Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog


Black Death (PC, prototype): Fingers Crossed!
October 29, 2011, 12:58 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m not one for playing demos of games, only because I have so many unplayed titles collecting dust on my shelf that doing so doesn’t make sense to me at this point. And you won’t find any previous discussions of demos on this site. But I was nosing around over at 3D Shooter Legends (check it out—a great encyclopedic resource of every shooter game ever made—or at least that’s the aspiration), and I found mention of “Black Death,” a contemporary zombie shooter being built by the French developer Darkworks, the same folks who made “Cold Fear” (2005) of which I am a fan. Not to mention that I have been continually pissing myself in anticipation of the game “I Am Alive” (2012?) for which Darkworks did some initial work. So uncharacteristically, I decided to download and play the demo of “Black Death.” (Actually, let me retract that; the developers call it a “prototype,” and I think the difference is more than semantic. Correct me if I’m wrong, but a “demo” indicates a slice of a game whose build has been completed, or nearly so—in either an alpha, beta, or later stage. So, a “prototype,” I imagine, indicates a representative slice of gameplay from a game whose build has not been completed. Makes sense? Yeah, I’ll go with that.) If you want to download and play the prototype yourself, head over to:

www.blackdeathgame.com. (But wait! The link’s not working? But why? Ah, I wish the answer was simple, but it’s not. As of this edit, Darkworks has been put into receivership–which is basically a few steps away from bankruptcy, and work on all their projects has ceased, I gather. Their website has disappeared too. Makes me sad, honestly. Perhaps Darkworks, and their various projects, will resurface at some point. Still keeping my fingers crossed.)

As mentioned, though I came late to the party and played it years after its release, I am a fan of “Cold Fear” (see my discussion of it here on this blog), and I think Darkworks nailed the atmosphere of a survival horror game perfectly, regardless of how derivative many critics said the game was. This post about “Black Death” (for which no publisher has been announced) will be shorter than usual, mostly because I can only comment on so many aspects after 40 minutes of gameplay (the entire length of the prototype). But I’ll highlight what I thought were some promising and not-so-promising elements.

Probably the last comment a developer wants to hear is that their game reminds the player of some other game—or a mélange of other games. Frankly, I hate it when reviewers hastily toss out comments like “This new ‘Game X’ feels as though existing ‘Game A’ and ‘Game B’ made a baby.” But sometimes those comparisons make sense. (Yes, this is all justification for what I’m about to do, which is to make some heavy-handed comparisons.)

Since this is only a slice of gameplay from a game that isn’t even completed, the backstory is still largely unknown. But here’s the teaser: In an American city in the northeast, a black fog appears out of nowhere and begins to either kill or mutate the citizens. The mutants who survive begin to exhibit “strange powers and group behaviors.” You, in a trusty gasmask, are getting the hell outta dodge.  That’s all I need to hear; count me in.

Okay, now to the dreaded (but fair) comparisons: The gasmask section of the prototype reminded me of the gasmask sections of “Metro 2033″—primarily in that you are…well, wearing a gasmask. It seriously obscures your view (on purpose), and heavy breathing dominates the surround sound. The prototype dumps you into the middle of an extremely dark city street (much, much too dark, frankly), heavy with fog and strewn with wrecked and hastily abandoned cars and trucks. Some headlights, and police lights, barely cut through the (much, much too thick) fog, which swirls about in a ghostly, animated fashion. There are bodies on the ground, dead folks with knees drawn to their chests. But then you hear a sound, and one of the bodies up ahead twitches and begins writhing on the ground. As you approach, the cadaver leaps to its feet and lunges toward you, swiping with fists. He knocks your gasmask off and you continue to fight, though you are gulping in the black fog which is choking you. You have a gun, and you shoot. You run out of bullets and switch to a kind of modified sledgehammer. The dead dude, with glowing eyes, goes down, stunned. You step forward and take one last finishing swipe to kill him for good. And then you scramble around trying to locate the gasmask on the ground. You do and place it back onto your head. And then you hear another one, out there somewhere in the fog getting ready to stand up. It’s all pretty standard; the way too dark and way too foggy landscape means that you basically can’t see anything, and it is more irritating than scary. But there is an unquestionable sense of tension.

After several encounters, and after picking up reagents off of dead bodies that act as medkits, you turn a corner and your character automatically removes the gasmask in an area that is clear from the deadly black fog. The city back alleyways, brick industrial buildings, and metal fire escapes reminded me a bit of Fairport in one of the earlier “F.E.A.R.” games, though there is no environmental destruction—there just are no people. Eventually, you come across a “kitchen lab” in an apartment building—a space that has chemical containers strewn about as well as a “chemical mixer.” It is then that the game’s “shtick” is revealed. By combining a variety of different chemicals (say 15cc of detergent and 25cc of motor oil, all of which you can find hidden along the dark streets), you get a zombie-killing fluid that you load into a gun that sprays it out—almost in “flamethrower” fashion. After making a bunch of “chemical ammo” and loading it into my “chemical spray gun” (or whatever you might call it), I plastered an attacking zombie with it, and it froze him temporarily to the spot. I then stepped up and hit him with the butt of the gun, and he broke into a million tiny pieces. Frozen zombie bits for dinner! Later on, you enter into a larger part of the city and see a bigger scene of the apocalypse—life has come to a sudden and screeching halt in this town. There is a brief encounter with a boss-type zombie, and then the prototype ends.

Some things that work: You don’t necessarily have to enter into combat with all the zombies; when you first see them, they are on the ground writhing and shrieking (usually next to a handful of completely dead folks), and they will only leap to their feet if you get too close to them. Of course, you can’t avoid all of them, but this allows you some freedom of movement and some choice as to when and how you want to engage them. I liked that a lot. Also, it created a lot of tension, seeing that zombie 10 feet away begin to writhe more violently as you step closer. How close can I get before he’ll leap? Of course, there are spots you need to squeeze through and avoiding a confrontation is not possible. Next, I like the “chemical gun” idea a lot—I assume that various combinations of chemicals will create different types of ammo that will affect enemies in a different manner—the only one I experienced froze them to the spot. Who knows what other kinds of fun effects will be available? Fire? Levitation? Turn them inside-out? But one very interesting idea is hinted at: Some of the chemical combinations will actually give you the opportunity to cure these victims and turn them normal again. Pretty gosh darn neato.

Overall, the controls worked well and were responsive even at this early stage of development. One interesting thing: Because the prototype is for PC only, the onscreen prompts were of course for the mouse and keyboard (e.g., the prompt for a finishing move was a picture showing the player to depress the right mouse button). But as soon as I plugged in my Xbox 360 controller into my PC (using the Wireless Receiver for Windows), all the on-screen prompts changed into 360 controller prompts (A button, B button, Y button, etc.). Neat! (Actually, the game “Hydrophobia: Prophecy,” which I just finished playing [read the post here], also did the same thing, which was awesome. Oh technology!).

Some elements didn’t work—and for me, mostly this was the beginning part of the prototype on the city street that was too dark and too foggy to make anything out at all. Add to this the fact that you are wearing a gasmask (which might as well be a pair of blinders) and the game becomes suffocating and almost unplayable. Once you hit part of the city/alleyway where you can remove your gasmask, the change in environment is remarkable though—deep, rich colors with a decent draw distance. Another problem involves repeating character models. While there is decent variety among the dead folks on the pavement (dead cop, dead businessman in suit, dead Asian woman), the zombie/creatures who attack you are all identical (see the first screenshot here). In an age where a game like “Dead Island” will throw a dozen completely different looking creatures at you–with different skin and hair types, different body sizes, different clothing–I’m not sure repeating zombie enemies will fly. (Seriously, I had a lot of difficulty seeing any repeating characters in “Dead Island,” something extremely impressive that Techland achieved, in my opininon.) I understand that Darkworks might be thinking of the creature as an enemy “type” rather than being just a transformed citizen lurching about, but the setting of the game suggests that these are just people who have been affected by the black fog. In other words, I don’t think there’s been some crazy cloning experiment gone awry…but that’s what it looks like. Maybe as the game progresses in development, Darkworks will either introduce more variety of zombie types (or at least explain why these attackers are identical).

Will the game ever see the light of day? Since, as far as I know, no publisher has been named for the title, who knows? I’ve written it down on my infamous list of “Games I Want That Will Probably Become Vaporware,” but I’m just a pessimist. Don’t listen to me. But if it is released, I’ll play it and replace this discussion with a review of the finished product. Good luck Darkworks! (Edit: See the decidedly unhappy note above, next to the dead download link, ugh.)

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Hydrophobia–Prophecy (PC, 2011, England): Water, Water Everywhere…
October 27, 2011, 1:06 am
Filed under: Hydrophobia--Prophecy (PC, 2011, England)

If you are unaware of Dark Energy Digital’s bumpy, and very public, development of the game “Hydrophobia,” the tale goes something like this: In September 2010 the game appeared as an XBL Arcade title, touted by Microsoft as the first in a new generation of high quality shooter and adventure games that would play like full retail, store-bought games and would go far beyond the smaller-sized (and hence more easily downloadable) side-scrollers and arcade staples that dominated the online store at that point in time. Even though it was a fully-realized, third-person shooter, somehow Dark Energy Digital managed to squeeze “Hydrophobia” into a package less than 2 GB in size—no small feat. Sounded like a good idea.

But then people bought and played Hydrophobia, and the dream went sour. Complaints about buggy controls, an inadequate storyline and ending (even though the game was advertised as the first in a series of three episodes), generally inconsistent and confusing gameplay, and other issues were raised by critics and everyday users alike. However, unlike most crappy XBLA titles that would have either suffered bad sales due to the complaints (or been unceremoniously pulled from the site), the developer (rather heroically) decided to revisit the game and introduce some serious tweaking. So, by December of that same year, a 4 MB upgrade to the game became available to Xbox Live users for free. For those who had never purchased the game, the price was reduced as well. So significant were the changes, the developer actually renamed the game “Hydrophobia: Pure.”

At the time when I bought the game on Xbox Live in late 2011, I was unaware of this history. I was trolling the back pages of XBL and came across the game and was reminded that I wanted to play it, so I bought it. The version I got was the new one with the 4 MB upgrade, and I was glad to have purchased the latest version… Or so I thought.

Since I knew I would be writing about this title on my blog (just because small titles like these made by fledgling developers fit the bill so perfectly), I knew I would need screenshots to accompany this post. And since unbelievably (regardless of the billion dashboard updates for the Xbox 360 over its checkered past), I still can’t take screenshots with my console without buying more peripherals (don’t get me started), I was hunting around the internet for pre-existing screenshots I could use. I hadn’t even started playing the game yet.

It was then I came across a new wrinkle in the “Hydrophobia” development story: Lo and behold, after further review of suggestions made by critics and players, the developers revisited the game yet again during the early part of 2011 and made even more significant changes, including a reworking of over 70% of the maps and also rewriting the ending and much of the backstory. They nixed a few of the irritating voiceovers and replaced them as well. In the spring, they released the game once again under yet another title: “Hydrophobia: Prophecy.” This version was ported specifically to the  PC, and it could be purchased through Steam. Wow, these are some determined developers, and I have to hand it to them for the way they listened to players and implemented ideas rapidly.

But you know what? Man, was I ever pissed because I had just paid good money for an outdated version of the game. Being the anal retentive game player I am, of course I had to buy the game a second time (this time, the PC version over Steam), not ever having even played the first version I had already purchased on XBL (which, as the BIG PRINT says, is totally non-refundable for any reason—thanks M$). The one upshot to playing the PC version of the game, of course, is that it is the latest iteration, including more refined gameplay and updated graphics. As a bonus, I was able to take my own screenshots for purposes of this discussion. So, I’m only sort of half bitching

As usual, my (completely unjustified and ignorant) love affair with this game started long before I ever even laid eyes on it, when I had only read a few foggy details about its backstory and saw some concept drawings. I first came across “Hydrophobia” around 2008 on the back pages of some commercial site—Gamespot or IGN–and I copied its name down onto my handwritten “Games I Want That Will Probably Become Vaporware” list (which also includes titles like “They,” “Project Delta,” and “Rainy Woods” [which became “Deadly Premonition”]). As usual, it was the apocalyptic story that intrigued me.  That story, as it was originally presented oh so long ago, doesn’t seem to have changed much in the actual released game: In 2051, our heroine Kate lives as an engineer on the largest cruise ship ever built—it is essentially a city on the water. Why a floating city? At this point in the planet’s devolution, a “population flood” has claimed many resources, and a variety of natural catastrophes and environmental mistakes have destroyed most of the fertile ground on the Earth to grow food (seawater rising and claiming land, deserts creeping and claiming land, etc.). Famine and poverty all around. The crisis leads to the creation of two opposing ideologies: The Cornucopians are mainly comprised of elite industrial tycoons who live and toil aboard said ship, seeking high-tech means to help feed the populace, primarily by figuring out ways to desalinate seawater with nanotechnology, so we can grow food once again. This would make everybody pretty happy. On the other hand, the Neo Malthusians are impatient terrorists who (unearthing and following some pretty radical ideas about population growth once proposed by philosopher Thomas Malthus in the late 1700s) think the solution is for people to kill themselves. Call it the “get thin quick” plan. Less people equals more resources all around. Hey, you might not like their message, but you can’t argue with their math. Of course, if you are unwilling or unable to kill yourself, the chosen amongst the Neo Malthusians will be more than happy to help out.

As the game opens, the massive ship, the Queen of the World, is attacked by the terrorists during its tenth anniversary celebration, and carnage and mayhem ensues, with little old Kate-the-Engineer to help everyone out of this mess. No one needs to tell me a story like this twice—I was sold on this game sight unseen. Characters in the game are scant—there is some small hint that Kate may have experienced a drowning in her past (maybe with a little sister?), which gives her some pathos and also makes her afraid of the water a bit (get it? Hydrophobia?!). There’s the typical “voice-over-the-radio” guy giving you directions and encouragement as you try and save the people aboard the ship. That guy’s name is Scoot, but we never actually see him. There’s the security chief, Billingham, who appears on screen for a total of 3 minutes maybe, so he’s a kind of a non-character, though he is supposed to be generally disliked. Then there’s the knife-wielding, white-haired-kitchen-help-terrorist-in-disguise lady (she looks a bit like Klaus Kinski, honestly) with a growling German accent (or something), a truly nasty character (with an asymmetrical, Albino-white hairdo and a scar slashed across her face) who starts this whole mess by smuggling the Neo Malthusians on board. That bitch. Once you get deeper into the game, finding and neutralizing her is your main goal.

Well, it would be years before “Hydrophobia” surfaced again and hit my radar detector, and I was surprised to see it being released as an XBLA title, but I was glad the developer found some means to finish the work and let the public have at it (which they eventually did, of course). Even after having to buy it twice (errr…), ultimately for me, the game is a qualified success (I said qualified, not unqualified). Important to note, as the first episode of several promised episodes (we’ll see…), it is a short game (critics say the three acts take less than for hours to play, and so that automatically means it took me six hours to play). The game is damn near gorgeous; it is bright, colorful…and really, really wet. As its signature trick (even the very early pre-game information hinted at this), the game claims to employ some of the most realistic water physics of all time. Reading through the handful of reviews you find on the net, most people, even those who ultimately disparage the title, were impressed by how water works in the game. It is truly fluid, and it is a real, physical force you must continually work with (or against) as you make your way through the levels. As Kate walks-runs-bobs-floats through the various halls and rooms of the giant ship trying to accomplish various objectives, the water swells and dips, making the camera wet, then suddenly you and the camera are both submerged, and you start to swim. Then, just as quickly, the ship tilts, and the water whooshes out of the room, and both the camera and you surface almost seamlessly, on your feet again. The sound changes, the physics changes, the camera focus changes—all of it instantly. Really quite impressive. Then, the next thing you know, the water is pushing your feet out from underneath you again, and you have to push Kate that much harder against the tide to make it to the next doorway, or to climb the next pipe, or to lunge for the next railing. It is also fun to keep your eyes on large glass doors and windows (behind which a massive volume of water sits) to shoot them and drown enemies. Good times. Later on (too late actually, as many people argue, and I agree), you acquire the power to actually control the water as a weapon (turning it into a big column you can smack people with and throw explosive barrels with), but I won’t reveal exactly how Kate turns into Aquaman.

Call it my own bias, but when encountering such a colorful, shiny game with a perky, spiky-haired gal protagonist living on a big, clean, ultramodern  ship (and whose quarters look like IKEA had a fire sale), I automatically think that it’s got to be a kiddie game, or at least a solid T-for-Teen.  After all, I just finished playing F.E.A.R. 3, in the burnt and destroyed city of Fairport. And before that, I played (you-fill-in-the-blank-here-with-the-title-of-any-apocalyptic-shooter-of-your-choice) whose backdrop was a wrecked, gray, smoke-filled, shattered, decaying hulk of a (fill-in-the-other-blank-here). You get my point. Booting up zazzy-looking “Hydrophobia” made me think I was about to begin playing a rainbow-colored Mario title. But two elements immediately changed my mind on that matter, and I checked to confirm that this is, indeed, an M-for-Mature-rated title. First, while the language is generally clean and doesn’t veer into anything too potty-mouthed, Kate is often shrieking “Shit! Shit! Shit!” when a gas main blows up in her face or a wall of water begins rushing at her. The Malthusian enemies are pegged as “assholes” on several occasions too. I am glad the language in the game, overall, has not been whitewashed (though the voice acting is only acceptable at best, nothing to write home about). More gritty, though, are the images of the Malthusians randomly carrying out their “Save The World-Kill Yourself” motto by lining up inhabitants and workers on the ship, having them kneel side by side, and then blowing their heads off at point blank while they beg for their lives. While there are no brains splattered across the walls, the assassinations are serious and dark nonetheless. Not to mention, constantly seeing the “Kill Yourself” phrase everywhere adds a dark, menacing tone to the otherwise bright, clean (if even slowly sinking) ship environments. I love paradoxes.

Somewhere around the third act, the game quickly transitions from a platformer-with-some-shooting into  a shooter-with-some-platforming. The change is…sort of welcome. My reaction is mixed because while the increased emphasis on shooting ramps up the tension level, the shooting mechanic is not entirely polished. The over-the-shoulder aim is fine, and hit detection is forgiving. But the guns feel underpowered. Actually, there’s just one gun—it can utilize several different types of rounds, including explosive gel rounds [which, after tagging an enemy, slowly count down on screen to explosion, which is pretty neat], electricity rounds [same thing here], high speed rounds [which turn the pistol into a kind of machine gun while the rounds last], and then the sonic rounds which only stun enemies initially but with several hits can take an enemy down. (Two points to mention: The sonic rounds are infinite in number, and if you stun an enemy who falls face-down in water, of course, he drowns, which is a plus). In addition to the semi-weak gun, your enemies are for some reason incredibly difficult to find—they seem to blend right into the various backgrounds on the ship. This might be because there are so often lots of sprites on screen (gas mains blowing up or spewing fire, electric arcs from downed wires, reflective water flowing everywhere) that create a bit too much confusion on screen in order to focus on one small enemy who is taking cover behind a trash can and who has pinpoint aiming. Another problem is the hit indicator—the typical red splash in the direction you are taking fire from. Somehow, in my estimation, Dark Energy Digital did not get this right. While the screen does show a splash of red to indicate incoming fire, it is often next to impossible to tell what direction it is coming from. Add this to the difficult-to-spot, dead-eye enemies, and you are setting yourself up for some serious frustration in locating targets before you croak. Fortunately, the automatic save points are entirely forgiving (thank you!). While the earlier platforming sections of the game zip by quickly, when the game transitions into primarily a shooter, you’ve got to slow way down, carefully attending to each gun-toting opponent before proceeding (not necessarily a bad thing). (Warning: There are a few infrequent areas where enemies continually respawn, so camping is not recommended.) Ammo is sort of scarce too, so your aim must be good, or you are left having to fiddle with the sonic rounds and hitting enemies multiple times to down them.

Regarding the sound design, there is the constant growl of water sloshing around inside the metal hull of the ship as it slowly sinks. This ubiquitous industrial white noise is especially apparent when you click over to one of the menus which silences the in-game sound effects—everything is suddenly quiet, except for a light soundtrack in the background. As soon as you click back to the game, the awful whoosh and clank of the sinking ship (with gas fires blowing out all around, electricity crackling at every turn, and the Neo Malthusian’s looping television messages) screams back to life in surround sound. Very effective, although it does tire the ears if wearing headphones.

There is a largely disparaging review of this game over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, if you know the site. The reflection piece there seems incredibly princess-like to me…I mean, the writer is complaining so vociferously about some of the most trivial inadequacies of this game, I wonder what could ever please him. The inadequacies are there, to be sure. And yes, I share some of his same major complaints. But “Hydrophobia” (like almost everything else on this blog) is one of those titles that may ask for your forgiveness and, if you give it, you’ll see what a tiny, imperfect gem it really is.



Chrome Specforce (PC, 2005, Poland): Well, It’s A Game…
October 24, 2011, 1:46 am
Filed under: Chrome Specforce (PC, 2005, Poland)

Before starting this post, I sauntered over to a few game review sites to read prior opinions about “Chrome Specforce” (2005). I like to see how folks were responding to these older games at the actual time of their release, and to see if the titles (and the reviews) have withstood the test of the ages (or in this case, six whole years). One of those places was Gamespot, and I noticed the strangest thing: Posted there is a little flurry of user-reviews, all written within the last year. But why? Why are there suddenly a bunch of reviews for a generally unknown title more than half a decade old? Then, I learned that “Chrome Specforce,” and the game that preceded it, “Chrome” (2003), were just released on Steam for a whopping $4.99 each. Apparently excited by the tween-allowance-friendly price tag, the kiddies, never having heard of the Chrome series of games before, are downloading and playing it. Of course, they are also taking the opportunity to edify us how Chrome is just a “lame ripoff of Crysis, man.”

Yeah, you do the math.

Sometimes I need an excuse—any excuse—to pull the old, unplayed titles off my shelf and wrestle my 64-bit Windows 7 OS to the ground, forcing it to boot these “ancient” programs properly. In this case, my foggy reason for deciding to dip back into time and give “Chrome Specforce” a try had to do with the recent zombie-slaying coop title “Dead Island,” which I was deeply engaged playing cooperatively with my partner over system link on our Xboxs. As you might be aware if you paid attention to such things, both titles were produced and published by the Polish developer “Techland,” and actually both games use different iterations of the same graphics engine. “Dead Island” proudly displays the “Chrome 5” symbol every time it starts up; somewhere around eight years ago, it was the “Chrome 1” engine that brought, surprise, the “Chrome” series of games to a wowed public (I’m being a little facetious). Not that I’m a graphics engine expert, and not that this post will actively compare these games or chart the nine-year evolution of Techland’s proprietary engine or anything like that. (I could pretend to be qualified to lead such a discussion, but I’m not). I just needed an excuse to go back in time and play an old game. Gorging myself on Techland’s latest and greatest offering of rotting zombie flesh (“Dead Island” really is a large and visually arresting, though buggy, affair) seemed like a good reason to reach back and play one of their earlier titles. Excuse-making like this (to force me to crack open some of these older boxes collecting dust on my shelf) is especially important when I’ve got 3 or 4 titles less than 6 months old demanding my immediate attention. (“Rage” anyone? “Gears of War 3” anyone?) But those new kids can wait patiently. They always do.

Although I’m rolling my eyes at the kiddies who are discovering, downloading, and playing this title over Steam for the first time, actually their anachronistic “Crysis” comparisons aren’t far off. Though you’d have to make the argument in reverse, Techland’s “Chrome Specforce” really does play like the older, less-developed, less-suave, less-refined, country bumpkin sibling of the well-groomed, smooth-talking, city slicker “Crysis.” Most of this comparison has to do with the suit of high tech armor you, playing Bolt Logan (what a name!), wear throughout the campaign, providing you a menu of special abilities including (let’s recite these in unison, now): 1) high-powered shields, 2) next-to-invisible cloaking, 3) a fast run, and 4) the crowd favorite–a neural boost that slows time so you can more easily hit moving targets. (I wonder if anyone has actually charted the history of the persistent videogame concept of high-tech armor that slows time? It is such a repeated staple, I’d like to see a graphical representation of it somewhere, noting its origins and deviations, including a comprehensive list of titles using this rather conventional trick. That would be neato. And I don’t have time to do it, so someone else has to. On the other hand, time wouldn’t be an issue if I used a time-bending suit of armor to get it done more quickly somehow…anyway, I digress.)

The narrative in “Chrome Specforce,” like just about everything else in the game, is not particularly noteworthy. And before I proceed, I guess couching this discussion in its proper historical context matters. Apparently, the 2003 game “Chrome” was well-liked, even praised critically. However, when the prequel appeared several years later and hadn’t improved upon the original recipe in any significant way, everyone pretty much dismissed it. (I’ve personally not played the 2003 “Chrome” game; I own it and will play it eventually, but since, narratively speaking, “Chrome Specforce” (2005) occurs first as a prequel, I thought I would play these titles in reverse order, just because I’m ornery that way). Being a connoisseur of videogame garbage, I often find games that on their own merit are pretty terrific–but just because they are much-anticipated follow-up titles that can’t meet hyped expectations, people end up dismissing them. Such is the life of a younger sibling…

That might sound like I am coming to the rescue of this game with horns trumpeting all around…but really I’m not. (Neither am I panning this title though.) Back to the serviceable narrative: As Bolt Logan, you are a member of Federal Expeditionary Corps, super cool soldiers with super cool gear to do super cool dangerous stuff. Yeah, you’re a regular-sized Master Chief, I guess (and with about as much characterization in that Bungie title—in other words, next to none). In this case though, the problem being solved is much more domestic than alien (which, to me, makes it feel much more grown up), and it concerns the megacorporation Lore-Gen, a drug manufacturer (complete with its own well-equipped militia) who may be moving “product” through galactic mafia folks, or something like that, and causing general havoc by also conducting illegal genetic testing. You and your AI partner, Pointer, are tasked literally with blowing up Lore-Gen’s manufacturing facilities on the planet Estrella (which looks suspiciously like the forests, swamps, and mountains of Earth—sorry folks, no “way out” sci-fi stuff here). Not soon after starting your mission, your ship in orbit (which is carrying your commander and remainder of the crew) is shot out of the sky by Lore-Gen…who shouldn’t have known you were there at all! Gasp! There’s a mole in our midst! Not soon after this turn of events (and now stranded on Estrella), you discover a big group of rebels on the planet whose goals mirror your own—to take Lore-Gen and its army down! From this point on, you and Pointer assist the rebels in a variety of high-tech, life-threatening, globally-defining missions…all of which involve running through jungle A, pushing a button in Building B, driving over mountain C, pulling a lever in Laboratory D, jogging through swamp E…you get the idea. It’s 2005, after all. Pushing buttons and pulling levers never seemed so important!

To break up the jungle-slogging, Techland peppers this title with a few car / tank / ground speeder / mech missions that are probably the highlight of the game. Having to closely follow comrades on a levitating ground speeder through a thick forest while being shot at from the air was genuinely fun. Similarly, blowing away tanks and rocket launcher-weilding Lore-Gen shock troopers with your own missle-laden mech was a blast (although steering the Walkers leaves a bit to be desired, and bumping into anything—even a small tree—depletes the Walker’s integrity, which seems a bit silly).

Aside from these few standout moments, though, the majority of the game is serviceable at best. In fact, that word can pretty much describe almost everything in the game (except a few elements that don’t even clock in at serviceable). The controls, the look, the weapons, the AI, the variety of gameplay…all of it works. And by that I mean it’s not broken (not high praise, but hey). In 2011, the “my-eyes-are-bleeding-at-how-beautiful-the-graphics-are” impact (of this 2005 game) is diminished of course. Similar to (but way better than) the apocalyptically-poor “Breed,” this title is characterized by wide open outdoor spaces, and clearly one of the strengths of the Chrome engine, even in this early iteration, seems to be its draw distance and ability to render relatively realistic vegetation. (I’ve included a screenshot here of the 2011 “Dead Island” trees next to the 2005 “Chrome Specforce” trees just to make a point.) But also much like “Breed,” the massive areas in which you play are generally “light” on detail, other than some repeating tree-and-boulder patterns. This, of course, can be forgiven considering the game’s age. One gripe: The color seems off, especially those in the green spectrum. It may be a calibration problem with my monitor, but the trees and grasses throughout the game seem to look closer to “lime” than to a lush, deep jungle-or-forest green. This is perhaps an artistic means of emphasizing the otherworldliness of the planet Estrella where the game occurs, but it didn’t work for me—I just kept wanting all the greens to be a little more realistic. Having said that, the game was probably a pretty decent looker in its day (though some textures, especially flat, grassy areas, leave a bit to be desired). Unfortunately, “Specforce” doesn’t support widescreen resolutions. While there are a few widescreen fix ideas out there (Googling it will bring up several threads about what files in the game directory need editing), using them creates two problems. One, the field-of-view gets funky (all spread out), so things look “squashed,” including the HUD, and correcting it is apparently difficult if you don’t know programming. Second, a much bigger issue is that the on-screen fonts become so small when using high-def resolutions that you literally cannot read them. This impedes gameplay because part of the game requires you to hack computer terminals by performing a rather simple matching game (sort of like the old television show Concentration)—which is not so simple if you can’t see the symbols properly. After trying to fiddle with some elements to offset these problems, I ended up just sticking with the highest native resolution at which the game runs, which is 1260×1024.

As usual there are a bucketload of niggles I have with the game—mostly minor technical issues that should have been ironed out long before the price tag was attached. Interestingly, the most irritating ones, for me, have to do with the sound. The environmental and weapon sounds, beyond just being generic, are uninspired, too faint, or too thin, or too infrequent to really immerse the player. One little grasshopper chirping once amidst a massive forest…well, it just doesn’t cut it. The sound of the wind will suddenly disappear and reappear depending on where your character is positioned next to a cliff or tree, also disrupting immersion. And one technical issue, which may have been with my install: Without fail, the last two or three words of any dialogue exchange would be cut off—interrupted by the next person speaking. Thankfully text on screen ameliorated the issue. And, of course, the voice acting is atrocious. This is one of those games that you wish had never been localized to English—bad acting, when it occurs in a language other than your native tongue, is much easier to handle for some reason. Here, I would have been as happy as an ignorant tourist in a foreign land to simply read English text and have some bad German or Russian or French voice actor blather away. But no. Here we are treated to English “actors,” all of whom sound either like they are reading from cue cards and/or on the verge of falling asleep (sometimes right amidst a major gun battle, no less)—and I mean all the voice acting is subpar.

Non-sound-related technical difficulties unfortunately involved the game’s signature Power Armor, wherein all your special abilities lie. Of the powerups available (a neural boost, energized shields, a superfast run, and cloak of invisibility) the only one that actually worked for me was the neural boost (you and I know it as slo-mo). Being an earlier game, the slo-mo doesn’t come with any graphical bells or whistles (the blurry sprites streaking across the screen or the deep, growling audio of F.E.A.R.’s “bullet-time” are nowhere to be found here—basically, your enemies simply slow down on screen for a short while so they are easier to hit…but you also slow down, so the benefit, while there, is scant). Unfortunately, choosing to use the invisibility on my Power Armor had no effect (other than making my character disappear); I was shot at with the exact same precision regardless of whether I used it (and the enemies in this game are seriously precise, almost unfairly so). Similarly, the effect of the energized shields (which allow you to take more fire with less damage) was so short in duration that using it mattered little. The fast run was okay, but your typical movement speed is quick enough to not warrant fiddling with it. I’m not sure if any of these were broken, but none of them enhanced my playthrough (again, other than the slo-mo; since I was using my Xbox 360 controller with my Wireless Receiver for Windows [instead of a keyboard and mouse], and due to the lack of aim assistance for the less-than-precise thumbsticks, the slo-mo was useful). One last strange hiccup: In the second-to-last chapter, everything started to speed way up—I felt like I was in Charlie Chaplin flick or something. I laughed out loud a few times watching enemies jiggle and fall swiftly to the ground as they were hit by my superfast spray of bullets. I was reloading my gun on fast-forward. And then, to counter that, in the last chapter everything slowed down, all the way to the point where my character just…slowly…stopped…walking. Like he just got too tired. The game wasn’t frozen or didn’t hang; I could still freely look around in all directions. I just couldn’t move in a wide-open area. Maybe I was stuck on a blade of grass? Rebooting, several times, fixed the problem. I suspect this sort of technical issue has to do with running a 2005 game in compatibility mode in Windows 7.

That’s about all I have to say regarding my time with “Chrome: Specforce.” I am glad Techland is still making games and have managed to survive (and even flourish, being a non-western developer that has managed to get their titles successfully marketed here). It’s a rare accomplishment, indeed.



F.E.A.R. 3 (Xbox, 2011): The Whole Story
October 24, 2011, 1:05 am
Filed under: F.E.A.R. 3 (Xbox, 2011, US)

As I’ve stated previously on this blog, I play many more games than I actually write about. I only feel moved to chronicle my experience playing a particular game if it is especially crappy but I liked it anyway, or if the game is generally unknown and I think it is worth picking up, or if the title has just been buried by the dust of time and unearthing it provided me with a new understanding of more contemporary games. So in this sense, writing about F.3.A.R. (or F.E.A.R. 3 to normal people, or just FEAR 3 for those who hate punctuation) doesn’t really seem to fit the bill, except that this is a game I feel compelled to defend. Glancing quickly at the questionable Metacritic score of 75 (although that is considered a “generally favorable” score), and having just finished the game, I am at serious odds with the way that many critics evaluated this title.

In this post I’m not interested in going head-to-head with any critics– frankly I’m not qualified to do anything like that. but I really do want to highlight what I think are some excellent points about this game, in both categories of gameplay and storytelling. My position is biased because I’ve been a big fan of this franchise since the beginning, but I think Day 1 Studios, who spearheaded the third installment in the series (as well as being the developer who ported Monolith’s first two F.E.A.R. games to various consoles), did an excellent job in fleshing out what had been up to now a very confusing, vague narrative. This, I imagine, was due in large part to the contributions made by actual writers hire to pen F.E.A.R. 3, in this case Steve Niles, screenwriter of 30 Days of Night, as well as horror-movie-Maestro (and has been) John Carpenter who acted as a consultant in creating cutscenes. I have no doubt that having actual writers on hand helped the studio pull the very loose threads of the existing story together into a unified whole of some kind (which, trust me, could not have been any small task). If anyone ever wondered whether or not employing the skills of an actual storyteller matters in videogame creation, well here’s your answer.

For those of you familiar with this title, most of this post will be a repeat. But in order to prove my point of how well F.E.A.R. 3 works as a culminating narrative (my main argument why I think the game has been undervalued), it’s important, though difficult, to try and summarize the narrative from the beginning. I say this task is difficult, because up until this last installment, this franchise has clearly relied much more on tech-demo-savvy atmosphere than on narrative coherency or consistency. For example, the first game in the series doesn’t seem to be much more than a disparate, disjointed list of characters, places, and plot devices: a long haired, Japanese-horror-movie little girl whose sole purpose is to scare your pants off; cloned super soldiers; a cannibalistic bad guy with a gravelly voice; a non-speaking military grunt (not very) creatively called Point Man as our hero (who has a largely unexplained ability to slow time around him); a potentially evil technology empire known as Armacham whose corporate offices have gone dark; a half destroyed city of Fairport where all the action takes place. Put these in a blender on medium for 3 minutes, install, and use the mouse to shoot things. The second game really wasn’t that much more coherent, and in fact by changing main characters and the timeline, it may have even confused the situation more. But if I were pressed to make sense of all of these elements of the first two games, the plot might sound roughly like this. (By the way, there is a F.E.A.R. wiki that does a much better job at explaining these narrative details than I. Google it.)

As generically-named, unexplained-super-reflex-wielding Point Man (part of Delta Squad, which is a section of the First Encounter Assault Recon), you plant your feet in Auburn District charged with finding and killing the middle-aged cannibal Paxton Fettel, who is the psychic son of the psychic (and nutty) Alma Wade. Fettel has taken telepathic charge of a battalion of cloned soldiers. Fettel was bred and trained to become a telepathic commander to these forces by Armacham Technology Corporation, located in the city, but he apparently went rogue. While traversing the city’s various cut-and-paste office buildings on the hunt for Fettel, you see lots of strange supernatural goings-on. As it turns out, Fettel is actually under the influence of his angry and revengeful mama Alma (who confusingly appears throughout the game as a little girl—and maybe she is or maybe she isn’t, but that doesn’t matter). Alma just wants the world (and especially the Armacham Corporation, who basically kept her and her son imprisoned in dungeon-like testing labs their entire lives) to go away (in a big ball of fire, preferably). Her son, Fettel, is going to help her.

By the end of the confusing narrative, the game reveals that you, as Point man, are actually Alma’s first son (like the first [and, apparently, less successful] experiment), something you did not know (or understandably repressed), which gives you the sole ability to actually destroy Fettel, which you promptly do, with a bullet to his forehead. (The narrative doesn’t bother with details like—how exactly did you escape the same fate as your dungeon-dwelling, laboratory rat of a brother [or mother, for that matter]? Somehow, you got lucky and escaped and then forgot, I guess, and you ended up living an entire life, and choosing an entire career as a Delta Force F.E.A.R. operative…and you just so happened to get assigned to this very case to allow this lovely family reunion. But maybe such sensible questions aren’t necessary here. One good outcome of all this—we at least have an explanation as to why you have the ability to slow time—the dormant psychic DNA of mama Alma Wade courses through your body too.)

But wait! Even though Fettel lies dead, the game isn’t over yet, because we still have Alma to deal with. This is made doubly difficult because a dude by the name of Harlan Wade, a researcher of questionable ethics at Armacham, opens up her cage and lets her out, and now she begins to raze Fairport herself, no longer having Fettel to rely on. Why would Harlan Wade let her free? Simple: He feels guilty. Why? Well, as the narrative takes yet another confusing turn, this researcher is actually Alma’s father—yes, making him your grandfather (and Fettel’s grandfather), and he feels awful for having kept her caged like an animal, forcing her to develop her psychic abilities, also forcing pregnancy upon her…you name it (plenty to atone for there). F.E.A.R. 1 ends with the necessary massive explosion destroying Armacham and the city…but not Alma, who makes a last-minute, spine-tingling, horror-movie appearance. A phone call after the credits roll chronicles a discussion among Armacham execs who consider the entire experiment to be successful. Cue thunder, lightening, and evil technology empire laughter.

Don’t take a breath yet, because F.E.A.R. 2 appears on the scene and the narrative continues to churn, though from a completely different angle. Thirty minutes before the end of the first installment, Michael Beckett, another Delta Squad operative, is sent in to arrest Genevieve Aristide, an executive at Armacham. Of course, at this point, Alma is terrorizing the mostly evacuated city. Right at the point when Beckett is about to complete his mission and secure Aristide, he learns that Aristide has some plans for him and his teammates—an operation of some kind that will instill them all with the power to stop Alma for good. Beckett, who passes on the whole idea, unfortunately has no time to resist because right at this moment Point Man (who is still in the first game) is initiating the big explosion which ends F.E.A.R. 1. Beckett goes down with the concussive explosion and wakes up as he is being operated on in the Armacham labs—then blacks out again. Looks like he got some unelective surgery after all (which, thankfully, gives him the signature slo-mo capability and also allows him to emit a psychic signal of sorts that Alma can track)! He awakes in a deserted, bloodied hospital, and we’re off!

To keep this short, you slog through deserted elementary schools and alleyways and office buildings (many of them genuinely creepy) fighting off a variety of enemies. The upshot is this: In the end, Alma does get ahold of you and she..well, she rapes you. There’s no elegant way to put it. Yup, you are now going to be the proud father of…who knows what. F.E.A.R. 2 leaves the door wide open to anything. With a narrative this structurally unsound, it would be hard to tell where the series would go next, or if it would even make any sense. (Oh, and I’m completely ignoring the various expansion packs and side-games that, in some cases, completely ignore any of the plot points already mentioned, such as they are. I don’t want my head to explode.)

The important thing to remember is that the only reason we can construct this so-called story is because we can suss it out over time. This narrative is completely unclear while playing the first two games (at least it was to me)– the majority of people I know who are F.E.A.R. fans just ripped through the first two games without any sense (or much care) of what was actually going on, enjoying all the slow-motion carnage.

The beauty of F.E.A.R. 3, though, is that it doesn’t fall into the same trap. From the beginning, the game is clearly centered on making sense of the story, the characters, their motivations, and their ultimate goals, and this is why I think the game is undervalued. In fact, in employing experienced writers, Day 1 Studios made certain that the backstory is assembled (or maybe reassembled, or maybe even, frankly, realized for the first time) in a way that actually makes the first two games narratively stronger than they are in reality. Again I argue, that is no small task. F.E.A.R. 3, I believe, not only stands on its own two legs as a decent storytelling supernatural shooter, it also manages to pull its predecessors out the narrative muck and make sense of them too, in their own bizarre way. And I am wholly impressed by this.

Following in the audacious footsteps of its predecessors, F.E.A.R. 3 sees the return of both Point Man (still a silent, slo-mo wielding protagonist) and his brother Fettel. Having Point Man return is no big deal—he was picked up by a Delta Squad helicopter at the end of F.E.A.R 1 during the explosion (though the end of that game makes you think everyone has been enveloped by Alma—apparently they escaped her). However, getting Fettel back on stage is a completely different story…since he was shot point blank in the head way back in the first game. So, naturally, Fettel returns in F.E.A.R. 3 as…a ghost. Well, he is psychic after all, so why not? But rather than being mad at his bro for shooting him and all, Fettel, as a warmhearted sort of cannibal spectre, wants to team up with Point Man and go find mama Alma hiding out somewhere in Fairport, who, now nine months later, is about to give birth to Michael Beckett’s baby from F.E.A.R. 2. Fettel says he wants to stop it all (ostensibly), but you are never sure of his actual intentions, since he such a nasty, evil sleazeball. So the two of you trudge off in your uneasy alliance as waves of Alma’s contractions ripple psychically throughout the devastated city.

I just called Fettel a nasty sleazeball, but let me retract that, in part. You see, the strength of F.E.A.R. 3 as a storytelling device is in its characterization, which this franchise has been sorely lacking all along. All the F.E.A.R. games have plenty of ridiculous twists and turns in the narrative department, but the characters peopling this narrative have been nobodies, cardboard cutouts, up until now. In F.E.A.R. 3 we learn quite a bit about the histories and backgrounds, and the previous relationships, among all these characters. In essence, the characters are sewn together into one comprehensive tapestry, and it is extremely satisfying to see it come together (with the help of a real writer’s pen). For example, in many flashback-interludes during the game, we actually see Point Man and Fettel, as children in footy pajamas (which look more like prison garb), growing up in their Armacham holding cell, which is basically a surgical observatory room with two beds and a television. Their “grandfather,” the researcher Harlan Wade, comes in from time to time to continually experiment on Fettel, while generally leaving Point Man alone. As time passes, you can see the young Fettel, his head banadaged from surgery and his spirit broken, become angrier and angrier, physically and psychically damaged from these various experiments (most of which were to force him to perfect his psychic abilities). Mama Alma, somewhere nearby, eventually senses this increasing pain in her child (which she was forced to have by Harlan as well—so everyone can see who, ultimately, the bad guy is here), and she visits Fettel in his cell telepathically several times—and this is when the shit hits the fan. Now psychically connected to his mother, Fettel’s power increases exponentially, and he lets his anger fly and starts killing lots of armed guards, exploding their heads just by thinking about it, that sort of thing. (This is shown in a post-credits sequence.) Point Man, amidst all this, remains relatively unscathed.

The game still does not explain exactly how Point Man escaped all of this to grow into a relatively normal adult and begin the events of F.E.A.R. 1, which is a shame to me. But he is referred to in hushed whispers by other Armacham scientists as “the failure”—meaning Fettel is the successful part of the overall experiment, not Point Man, since he doesn’t show the same levels of aggression or psychic ability or what-have-you.

Back in present time, the brothers-in-arms (Point Man and Fettel-the-ghost) trudge through Fairport yet once again to achieve their goal, while fighting off a variety of enemies, both natural and supernatural. Near the final chapter, you and Fettel revisit your childhood holding cells at Armacham; your mission while there is to “destroy” the bad memories that lurk around the place. As you “find” these memories and put them to rest, you get to see what life was like for the two boys at the invasive, unloving, egotistical hands of their researcher “grandfather.” This is the point in the game where the characters become more real than ever before—this troubled past makes all the difference in explaining why these people are so twisted and broken and unhappy. At the very end, you do reach Alma who is bloated beyond reality and shrieking in pregnancy pain (and she has black hair extensions whipping out across the room that must be 25 feet in length, by God). But the outcome of the game depends upon various achievement scores attained by the two main characters throughout the various msisions. If Fettel has reached higher scores in kills and tactics and psychic ability, then you get one (bad) ending. If Point Man’s score ends up on top, then you get a different (good?) ending. I won’t reveal either here, but I think this is a powerful and poignant way to bring the third installment to a close (and to also destroy the temporary, and unsustainable, alliance between the brothers for good, yikes).

One of the complaints regarding the narrative in “F.E.A.R. 3” is that certain elements don’t add up or make sense under close scrutiny. For example, I’ve read critical reviews that asked if the character Paxton Fettel was killed in the first game and is now a ghost, how can he be killed again? Wouldn’t bullets pass right through him? Similarly, some critics have asked how in the world Alma could rape Michael Beckett in F.E.A.R. 2 and basically force him to impregnate her. Of course, questions like these that attempt to foist some kind of everyday sense-making onto this supernatural tale really aren’t fair at all. Questions like these, which exist only to undermine the purposefully-unreal narrative, are not appropriate as far as I’m concerned. If a player is truly concerned about having answers to these kinds of technical, sensible questions when playing a horror game, they should probably be playing something else, like a golfing simulator. Am I right?

Another big gripe regards the series’ movement away from its roots in survival-type horror and focusing more on action—an increasing tendency with each new game in the series. To me, someone who loves horror games to death, I always considered F.E.A.R to be creepy at times (and woefully, wonderfully gooey at times), but I never felt as though it was anything close to a survival horror title. The biggest difference here is that, playing as Point Man with a kickass arsenal and slow-mo abilities out the wazoo, I never really ever felt particularly vulnerable during any of the games (which is supposed to be a hallmark of survival horror). The Dead Space franchise fits into the same category for me—Issac, the protagonist, is too powerful (with that damn earth-shattering curb-stomp of his) to be the vulnerable type. Are these characters weathered? Sure. Are they even psychologically crippled? Certainly. But they don’t die a whole lot, generally speaking. They’re just too crafty, too fast, and too action-oriented.

Finally, one last observation in my lengthy defense of F.E.A.R. 3: I suspect that many reviewers giving this title a thumbs-half-down also didn’t experience the game’s “divergent coop” (or, as I prefer, the “asymmetrical coop”) mode. You and one other player can forge through the campaign together. But although you are playing side-by-side, the games you experience are surprisingly different from one another. Personally, I’ve never really seen anything like this before. Playing as Point Man, you experience the tried-and-true-tough-but-fair-bad-attitude-straightforward-run-and-gun of an FPS (with gory, slo-mo details). Playing as the ghost of Paxton Fettel, however, you cannot fire a gun or toss a grenade or use a mech until you possess an opponent’s body—which you can only do for a short while until the body expires. My partner and I each played one of these characters cooperatively through the campaign, and we had very different—and both extremely enjoyable—experiences by assisting each other with kills (Paxton can suspend enemies in mid-air while Point man picks them off, or Point Man can riddle a big boss full of bullets while Paxton busies himself trying to possess the boss while he is otherwise occupied) and solving puzzles together. My guess is that most reviewers blew through the campaign playing only as Point Man (which is the only character unlocked at the outset if you play solo), shrugged their shoulders, and wrote some middling review. Too bad, and not fair. Their loss. I don’t need to tell F.E.A.R. fans to play this—you already have. But if you’ve ever been on the fence regarding it, I suggest you play all of the games to get the full effect, and to befriend some of the most inhuman characters you may ever meet.



F.E.A.R. 2 – Reborn (PC, 2009): S.H.O.R.T. but C.R.E.E.P.Y.
October 6, 2011, 1:55 am
Filed under: F.E.A.R. 2 - Reborn (PC, 2009, US)

If Metacritic has anything to say about the 2009 expansion pack to “F.E.A.R. 2 Project Origin” titled “Reborn”  (and by the way, some critics believe that Metacritic has absolutely nothing to say about anything—and anyway, if you are a critic of Metacritic, does that make you a Metacritic-critic? A Metacritic-metacritic? A meta-Metacritic…?)

Okay, that went off the rails. We’ll try again: If the whopping five professional reviews documented by Metacritic for the “F.E.A.R. 2 Project Origin” expansion “Reborn” are any indication, this little download-only excursion came and went overnight with nary a whimper as far as the general public was concerned. There’s probably good reason for that: The reviews I found have one overarching bitch: The expansion, while having acceptably grim, tense gameplay akin to that in “F.E.A.R. 2,” was too short for the $10 pricetag. By most accounts, the expansion only lasted 1.5 to 2 hours (so say the critics), and the hefty investment made little financial sense, unless you were a hardcore F.E.A.R. completionist. (And, by the way, I don’t know about you, but I’d say almost one hundred percent of the time when I see professional reviewers calculating the time needed to finish a game’s campaign, they are always wrong. More accurately, what I mean is, in addition to seeing a wide array of completion times that never seem to actually match one another, reviewers are never right by my clock. Without fail, if a reviewer says a campaign took 10 hours to play, it will take me 15 hours to play. Games that have been summarily dismissed by reviewers for lasting a measley 6 hours have taken me 2 weeks to finish. I don’t consider myself a particularly slow gamer, and God knows I manage to consume quite a bit of material; so, all I can surmise is that professional reviewers have access to some sort of time machine they comfortably settle into when playing a game to review it, and the timeline is altered. Either that, or many reviewers don’t actually finish the games they are writing about and take a stabby guess at how long it would have taken them to finish it. Or they lie and shorten their actual gameplay time to make them look like speedy little champion players. Whatever. Okay, stepping down from the soapbox.)

It’s true though: As an expansion, like many expansions, this is naturally shorter than a full-fledged campaign, and paying full price for it over Steam or XBL (or whatever) may not be the wisest decision. But following through on the rambling mess in the previous paragraph, this expansion lasted longer than only 2 hours for me (more like 3.5) for one simple reason, and here’s an easy tip for those of you who may travel back in time, dig out your copy of “F.E.A.R. 2,” and try to get the most out of this expansion: The game starts you out in a ridiculously overpowered mech suit, which allows you to blow through the entire first “Interval” (chapter) in less than 15 minutes by liquefying everyone in sight with a rain of bullets and missiles. Fun? Sure! But having so much power seriously eats into playtime. The solution? As soon as the expansion starts, get out of the damn mech suit and give yourself a challenge by playing on foot and toting only an assault rifle—while extending the gameplay time! And there’s an achievement for doing it.

I don’t think I’ve included any discussions of a lowly expansion pack on this blog, and I’m not likely to get into the habit of it since I typically only play main games and then move onto something else. And since this is not a full-fledged campaign, it does not deserve a full-fledged discussion. But playing this expansion reminded me of how much I really like the F.E.A.R. universe and its gameplay, its tough attitude, its crazy smart AI, its creepiness, and the super cool bullet time. I currently have F.3.A.R. (or F.E.A.R. 3 for normal people) sitting on the shelf waiting (and when I play it, I am unlikely to write about it here, since as a big budget, well-known title, it doesn’t really fit the purpose of this blog). But I wanted to slow-walk my way through the “Reborn” expansion from “F.E.A.R. 2” before plunging into the latest iteration. Of course, the last F.E.A.R. game I played was number two, and that was at least two years ago. So, I had forgotten a little bit what a badass game this really is. “Reborn” brought that badassery right back into sharp focus.

As an expansion, the narrative here is clearly nonessential—except for one interesting point which connects quite directly to the third game in the series (from what I hear)—the specifics in a second. Generally, I don’t think of the F.E.A.R. narratives as being carefully crafted; the game seems to trade much more in atmosphere and jumpscares than coherency or thoroughly drawn characters–and I ain’t bitching about that. In this expansion, you play as Replica soldier Foxtrot 813 (I always wanted to be named Foxtrot) who is a part of an orbital Elite Power Armor drop being introduced into Auburn (the wrecked city of the F.E.A.R. universe) to battle Armacham soldiers…or something. After whooshing in (taking out the top of a building in the process) and doing a bit of shooting, you eventually suffer a hallucination and slow-time murder all of your Replica buddies that you’ve met up with–and all of this occurs under the direction and control of your favorite gravelly-voiced freak and mine: Paxton Fettel (yet another name I really wish my mother had chosen for me)! Inside your head, Paxton Fettel explains to you that you are different from the others, and that they are meaningless. He then gives you a new set of orders: “Set me free.” From there you go on a hunt through the devastated Auburn District trying to find where Fettel is being kept (which never becomes clear), who is keeping him (never answereed), how he is being kept (completely sidestepped), and then freeing him. Why does Fettel want jailbreaking?  Ah, now there IS an answer for that: Fettel wants to go hunt down Alma and stop her from destroying everything and everyone. As it turns out, apparently, Fettel isn’t such a bad dude after all (for a potential cannibal, anyway). Now that you are a murderer of Replicas yourself though, you are being hunted by your former comrades. Their only goal is to take you, a defective unit, out of commission.

SPOILER ALERT: Okay, so onto the interesting ending plot/character point that directly connects to the third game in the series. At the very end of “Reborn,” you do find Paxton Fettel, a ghostlike figure kneeling on the floor (his favorite position) in the midst of chaos and ruin, all of it looking like a literal hell (and what else would it be). Anyway, when you approach him, he stands, puts his hand on your shoulder. Then from a camera angle behind your character, you remove your “Standard Replica-Issue Face-Hiding Helmet” and, as Paxton Fettel disintegrates into floating ashes in front of you, the camera swings in front of your face to reveal that you have, indeed, BECOME Paxton Fettel—in other words, he has possessed your body. He then exclaims: “I Am Reborn!” Cue the thunder, lightening, fire, tympanis, etc.

Of course this directly connects to a key gameplay element in “F.3.A.R.” (or F.E.A.R. 3 for normal people); from what I understand, if you play as the gravelly-voiced-cannibal-ghost-with-good-intentions Paxton Fettel, you can possess others (like your opponents) and play in their bodies for a while. For a franchise that, to me, does not seem to plan its stories too far in advance or with much narrative consistency, I am impressed that years before the third game in the series hit store shelves, the developers were already making some key game decisions and foreshadowing those decisions in this expansion pack. I like it when things come together. Nice job. SPOILER ENDS.

The final determination: Forgettable…but good, creepy (short) fun.