that might be fair...
Mulkey refuses to explain exactly how a common-or-garden Delta operative such as yourself is suddenly granted the time-slowing ultra-sensitive reactions of the original game's point man, hut clues may be provided by the fact that early in the game you find yourself lying prostrate on an operating table and dipping in and out of consciousness as an officious woman with a snappy business voice looks on. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination either (though this is Mystic Will talking rather than the sternly monitored voice of the developer) to surmise that you're being upgraded with another brand of Armacham technology to eventually aid and abet Ms Aristide, and perhaps even protect her from certain insane small children.
Either way, the game starts in earnest in pure 28 Days Later fashion deep within said hospital. Now, you might have read ' my stuff on this before - but sit tight for a paragraph or so as there's an excellent bit coming up about faeces. After watching surgeons attempting to save you from the brink of death (and watching spectral assailants devour you whenever you lose consciousness) you wake up alone in the operating theatre.
This then turns into a Monolith masterclass in what I refer to as scripted WTF'; a speciality of theirs that's been a hallmark ever since that Marine level in Aliens vs Predator 2 where pipes and steam proved scarier than any alien attack. Alma has broken out bits of guts keep on falling from airvents, odd scrawlings cover the waHs and a wall-hanging man-creature is leaping around and behaving very oddly.
This chap is the first example of Monolith recognising that they needed to spice up the combat with regular enemies who weren't simply the same endless clones or one-trick ponies like the original's invisible wall-huggers. "We're really trying to introduce new soldier types that go beyond having a different coloured uniform," outlines level designer supreme and lead developer Mulkey. "Having new Al types that have different tactics that push the player to think in different ways of combating them. Adding elements to break up the gaming experience so it doesn't fall into a rhythm that could become tiresome."
Which leads us to this rather pallid gentleman feasting on dead bodies and leaping from wall to ceiling to hospital bed with great, and beautifully animated, skill and vitesse. "He's mumbly," picks up a clearly passionate Mulkey. "You hear these mumbles and nonsensical rants - but it sounds like someone talking to themselves, like two separate people having an argument. Where you find him, you find these very odd scrawlings all over the ground and the walls and surfaces around him. It's an odd mix of numbers, symbols and words. He's trying to puzzle something out. And it's usually drawn out in blood, or faeces..." A game character writing stuff on a wall with his own shit? That's a first for gaming isn't it?
"We're groundbreaking!" affirms the Monolith man. "This character, he's very skittish. He's also rather aggressive, you'll come across some soldiers and you'll see this thing is picking them off. These guys use them in their equations. You come across this body and there's all this scrawling across the floor, and you'll see the soldier's head has been scooped out as if it were an inkwell.
And eventually, obviously, these confused maniacs will meet the hollower end of your weaponry. They'll stick to corners if they can, scuttling around insect-like - avoiding crossing the middle of the room.
They're little wads of muscle," continues a fervent Mulkey. "They can weave up through the ceiling panels, dive up off the walls... the bounds of the normal world just don't have the same meaning for them... jumping across a table and running up a wall is the same to them as us walking across the floor. And so with your revamped, highly polished and better animated arsenal of wall-pinning Penetrators and gruntigniting laser beams you'll traverse the wrecked city of Auburn with, we're promised, a bit less corridor and a bit more variety.
Out And About
''It's a more open environment; a destroyed city opens up an incredible amount of opportunities. You can have what seems like a very normal environment, then turn it about on its head. You can do some really great things to play with a player's expectation, explains the lead designer, wary of a fierce PR lady employed to make his life a misery if he lets on too much about specific environments.
As far as stuff goes for dead-certs though: killer robot-mcchs will certainly tasked with hunting you down in the Auburn streets, high-kicking foes known as Replica Assassins with wristmounted blades will cause hand-to-hand mischief (who could well be tooled up variants on our hospital poo-smearing friend), Alma will blowing stuff up with her mind, and you can a few ominous playgrounds as well. And a downed plane or two.
And the combat sounds as much fun as it ever was. Not least because the chaos of your gunfights will exacerbated by the fact that there'll five times as much detail to each room than before, and therefore more breakables, more debris, more smoke and more slow-motion swearing. More than ever before the aim is for bullet exchanges to sand with ramifications of your split-second battle tactics reflected in your enemies movement, actions and eventual demise. Plus, you'll able to interact with the environment in much the same way as clone soldiers could in the previous game - leaping over fences, or toppling over furniture, flipping it over and taking cover behind it. "What we've done is built lots and lots of systems into the game - and not so much hardcore scripting, that would mean every time you go into that room the exact same things are going to happen in that exact same order, explains Mulkey. "We put a lot more opportunities into the environment, that given the right conditions and the right player choices certain things play out.
This random factor, the way clever level design goes hand in hand with Al cleverness, is what has been so lacking on the externally produced F.E.A.R. expansion bandwagon. What's more it's a paramount shame that such a worthy development team and game have been forced so far back in the starting grid by powers beyond their control.
The F.E.A.R. universe was, and is, a unigue step forward for first-person gaming, and the prospect of getting it back new, improved and with a bit less corridor is exciting to say the least.
Death and glory
You know when the mad steward of Gondor gets set on fire and runs one and half miles while covered in flames to jump off his mountain city's curiously placed aerial diving board? That's the sort of nonsense being put to good use in Project Origin: the 'glory death'.
"The idea is that if the A.l. knows they're going to die, then they do it in a cool way," deadpans lead game designer John Mulkey. "Guys will throw themselves out of windows and off balconies. It plays into the incendiary behaviours we've got too; the Al know what state they're in a lot better than before, and they know when they've caught on fire!
"Let's say a hydrant has been knocked over and there's water shooting all over the place, if a guy's on fire he knows about that - so he's going to run over to that water, roll around, put himself out, get back up, pull out a sidearm and get some revenge." Add this random factor into the already proficient (and inevitably to be bettered) flanks, retreats and squad communication systems of F.E.A.R. and quite a neat little combat simulator is on the cards...
I Didn't Play Fear 2 on its release due to widespread complaints of severe console compromises. But after a couple of friends convinced me it really wasn't that bad I decided to give it a chance, and discovered a perfectly worthy sequel to Monolith's classic shooter. In many ways it's a better game, with vastly better graphics, more interesting characters and, unlike the original, it was a little bit frightening.
However, my experience of the game was almost ruined by one thing -the shotguns. FEAR's shotgun is one of my favourite FPS weapons. It had a deeply satisfying firing sound and, combined with the game's excellent physics and collision detection, had a definite punch. All Monolith had to do was place that firearm in FEAR 2 and I'd have been happy as an England fan complaining about Rooney. Instead they created two new shotguns - one pump-action, one automatic, both dreadful - which made noises like a rabbit's fart, and a less powerful kick than that same long-eared rodent.
Whoever decided to change FEAR's shotgun was an fool and deserves to be locked in a ball-shaped chamber with a horny undead ultra-powerful psychic teenage girl.
The rubbish new shotguns were indicative of a general loss of identity in FEAR 2. It's a great game but, to delve briefly into the realm of cliche, it lacked that special something that made the original so superb.
The Bigger Picture
Monolith are ramping up the feeling of bodily awareness far more than with the simplistic punchy-kick business of F.E.A.R., and going mano-a-mano with Abominations is a product of that. When they get close, they gouge.
- Elementary, Dear Alma
This level takes place at the Wade Elementary school, a place of learning funded by Alma's evil scientist family - and presumably the place she was taken away from before being incarcerated in a metal underground dungeon.
The city-wide nuke has this plane fall out of the sky, and later you'll battle along its downed wreck - dashing over its wings, and taking cover behind lumps of fuselage. The days of grey corridors could be over.
- Npc Red Shirts
Adding more personality to your squad is another prime intention for the 'lith chaps with PO, but it won't stop them sucking allies into vortexes and making their heads explode apropos of nothing should the game require it
- Mech It So?
We'll be the first to admit that we're not crazy about the prospect of Mech combat in Project Origin, but if anyone's allowed to have a crack at it it's the creators of Shogo: Mobile Armor Division. Jury remains out, however.
- Angry Businessman
The Remnant essentially an ArchVile with a briefcase, will wreak psychically controlled mayhem - raising the dead and filling them with an urge to forage for weapons and fill you with holes.
- Animal Testing
If this isn't science breaking the boundaries intended by God himself then we don't know what is. Note the Hulk-style ripped trousers by the way, he'd probably look even more disturbing with withered genitalia hanging out