The F.E.A.R games have always placed more emphasis on frenzied action set-pieces than their dank, horror movie-inflected sense of atmosphere, and F.E.A.R 3 is no exception. In spite of this, the much-touted involvement of self-proclaimed Master of Horror John Carpenter does give this third instalment an uneasy edge that was lacking in both of its predecessors. Carpenter’s role, which apparently included re-working the dialogue and plotting – of both the cutscenes and the incidental in-game material – was to bring the overall approach of the series into line with his own skewed sensibilities. While it doesn’t make for a fundamentally original videogame – Carpenter was always something of a magpie anyway – it’s carried off with more pith and verve than many of its genre contemporaries.

And it’s essentially two games in one, specifically built for online or offline co-op play. You can work your way through the campaign as either of Alma’s two sons; the (still nameless) F.E.A.R “Point Man” or his psychotic, telepathic brother Fettel. Each represents an admirably disparate experience. Point Man’s campaign is familiar FPS fare, enlivened by decisive bullet-time slow motion; a series staple. Fettel can throw fireballs, suspend enemies in mid-air and shield his brother from a shielded vantage point in a gunfight, but his most delectable skill involves his ability to possess enemies from behind enemy lines. It’s a great trade-off, and each character requires that you embark upon each playthrough in a sharply different manner.

But the game’s most purely enjoyable feature centres around a new Challenge system. Though these can be ignored if you want to maintain your interest in the story, they add a rejuvenating second layer to the gameplay; particularly during co-op. Some of the challenges are very easily achieved – such as picking up a certain amount of ammo per level, or remaining in cover for a set period of time – and others require a bit more tact. One of them (which demands that Fettel levitate a certain number of enemies before his brother dispatches them) has achievements and trophies attached to it, and on the harder difficulty tiers, choosing the right moment with your partner is a hefty part of the fun. As is multi-tasking to ensure that you stand a good chance of nailing as many as possible in one sitting.

Because of the inclusion of these challenges (as well as extensive high score tables) F.E.A.R 3 is also open to be tackled as a score-attack style FPS that bears little relation to its standard incarnation. Although you can play F.E.A.R 3 as a single-player game very ably, it’s a co-op game even when you’re chasing high scores, primarily because of how thoughtfully designed those challenges are. A consistent degree of speed and precision is rewarded, of course, but if you’re gunning for the really lofty score barriers (as Achievement & Trophy junkies are definitely going to want to do) pairing up with a friend makes this pursuit far, far easier. As well as much more fun.

So many of John Carpenter’s films – some of the really good ones, even – constantly teeter on the brink of incoherence, so it’s no surprise that F.E.A.R 3 doesn’t really make a great deal of sense. The plot moves so quickly (as plots always do in Carpenter’s work) that it’s occasionally difficult to work out exactly what’s happening in the overarching storyline, but there is a bizarre and unexpected upside to this. Fettel and his brother’s relationship is ridiculously bent and ulterior from the get-go, and being kept in the dark about who’s in charge (and who may be planning to double cross who) gives each new chapter an apprehensive spark that it may otherwise have been lacking. Carpenter’s eerie sense of visual finesse rears its chilling head more than once too, most notably in a section of a shopping mall that’s comprised almost entirely of flickering plasma televisions.

If you were disappointed by the (almost complete) lack of scares and ambient atmosphere found in the first F.E.A.R sequel, then F.E.A.R 3 more than redresses that balance. The exceptionally dark post-game epilogue – which depicts the brothers as young boys, undergoing psychiatric shock treatment at the behest of their father – is perhaps a signifier of the more courageous (and adult) experience that could have been, but this is still leagues ahead of most of the competition. And if you’ve been yearning for a great co-operative experience, then this is more (much more) than worthy of a sizeable patch of your leisure time.

F.E.A.R 3 is available now for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.

Watch the F.E.A.R 3 trailer here:

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