F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate is the stand-alone third installment in the F.E.A.R. franchise. Rather than picking up the story where the first expansion (Extraction Point) left off, Perseus Mandate rewinds the tale to the very beginning and follows a second team of hyped-up super soldiers into a spooky labyrinth of corporate offices, laboratories and underground hell holes. If you've played the first two games, it's interesting to see events from a different perspective and there's some nifty crossover between the two story lines. For the uninitiated, the plot revolves around the machinations of Armacham, a typically shady corporation whose shonky health and safety record returns to haunt them with a vengeance.
The original F.E.A.R. gained a lot of attention for combining top-notch FPS action with some genuinely spooky, Japanese horror-influenced set pieces. Perseus Mandate doesn't deviate one inch from the formula, and this is both a blessing and a curse. The game is as effective as ever at staging fiercely pitched battles against legions of bad guys and makes liberal use of a 'bullet-time' mode that is still a ton of fun to use. The horror elements will give you the willies on more than one occasion and the whole package is a solid, entertaining affair. It is, however, so familiar that an air of 'been-there-done-that' sucks a lot of the life out of the game. There are new weapons to play with and new enemies to fight, but nothing that reinvigorates the franchise or moves it in a new direction.
It's particularly surprising to see how old the F.E.A.R. graphics engine looks, considering it's only around two years old. You want long, featureless office corridors? Industrial warehouses full of crates? Generic laboratories? Come right on in, Perseus Mandate won't let you down. It's fair to say that F.E.A.R. was always a game whose grey, bland look was covered up with dazzling fireworks and sudden bursts of supernatural freakiness but it's all been laid quite bare now that everything else in the game has lost a lot of its impact. A few areas look quite impressive, with some creative use of light and shade, but the vast majority of the game plays out in grindingly familiar FPS territory.
Perseus Mandate finally sputters into life when the bullets start flying. The slo-mo firefights are as gleefully destructive as ever, though you have to do an awful lot of trudging to get from one confrontation to the next. This is, we suppose, an attempt to build tension, but picking through yet another dimly lit cluster of office cubicles generates boredom rather than an edgy, nervous atmosphere. Once you finally draw a bead on one of Armacham's black suited drones, things pick up dramatically. The enemy AI is smart and sneaky, the weapons are vicious and the air soon gets filled with smoke, dust and debris. Dropping into slow motion, zooming in on the enemy and plugging them full of hot pixels is undeniably fun, and testament to the underlying strength of F.E.A.R.'s combat. There are few moments as satisfying as plugging an Armacham clone in mid-air as he plummets from an upper gantry while the slowly blossoming shock waves from exploding grenades set off a nearby fuel tank. Lovely! Also, special mention here for a sequence that sees you scurrying through a laboratory with a large, angry, wall-smashing, rocket-toting robot on your tail. It's hilariously excessive and the kind of situation that's disappointingly rare throughout the game.
The handful of weapon additions in the game are fun to dabble with, but don't really introduce anything new, offering little more than different looking ways of doing the same thing. The chain lightning gun is the most immediately impressive new toy, but you'll quickly find that the stock standard weapons - dual-wielded pistols, shotgun, nailgun - will be the preferred solution to unwanted attention. Small, deployable gun turrets are also available, but they're not particularly rugged and act more as temporary distractions than real, strategic choices.
The sound of Perseus Mandate deserves a mention. Again, it doesn't do anything that wasn't in the original F.E.A.R., but the chunky, solid sound effects give a good, hard edge to the fighting. The music adds a bit of dramatic colour when necessary and the voice acting is decent throughout. It's as sweary a game as it ever was, possibly even gratuitous at times. The generous use of the f-word seems less like gritty realism and more like a surly teen trying to be tough.
The game feels weakest when it tries to get spooky. What once seemed incredibly creepy and accomplished - hallucinations, subliminal flashes, glimpsed monsters, sudden attacks from beneath - now tend to be annoying distractions. There are a few genuinely unsettling moments, but F.E.A.R.'s limited bag of tricks has pretty much run dry. Getting dragged through the floor for the tenth time by a shrieking demon isn't scary, it's just annoying.
Multiplayer options are included, though the servers are largely deserted. It's difficult to imagine F.E.A.R. multiplayer gaining a toehold when you have, say, Team Fortress 2 absorbing vast swathes of the online FPS community. You can also download the multiplayer-only F.E.A.R Combat for free if you really do fancy some online F.E.A.R.-fuelled action.
F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate is by no means a bad game. It's an obvious attempt to wring a few more bucks out of the franchise, and why not? If you've never played any of the F.E.A.R. titles before, you'll get a decent amount of entertainment here. It's also good to have a game out that will run smoothly on a low-spec system, so if Crysis points and laughs mockingly at your PC, at least you've got somewhere to run and hide.
If you have played the game before, then it's only really worthwhile if you're utterly desperate for more of the same. Considering you can currently get Half Life 2: Episode 2 for less than the asking price of Perseus Mandate, you really have to weigh your options carefully. Think of this as little more than Fear: Here's Some More and you'll know what you're in for.