Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

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.


1 Comment so far
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Hello. I love speculating about the plot of the FEAR series, so maybe these ideas interest you.

You wonder: how Point Man escaped the fate of his brother? My point is that Point Man has not escaped of Armacham plans, because at the end of the credits of FEAR there is a conversation between Genevieve Aristide (Armacham) and a senator, saying that the first prototype has been a success, that is, that Point Man has been a success. Hence it follows that Armacham decided that Point Man is integrated into special forces to find out if he had success in the regular combat.

Second, some wonder: how Alma Wade becomes pregnant at the end of FEAR 2 if she is a ghost? My idea is that Alma is not a ghost in the usual sense. Yes, Alma died, but everything indicates that she resurrected and turned a super-psychic, because at the end of FEAR Alma grabs the helicopter, as a physical object, rather than appearing as a ghost, so she still has a biological body capable of pregnancy. It is true that the apparitions of Alma are ghostly nature, but they can be psychic projections of Alma as her body is locked in the vault.

And finally, some wonder: how Paxton Fettel can be hurt by bullets in FEAR 3 if he is a ghost? My idea is that Fettel is not a ghost in FEAR 3, because at the end of FEAR 2 Reborn we see that the ghost of Fettel possesses the body of a replica soldier, which acquires new powers in the third but still physical, vulnerable to the bullets.

Comment by Juan

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