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A tale of two F.E.A.R.s

Will Porter consoles a frightened child caught in a tug of love between two bickering parents. But then his eyes start bleeding

Once upon a time there was a game called F.E.A.R., and even though it was a vastly unnecessary acronym, it was widely lauded as an excellent provenor of intuitive AI and slo-mo instances of glorious ultra-violence.

Since then, however, the good ship Alma has sailed through choppy waters. Developers Monolith were taken over by Warner Brothers yet remained rather attached to their creation, while erstwhile publishers Vivendi had pumped a lot of time and money into creating a new F.E.A.R. franchise that had suddenly begun to circle the drain.

Countless enriched lawyers later, and we have a two-pronged assault on the paranormal violence. Monolith retain rights to the storyline, characters and technology; while Vivendi own the name, and the ability to pump out expansions for the original game - even if they choose to do odd stuff within them like reincarnate Norton Mapes (who apparently survived a bullet wound AND outran a nuclear explosion).

The new Monolith game, then, remains untitled (at the time of going to press at least), and unrepentant. Starting 30 minutes before the end of the original game, and featuring a lead protagonist apparently clad in the garb of the clones you once gunned down so merrily, the first thing you clock onto when gazing at Monolith's new brand of F.E.A.R. is that not that much has changed.

Sure, the panicking doctors leaning over your prostrate body on an operating table are now beautifully detailed, and the beasties you see guzzling on your flesh as you dip in and out of consciousness are graphically above and beyond anything you saw last time around.

However, as you wake up in the empty hospital 28 Days Later-style, slip on the new-fangled goggles that make up your HUD in the game and set off into corridor-iana, you realise that although we're not in Kansas anymore, we certainly haven't gone far. Nebraska, perhaps.

As you shotgun soldiers into red clouds of blood and flying limbs though, and stand there grinning with blotches of blood covering your visor, you'll remark on a few subtle changes. The AI is a marked step-up, for example, granting the game
a far more defined feeling of sandbox combat - something aided by your new-found ability to grab corridor furniture and create temporary cover.

It isn't all about combat smarts either: set a goon on fire and he'll become quite intent on putting the flames out. He might dive into water, roll around on the ground screaming, simply pat himself down or (if the dire warnings of Fire Service educational tool Welephant were not a part of his training), panic and jump out of a window in aid of visually glorious brouhaha.

The healthpacks, meanwhile, have been replaced by the magic healing-over-time systems of Halo or COD2. Oh, and these aren't clone soldiers you're fighting by the way - they're everyday Joes sent to clear the hospital of paranormal weirdos like your good self; it's beginning to look like you play a bad guy.

Because, let's not forget, that blood is present here by the bucketload: handprints, footprints, Da Vinci Code-style spirals of type A-positive red words up and down walls, limbs falling out of ventilation shafts...

It's a biblical plague that even Moses would have baulked at. And oh, but the animation is stunning. One moment in the hospital level sees a skittering dead body in green hospital garb treading over walls and ceilings before backflipping onto the edge of a porter's trolley and retaining his balance with an arched back in true Justin Timberlake fashion.

There's just something so natural (and unnatural, I suppose) about it that it certainly takes you aback; although perhaps not as aback as when the wiry little chap leaps
onto you, slashes at your face, then, thankfully, slowly gets sucked into
a bloody, meaty vortex that appears alongside Alma in the corridor.

"We all fall down," solemnly intones the little lady as a finale, as she stands over you and the screen fades to black.

If Monolith's promise of less repeated environments stays true (and it had better), then they could well be onto a winner here. Unless of course the opposition have something even more special up their sleeve with their own F.E.A.R. sequel...