Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Vivendi Games
Developer: Monolith Productions/Day 1 Studios
Release Date: October 31, 2006
Shooters have always lent themselves to scariness. The first-person perspective helps enkindle the emotion; something about being behind the eyes of the character you're controlling amplifies the mental immersion and brings you into the game. You're not simply observing, but actively exploring; your fears are translated onto the character, and his feelings and realizations become your own.
Games like DOOM, Half-Life, Quake, Condemned, and others understand these advantages of the first-person perspective and have utilized them as opportunities to empower the player. In each, you're saddled with a dire situation (invaders from hell, aliens, zombies ... you know the drill) and situated in an eerie setting, but armed with a minor arsenal to help you get from point A to B. Good horror games do more than throw challenging enemies at the player; they make the environment itself a foe – a mysterious, liquid entity that changes its shape and sound, that cloaks itself to impede navigation and catalyze the tension of combat.
F.E.A.R. joins the line of spooky shooters that helped set these high standards, and the game is a landmark in its own right – an ironic beacon of deep, dark video gaming which Xbox 360 owners should be glad to receive. This acclaim is in the context of the array of amazing gun-based games that have blossomed on the Xbox 360 this season. Gears of War may boast incredible visuals and a unique cover system, Call of Duty 3 may refine the classic WWII feel, and Rainbow Six: Vegas might supply team-based tactical play, but F.E.A.R. could be considered the most distinct of the group because it centers on fashioning satisfying atmosphere alongside the intense, fluid gunplay we've come to expect from our next-gen titles.
This one-two punch forms an engaging experience throughout F.E.A.R. and is kept in tow by an intriguing story. "Military science gone wrong" is a popular lesson in games these days, and this is the basic situation in F.E.A.R. Armacham, a leading weapons maker, had the bright idea to create an army of cloned soldiers and have them led by a telepathic commander, Paxton Fettel. Since the squad's formation, Fettel's gone a bit off his rocker and is using the replicated soldiers as his personal army. Didn't see that one coming.
Most of the game has you trailing Fettel through the offices and facilities of Armacham, where his brigade has made camp, in search of something unknown to the player. Between cubicles, labs, and engineering areas, you'll trace the back-story through employee voicemail messages, gathering deeper insight into how Armacham's project went awry. Though plot twists fuel the last hour or two of the game, limiting most of the storytelling to phone messages and radio communication with members of your squad won't appeal to everyone, and it leaves the plot feeling a tad under-developed, even though the premises themselves are quite good.
Similarly, F.E.A.R. is devoid of characterization – like many modern FPSes, the developer chose to create a faceless main character, only introducing you/him as the point man of First Encounter Assault Recon and not allowing him a voice (or to be seen) throughout the game. Other members of F.E.A.R. and a few Armacham employees make appearances here and there, but their roles are static and easily forgotten. Still, the more subtle storytelling isn't bad, per se – more appealing are the mysterious "vision" sequences that uncover some of the history behind Fettel and the dark little girl, Alma, who appears throughout the game.
Between gunning down mobs of enemies, players experience interactive "hallucinations" that alter their surroundings into something entirely more horrifying. You might be breezing through a hallway, ready to encounter an enemy, only to see the screen go blurry and the corridor's walls turn blood red. The game slows to a half-speed crawl during these moments, making it all the more difficult to guide yourself through the disorienting space.
These sequences are distinctly nightmare-like and will have you anticipating not only enemies with machine guns and grenades, but paranormal phenomena that also lies ahead. Even more integrated are the appearances of Fettel and Alma throughout stages. As you enter different areas, your HUD will begin to fizzle, hinting at paranormal activity. It's usually their voices you'll hear first, accompanied by a ghostly images of them alongside you, or in the distance, after which they quickly fade away. F.E.A.R.'s shadow effects really impress in these situations, luring you around the corner with the silhouette of one of the characters, only to find an empty hallway upon inspection. Overall, you feel like you're constantly being watched by Alma and Fettel's psychic selves, and this supplies a feeling of tension and idle terror throughout the game.
Even though F.E.A.R.'s spooky storytelling sets the tone for the title, its qualities as a shooter easily rival its competitors on the Xbox 360. The gunfights are some of the most genuinely exciting you'll experience on consoles and are rooted in remarkable enemy AI. Enemies shoot, move, and react convincingly in F.E.A.R.; they communicate to each other, retreat if alone, understand how to flank, and will go on alert if they notice your flashlight's glow in view. The mobility your foes demonstrate is impressive in and of itself, as they'll break through windows to grab cover or move down a flight of stairs to get a better shot at you. Monolith's programmers did incredible work in this regard, and if you're looking for competent AI, F.E.A.R. brings the best to date on any platform.
Seeing as your opponents are pretty smart, giving yourself an extra edge won't hurt. For this, Monolith gifted your character with superhuman reflexes, which are triggered on-the-fly by tapping the left bumper. When "reflex mode" is active, combat is slowed to a Matrix-style pace, allowing you to line up enemies in your crosshairs with ease, or surprise them by moving across the environment as they struggle to keep up. Because your time in reflex mode is limited (but recharges slowly on its own), the feature adds a strategic element to gunfights.
Reflex boosters also are scattered throughout the game, and exploring a bit to gather these items will pay off for tackling more difficult encounters, as they slow the rate at which your reflex power depletes. (Some may opt not to do this, as they're often placed in especially scary spots.) Overall, the moments you'll spend in slow-mo combat are incredibly elegant: bullets reverberate and ripple through the air, shell casings spin and tumble towards the ground, and F.E.A.R.'s amazing ragdoll physics are showcased all the more. The audio flows beautifully as well, accelerating as your reflex bar empties and distorting the death cries of your enemies to low, bass-heavy moans.
Though the levels you'll deposit your bullets across in F.E.A.R. are fairly linear, they're designed in intelligent ways that accentuate and contribute to the game's features. Angular, square-sized rooms populated by office and mechanical equipment basically summarize what you'll see, and although the stages seem visually repetitive after a while, the space is utilized pretty well and doesn't feel stale because it's saturated with anticipation of your next encounter. What's missing is a variety in mission objectives to perform, as the short-lived attempts at escort missions and other tasks simply further the story and don't complicate the gameplay itself. Likewise, there's only a mild amount of problem-solving to be done, and even then, it's very basic, like diverting power on a control panel or two, or crawling through a ventilation shaft to avoid security turrets.
The enemies themselves, brilliant as they are, suffer from a similar lack of diversity. It's minor, but because the army of clones comprises almost every foe you'll see, they become a tad predictable. Other opponents like missile-spitting mini-mechs, or wall-climbing ninja attackers that can turn invisible only account for a few (albeit heart-racing) cameos throughout the game. There are just a handful of moments that can be considered boss fights, and though the combat itself is tight and engaging, it could've benefited from just a pinch more variety.
Graphically as a whole, F.E.A.R. does well for being a year-old PC port, and though the textures and models can be labeled basic compared to its competitors on the Xbox 360, its use of lighting and other effects remain impressive, and a rock-solid framerate doesn't hurt, either. Music is used unconventionally in that it creates a non-assuring vacuum for the sound effects produced by enemies, developing a kind of natural paranoia. Inadvertently knocking over a box or paint can in the environment becomes all the more startling when the background score is so downplayed, and you'll find yourself continually conscious of your surroundings as you move carefully between each area. The voice acting is pretty sharp too; especially good is Peter Lurie's haunting portrayal of Fettel, who many would recall as Vulcan Raven from Metal Gear Solid.
In multiplayer, F.E.A.R. serves up the standard 16-player deathmatch, capture the flag, and elimination modes, with team-based variations on each. Slow-mo is also integrated in deathmatch and CTF, but in the way of an item on the map that allows players to activate a one-time use of the power. It sounds unbalanced, but the player in control of the slow-mo is visibly tagged on the map at all times by a red triangle, which helps keep things fair. Either way, it's good that Monolith gave the option of playing with or without the feature. If you're not on Xbox Live, there's also a five-level instant action mode that pours on the difficulty, and this mostly makes up for the lack of split-screen versus or co-op in the game.
The online modes do bring a good amount of customizable match options, and 10 maps based on amalgamated levels from the single-player campaign are also on board. After putting a solid amount of hours into multiplayer, we found it to be well-rounded and fun – the play leans more toward the arcade side of the spectrum rather than realism, but it maintains a relatively slower pace, keeping distance from twitchy PC shooters. It's very easy to pick up and play, but savvy FPS fans won't find much in the way of original material.
Weapon control is central to most maps online, as getting your hands on the Type-7 Plasma Gun (which fries opponents in a single shot if they don't have armor), for example, can turn the tide for you and your team. Our main complaint is that play can get a little laggy if the player capacity is more than 10 or 12, in most cases, and that the assault rifle is a tad too versatile for its own good. It's very accurate at medium range and puts out a quick stream of damage. The other weapons are well-balanced and offer a good mix of what you'd expect: a shotgun, sniper rifle, submachine gun, dual pistols, repeating cannon, three-shot burst rocket launcher, and a trio of grenades of the fragmentation, remote, and proximity variety round out your arsenal.
In parallel with a near-perfect shooter experience, F.E.A.R. develops a hue of eeriness through subtle storytelling and powerful emotional immersion within its environments. Add in the gorgeous slow-mo "reflex mode" feature and the best artificial intelligence on consoles, and you've got a shooter that performs extremely well in terms of merging presentation with highly visceral gameplay. There is a sense that Monolith didn't take quite as many risks as it could have, especially in expanding character development, level design, and adding some original multiplayer modes, but what's there is so well-developed and satisfying that it's hard to fault them for not being as adventurous. If you're a fan of fearsome games or first-person gunplay, break out your night-light – scary is back in style for shooters.