It?s 3:30 a.m. and I don?t care- F.E.A.R. has its hooks deep into me, and sleep is a distant, unimportant thing.
There?s a scene early on in F.E.A.R. where you?re walking through a warehouse, cautiously checking corners and sweeping the area for enemy resistance. The rest of your squad has already met a grisly, mysterious fate, and tensions are high as you sweep the area solo, one man against an unknown force of heavily armed hostiles.
Ahead, you spot a courtyard. You round the corner and see a group of four or five enemy clone units, patrolling. They move as a unit, checking each shadow and hiding-place, their movements tight and confident, like a SWAT team.
?Contact!? one shouts, and I know that I?ve been spotted. I back up, training my weapon on the space where I expect they?ll come at me. I wait for a few tense moments, listening to their booted footfalls as they scurry for position. Suddenly, the rattle of a grenade is heard. I scramble back, desperate to put distance between me and the coming explosion?
?straight into the waiting guns of the other soldiers that have been quietly flanking me. The screen goes red as I fall. I load up my last Quick Save? next time I?ll find a better choke point, one where they hopefully won?t be able to get behind me.
In F.E.A.R., you play a newly recruited member of the military?s elite First Encounter Assault Recon squad, a band of highly-trained commandos, specially trained and augmented to deal with supernatural threats. Their mission: track down a lunatic by the name of Paxton Fettel. Fettel, with the help of an army of cloned super soldiers under his telepathic control, has taken control of an aerospace corporation. The fate of the employees is unknown, as are Fettel?s motives. It is up to the player to find out Fettel?s plan and to eliminate the threat posed by him and his army.
Right from the word ?Go?, however, it?s apparent that something has gone very, very wrong with the op. Fellow soldiers wind up reduced to smoking skeletons, twitching in pools of blood, the player begins to hallucinate rooms full of fire or blood, Fettel begins popping up at unexpected times and places, shredding into black fog and whispering dire warnings to not interfere in his plans, all while a creepy, long-haired little girl spreads mayhem and terror, giggling at the destruction she brings.
What sets F.E.A.R. apart from the crowd is its blend of action and horror. This particular mix of genres is nothing new: game designers have been trying to find just the right blend of action and terror since the original Half Life did such a great job of scaring the bejezus out of us. In this respect, developer Monolith seems to have hit just the right balance of thrills and chills, delivering a game that seems destined to take its place with the other giants of the genre. Wed the game?s more terrifying aspects to its immersive, sublimely frenetic combat system, and you have a real Game of the Year contender.
F.E.A.R. takes many of its horror cues from some of the best elements of modern horror. Gone are the haunted mansions and graveyards of yore, replaced with the symbols and settings of modern terror made famous by such films as The Ring or The Grudge– creepy, nighttime office complexes, burned-out urban areas, endless, twisting concrete basements filled with hissing steam pipes and claustrophobic air vents. The environment all by itself is quite enough to give anyone with even a trace of imagination the willies.
Then come the ghosts.
Monolith has done a masterful job sticking to the storytelling truism that ?less is more?, and spreads out F.E.A.R ?s scares. Instead of having monsters pop out from every corner until the player is totally desensitized ( :: cough! Doom 3! cough! :: ), the developers wisely allows the player to roam through the oppressive gloom, gradually turning the screws and letting the tension build to nearly unendurable levels while taking on teams of clones as they worm their way deeper into the maze-like corridors. F.E.A.R.?s haunting boogey-men make fleeting, sometimes half-glimpsed appearances, revealing themselves as fleeting silhouettes or a flicker of motion caught out of the corner of an eye. Halfway through the game, this reviewer was wound so tight that I almost dreaded turning the next corridor- I wanted to keep playing? I needed to find out what was happening?
The game?s combat is a maelstrom of explosions, blood, smoke, and chaos, delivered through a perfect mix of sight and sound. As a member of F.E.A.R., the player is able to boost their reflexes to superhuman levels for short periods of time, slowing the game to ?slo-mo? speeds. This trick, introduced in the original Max Payne has never looked or functioned better, and works to create a true cinematic vision as bullets leave Matrix-like distortions in the air as they speed forth, strike sparks from hard surfaces or throw up clouds of debris as they shred soft materials like cloth, paper or flesh.
Enemies that come under fire react realistically, ducking for cover and throwing up their arms to shield their faces as near-misses tear chunks of concrete from nearby walls, screaming and limping as shots strike their knee-caps or arms, or falling with almost nauseating realism in response to head-shots.
As time slows, sound Dopplers realistically- every dropped shell casing, explosion, and howl of pain shifting and slowing. The effect is breathtaking and ultimately immersive, putting the player into the battle in a way that few other games ever have.
Your arsenal includes many trademarks of the FPS genre: machine guns, shotguns and the like, spiced up with interesting additions like the Penetrator, a nail-gun-like assault weapon that almost immediately became this reviewer?s favorite weapon. You have to love a gun with pin-point accuracy as well as the gruesome ability to literally pin your fallen foes to the wall like grotesque butterflies. All of the weapons are quite lethal and just feel right, from the startlingly loud boom of the shotgun to the recoil effects of the heavy assault weapons. The player can only carry three weapons at a time, and often tough decisions must be made; keep a favorite weapon that?s running low on ammo or swap it out for a lighter weapon with good ammo salvage prospects? The player also has access to a variety of grenades, from standard to proximity to remote-controlled, available at the touch of a button, furthering their combat options.
F.E.A.R?s multiplayer options are robust and allow for use of the wonderful slo-mo effect under certain specific circumstances, offering up a traditional mix of favorites from death-match to capture-the-flag. The real meat of the game, however, is its top-drawer single-player storytelling and constant feel of creeping horror. Once the Mod community begins to turn out new multiplayer maps and single-player add-ons, then F.E.A.R.?s place in the pantheon of Great FPS Shooters seems assured.
Graphics: 10 F.E.A.R. delivers what might possibly be the best-looking shooter ever created, bar none. While the environments might not be as overtly otherworldly as Doom 3?s Martian corridors or Half-Life 2?s bleak, Orwellian cityscapes, the game consistently creates a completely believable landscape of chilling, urban environments. Combat literally must be seen to be believed (screenshots just cannot do them justice) as bullets shred the environment, lights swing crazily, throwing gyrating shadows on walls and ceilings, and blood sprays. This sort of artistry comes at a price, however, and will require fairly heavy hardware to be enjoyed properly (the game looked fantastic at approximately 20-30 frames-per-second on a AMD 3000+ system running a GeForce 6800 graphics card, even though we weren?t able to run it at our LCD monitor?s 1600×1200 native resolution), but if ever a game was created that inspired a player to plunk down $300 on a new video card or even more for a full system upgrade, then this is it.
Gameplay: 10 It?s difficult for this reviewer to find fault with any aspect of F.E.A.R. ?s game play presentation. Expect to be exhilarated and terrified in equal measure right from the game?s start, all the way through to the explosive climax. The game does very occasionally have a sort of ?man, will I ever get out of these concrete hallways?? feel to it, especially in the middle Intervals, but never once slips into anything even resembling boredom. AI is terrifyingly effective, with enemies that knock over tables and filing cabinets to create improvised cover, perform flanking maneuvers, and use suppressive fire and grenades. Don?t be surprised to find yourself scouting out each new area carefully before advancing, logging each of the area?s different approaches and setting up fall-back retreat positions on the fly for those inevitable moments when the enemy overruns your position. Simply awesome.
Sound: 10 F.E.A.R.?s sound effects are every bit as impressive as its visuals. Triggering slo-mo causes the game?s audio to Doppler down, creating a completely believable effect. Every tiny sound has been lovingly captured, from the staccato tinkle of spent shell casings rattling on the concrete to the way your footfalls splash a bit when you walk through a spreading pool of blood. A rich tapestry of background effects totally immerses the player in the environment- everything from the buzz of a wall-mounted electrical meter to the eerie skitter of something running along in the space above the drop-ceiling tiles. Weapons? sounds create the perfect feel, from the deafening boom of a shotgun to the hollow thunk of the Penetrator as it nails another hapless foe to the wall.
Value: 9 Our only problem with F.E.A.R. was its length- the game?s single player story only delivers a solid 10-12 hour experience (a bit more if you?re a scaredy-cat like this reviewer and like to move very cautiously), and we wanted more. True, those 12 or so hours were some of the most thrilling that we can recall in recent memory, but we had to find something to complain about. Multiplayer is definitely an option to extend the player?s gaming dollar, and with the developer?s recent announcement that a software developer?s kit will be made available to the Mapping and Mod community, players can definitely expect new multiplayer maps, single-player levels, and even some total conversions soon.
Curve: 10 F.E.A.R is one of those titles that comes along only once every few years, a game that just seems to get everything right- the game?s overall experience exceeds the sum of its considerably impressive parts. This reviewer cannot remember the last time that he was so immersed in a FPS?s single-player game (although our first play-through of another Monolith action/horror title, Aliens vs. Predator II comes immediately to mind. Coincidence? I think not). Monolith has made excellent use of the skills earned through years of crafting solid, technically impressive games to create the awe-inspiring and haunting F.E.A.R. This is definitely a game that will find its well-earned place on this reviewer?s hard drive for months, if not years to come.