F.E.A.R. -- or "First Encounter Assault and Recon" -- is a first-person shooter set in a secretive complex full of government intrigue. Players take the role of a member of an elite squad of soldiers that's called in when conventional troops have failed. One such situation occurs when an unknown force infiltrates the complex, and the first strike Special Forces team sent to quell the invasion was decimated minutes after arriving on the scene. Now it is up the F.E.A.R. squad to isolate the invaders and eliminate them, before anyone else gets hurt (or any multibillion-dollar government equipment is lost).
The game's realistic, near-future setting and storyline feature elements of horror, supernatural vision, and even philosophical insight. The lead character is not given a name, in order to encourage the player to more fully assume the role, but well-developed teammate characters are designed to bring a personal context to the adventure. Enemy artificial intelligence is designed to produce believable human characters, as well, who work together as a deadly efficient, reactive team.
In addition to the single-player game, popular multiplayer modes -- such as Deathmatch, Elimination, and Capture the Flag -- are available. F.E.A.R. was developed by Monolith, known for the clever, personable touch it instilled in action games such as No One Lives Forever and Tron 2.0.
F.E.A.R. is a creepy first-person shooter from Monolith. Leaving the colorful worlds of TRON 2.0 and the No One Lives Forever games behind, Monolith has tried to live up to F.E.A.R.'s name by turning down the lights and offering up a game that's part modern military shooter and part sci-fi horror. With outstanding combat, spectacular visuals, extremely addictive multiplayer, and many moments that will have you jumping out of your seat, F.E.A.R. stands as one of the best shooters of 2005.
In F.E.A.R., you play the anonymous rookie point man of an elite military squad specialized in dealing with in the paranormal. ("F.E.A.R." is short for "First Encounter Assault Recon.") In this case, you're tracking Paxton Fettel, the subject of a classified research experiment by the Armacham Technology Corporation. Fettel is best described as a "psychic commander," capable of controlling an army of cloned soldiers, and he's gone AWOL in spectacular fashion. The opening cinematics show this in all its gory, bloody glory, as security cameras show clones mowing down ATC security officers and the seriously disturbed Fettel chowing down for a most disturbing lunch. "He's getting something out of this," says Jin Sun-Kwon, the team's medical specialist, and she means more than just lunch.
The motives behind Fettel's snapping provides one of the big mysteries in F.E.A.R., as you navigate various complexes trying to track him down and neutralize him. This proves to be complicated, however, as he comes and goes like a ghost, appearing to you in strange visions when you get too close. Even more baffling are the visions of a small girl you keep seeing throughout the different locations: who is she? Why does she keep appearing to you? At times, it seems your character slips in and out of reality, hearing voices and seeing shadows without owners, and it doesn't take long before you start wondering what's real and what's not.
These questions take a back seat to more immediate concerns, such as the packs of Replica clones patrolling countless office hallways or maintenance passageways of the Armacham complex. When examined in terms of what goes into a single firefight, F.E.A.R.'s combat is nothing short of brilliant.
To start, many of the combat areas have multiple routes through them, whether it's through a main hallway or a side office, so it's possible to flank enemies -- and they'll do the same to you. Enemies will hide behind columns and poke out to shoot; they'll duck behind crates and stay behind corners. They'll run from grenades and advance on you when you retreat. In short, the way the enemies react is an order of magnitude better than most shooters, and makes the combat extremely compelling and dynamic, playing out different each time.
In terms of weapons, F.E.A.R.'s roster is solid, and requires a more tactical approach than most shooters. Zooming down the gunsights and crouching helps with aiming, and you can only carry three weapons at a time, so you're occasionally forced to make some tough decisions: if you need the rocket launcher, what do you drop? Your super-powerful Type 7 Particle Weapon? Your reliable G1A2 machinegun? Throw in some offhand grenades and remote bombs, and you've got a lot of options to choose from.
Then there are your character's special abilities. Early on, it's explained that you were picked for the F.E.A.R. team and put on this assignment because your reflexes are "off the charts," which translates to an ability called "SlowMo." When fully charged, this allows you to go into a hyperactive state where everything (and everyone) else goes into slow motion for a few seconds, making it much easier to get the jump on enemies. You also have a number of melee abilities such as a flying jump kick, and when combined with the SlowMo ability, can produce devastating results. When you put all this together, there isn't a game out with as unique a combat model as F.E.A.R.'s.
The only drawback to all these options is that the controls can get a little unwieldy. While some games stick to jump, crouch and shoot, F.E.A.R. piles on the commands, with Use, Lean, Reload, SlowMo, Melee, Zoom, Flashlight, Use Medkit, and Throw Grenade. That's a LOT of commands. Personally, I'd rather have more commands than fewer, but I've played space sims with fewer commands than this. After accidentally hitting the Windows key a few times and getting dumped to the desktop during firefights, I eventually decided to dump the lean keys altogether to place the Medkit and SlowMo commands within easier reach.
F.E.A.R. is broken up into 11 "intervals," which are chapters of two or three levels at a time. The early levels do a great job of setting the mood, with plenty of story and creepy moments and visions that get you wondering what's really going on. You also get a feel for the pace of the game: there's a good deal of exploration in between fights as you try to find your way from place to place, and there are a lot of hidden spots where you might find boosters that permanently increase your health reflex levels. Showing Monolith's sense of humor, I counted exactly one "monster closet" in F.E.A.R., which was literally a closet with an enemy waiting inside; most of the time, you'll get to initiate combat because you'll hear or spot enemy soldiers down a hallway before they see you.
The game's lone weak spot -- and it's a significant one -- is its middle act at the Armacham offices. For these mid-game chapters, F.E.A.R. drags a bit, and tracking Fettel begins to feel like a wild ghost chase that will never resolve. All the firefights begin to look the same, all the offices and maintenance passages all begin to look alike (there's almost no outdoor combat), and since the enemies are clones, they all look and sound alike as well, save for a few tougher mini-bosses. Phone messages and laptops provide some backstory, and there are some jump-out-your-seat moments, but there's just not enough meat to these levels; you feel like you're being strung along, that it's all a big tease that can't possibly have a good enough payoff.
And then, amazingly, F.E.A.R. delivers that big payoff in its final three chapters. Huge revelations are made, and pieces begin to fall into place in ways you probably hadn't imagined. There's still combat against some new enemies in these final missions, but it almost takes a back seat to the story, which wraps up with an eye-popping sequence and a memorable epilogue before cutting to the credits. (Be sure not to quit too fast; there's an important nugget after the credits are done.) It's one of the few videogame stories where it's worth rewatching earlier scenes for meanings that finally come into focus, and I suspect it's a story gamers will be talking about for a long while.
Of no small consequence is the new graphics engine Monolith created for F.E.A.R., which turns every firefight into a visual spectacle. With dynamic lighting effects similar to DOOM 3, sparks fly everywhere during combat and dark areas are light up as if with a strobe. In SlowMo, bullets carve their way through the air and blood hangs in space. Physics effects cause enemies to flail and jerk about when about when shot, and debris to go flying in every direction. Explosions are particularly enjoyable - the entire screen lights up every time you throw a grenade or something flammable goes off, and it all adds up to the kind of combat that gets people gawking anytime someone passes by.
In terms of multiplayer, it would be easy to dismiss F.E.A.R. 's deathmatch and capture the flag as a throwaway, but it's surprisingly satisfying and addictive, thanks to the solid weapons and physics. There are several modes available, including deathmatch, Capture the Flag and elimination, all of which can be played with or without the SlowMo powerup enabled.
Deathmatch recalls the heyday of Action Quake 2, fast and furious with lots of headshots. Player speed changes depending on which weapon you're carrying, so it's not uncommon to see players racing around with their weapons holstered, going for nothing but melee kills; there's something uniquely satisfying about doing a flying kick and watching your feet flail directly into someone's face for an instant kill.
F.E.A.R.'s Capture the Flag has a more deliberate pace to it, but it's the team deathmatch and Elimination that I suspect will latch on the fastest, which have a definite air of Counter-Strike about them. We were forced to install the v1.01 patch in order to connect to live servers, but otherwise most of our games have been lag-free and extremely enjoyable. If you're a CS fan looking for something new beyond Counter-Strike Source, you might want to give the F.E.A.R. multiplayer demo a close look.
The Final Word
F.E.A.R. is, unquestionably, one of the best shooters of 2005. The advanced graphics and physics create a string of firefights that are amazing to watch, and creative level design and advanced AI make them equally engrossing to play. The game begins to drag a bit about halfway through, but the big finish is more than worth the effort, and the way the story turns out will likely make you want to see it all again. Add in some addictive multiplayer, and there's really just one phrase to describe F.E.A.R.: scarily good.
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