Wandering through darkened hallways with a buddy, with constant achievement pop-ups high-fiving your eyeballs every time you pick up a dozen ammo packs, it's hard to get into the mood for horror. It's a problem that FEAR 3 can't resolve in its attempt to integrate co-op, and sacrificing the spooky mood reduces it to just another shooter with great action but a lot of typical problems.
As it awkwardly wedges itself into FEAR's mythology, the plot approaches incoherence: psychic soldier Point Man once again battles the evil Armacham, a defense contractor so powerful that it can apparently conduct open warfare inside the United States; while trying to prevent his ghost-mother Alma from giving ghost-birth to the ghost-child she conceived with that other psychic commando from FEAR 2.
Pointy and the Ghost
When weak storytelling and tedious level design get out of the way, FEAR 3 shows flashes of greatness. Point Man might be a typical FPS hero with recharging health, two weapon slots, bullet-time, and a magnetic attraction to cover; but his dead psycho brother and new co-op partner Paxton Fettel can zap, stun, and even possess enemies. This power makes for deliciously chaotic battles, as both players are pushed to charge forward into close-quarters combat to feed Fettel's need for harvesting fresh kills. The best sections are spectacular whirlwinds of bullets, grenades, knives, slide-tackles, and slow-mo headshots.
Weapons don't have a lot of personality in general, though. There's little in the way of recoil or beefy sound effects—even the mighty, spike-launching Penetrator is watered down and unsatisfying. But they do fill important tactical roles: aggressive enemy AI and varied combat terrain gave me ample reason to adopt different approaches, even though the encounters and boss fights mostly felt the same.
Gunplay itself is rewarding, but the campaign will frustrate both solo and co-op players. Playing the early missions with a friend, the horror theme didn't work—rambling cutscenes and scripted scares killed the pacing. Soloing the final act was an excruciating trial-and-error slog through unbalanced encounters. Scares, such as they are, come in the form of cliché blood-spattered walls, corpse-piles, distorted visions, and annoying monsters that're more pest than terror. There is no imagination or style here, just repeated blood-textures and shrill screams.
No safety in numbers
Multiplayer is more effective at conveying menace, chaos, and violence, and each mode cleverly twists convention. During one “Contractions” co-op survival game I was backpedaling from a pair of ax-wielding cultists and stumbled into Alma, who wanders the map at random. She instantly teleported me outside, and I had to run-and-gun my way back to my squad as cultists hunted me in the eerie mists. It's fun in spite of the console-esque sabotage: local hosting makes for iffy connections (not that you know your ping, because FEAR 3 doesn't tell you), and a lack of text chat in the lobby makes communication difficult when Steam's voice chat gets choppy.
When it works—such as when the brothers eviscerate a roomful of enemies in mere seconds, or in a close-run multiplayer match—FEAR 3 is an enjoyable, even refreshing FPS. Its strong combat and clever mechanics save it from its own clumsy campaign, and it's worth playing for those moments, no matter how hard it tries to convince you otherwise.