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FEAR 3 review: Scores, not scares

It must be extremely difficult to truly scare a person who wants to be scared. Sure, at a mechanical level, fear is an involuntary reaction to the perception of threat -- but it's hard to upgrade fear to deep, inexorable terror without the element of surprise. FEAR 3's capacity for terror has been telegraphed by two predecessors, executive credits for acclaimed horror-makers John Carpenter and Steve Niles ... and also, the game has "fear" in the title. With a combination like that, fear shouldn't just be feared -- it should be expected.

The most surprising thing about FEAR 3, however, is that those scares never come. For better and for worse, the franchise's latest outing has eschewed the horror classification in favor of a more action-packed, score-centric experience.

Gallery: FEAR 3 (multiplayer) | 16 Photos

These changes come as a direct result of FEAR 3's heavy predilection towards a new two-player cooperative mode. The campaign's very architecture has been built to be blasted through by a pair of players, almost exclusively featuring wide open, cover-covered battlegrounds for the players to navigate. Without a friend at your side, clearing out these rooms can quickly become more than a little tedious -- especially since the campaign never really breaks out of the "kill guys until the door opens" routine.

Fear is intrinsically a solitary emotion, but the only worthwhile experiences you can have with FEAR 3 require the participation of a friend or three.

The cooperators in question are the (still ridiculously-named) Point Man and his brother Paxton Fettel, upon whom Mr. Man visited fratricide in the original FEAR. Point Man's mix of basic, cover based shooting and temporary time dilation abilities are back and as satisfying as ever. Fettel's abilities, however, are something new entirely: Thanks to his new spectral form, Fettel can possess enemies for a limited time, extending his stay by cannibalizing fallen enemies, or cutting his stay extremely short by exploding his host's body.

Oddly enough, there's just as much competition as there is cooperation in the game's two-player campaign. Unless you're downed by a hail of gunfire and must be revived by your partner, you don't really need to interact with them. While that thread of survival is enough to ensure a modicum of teamwork, players are also participating in a quiet race to earn the designation of "Favorite Son," which is awarded to the top scorer at the end of each campaign chapter. This might be developer Day 1 Studios' biggest achievement: They've actually manifested sibling rivalry as a video game mechanism.

Most of your score will be derived from your completion of skill-based challenges, which include tasks like earning a set number of kills with a particular weapon, performing headshots or killing a string of enemies without taking damage. Players also get points for collecting "Psychic Links" hidden around each level, each of which can be shared between the two players or stolen for a larger bonus to whomever discovered it.

Not only do these points move the player up a somewhat straightforward leveling system, which grants bonuses to health, ammo and ... um, time-magic juice, they also determine the campaign's ending. The player with the highest score at the end of the story mode will see an ending which features their respective character -- something the game doesn't tell you ahead of time, likely leading you to regret all those Psychic Links you needlessly shared with your emulous friend.

The AI is fairly strategically endowed, and will frequently bark orders to one another as they attempt to flank you and your partner. Their verbosity actually leads to their own hilarious downfall -- soldiers will occasionally, helpfully shout that they're the last squad member for you to kill in that area. It's an uncharacteristic act of self-exposure that Day 1 could have explored a bit more. "I hope nobody shoots at this exploding gas tank I have on my back," they would shout. "That's my weak point!"

As enjoyable as FEAR 3's combined formula of time-slowing and dude-exploding may be, it's a shame it's wrapped around a leaden, lackluster campaign. Level design oscillates between bland repetition and unnavigable confusion, while the story -- which was co-penned by 30 Days of Night writer Steve Niles -- is an incoherent mess. It's basically a series of questionable excuses for the brothers to run from Point A to Point B; until, with no explanation whatsoever, they seemingly teleport to Point J.

The campaign's few attempts at scares are far too rote to have any impact. After two games and two non-canonical expansions of being crept up on by Alma, her appearances aren't even remotely startling anymore. Likewise, gruesomely dismembered corpses aren't exactly terrifying after you've just created about 30 of them in the previous room.

FEAR 3's four competitive multiplayer modes are hit-or-miss. "Soul King" and "Soul Survivor" both attempt to shoehorn Fettel's possession powers into cookie-cutter multiplayer archetypes with very little success. "Fucking Run," on the other hand, is a breath of fresh air: It tasks players with running through a gauntlet of enemies while being pursued by a towering cloud of death. Its extreme difficulty is only slightly lessened by the stat bonuses you earn by leveling up, which are persistent between the game's campaign and multiplayer offerings.

Another stand-out mode is "Contractions," FEAR 3's take on the increasingly popular four-player Horde model. Players are tasked with outlasting wave after wave of enemies, earning a few seconds of respite between each salvo during which they can rebuild their defenses and gather supplies from the outskirts of the map. This mode is notable for providing the only scares FEAR 3 has to offer: Alma will randomly show up during a wave, hurling any player who looks at her for too long to the opposite end of the map, separating them from the relative safety of their allies and stronghold.

That's a perfect microcosm of what makes FEAR 3 such a departure from the franchise's previous installments -- fear is intrinsically a solitary emotion, but the only worthwhile experiences you can have with FEAR 3 require the participation of a friend or three. With that kind of congregation, any chance for terror is completely diminished; but your chances for excitement are dramatically increased.

All things considered, you could make worse trades.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of FEAR 3 provided by Warner Bros. Interactive. No, we're not going to call it F3AR. Not ever.

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