14th Dec 2007 | 11:00
Why is it that child stars always suffer so? It's the Macaulay Culkin effect: subject to an increasingly mediocre by-the-numbers career while bickering parents divorce and squabble over the cashflow.
Spare a thought then for Alma Wade, preteen star of Monolith moneyspinner F.E.A.R.: a victim of a tug of love between her creators and her publishers Vivendi - but also paraded through an array of ill-fitting console treatments and absurdly bland expansions.
Step-parent developed games that have not only besmirched her good name, but also made us heartily fed up with concrete walls and ceilings. I, myself, can't even go into multi-storey carparks any more without being physically and violently sick.
So why are we championing her return? For one thing, the Monolith brand of F.E.A.R.'s close-quarter gritty combat and AI has never really been bettered. For another thing, Monolith (who haven't been a part of the F.E.A.R. franchise since that climactic explosion took out Alma's cage and half of the city of Auburn) are remarkably candid about the original game's failings.
Yes, the story was engaging, and yes the soldier AI was great fun to fight against, but for how long could lift shafts and corridors stay immersive?
"It was a frustration on F.E.A.R., not being able to get outside!" agrees John Mulkey, the game's lead designer. "We had a pretty indoor game. We were a claustrophobic game by design, but at a certain point tension becomes numbing. So we've decided to mix it up and to have these more open spaces, and you feel a little colour from the sky before going back to tight, menacing environments."
Unlike so many prima donna developers, the 'Lith boys are responding to feedback from F.E.A.R. - meaning that there's a concerted effort to throw in more engaging and varied enemies outside of the endless soldiers, a mix of different locations, and a team you may even give a shit about.
"Plus, we really played out the whole 'creepy little girl walking across the hall in front of you' card" explains Mulkey, as our conversation drifts to everybody's favourite psychically created eight-year old personification and crazed psy-power mental patient. "We've put a lot of effort and a lot of thought into the ways in which we can give Alma teeth. It's going to be more direct, and an escalation: not something you say 'Creepy little girl is not so creepy anymore...' to."
In another break from F.E.A.R. you no longer play one of PC gaming's amnesiac protagonists, you're a member of the US Army's covert Delta Force and your name is Michael Becket. Now Delta Force were the whipping boys in F.E.A.R. - the ones who were waiting in the wings, but then started leaking blood all over the place whenever a spot of the old Alma ultra-violence was required.
"Yeah, he's a Delta operator," picks up Mulkey. "And at the beginning of the game it's actually 30 minutes before the end of F.E.A.R.. You're heading to the penthouse residence of Genevieve Aristide, because of all the things the F.E.A.R. team and the F.E.A.R. point man have been uncovering in the first game."
Obsessives may recall the voice of mysterious cigarette-smoking, femme-fatale Genevieve from the original game, she was the head of both the now-titular Origin project (mandate: lock up Alma - make her have babies) and the Perseus project (mandate: make her kid able to control an army of clone soldiers, and make him eat people while you're at it since that would be cool).
In fact it was her voice that closed F.E.A.R. with her telling a Senator that "the Origin situation has been resolved" and that "There is some good news, however: the first prototype was a complete success".
"She's very connected into what's going on - all the cloak and dagger and black ops." Explains our man from Monolith. So he might say that Alma has a grudge against her? "Oh yeah, that might be fair..."
Mulkey refuses to explain exactly how a common-or-garden Delta operative such as yourself is suddenly granted the time-slowing ultra-sensitive reactions of the original game's point man, but clues may be provided by the fact that early in the game you find yourself lying prostrate on an operating table and dipping in and out of consciousness as an officious woman with a snappy business voice looks on.
It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination either (though this is Mystic Will talking rather than the sternly monitored voice of the developer) to surmise that you're being upgraded with another brand of Armacham technology to eventually aid and abet Ms Aristide, and perhaps even protect her from certain insane small children.
Either way, the game starts in earnest in pure 28 Days Later fashion deep within said hospital. Now, you might have read my stuff on this before - but sit tight for a paragraph or so as there's an excellent bit coming up about faeces. After watching surgeons attempting to save you from the brink of death (and watching spectral assailants devour you whenever you lose consciousness) you wake up alone in the operating theatre.
This then turns into a Monolith masterclass in what I refer to as 'scripted WTF'; a speciality of theirs that's been a hallmark ever since that Marine level in Aliens vs Predator 2 where pipes and steam proved scarier than any alien attack. Alma has broken out, bits of guts keep on falling from airvents, odd scrawlings cover the walls and a wall-hanging man-creature is leaping around and behaving very oddly.
This chap is the first example of Monolith recognising that they needed to spice up the combat with regular enemies who weren't simply the same endless clones or one-trick ponies like the original's invisible wall-huggers.
"We're really trying to introduce new soldier types that go beyond having a different coloured uniform," outlines level designer supreme and lead developer Mulkey.
"Having new AI types that have different tactics that push the player to think in different ways of combating them. Adding elements to break up the gaming experience so it doesn't fall into a rhythm that could become tiresome."
Which leads us to this rather pallid gentleman feasting on dead bodies and leaping from wall to ceiling to hospital bed with great, and beautifully animated, skill and vitesse.
"He's mumbly," picks up a clearly passionate Mulkey. "You hear these mumbles and nonsensical rants - but it sounds like someone talking to themselves, like two separate people having an argument. Where you find him, you find these very odd scrawlings all over the ground and the walls and surfaces around him. It's an odd mix of numbers, symbols and words. He's trying to puzzle something out. And it's usually drawn out in blood, or faeces..."
A game character writing stuff on a wall with his own shit? That's a first for gaming isn't it?
"We're groundbreaking!" affirms the Monolith man. "This character, he's very skittish. He's also rather aggressive, you'll come across some soldiers and you'll see this thing is picking them off. These guys use them in their equations. You come across this body and there's all this scrawling across the floor, and you'll see the soldier's head has been scooped out as if it were an inkwell.
And eventually, obviously, these confused maniacs will meet the hollower end of your weaponry. They'll stick to corners if they can, scuttling around insect-like - avoiding crossing the middle of the room.
"They're little wads of muscle," continues a fervent Mulkey. "They can weave up through the ceiling panels, dive up off the walls... the bounds of the normal world just don't have the same meaning for them... jumping across a table and running up a wall is the same to them as us walking across the floor".
And so with your revamped, highly polished and better animated arsenal of wall-pinning Penetrators and grunt-igniting laser beams you'll traverse the wrecked city of Auburn with, we're promised, a bit less corridor and a bit more variety.
OUT AND ABOUT
"It's a more open environment; a destroyed city opens up an incredible amount of opportunities. You can have what seems like a very normal environment, then turn it about on its head. You can do some really great things to play with a player's expectation," explains the lead designer, wary of a fierce PR lady employed to make his life a misery if he lets on too much about specific environments.
As far as stuff goes for dead-certs though: killer robot-mechs will certainly be tasked with hunting you down in the Auburn streets, high-kicking foes known as Replica Assassins with wrist-mounted blades will cause hand-to-hand mischief (who could well be tooled up variants on our hospital poo-smearing friend), Alma will be blowing stuff up with her mind, and you can expect a few ominous playgrounds as well. And a downed plane or two.
And the combat sounds as much fun as it ever was. Not least because the chaos of your gunfights will be exacerbated by the fact that there'll be five times as much detail to each room than before, and therefore more breakables, more debris, more smoke and more slow-motion swearing.
More than ever before the aim is for bullet exchanges to be sandbox, with ramifications of your split-second battle tactics reflected in your enemies movement, actions and eventual demise. Plus, you'll be able to interact with the environment in much the same way as clone soldiers could in the previous game - leaping over fences, or toppling over furniture, flipping it over and taking cover behind it.
"What we've done is built lots and lots of systems into the game - and not so much hardcore scripting, that would mean every time you go into that room the exact same things are going to happen in that exact same order," explains Mulkey. "We put a lot more opportunities into the environment, that given the right conditions and the right player choices certain things play out."
This random factor, the way clever level design goes hand in hand with AI cleverness, is what has been so lacking on the externally produced F.E.A.R. expansion bandwagon. What's more it's a paramount shame that such a worthy development team and game have been forced so far back in the starting grid by powers beyond their control.
The F.E.A.R. universe was, and is, a unique step forward for first-person gaming, and the prospect of getting it back new, improved and with a bit less corridor is exciting to say the least.