Why is it that the words "mature" and "videogame" seem to have such a hard time appearing in the same sentence? While videogames may have originally been conceived as simple point-based competitive affairs taking place on a video screen instead of on a board or in someone's yard, they have since evolved into something more—much more. To be fair, videogames haven't been around all that long in the big scheme of things, so I suppose it's understandable that the medium hasn't reached a stage where people expect as much from it as say, a novel or a film. In fact, a case could easily be made that videogames have come extraordinarily far in the relatively brief time since their inception, but I suppose I have high expectations having grown up with the things. Now that I'm older and more mature (as I hope some would say), I want them to grow up with me, and it's slightly frustrating to see that videogames aren't experiencing the same smooth transition into adulthood that I've had.
Now don't get me wrong—I love games of all sorts, whether they be pastel-hued puzzlers, happy day-glo platformers or games filled to the brim with harmlessly wholesome cartoon characters collecting icons of family virtue. However, I also like variety—a lot of it. In my opinion, a normal person can only be entertained for so long before wanting to explore and experience more diverse themes and ideas no matter what the medium. I'm not necessarily talking about exploring a dark side per se, but life isn't only made up of sunshine and happiness, and the sooner that people realize that videogames are capable of delivering more than a few hours of mindless entertainment, the sooner we'll all accept the validity of intellectual risktaking on a console.
While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Fear Effect 2 is the digital entertainment equivalent of a cutting-edge novel or soul-searching film, it certainly pushes the envelope of games by going boldly where almost no console titles have gone before in terms of what qualities they are expected to contain, and it manages to do it with panache. All Shatner jokes aside, this is a very welcome thing in my eyes, and by exploring new horizons (and boundaries) for gamers wanting a different type of experience, it succeeds in bringing the final frontier a little closer.
Fear Effect 2 is the latest release from the development team Kronos, who are somewhat infamous for the second-rate schlock games known as the "Trilogy of Terror" to fighting-game fans everywhere—Criticom, Dark Rift and Cardinal Syn. Putting aside their past transgressions and revisiting a different genre, Kronos has now firmly established themselves as the current leader of mature style and content on consoles with their second dose of Fear, and it's a position that's well-deserved.
Fear Effect 2 is a third-person action/adventure title using polygon characters over prerendered backgrounds. While that description may fit a dozen other games, Kronos' latest release has three special things going for it. Number one, Fear Effect 2's characters are visually striking, using the cartoon-like cel-shading technique which is currently all the rage with developers. (However, it should be noted that Kronos was the first to use the technique in the game's predecessor, Fear Effect. Mad props, Kronos.) Secondly, the backgrounds are heavily interspersed with full-motion video, which create a sense of active, dynamic environments in place of the lifeless, static ones found in most games of this sort. Third, and most significantly, is the distinctive tone and style.
When people think of the words "mature" or "adult" in the context of entertainment, the first images people usually have are of things which are sexually explicit. Those terms have also been used to describe Fear Effect 2, and I think that the connotations which are associated with them aren't entirely valid, contrary to what their advertisements portray. While I think it was a very poor decision on the publisher's part (Eidos) in terms of responsibility to the medium, their product panders to the lowest common denominator. I'm sure it did wonders for their sales. However, while Fear Effect 2 is indeed a very "mature" title, it's not due to any scenes of lesbianism or graphic sexual content as the print ads would lead one to believe.
Where Fear Effect 2 brings in true "adult" material are the dark, amoral characterizations of the game's killers for hire. The three "professionals"—Hana Tsu-Vachel, Royce Glas and Deke Decourt gather on a convoluted mission to collect vital genetic information and along the way get swept up into a spiral of Chinese mysticism and supernatural events revolving around the game's fourth playable character, Rain Qin. The treatment of the themes present are definitely attention-grabbing since the dialogue and scenes are written like something you'd expect from gritty noir films and stark crime dramas. These people are stone cold killers who have little concern for anything but the mission and their own skin. They take lives for a living, and they don't mind being indiscriminate about it. The game's cinemas don't pull any punches graphically in addition to the generous use of profanity, and it suits the level of sophistication well. This is not a kid's game, and it's utterly obvious that such content was not meant for a younger crowd. However, regardless of the moral implications of the situations and characters involved, I find it to be utterly refreshing to see a developer like Kronos take on such material, and come out with a mood and setting entirely fitting to be the subject of a Tarantino film.
While I find that mature content handled seriously and with such strong impact is enough to honestly sing the praises of Fear Effect 2, I can't write this article in good faith without covering some of the downsides for those who are intrigued enough to experience it.
As I mentoned earlier, the actual gameplay isn't Fear Effect 2's strong point. It can best be summed up as "Dragon's Lair 2001," since you will find that many situations you encounter during the game have very specific requirements for your continued survival, and you will very seldom meet those requirements the first time. Hence, you will find yourself dying and restarting certain sections very frequently until you figure out what those requirements are. Fortunately, the developers have reduced the reload time to almost nil, and it's not nearly as frustrating as it was in the first game. However, the many "insta-deaths" and restarts do wear on a player after a while, so I'd say the game's relatively short length (roughly 10 hours, not counting restarts) is a good thing.
Another element which compounds the problem of frequent deaths is the lack of a menu to select a weapon or item. Rather than pausing the game and picking exactly what you want, the only option here is to scroll through your complete inventory one by one until you get to the thing you need while still playing the game actively. I suppose the idea was to keep the player involved and avoid the feeling of the game world "waiting" for you to re-equip and pick the big gun, but this idea falls pretty flat. In a game where painful, bloody death and dismemberment literally lurks around every corner, I found that this item system put me at a definite disadvantage when enemies entered the equation. Precious life would slip away like sand through my fingers while I was furiously smashing the triangle button trying to get to a particular gun. More often than not, I would die before getting to the weapon or item needed, and that's the type of cheap death I like to see games try and avoid.
Finally, while the overwhelming majority of the game's puzzles are far superior and more enjoyable than anything Capcom has ever created, there were a very small handful that seemed to come straight from Satan's personal toy chest. It was rare that any of the puzzles stumped me for very long, but those that did made the game come grinding to a frustrating, illogical halt and had me running to find a FAQ, which is something that I never enjoy doing. There was one puzzle in particular I was struggling with and had tried 30 or 40 times until I gave up in a raging fit of game impotence, only to find out that I didn't even have the correct idea on what the goal of the puzzle was. I had entered the seventh circle of game hell.
Despite these gripes, I still look upon Fear Effect 2 with a very affectionate eye and admire all of the positive things, which easily outshadow the negatives. It's a shame Eidos's rampaging ad department has chosen to portray Fear Effect 2 as a lurid, softcore game, especially in light of Congress's constant search for cultural scapegoats—a poor choice, in my opinion. The game also still harbors certain play elements which need to be re-examined for any future sequels, but overall the game's handling of characters and themes will be cherished by those mature gamers who want and expect something more than the accepted norm from videogames. Kronos firmly comes into its own as a developer that deserves much respect by continuing its bold, gonzo approach to adult gaming content, and I definitely look forward to their next offering.