F.E.A.R. (Video Game)

Developed by Monolith

Published by Sierra Entertainment

F.E.A.R. is a game of three major elements. It attempts Japanese style horror, Hollywood style action, and tries to tie it all together with its story.

Like Far Cry: Instincts and the Half Life series, F.E.A.R. does its best to tell you the story as you play the game, and chooses to keep the world seen through the player’s eyes. There are a handful of none interactive short “visions” that could be taken as cheating, but fortunately they do little to hurt this consistency.

Where this really works is in the way they handle your body. For years, I’ve been demanding that every first person shooter let me see my legs, and while more and more games have been offering this, far too many still don’t. F.E.A.R. takes this even further than previous games have. Not only is your body properly lit within the world, complete with shadow, but there are a range of animations associated with it. Climb a ladder and you’ll see your hands and feet moving up the rungs. Take a swim and you’ll see yourself doing breast stroke. Stand in the water and see your helmeted face reflected back up at you.

To further immerse the player in the world, not only is your character voiceless but also nameless. Monolith want you to feel that it is you in that world fighting these enemies and unworldly forces, but it’s not entirely effective.

As is always the problem when your character is voiceless, it can lead to a feeling of detachment from the world, especially when you know things that other characters don’t know. You can’t tell them because you can’t speak, and since they don’t react to your actions directly you feel cut off. However, I have to recognize that many gamers find this less of a distraction than a disembodied voice supposedly coming from their character sayings the character wouldn’t say…

If you go into F.E.A.R. expecting to often be accompanied by other members of your team, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s disappointing that in the years since Alien Vs Predator 2, Monolith is still using the same approaches to keep the player eternally separated from their team. For a horror game, being alone is often scarier, but the parts where the story feels the most strained are the parts where you get ordered off alone yet again.

I’m being evasive about the storyline on purpose, because it’s one best experienced first hand. The set up is great: Paxton Fettel was a product of scientific experiments trying to create psychics. He was a failure in that while he turned out to be psychic, he also turned out to be rather psychotic. At the beginning of the game, Paxton is visited in his cell by the strange apparition of a little girl in a red dress. This seemingly unlocks some deeper power in Paxton’s mind, and all hell breaks loose.

You see, the reason they were trying to create a psychic was because they’d been successful in cloning an army of subservient drones. They wanted a psychic to lead them telepathically. After the visitation in Paxton’s cell, Paxton was finally able to link with the cloned troops and in seizing control of them, unleashed them on his captors, facilitating his escape, and his first good meal in ages.

See, Paxton likes to eat people.

The F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) team is called in to try and eliminate Paxton. Take out Paxton and the drones would be brainless again. It’s a sound plan, especially given the top secret nature of the experiments that brought forth the clone army and Paxton himself, which would be a rather straight forwards action tale, if not for one thing: When they tell you that Paxton is a psychic, they really aren’t giving you the whole story. More so, that creepy girl in the red dress keeps appearing to you, too, and both her and Paxton seem to have supernatural powers that can make things happen.

Those “things” range from flickering lights to telekinetic severing of limbs. You’ll learn more of the story behind the projects, and the nature of who and what the girl in the red dress is, from the different characters, visions, phone messages and laptop computer files you run into along the way, and while it’s rather silly that nobody uses a password for their voicemail, or that you can only hack lap tops and not the numerous PCs you’ll see dotted around, it’s no sillier than such game conventions as standing on a health kit magically fixing the bullet wounds that were just torn in your chest.

Given that it streamlines the story telling process, it’s not all bad. Any laptop or phone with a voice mail light on it you see will give you some information on the story, saving you from running up to every computer or phone and seeing if you can use them. So while it might hurt the believability of the game some, it saves frustration and ensures that you won’t miss too much of the story, because you can miss parts of the story.

Going the route of keeping the story in game means that you can’t always count on the player to find all the important back ground story. Often times though, less is more and F.E.A.R. has faith in the gamer to put all the key pieces together. It’s a rather refreshing and unpatronising approach, and any mysteries that linger will, if anything only serve to add to the mythos of the story.

I had reservations after the demo, because it had very much kept the action and the frights separate. None of the scary parts in the demo posed any kind of a threat to player and I was worried that I’d numb to those types of scare tactics.

Fortunately I was wrong, because what really makes them work is that you never know what’s going to be around the next corner. It could be a squad of soldiers, or it could be a little girl walking along the ceiling. That the little girl on the ceiling can’t hurt you really doesn’t stop her being scary, because she’s walking on the ceiling.

I’m not saying that you won’t die during a scary moment of the game, but really, it’s the subversion of your expectations that’s scary more than a supposed threat.

Monolith aren’t above jump scares, but it genuinely feels like the only jump scares that made the cut were the ones that showed some imagination. There are no fake out scares here; no cats jump through windows just to make you go
“waaaargh!” As the game for the most part lets you look where you want, you’ll miss some of the scares too, but by giving the player the freedom to stagger around in the dark at their own pace there will be times when you glimpse something in the corner of your eye and in many ways that’s even scarier than something jumping right out in front of you.

And while the apparitions are mostly powerless to hurt you, there is the realization that your weapons are in turn powerless to stop them. By not making the scary elements things the player can fight, the player can’t face his fears head on and overcome them.

Like Doom 3, the game greatly benefits from the technology behind it, with some very subtle and creepy lighting. Darkness is truly dark, flickering and swinging lights keep you on the edge of your seat, and anytime the lights cut out while have your heart in your throat. Severed limbs and fallen corpses splatter blood on the walls and floor as they hit them. Your torch, which can be used while you’re carrying a gun, doesn’t shine very far, and while it seems like the batteries recharge very quickly in the light, it’s never quick enough in the dark.

F.E.A.R. is another game that demands surround sound. The ambient music that plays during exploration of dark corridors is very effective, and the creepy voice work of Paxton Fettle is my favourite in the game. Distant screams and cries chill, and distorted voices help keep you on your toes.

The pacing of the game is worth commending as the frights don’t fit into any kind of predictable pattern like they did in Doom 3. You could go half an hour between scares, or run through five minutes of sheer hell. Not knowing when the next surreal or disturbing event is coming is part of their power. Not knowing if, when something comes crashing down through a window above you, it’s going to be dead, packing guns, or supernatural adds to your uncertainty. At times the action parts of the game get so engrossing that you forget you’re playing a scary game, which is both a testament to the pacing of the game and the strength of the action.

Where the apparitions make you feel powerless, the combat makes you feel almost superhuman. Its distinctive mix of complementary elements redefine first person shooting. It borrows from recent conventions to give the player a limited weapon set, three weapons here, forcing the player to make tactical decisions as to which weapons to bring to a fight. It also lets you throw grenades any time you want. A gun butt is almost always lethal…Slow motion has been borrowed from Max Payne, letting the player slow time down at will (at least until the slowly recharging focus meter runs out that is), but unlike Max Payne it doesn’t feel like just a useful add on, but a necessary skill.

You’ll be hard pressed to make it very far in F.E.A.R. without using it, as the enemies are more of a match than any game I’ve played before. It’s not that they’re all expert shots, or instantly aware of your presence when you step foot in a room, in fact the enemies never feel like they’re being given an unfair advantage. They don’t need it. The reason why for most of the game you’ll be facing the exact same soldiers and never getting bored with them is because of how smart and adaptable they are.

They don’t just use cover and try to flank, they do it intelligently. More so than any other game they work together as a team, they communicate, they play to the strengths of their weapons. They won’t all just line up and run at you, they’ll spread out and find their own cover. They’ll fire blind suppressing fire over and around obstacles, they climb over and under obstacles. Basically, if you can do it, so can they. Being able to focus and slow time, along with carrying and using health kits when needed is the only edge you feel like you have.

The reason it doesn’t matter so much that the environments are rather monotonous is that they’re like a blank canvas. It’s not what they look like before the fighting starts, but what they look like during and after.

If you’ve ever watched a John Woo movie, or the original Assault on Precinct 13, you’ll have better image of how the action looks in F.E.A.R. than you’d get from any other game. Gun smoke, cement dust, sparks, debris, paper fragments, and more kick up and cloud the air like nothing you’ve seen in a game before.

You have to actually wait for the dust to settle to see what’s left of the enemies and what damage you’ve done to the place. No game has done breaking glass, fire, or explosions this well, and slow motion seems at times to be there just to let you enjoy the carnage you create. It’s just a shame that in time the blood and bullet holes fade away.

You don’t even need to use bullets. The gun butt may be a requirement in games these days, but bicycle kicks, sliding tackles and roundhouse kicks certainly aren’t. Not only are this moves fun to perform, but they’re effective and look great from the first person perspective, not least when you slide tackle a guy off the roof of a tall building.

The action music is very different to the creepy music, and it stirs you on, as well it should. Gunshots boom and the impact sounds of bullets into the various surfaces and enemies sounds like I imagine they really would.

Playing through one level again and again you’ll rarely see the enemies doing the same things each time. Having to replay the same fight again and again rarely gets boring. If the same room plays differently each time you play it, is it really that big a problem that a lot of the rooms look the same?

When you bore of that, you can take the show online, and while the online game only lets you enjoy the action aspects of the game, it’s all done rather well. For horror fans there isn’t much to say. Its deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag and last man standing spiked with some slow motion elements, but it doesn’t quite capture the brilliance of the single player mode.

Ultimately F.E.A.R. works because the action is so good, the atmosphere so thick, and the story for the most part binds it all together wonderfully. It mightn’t be the longest game you’ll play, but you’ll finish it, and I’d bet will relish the thought of playing through it again on a harder difficulty. Best PC horror title in years? Hell yes.

4 ½ out of 5

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