The weekend before last I beat F.E.A.R. and it was one hell of a game. It’s one of those games that exceeds expectations in enough ways that it’s easy to understand why so many gaming journalists were slavering over it and hailing it as the best thing since sliced Half-Life (or something). I agree that it’s setting some new standards. However, when it strayed from its strengths, its weaknesses were glaring. Fortunately, those weaknesses were more scenic and secondary as you progressed through the kinetic audio visual blast of the game’s core.
Spoiler Warning: While I don’t reveal any significant plot points you won’t already know, I will be discussing certain elements of the game that might give away some of the experience.
F.E.A.R., a self-styled horror shooter, blends the influences and styles of John Woo and The Ring very purposefully. The action element is stunning and the close-quarters gunfights are frenetic and literally explosive. They incorporate many devices of the action movie genre without feeling derivative. On the other hand, the horror influences are more directly cribbed from their influence, to the point that they sometimes didn’t work as well for me. I’ve seen The Ring and having its primary element repackaged here diminished its punch (made it less surprising/unknown) but the horror style is a good fit as a unique contrasting element.
The horror aspect truly set a tack for the game that no one else has taken (that I’ve experienced). “But what about Doom 3” you say? Well, I’ll put it this way: I found Doom 3 to be scarier, but that’s because I was fighting without any light against an endless series of closet-popping monsters. I felt out-gunned and isolated. It was far more effective at getting me keyed up and fearful, but also cheap as hell: all adrenaline, no creeping horror. Plus, the enemies were demons and zombies, which puts all of its tricks right out front for you to see. F.E.A.R. takes the high road and tries to “get under your skin” and, as a result, relies more on player immersion. It was a 50/50 shot for me. After a while, I began to realize that many of the horror elements were more visual mind-screws (or attempts at that) than threats. But when Alma, the red-dressed little girl at the center of all the trouble, came skittering out at me…well, when it happens to you, you’ll jump. Trust me. The horror is a good spice that keeps the experience varied, paced, and sharp. But the game shines, in my opinion, not for its horror elements, but for its superlative combat sequences.
The A.I. in F.E.A.R. is unparalleled. I must emphasize this: unparalleled. The clone troops, controlled by Paxton Fettel, one of the antagonists, truly make this game. Everything else serves as a foil for the combat against squads of these troops, in my opinion. Without it, F.E.A.R. would be a special effects-driven B level shooter; at best it would feel like a Max Payne knock-off. With it, the game delivers the best close-quarters combat I’ve ever played. First rule: do not underestimate the enemy. They do not fall into the same easy-to-dominate behavior patterns of other shooters. They are always trying to flank you, always working as a team, and always ready to make use of and move through their environment to beat you. If someone takes a shot at you and you reposition to flank or strike, 9 times out of 10, they’ll be somewhere else, doing the same to you.
The best part? None of it feels cheap or super-human. Unlike Far Cry, which I enjoyed immensely (up to a point), your enemies don’t have a false ability to sniff you out or spot you. They are alert and aware of reasonable things: sound nearby, your flashlight, you exposing yourself to them, one of their own dying, etc. Once aroused, they will hunt you and box you in, using grenades, suppressive fire, and teamwork. Unfortunately, this team A.I. overshadows the other enemies so much that the only way Monolith seems to vary them (beyond weaponry) is by sprinkling super enemies into the mix: slow-moving, armored behemoths with rockets or stealthy hyper-assassins with super speed, or my least favorite: the flying laser bots. They all remove any element of tactical fun in lieu of repetitive pounding by heavy weaponry and abuse of the ’heightened reflexes’ skill your character possesses. Fortunately, there aren’t too many of them. There are some other troops who also display impressive A.I. (the security forces of Armacam) but they’re essentially a variation of the clone troops.
The level of prowess and tactics employed by your enemies would probably be nearly overwhelming if it wasn’t for your characters ability to use his ’heightened reflex’ power, which is essentially a bullet-time effect that you can trigger to slow everything down and gain an advantage over your enemies. Unlike Max Payne, the ability to slow time isn’t earned through combat or collecting items. It recharges, much like the shields in Halo. Thank god. For me, it was a life saver. However, it can get out of hand, and the gunfights are just as cool full speed as they are slowed down. The character animations, particle system, and destructible environments ensure that.
That’s another great strength of the game: gunfights erupt into total visual chaos. The dust, smoke, and debris fill the rooms you fight in, sometimes filling the air so much that you’re forced to wait for the dust to settle before continuing forward to avoid blundering into a surviving soldier. The gunfights rip the environments apart and give the guns more punch, as well. This is fortunate because I found a few of them wanting in the audio department. However, the sound design overall is quite cool, particularly since every sound warps and stretches with the time slowing. The music works quite well also. To be honest, I don’t remember it very much, but I think that speaks well of its effectiveness as an emotional component of the experience.
That emotional experience (the horror component of F.E.A.R.) is pushed as one of its big unique selling points. Honestly, I found it wanting. The demo, which I wrote about earlier, promised more truly scary moments that the full version just didn’t deliver. Again, the horror element came of as a foil, not a mainstay of the game’s experience. However, the horror narrative blew away the cut scenes and non-action, non-horror elements. In short, the script is crap and almost all of the characters, particularly the female ones, are flat and clichéd at best, and offensive and misogynistic at worst. The dialogue is laced with expletives as though a 12 year-old was hired to ‘rough up’ the speech. They curse with an unnatural persistence that smacks of someone trying it out for the first time to look tough. I’m an adult, the game is scary and violent, there’s no need for that. Also, seriously, don’t ever have your protagonists call women ’bitches’ just because they’re being difficult. Holy crap, I wanted to slap the writers. And, finally, why didn’t they get rid of that silly-ass female operative. She was animated, designed, and scripted like a Barbie doll, but without all of the character and interest of Barbie. It was that bad. Paxton Fettel, on the other hand, is genuinely creepy and wll-executed in every way. More videogame characters need to be imbued with that kind of texture and menace. Even his character model felt distinct and real.
The next biggest weakness of F.E.A.R. is its creative direction and technical execution in certain areas and the resulting in-game constructions. F.E.A.R.‘s outdoor environments were pitiful at best. The buildings were little boxes sitting on big, flat ground spaces, delivering a wholly unconvincing city-scape. The effect of the game’s realism during the rooftop sequences and the helicopter scenes was severely diminished. I would hold up Half-Life 2 or Call of Duty as examples of well-executed and convincing cityscapes. F.E.A.R. was designed to function well as a close-quarters combat shooter, and that strength seemed to weaken every other element. However, some of this sparseness made its way over into other areas of the level design. The world lacked an organic and lived in feel on many levels, with object unconvincingly sprinkled in exterior environments in an attempt to simulate a real and lived-in world. Luckily, this feeling tapers off as the game progresses. In the beginning, though, I found it extremely distracting.
However, F.E.A.R. adds two distinct elements to the experience that not only work well generally, but really contributed to the sense of existence in the world. First off, you could look down and see your own body, and second of all, your body threw realistic and dynamic shadows. While this is no new thing for third person shooters, particularly ones like Splinter Cell, I don’t know of another FPS that does this at all. The best part is because F.E.A.R. is a horror game, you can truly begin to jump at your own shadow. It’s a very, very effective device and I hope other developers start incorporating it into their own work. But this sort of thing is where the art direction started to shine: light and shadow. While F.E.A.R. is not as attractive and gritty as Half-LIfe 2, the use of light and shadow to shape the gameplay is very effective, and the dynamic shadowing really makes the game work. I’m hoping to see less and less games without this capability.
As for the Director’s Edition features? Well, they’re cool and all, but nothing amazing. The short films about Alma are quite cool and creepy, but the rest of the content is basically one big sales pitch for how great the game is, so you can chat your friends up about it. I’m a big fan of the single DVD editions over the multiple CD versions, so that was another motivator. The extra content makes it feel worthwhile.
All in all, F.E.A.R. is a great game with lots of nice gunfight scenarios set up and a unique approach. Any shortcomings are made up for by these other gameplay elements. I recommend you go out and grab yourself a copy when you’re done with Call of Duty 2 (which I’ll be writing about soon). Check out IGN and Gamespot’s coverage for more screens.