Summary: F.E.A.R. is here and we set Brett loose on it. He dices, he slices, he performs a gruesome autopsy on the scary game experience and comes away with.... well, read on to find out.
Scary stuff, eh, kids?
This isn’t to say that F.E.A.R. isn’t a very good shooter, though. Even though the reality doesn’t come close to matching the hype, Monolith has put together the best cinematic shooter since Half-Life 2. That’s no small accomplishment. Visual quality, artificial intelligence, and overall polish is very strong, even if the game doesn’t really break any new ground, and could be cited as something of a repository of game and horror-movie clichés.
Formulaic stuff is certainly worked into the plot. You play an anonymous new member of First Encounter Assault Recon, a U.S. government task force established in 2002 to be the point on meetings with supernatural entities. Recognize this old chestnut? You should, because it’s the principal gimmick behind all sorts of games, most notably Terminal Reality’s Nocturne, and movies and TV shows like The X-Files.
Attack of the Clones
The storyline itself delves even deeper into Stuff You’ve Seen Before. Your main enemy is a psychic commando ravaging an anonymous city with a battalion of clones called Replicas. There’s a ghostly little kid named Alma running around who’s a dead ringer (sorry) for Samara from The Ring movies. She also has the pyromaniacal powers of the little girl from Firestarter. Little hints about your own origin are liberally tossed around, to the point where somebody might as well just walk up to you and sing “I know something you don’t! Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah!”
Scares feature usual horror-game fare snipped from old movies. Mysterious figures walk past open doors at the end of corridors. Laughs and whispers can be heard when there is nobody around. Mysterious visions offer rivers of blood and grasping corpses. But while all of this sounds nicely ghoulish on paper, it’s all too derivative and calculating to be frightening. When I got the “corridor full of blood” hallucination, for instance, I just sat back to calculate how many times I’d seen that image before in movies and games (clearly, The Shining has a lot to answer for).
This really takes away from the horror-movie atmosphere, as the levels look and play a lot like those from any run-of-the-mill shooter with aliens or Nazis. A little more innovation, and perhaps some surreal moments akin to what People Can Fly did with the much more disturbing (if goofier) Painkiller, would’ve done wonders for the fright factor.
Enemy placement is just as predictable. I always found foes exactly where I expected them to be—at crossroads or defending the first big room after a series of narrow corridors. It didn’t help that the clone commandos always broadcast their presence via a radio message to their buddies that I could pick up on my headset. Every time I was about to open a door leading to a battle, I’d hear something like “You see anything yet?” or “Do you need backup?”
This was kind of nifty at times, as enemies would occasionally spot me and say something like “Flashlight! Check it out!” But mostly these moments were deeply dumb, and reinforced the idea that I was just playing a game. It also made me wonder why commandos supposedly being led by a psychic commander needed to speak out loud. Why wouldn’t their boss read their minds and coordinate attacks and defenses? Anyhow, I felt like I’d played every single level of F.E.A.R. in a previous game. This added to my sense of déjà vu, but did nothing to send a shiver down my spine.
An end to mediocrity
Thankfully, that’s about it for the mediocre. Although F.E.A.R. is in many ways a stereotypical shooter with influences cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, it stands out as one of the more polished stereotypical shooters to come down the pike in some time. Monolith has made a fair number of good games over the years, including underrated gems like Tron 2.0 and the No One Lives Forever series, but it has never before released a game this modern and refined. If not for the derivative plot and level design, this would be one of the top shooters of all time.
Certain key aspects of the game, though, take a backseat to nobody. The AI, for example, has a spectacular sense of battle tactics, which in turns leads to some incredibly tense firefights. Enemy commandos coordinate attacks, shouting orders to each other on how to flush you out of hiding, and even warning their buddies when you try to flank their position. They’ll even smash out windows to get at you. What’s more, they’ve clearly done their homework and reconnoitered their surroundings. Most guarded sections have at least two access points, and the clones have no problems pulling flanking maneuvers of their own. Fail to take precautions against enemies coming up from behind and you’ll inevitably take three in the back of the head.
Coordinated attacks also forced me to use the slo-mo battle system. Since you’re an operative with incredible reflexes, you get to do this Matrix/Max Payne thing where you slow the action down for a few seconds. This of course makes it much easier to perforate opponents. At first I found the whole idea absurd, and almost too much of an obvious ripoff to even bother with. But then I started getting flanked, and soon got into the spirit of things. I found it very tough to survive even some of the early battles in the game without using slo-mo on a regular basis, so I didn’t really have much choice.
I didn’t get nearly as much satisfaction out of the melee combat moves. While I appreciated being able to slap around enemies with martial arts skills, it was all but impossible to actually use them because if the bad guys got close enough to take a punch, I was almost always shot dead in seconds. Every time I tried to lay a beating on somebody, I wound up like that poor joker with the sword in the first Indiana Jones movie. Combat is just too realistic to be taking place in close quarters very often, especially when the victims of your kung-fu fighting are packing serious heat.
The shadow knows!
F.E.A.R. also stands apart from the pack when it comes to graphics, but you probably already know that given that we’ve got an article on the front page right now about how the game engine arm-wrestles video cards into submission. For what it’s worth, I got excellent frame rates at 1024x768, thanks to a GeForce 6800 GT and a PIV 2.8. Most graphic-card options were at maximum, and all options were on except for soft shadows and AA. The game was playable with the former option on and the latter at 2X, although it did lead to frequent, brief hitches when I would enter new areas. Overall, I didn’t find this to be the system-killer than some people were anticipating.
Combat visuals are absolutely amazing, thanks mainly to outstanding use of particle effects. Open up with an automatic weapon and the surroundings are instantly awash in flying shrapnel and smoke. Hold the trigger down for too long and you can end up in a Benson & Hedges wet dream, so wrapped in a smoky cloud that you can’t see the bad guys trying to plug you. Rooms look like they’ve been hit by a pissed-off hurricane in the wake of firefights. Huge chunks are typically blasted from the walls, tables are overturned, and glass is smashed. Needless to say, leaving behind the visible evidence of such carnage is tres satisfying.
Shooting the bad guys is also most agreeable. Injury and death is handled in a more realistic manner than any other shooter on the market. Blitz a Replica with automatic-weapons fire and he either shows specific damage from where he was shot (which is deeply cool, since enemies will actually drag their legs and clearly favor arms) or slumps to the ground, dead. There isn’t any cheesy rag-doll physics, no bodies being blasted back five feet by a round from a Tec-9. This adds to the tension of firefights, too. Because enemies don’t react in exaggerated ways, you’ve gotta pump rounds into them until they’re on the ground and have dropped their weapons.
Great big cans
Audio follows the same lines. Battles leave you awash in rat-a-tat-tat sounds and squawking enemies. Objects constantly rattle. You can’t walk past a desk without knocking over a soda can, or down a hallway without somehow kicking a garbage bag. Such clumsiness is a little goofy, in that you’re supposed to be Joe Supercommando with kick-ass reflexes and all. But it works from a gameplay perspective because all the little laughs and ghost noises mean that you never feel totally alone. I got a little worked up every time I upset a Coke can because I was always worried that someone or something would hear me. These noises really added to the tension.
In contrast, the soundtrack is almost laid back, and the voice acting extremely subdued. Your character never says a word, and even the dialogue during cutscenes is brief and right to the point. Characters say just enough to move the plot along and that’s it. I assumed that the point of this was to present a cool personality, similar to that expressed in the taciturn X-Files, although I found the lack of emotion detached me from the story more than anything else.
Multiplayer didn’t engage me, either. Since the principal draws of F.E.A.R. are its narrative and artificial intelligence, there really doesn’t seem to be any point to the multiplayer modes of play. And it’s not like Monolith was really trying all that hard, anyway. The game ships with only the deeply predictable deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag options, which are far too familiar to really win anyone over. There is a lot of carnage in online games, but no depth and no squad-level tactics. It’s all very forgettable.
Elementary, my dear supercommando
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