The last time we saw Project Origin was in Monolith's Seattle headquarters early last year. What was on display then was two scenes from very different levels. The first showed you fighting against Abominations - Armacham's failed attempts at creating a psychic army. They couldn't stand up straight, but what they lacked in spinal integrity they made up for in the ability to grease around the walls and pop up for a quick nibble on your face. They could flip themselves up the walls like over-perky pancakes, and fold over themselves in a slightly nauseating and undignified display. It was righteously grim.
The other scene we played through was from a level in which you control a mech. It was perfectly justifiable in terms of storyline and canon - Armacham is one of the megacorporations from Monolith's well-loved mech fighter Shogo - but thundering around like an invulnerable clockwork bastard is the mathematical opposite of terrifying. More on that later, though.
Since then, the buyback of the F.E.A.R. name from Blivendivision has relegated the fan-suggested name of Project Origin to a subtitle, and those two isolated patches of action have been stitched together into a series of complete levels on display at a central London location. A location, it turns out, that is more known for its high-end sex parties, so out of Victorian prudishness we decline to rub our open-mouthed face against the walls and carpet.
This action in FEAR 2 starts, as you already know, half an hour before the end of the first game. Over by Alma's vault, Point Man (the first game's hero) is about to set off the apocalyptic explosion that frees her. This time you're playing Michael Beckett, a man who has - slightly unshockingly - latent psychic powers. The opening sequence is his hallucinatory and interactive flash-forward to the blood skies and unnaturally fast clouds of Alma's enraged release. In good time, and in keeping with the story's internal logic, we're assured, Beckett will develop his own time-bending skills to match Point Man's bullet time. The sky, the music box, and the lonely recurring image of a swing hanging from a tree is a re-introduction to the themes of lost innocence and fury that make up Alma's existence.
You'll still be fighting the Replica - Paxton Fettel may have eaten his last brain, and controlled his last drone soldier, but the psychic explosion of Alma's release activated the remaining sleeper units, who've reverted to their basic tactical military training. They're left without a psychic commander. We ask Dave Matthews, the game's Primary Art Lead, whether Alma might eventually fill that role, and he declines to answer. Matthews is well aware that the little-girl schtick was never original, and with eerie wee ladies popping up everywhere, he knows it was time to move on. Alma is physically there, now - so you'll see her as she is.
"In FEAR we explored the little girl, and how she interacted with Point Man. She was always at a distance, she led him through, and established the mood in a way that dovetailed with Japanese horror. Now she's out, after 16, 17 years in that vault, with her psyche still dreaming and hating, she's now completely toxic. To the point where she'll melt the flesh off of people. We couldn't just keep that child-like feel; she's getting closer to you, and it's never a good thing when she's touching you, or other people." The fleshing out of Alma as a character - if done well - could make Project Origin very satisfying to returning fans.
Monolith is selling the fact that this is a different style of game, with homages to different kinds of horror. Nightwatch and Daywatch are bigger influences now, as is the more personal slasher High Tension. Even cringe-porn flick Saw is an influence - and this is an example Matthews confesses to using too often, and he's keen to point out which element he's cherry-picking. "It's that response that happens in your body when you realise you're going to have to do something horrible, or something much worse is going to happen".
Japanese horror will still be a mainstay, but the iconic nature of Alma may have inflated this aspect of the original in our memories. They're the unique moments of horror in what was otherwise a bunch of great combat set-pieces in a fairly boring set of office environments - who wouldn't remember them most clearly? Playing it again, the first game was always half action movie - and that percentage has swollen here, to the point where you're in an adventure that often feels... sassy.
Speaking of the dull environments, Monolith has certainly responded to these complaints. The office levels are more interesting, whole swathes of action take place in the broken streets, and you'll be fighting through laboratories, post-Blitz streets and an elementary school in the game's much fuller, varied and impressive world.
Amongst the gun-fodder, and in addition to the long-declared Abominations, we're introduced to the Spectre - a creature that has had its body completely corroded, leaving only a soul. A soul that's fuelled entirely by Alma's peevishness. These translucent creatures can gain form enough to attack you, but they're also bait. They'll lead you into areas where they can manifest and attack you.
More interesting are the Remnants - until you disturb them, they're meaty ghosts, repeating the last actions of their lives. In the elementary school, the music teacher thumps out a discordant melody on a piano. Out in the street, a businessman is stuck hailing a taxi. They seem harmless enough - you can even take your first shot for free. But once you've disturbed them - which the level design will clearly force you to - they'll become puppetmasters over the corpses around them. Red strings of psychic energy slink across the room like an infuriated strawberry shoelace, and the Remnant hides while you have to deal with its army of... well, let's call them zombies, because zombies are proper fashionable. Destroy them, flush him out, and kill him - it's not a short or easy battle.
The standout level - not in terms of quality, but more in terms of eyebrow-raising from people unfamiliar to the series - is stomping through the warehouses and streets in the EPA suit. You really feel invincible. For long periods of time, when you're slicing soldiers in half with bullets, or simply reducing the soldiers to a cloud of blood, it's difficult to remember there's a damaged woman fingering your brain throughout the game. In the normal sections, you'll be kicking over tables to provide yourself with soft cover (something only the enemies could do in the first game), but in the EPA sections you'll be shooting through brick walls and bringing buildings down.
Matthews explains the evolution of the EPA suits. "The community were crying out for it. They wanted to be able to jump into the power armour. We tried it, and we liked the idea, but it didn't have everything we wanted. So we created the big brother version of it, so you could rip up the environments. In FEAR, the AI own the space - you have to conquer every inch of the space to continue. In the EPA, that situation reverses, and you're forcing the AI to respond to you."
It's the opposite of scary, we suggest. "Sure, and you won't be doing this all the time - this is just one of the things we've got on our palette. This is just tossing you a bone, after you've worked hard for a while. We're letting you be a badass." If you're completely against all forms of badassery, you'll be pleased to hear that using the EPA suit is optional.
We leave this central London location as visitors to another very different kind of party are arriving. A lot of our earlier concerns about the game are resolved. The mech combat is optional, the script and the banter are excellent, the combination of medkits and health that only partly regenerates is a compromise that leaves you needing to worry about taking damage. But some new concerns arise - the pace of the game feels slightly slower, and at times it felt a little like a combat slog. It's important to remember we weren't playing through the finished game, though - and that kind of talk needs to wait for a review. At the very least, Project Origin is looking set to be interesting, and judging by the direction its taking, any review will receive a fair bunch of "oh this is so wrong actually" comments, which is no bad thing.
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is due out for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on 13th February 2009.