With the mediocre F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin receding lazily into a mauve videogame horizon, some might contend the only scare tactic able to be employed in any sequel would be to simply return to the franchise.
Resurrecting a series resembling the scattered components of a shallow grave plundered by proactive wildlife was a ballsy decision; likewise, letting Monolith within blood spatter radius given their previous attempts could have proved about as successful as shipping the game with a free vial of Ebola.
And yet, amazingly, F.E.A.R. 3 manages to stave off utter disaster with genuinely intriguing gameplay.
Playing as Point Man, the initial goal of the solo campaign is to escape an Armacham facility packed full of guards with the assistance of Paxton Fettel, the ghost of a sibling rather unfortunately murdered by Point Man's own hand at the conclusion of the first game. This uncomfortable family reunion makes for dynamic gameplay however, as Paxton will appear as an eerie image to guide Point Man through the environment, a concept only let down by the decision to limit these interactions predominantly to cutscenes.
By completing a level as Point Man, the ability to replay it as Paxton is unlocked, and each character has a wholly different take on combat. The run-and-gun Point Man – equipped again with the now-compulsory slow-motion ability – is counterbalanced by the psychic, otherworldly Paxton, offering two approaches to each scenario.
The range of enemies encountered throughout the campaign demonstrate relatively advanced artificial intelligence, at least as far as flanking and general weapon accuracy is concerned. They'll chatter amongst themselves as to the location of the action, and aggressively move forward utilising cover. There's still no suggestion of any real sentient behaviour however; unloading a shotgun blast really just seems to encourage them to take even more risks. Watching a soldier encircle Point Man, fire off a few rounds then dive through an open window really only raises more questions than it answers. Nevertheless, F.E.A.R. 3 maintains a bankable image as a shooter with better-than-average AI.
There's an overwhelming directorial attempt to wrap up as many loose ends in the campaign as possible, which results in a frenzy of distorted plot devices crammed into one murky corridor after another. There may be a focus on a wider range of environments – certainly no previous F.E.A.R. has offered quite the same diversity in level design – but only by the inclusion of a fairly robust points system does the campaign remain tolerable for the duration; rewards for achieving a string of kills with a particular weapon, or killing a number of enemy combatants without taking damage generates experience, which levels the player and improves their fighting abilities.
There are a multitude of these achievements on offer, and it's rare to go more than a few minutes without receiving an adrenaline boost from the successful completion of at least one of them.
The inclusion of a convergent co-operative mode in the campaign allows Point Man to be played off against Paxton, whereby two players can compete to win enough points to be crowned "Favorite Son". The ability for each player to compliment each other with entirely different methods of combat makes for dynamic entertainment, and really highlights the irrelevance of the narrative on offer. The solo campaign may be a wild attempt to book-end a ferociously muddled story, but the co-operative elements on offer more than make up for it.
The four multiplayer modes, whilst being the illegitimate result of an inconclusive Left 4 Dead, Nazi Zombies and Horde Mode paternity suit, manage to pleasantly surprise. "Convulsions" is perhaps the most predictable, as it simply involves four players repelling waves of various creatures using whatever weapons can be salvaged between levels.
"F**cking Run" is a madcap rush to outpace a wall of smoke whilst fending off enemies. Here teamwork is key – if one comrade can't be resuscitated in time, everyone loses the level.
"Soul King" sees each player adopt the body of a wraith, allowing them to possess or kill enemies. Each downed enemy drops a skull worth points, the idea being that the player with the most number of points is highlighted to the other players. Dying carries with it a penalty of half the players accumulated tally, so victory is as much a matter of caution as it is aggression. Contrast this to "Soul Survivor", whereby one designated player becomes a wraith and attempts to convert the remaining players to spirit form whilst they all battle against AI with the same appearance, and it's clear there's been a conscious effort to avoid run-of-the-mill deathmatch and capture the flag modes.
F.E.A.R. 3 has faced numerous challenges to even be noticed in a sea of comparable titles this year. Despite being lumbered with a the dregs of a story even Alan Duff wouldn't accept royalties for, the adaptation and evolution inherent in the wildly challenging co-operative and online multiplayer modes will likely endear this creaky franchise to a whole new spectrum of gamers.