‘F.E.A.R. 3’ fails to live up to series’ earlier games

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(Courtesy of Day 1 Studios)

Do game publishers know it’s not Halloween yet?

Along with “Alice: Madness Returns,” “Dead Block” and “Shadows of the Damned,” “F.E.A.R. 3” is an oddly timed horror-themed release that doesn’t give a good incentive to evade the summer sun.

As a sequel to one of the greatest, most overlooked first-person shooter series, “F.E.A.R. 3” fails in many ways for many reasons. For those unfamiliar with the series, the original “F.E.A.R.” (2005) was an excellently designed corridor shooter that stood out for its still-impressive enemy intelligence, slow-motion ability (think “Max Payne”) and unexpected and genuinely frightening horror beats. Its 2009 sequel was even better, introducing variety in environments, creative enemies and controllable mechs.

Since Monolith Productions created such a solid framework for the series, it’s almost a staggering achievement that newcomer Day 1 Studios have managed to mar the series’ legacy. The developer behind the great “Mech Assault” series and unbelievably dull “Fracture” has stepped into the series and created what is best thought of as a “straight-to-DVD” sequel.

The controls, enemy A.I. and sharp graphics helped “F.E.A.R.” and its sequel stand-out, yet this final entry in the trilogy fails at all three. This can be attributed to Day 1 abandoning the game’s previous engine and adapting the series to its own Despair Engine, last seen underwhelming players in “Fracture.” “F.E.A.R.” has never been a series about big ideas. It was the game’s mechanics and the butter-smooth controls that earned its place among the best of the best. Without them, the game’s cliche story and setting fare much worse.

Aside from botching the basics, Day 1’s sequel feels schizophrenic in its design. Like many of its contemporaries, “F.E.A.R. 3” focuses on a mix of single-player and multi-player when it would be better served to focus on just one. The single-player is a tiring campaign that can’t decide if it is meant to be played solo or co-op (a new addition). Some areas seem unfairly difficult without a partner to revive you, while others are a cakewalk with a friend.

If having a co-op partner jumping around isn’t enough to kill the game’s atmosphere, the persistent progress bars alerting you that you are “60 ammo pick-ups away from leveling up” will. It’s an odd, tasteless decision that makes it seem as if Day 1 had its own game in mind and just happened upon the “F.E.A.R.” license.

Multiplayer fares much better than the exhausting, redundant story campaign. The game offers a variety of competitive and co-operative modes (assuming you bought the game new with a “F.E.A.R. Pass” download code), all of which are interesting, but only one is any good.

The cooperative modes, Soul Survivor and Soul King, are perplexing and not the least bit fun. Soul Survivor pits four players against a Spectre ghost player who must kill and convert the others by possessing enemies that populate the map. The balance between the two sides is drastically off, making for a frustrating experience as the Spectre mows down players who have a very limited supply of ammo.

Soul King keeps the same concept, except all four players are Spectres competing for the highest score. Since death means dropping your collected points, the winner has more to do with being at the right place at the right time than any amount of skill. Play it once and forget it exists, moving on to the superior co-op modes.

Along with two new competitive modes, “F.E.A.R. 3” introduces two cooperative modes to the series. F---ing Run is an original, yet limiting survival mode in which four players race through alleyways and corridors, battling against increasingly difficult waves of enemies. The twist is that a “Wall of Death” follows the players, resulting in instant death and a game-over screen for the team if any player gets caught in it. When played as a team, this mode is extremely tense and fun. Screaming at a player to climb a ladder quicker or reviving a teammate as the Wall of Death approaches, complemented by ominous bass tones, will get your blood pumping.

Slightly less original is a variation on the Nazi Zombies mode of “Call of Duty,” called Contractions. Four players must hold down a fort, making repairs, gaining access to new weapons and gunning down the undead that come in waves. The excellent map design and breaks between waves, when players must run out and retrieve ammo crates, make Contractions a welcome alternative to similar modes in other games. Unfortunately, even these co-op modes soon grow tired due to their linear nature.

Even in the best parts of “F.E.A.R. 3,” the game constantly reminds you of its shoddy making with badly designed menus and network connections that will test your patience. Like any disappointing horror sequel made by an inferior director, “F.E.A.R. 3” fumbles with the series’ strengths while introducing a couple off-beat concepts of its own.

Only series fanatics need apply this time, or those in desperate need of a new horror-themed co-op game to play with friends. That’s assuming you are looking for that sort of thing in July to begin with. Perhaps it’s best to wait for October, when the retail price matches the game’s budget.

Updated on 07/14/2011 at 5:48 p.m.: video game grade