Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Vivendi Universal
Developer: Monolith Productions
Release Date: October 18, 2005
The first-person shooter genre has been in a bit of a slump since Half-Life 2 knocked everyone off their feet about a year ago. Even today, as Far Cry is slowly fading from memory and Doom 3 is ultimately delcared rather docile by many, Half-Life 2 remains the bar by which all other first-person shooters are judged. Monolith's long-awaited, shrouded-in-secrecy PC game F.E.A.R. may not quite change that, but it certainly gives Gordon Freeman a run for his money.
It's intense, to say the least. First Encounter Assault Recon, F.E.A.R. for short, is neither a run-of-the-mill shooter in the vein of Serious Sam, nor does it lean too heavily on the adventure side of things, like a Metroid Prime. Instead, it's something like a brilliantly paced horror FPS – one oozing with downright creepy atmosphere with handfuls of fierce firefights to keep your adrenaline pumping at maximum.
F.E.A.R. is, basically, a small government group designed to take the offensive against threatening ghosts and other paranormal activity. When Paxton Fettel, a real creep with an appetite for blood, gets his telekinetic groove on and commands a whole legion of ghastly supersoldiers in the invasion of a multi-billion dollar aerospace compound and wipes out the Special Forces sent in at first, the government starts to get pretty concerned. F.E.A.R. - with you as a newbie on the team – are sent in to set things straight.
Luckily, you're to be well outfitted for the job. Taking a cue from Halo, one can only carry three guns at a time, but the repertoire of firearms available to you is impressive; everything from John Woo-esque dual-pistol arrangements to shotguns that pack a real punch and deadly submachine guns are here, of course, but that's not all. Take, for example, the nail gun; it's sure to arouse a few memories from the crossbow in Half-Life 2 with its ability to literally hang up guys against the wall, but this thing has a lot more ammunition than that game's hero ever thought to carry. Take a gander at the Evaporating Type-7 Particle Gun, which literally disintegrates its victims into a fine misty shower of ashes. Let's not forget that you can carry quite a few grenades at once or stock a number of health kits for immediate boosts.
Probably the coolest tool in F.E.A.R., though, is the slow-motion meter. This isn't a particularly new concept – Max Payne introduced the clever idea, and it's been capitalized upon in other games, like Enter the Matrix – but this may be the only first-person shooter that's thought to implement it, and Monolith should be patting themselves on the back for that. What's nice is that it's not a terribly integral part of the gameplay: it works well and is very useful, but it isn't gimmicky. There isn't even a clever name for it, like "bullet time" or "focus" - it's just slow-mo.
Your slow-motion meter sits patiently at the bottom of the screen until you activate it, which is when everything around you moves slowly – including yourself, but you can aim just as easily as you can normally can, and since you can see bullets coming at you before they actually reach you, your reflexes have never been better. It gives you a chance to take out enemies with accurate headshots, attack more enemies at once, or simply dodge bullets a whole heck of a lot easier than usual. With combat as visceral as F.E.A.R.'s, you'll be using it a lot. The thing recharges slowly when you're not using it and can be permanently upped (as can your health) with the periodic discoveries of boosters scattered about. All in all, it really couldn't have been implemented any better, and to make things even greater, it's insanely fun to use. Every detail shines through with great clarity, from wisps of twirling air trailing bullets to long, distorted swearing as your ammo rips through the enemy. It's all extremely satisfying.
The game is mighty scary, too. Monolith could have easily opted for a multitude of "Boo!" scares, with enemies jumping out at you from every corner. Indeed, there are a few cheap scares, even to the point of big zombie-like imagery flashing in front of the screen at key points, but these are few and far between. By far, the game establishes a thoroughly frightening atmosphere by more subtle effects. The fuzzing out of your radio transmitter, a swinging light in a dark hallway, heavy breathing, visions of ghostly figures dashing in front of you, strange moving shadows that are seen out of the corner of your eye ... things like these are quite commonplace and keep you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of the game.
It isn't, by the way, a terribly long game. It can probably be finished in a dozen hours or so by the average player, assuming they've picked an appropriately challenging difficulty level (there are four to choose from, and none of them are exactly a cakewalk anyway). The game lets you auto-save at any time, in addition to saving at certain checkpoints interspersed throughout each level, or you can actually pause the game and create a save point.
In addition to the main game, there is a multiplayer mode here. While I don't anticipate it gaining the kind of following other franchises have become notorious for, it doesn't feel tacked-on by any means. There are a number of fun game modes and a decent number of maps to play on. If nothing else, it will show you that F.E.A.R.'s AI is quite advanced; it makes human players look like wimps.
The artificial intelligence has rather been touted by the makers of the game, and deservedly so. The bad guys here aren't just cannon fodder. They're real hunters. They travel in packs. They regroup if separated. They hide, they crawl, and I was surprised quite a few times as a stumble animation or a fall to the knees doesn't necessarily lead to death. I was caught quite offguard by soldiers I thought I had killed but ended up regaining their posture and making me run for cover. The damage dealt by these enemies is quite realistic; without careful consideration of your surroundings, you'll likely be dead before you know it. You can't just run into a field of fire, and if you must, you'd better have slow-mo going.
F.E.A.R. sports some pretty sexy visuals through and through. The game really isn't for aging computers, I'll admit: it requires a fairly hefty system to run smoothly, let alone run at maximum settings. Luckily there are many settings to tweak, in addition to the game's auto-detect feature, so hopefully you won't have to dish out big bucks to enjoy the game. It's even remarkable at just medium settings, with crisp textures, incredible lighting, smooth animation, quality character models, and some of the best bullet holes I've ever seen in my life. Honestly, they're impressive!
The title's soundtrack doesn't kick in all too often, but it always meshes nicely when it does. F.E.A.R. relies more on excellent voice acting and quality sound effects to convey a convincing, immersive experience. The game very nearly kicks off with a well-acted phone conversation, and there are other things along the way that prove the well-done nature of the voices, in addition to providing extra information about the story. For instance, you'll be able to access the voicemail at quite a few persons' desks throughout the game. The sound effects are no slouch; from foreboding squeaks and whispers to powerful gunfire and intense heavy breathing, the game keeps not only your eyes, but also your ears, very engaged.
If there's one thing that F.E.A.R. could have done better, it's the variety of locations. Don't get me wrong – the level design is great. Not only does it feel like you're making your way across real blueprints of these indoor locations, but they're also littered with great little details, from signs reminding workers of the company's goals to timesheets and whatnot. Unfortunately, there's very little in the way of outdoor environments, and when the game does head outdoors, it's apparent why they aren't so prominent. The game engine simply doesn't handle them well. In one instance, I stepped out from a silky smooth office onto a rooftop, and my framerate literally crashed into the abyss – I thought the game had locked up. When I made it back indoors (unscathed, fortunately), things improved again. It's slightly disappointing that more environments couldn't be included, but it hardly affects what's already here.
As a whole, F.E.A.R. is terribly immersive. The story's a bit clichéd at times, but it's always worth paying attention to. The game is creepy enough that it's thoroughly unsettling, but the action really packs a wallop, and slow-mo is fun and useful. While not terribly long, there's multiplayer to help savor the fun, and frankly, the only real letdown is in the ultimate lack of location variety. If you've got a system good enough to run this, do not miss out: F.E.A.R. is one of the most strikingly fun and exciting games to be released all year, and easily the best FPS since Half-Life 2. This is not to be ignored.
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