Version tested: Xbox 360
If F.E.A.R. 3 has one lesson to learn, it's that horror is at its best when we care about the people involved. This is the difference between rooting for Sarah in The Descent versus cheering for Freddy as he slaughters Midwestern teenagers before making a bad pun about it in the later Nightmare on Elm Street sequels.
F.E.A.R. 3's silent protagonist, the unimaginatively named Point Man, is as bland a lead as you can find. After being busted out of prison by the ghost of his homicidal brother, Paxton Fettel (whom he murdered at the conclusion of the first game), they team up to track down their pregnant, psychic, undead mother.
Comic book scribe Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) and film director John Carpenter (The Thing, Halloween) have come aboard to spruce up the narrative, though their efforts are in vain. The story of child abuse, lost innocence and macabre family matters could be intriguing, but the game does such a poor job of telling it that it's hard to keep track of why you're doing anything or what exactly is going on.
Unveiling the story through Point Man's eyes is serviceable, but undermined during cut-scenes when he simply stares blankly while the fate of the world hangs in the balance and his spectral sibling taunts him. F.E.A.R. 3 is comically ineffective at getting us to care about this blank slate of a man, and with no appealing support characters, it winds up as just a bunch of gory stuff.
Thankfully, what F.E.A.R. 3 lacks in a compelling narrative, it more than makes up for in thrilling first-person shooter combat. The series' staple slow-mo is back alongside its hefty, punch-packing weapons, and for the first time in the F.E.A.R. games there's a "snap-to" cover system.
This works much as you'd expect, but unlike its employment in more traditional cover shooters, is best used sparingly. Enemy soldiers are smart and will work as a team, seek cover, flush you out and flank you. It's unnerving when the moment you duck behind a crate you hear a foe yell "He's behind the crate!" before his comrades zero in on you. Levels are expertly designed around this, with multiple routes ensuring you could get attacked from all sides, encouraging you to stay on the move.
There's a delicate balance between being the hunter and the hunted; one moment you're scrambling around looking for cover, the next you're retaliating in glorious slow motion with a shotgun that renders enemies into plumes of blood. The default difficulty level in single-player was absolutely spot-on for me; I was constantly close to death but would often survive by the skin of my teeth.
It's worth noting that unlike prior games in the series, which consisted largely of drab, colourless corridors, F.E.A.R. 3 is diverse and detailed - if still predominantly grey. A twisted version of a department store, ravaged by earthquakes and home to deranged denizens, is a particular standout, with halls of flickering TVs, a meat locker full of pigs and mutilated corpses hanging from hooks, and bizarre, bloody symbols scrawled along the walls.
Optional challenges are a neat addition to the the game. Completing such tasks as killing 50 enemies in a row, getting 25 headshots or defeating 10 foes while using cover will net you XP. This increases your rank, unlocking rewards like longer slow-mo, faster health regeneration and increased health. You can check your progress on these challenges at any time, and more often than not you'll be on the verge of completing a goal. It's deceptively addictive and encourages you to vary your approach. It also leads to a competitive angle when players compete for points in co-op.
This is based around F.E.A.R. 3's most innovative feature, Paxton Fettel. Being a ghost, he can't pick up weapons. Nor does he have slow-mo. Instead, his abilities include levitating enemies, shooting them with a projectile, forming a shield around Point Man and a melee attack that gets substantially more powerful if used while Point Man has activated slow-mo (which affects both players). Best of all, when a meter that refills over time is full, he can possess enemies.
While inhabiting someone else's body, Paxton gains their unique powers. If he dies or spends too long in possession of a host, they'll expire in a bloody mess, leaving the incorporeal Fettel to fend for himself. He can collect glowing red skulls that are dropped by every enemy he defeats to extend his stay. There's a wonderful balancing act between being encouraged to play recklessly while in possession of a body, yet cautiously as soon as you're stripped of your skin. It gives the game an arcade-like quality that's a far cry from skulking around in the shadows as Point Man.
As an added bonus, Fettel is unlocked for every singe-player mission once you've completed it as Point Man. Playing as Fettel is such a unique experience that it could easily headline its own game. That it exists in addition to the default campaign, and can be experienced in tandem with it in co-op, is practically a revelation.
The one downside to co-op is that it makes everything less frightening, as the other player can trigger canned scares ahead of you. It's not a big loss since, disappointingly, the game is not scary in the first place. Most of the scares are based around interactive cut-scenes, robbing you of control. It's obvious that you're actually safe, so whatever apparitions appear are very clearly smoke and mirrors. For a game that's so innovative elsewhere, it's disenchanting to see these cheap tricks deployed so regularly.
Aside from co-op, F.E.A.R. 3 hosts four multiplayer modes. Robbed of slow-mo, one would be forgiven for thinking multiplayer would be a forgettable mess, but F.E.A.R. 3 continues to innovate here by eschewing standard modes like deathmatch and capture the flag for unique four-player modes.
Its most conventional is Convulsions, in which a team of four must ward off ever-increasing waves of enemies. Between waves, players can run outside their base and bring back supply crates or reinforce barricades. It's fun, but a little too slow to get going.
Next is Soul King, where each player begins as a wraith capable of possessing enemies. Wraiths are swift and agile, moving like the camera chasing Ash in Evil Dead 2. Every enemy you kill drops a skull worth points, and whoever has the most points becomes the soul king, making their location known to the other players. If you die in wraith form you lose half your souls, so it's easy to go from first to last in a heartbeat, which I found a little too topsy-turvy.
My favourite two modes were F**king Run and Soul Survivor. The former has you and your squad mates outrunning an oncoming wall of smoke while fighting enemies. If one person gets caught by the wall, it's game over for everyone. You can revive each other; taking care of your squad while booking it is extremely tense.
In Soul Survivor, one player is randomly chosen to be a wraith while the other players fight AI enemies. The wraith's goal is to convert the squad into spirits too. This is done by possessing an AI enemy, killing a soldier, then holding a button prompt by their downed body for a few seconds. Once they're converted they'll switch sides, and their comrades they fought so hard to protect are now the enemy. The other players won't know which enemies are AI and which are real people with a more devious agenda.
Despite subpar scares and a shoddy narrative that's simultaneously threadbare and convoluted, F.E.A.R. 3 is a finely crafted action game and an exceptionally inventive shooter. More varied, colourful and refined than its predecessors, F.E.A.R. 3's single-player campaign would be enough to recommend on its own.
Supplementing it with Fettel's brilliant body-swapping mechanic is a masterstroke. F.E.A.R. 3 is like a Siamese twin; two great games sharing the same campaign. Coupled with four unique multiplayer modes, there's a lot of lasting value here. Don't let the ridiculous acronym fool you - this is a surprisingly sophisticated symphony of bullets and bloodshed.
8 / 10