It's a dark, still night in a barren city, the street ahead of us is full of Stormtrooper clones, and we're being pursued by a huge, swirling wall of death. That's not poetic license, and no, this isn't some tuition fees protest rally gone bad: "wall of death" is the self-explanatory name for the key component of equally self-explanatory multiplayer mode "F**kin' Run". Asking you to reach a checkpoint before the screen-filling apparition catches up, it's essentially a Left 4 Dead 2 Gauntlet sequence strung out to map length. But this isn't another of Valve's brilliant co-op oddities. This is F.3.A.R. or - as we're going to insist on calling it, FEAR 3 - the latest episode in a series best known for clammy-palmed, spine-tingly aloneness, finally getting in touch with its sociable side.
We're talking about the multiplayer component first because it's the feature you're likely to hear about least, tucked behind the co-op campaign, and it makes the ambition festering within Day 1 Studios immediately plain. The most pedestrian things get is "Contractions", a Firefight variant with a splash of the heeby-jeebies. Besides rebuilding barricades, you'll be fetching supply crates between waves to restock weapon drops and flinching from the sight of Alma, FEAR's all-pervading psychic nemesis. Stare too long at her ominous scarlet figure and you may be warped into the thick of the AI assault, or pinned by some screeching aberration.
Alma also shows up in "Soul King", which casts players as wraiths who can possess AI soldiers. Once safely swathed in their flesh, you collect soul energy from the slain to prolong the possession. Score leaders are visible through walls and floors, and the top slot accordingly rubber-bands between players as the skilled succumb to weight of numbers. "Soul Survivor" puts the possession dynamic to more interesting use, tasking a single wraith with "corrupting" an entire team of human players to the undead cause. Holding the line, there's a fidgety tension as you try to spot the demon among the AI attackers. When only one player's left standing an escape point will open somewhere in the level, bringing the match to a desperate crescendo.
The multiplayer owes its idiosyncracies to the single player premise, which reunites original lead Point Man with the shade of his homocidal brother Paxton Fettle. The pair aren't best of friends - last time they met, Point Man shot Fettle in the head - but are forced to ally by Alma's birth labours, which are ripping the universe to hunks of bloody concrete. The plot handles their grudging partnership clumsily, painting Fettle as the sneering tempter to Point Man's moody force for good, but the accompanying seismic split in the game's mechanics makes up for it.
Playing as Point Man, you'll rediscover the franchise's love of glowering, throaty guns, close confines and sharp-witted opposition. The handling is tight, with just the right amount of auto-aim on standard difficulty, and the claustrophobic, option-strewn level design combines with the smart AI to keep you on the move. Even given the snappy new lock-to-cover mechanic, digging in is rarely wise. Soldiers refuse to be suppressed, dashing sideways and forward whenever you take pause, and less scientific enemies like maddened cultists close the distance before you know they're there. Point Man's time-slowing ability earns its breakfast when the pressure's on, particularly later in the game against bolshy super-troopers who can duck in and out of parallel dimensions.
Playing as Fettle, you'll operate on a different frequency. Guns are literally beyond your grasp, though they're just as deadly when used against you, and while you can use fireballs to dispose of enemies, you'll have much more fun making them dispose of each other. Given a full power bar, Fettle can levitate and possess foes at any range, turning them against their chums before casually exploding them like a handful of grapes. After spending a solid eight hours dodging bullets as Point Man, you'll relish the feeling of callous invulnerability this affords, throwing caution to the winds as you skip from carcass to carcass.