I haven’t suffered writer’s block on a game review in years. Yet once I started playing through F.E.A.R., it hit me like a truck. I and plenty of others have been stoked from the very beginning about this game, and every video release from Vivindi has fueled the fires of anticipation. VUG even went so far to register GameOfTheYear.Com and have it point at the F.E.A.R. homepage, a move best summed up by a quote from True Lies:
“Ballsy. Stupid, but ballsy.”
F.E.A.R. is only about two things: Giving gamers the chance to live in their very own John Woo film, and scaring the heck out of them at every possible moment. Yet for all the shattered glass, kinetic gun battles, and freaky kid scares, F.E.A.R. has wound up being far less than I hoped it would be. It’s actually turned out to be… slightly above average.
The history of video games is littered with contender after contender that on the outside looked to have the complete package, and F.E.A.R. is right there with them. But once people started looking under the hood, the shine started to quickly wear off. Everyone who has ever played a computer game has played a first-person shooter by now, and pretty much all of them starred the lone hero. The player against the world is usually how these games shake out, and F.E.A.R. is no different. It wasn’t until I neared the end-game that it actually struck me how utterly familiar everything was, so Monolith deserves kudos for at least hiding the game’s blandness for as long as they did.
Monolith has long been a company of great ideas, but sometimes spotty execution. Their concepts for The Matrix Online actually had people interested despite the shoddy film sequels, yet have since sold that off to Sony Online. No One Lives Forever was a brilliantly funny adventure, and the one knock I had against it was the strangest one I’ve ever thought of: It was too long. Monolith had so many great ideas they crammed into it that the game outstayed it’s welcome, and trimming only one or two missions would have helped tremendously.
The exact opposite is true of this title. Monolith had another great idea for the game, but the plot by itself is no where near strong enough to sustain F.E.A.R. for its duration. As such, the player will find themselves running through some of the most repetitive levels imaginable, yet be amazed at how much of it they can destroy. Monolith missed their chance to include some of their trademarked wit, and I was disappointed there were no pictures of Ricky Gervais or Steve Carrell anywhere to be found.
F.E.A.R. knocks it out of the ballpark when it comes to graphics, but the system requirements are steep. Unless your computer has a processor north of 3GHz, 2GB of RAM, and a 256MB top-of-the-line graphics card, then turning off shadows will immediately improve performance. Even then, there might be some slow-down whenever the game pre-loads a sequence. For example, whenever a helicopter flies over a building the player is in, the game pre-loads the visuals, sound, etc. The event then occurs the second the player walks outside the building and can witness the chopper flying overhead. There are other times when, inexplicably, the game slowed down to a slide-show on my machine, only to pick right back up when I’d crossed a certain threshold. For the record, I have an Athlon 2.1 GHz processor, 1GB of RAM, and a 256MB ATI 9800 Pro graphics card and it runs smooth as silk for the most part. Monolith made a brilliant decision by including a tech demo as part of the game, so players can configure the graphics settings then run the demo to see how their system holds up. This feature should be standard for all PC games in the future.
The particle effects in F.E.A.R. have to be seen to be believed. Every room may look one way when you enter it, but after a gun fight, it could look completely different. Shooting monitors will result in sparks flying, blasting walls will kick up clouds of dust, and all of this can change the rules of engagement in a split second. It’s an absolute rush to run through a series of rooms shooting at opponents who use tables, chairs, counters, and so on as cover. Glass shatters everywhere, clouds of dust and debris obscure the vision of both sides, and entire landscapes are remade. It’s glorious to watch, and even more so to be a part of.
Since you’re fighting an army of cloned soldiers, they are supposed to all look alike. But that doesn’t mean they die the same way, and a single gun fight can leave one enemy blown in half, another decapitated, and yet another missing both an arm and a leg. Blood is everywhere, so if a high amount of gore puts you off, then maybe F.E.A.R. isn’t the best game to play.
The true power of F.E.A.R. is in the audio, and it’s simply top-notch. The vocals are terrific, even the out of place comic relief character. While the enemy coordination is obviously the work of the AI, listening to their chatter as they patrol or attack is convincing to the contrary. Regardless how many enemy agents the player encounters, it remains wholly believable that they are soldiers looking to protect one another and take you down. They react to the slightest sounds, recognize a flash light beam as a sign that they’re not alone, and freak out when their comrades are quietly taken out. This elevates the already exciting gun battles to new levels of realism, and the result is spectacular.
There tends to be an over-use of the high-pitched whine whenever something spectral occurs, but it remains frightening throughout the game. The little girl in red has an obvious mean streak, and her personal sound effects are chilling, as are the hallucinations she frequently induces. The audio for the chief villain, Paxton Fettel, is used to equally memorable effect whenever he appears. His voice sounds like it’s coming from outside of time, and while that is not the best description for it, it should make sense once you hear it.
The music of F.E.A.R. leans heavily on industrial-style electronica which makes sense while playing the game. Since the majority of the game takes place in office compounds, the already eerie mood is enhanced greatly by this style of music. There are even a few gun fights where the pounding beats kick in, and the excitement level goes right through the roof.
The controls are the standard WASD for every first-person shooter game and are completely re-mappable. The default scheme includes the left mouse button as the trigger and the right mouse button for secondary melee attacks. The space bar jumps, C crouches, X is the flashlight, Z activates health packs, and F activates items and opens doors. By default, the shift button either aims or zooms in depending on your current weapon, and the ctrl button activates bullet-time. If you prefer another setup, just go into the control menu and change it to fit your needs.
Once you hit H and holster your weapon, then you become your own weapon of choice. Pulling the trigger will throw punch after punch, jumping in the air and hitting the melee button will perform a jump kick. The best is crouching then hitting forward plus melee to perform a slide kick, then activating bullet-time, whipping out a shotgun and unloading on your opponent. It takes some getting used to, but fortunately there are plenty of sparring partners available to help you practice.
Yes, that score is accurate. F.E.A.R. is a very interesting case study in what exactly is done right and wrong in the current crop of first-person shooter games. The genre has quickly grown stale in recent years, because of a failure across the board to elevate the genre through innovation. While technology has improved by leaps and bounds, the basics of the stories being told have remained the same and that is quite simply preventing the industry from ever moving forward. F.E.A.R. is the best example of what the gaming industry can do well, and why the industry is still feeding us the same old thing.
F.E.A.R. comes in a shiny package, make no mistake of that. Gamers play a nameless character, recently transferred to a top-secret government spook hunter team, and when a government-built team of clone soldiers wakes up and takes control of a water treatment plant, the F.E.A.R. team is called in to save the day. The catch is discovered upon arrival that things are about as far from normal as can be, and your day only goes further downhill when the soldier pull out and attack an aerospace corporation’s office complex. Again, you’re called in to save the day, but what exactly are you saving? The clones are led by a commander who appears and disappears right in front of you, no demands have been issued, blood is everywhere but only a few bodies, and there is a little girl in red who causes destruction whenever she appears.
This is not your average Monday.
Yet where F.E.A.R. falls down in the game play department is in, oddly enough, the action and the story. The gun fights are spectacular, and the player honestly feels like the star of a massive action flick. But with a slow-mo option that basically renders the player invulnerable, a hand-to-hand option that’s useless against armored enemies with rocket launchers, and repetitive environments that are fun to blow up the first time but not the 15th, F.E.A.R. uses up its bag of tricks pretty quickly. Now add in a ghost story and freak-outs every 10 minutes, and that’s F.E.A.R. in a nutshell.
Monolith has some fantastic ideas here, but there is no reason why the main character should wander through office after office fighting faceless soldiers for a half-baked mystery. The game practically comes to a stand-still when it should be revving up, especially in the mid-section where the scares just stop happening. There are plenty of the same action sequences, but only a basic story tying them together. I cared no more about the characters at the end of the story than I did at the beginning, and that’s when I realized the sheer lack of personality F.E.A.R. has. There is a lot of sound and fury on screen, but little in the way of distinguishing itself from the rest of the pack. It remains worth playing, but gamers who take a week off and come back to it will not have missed anything important in the interim.
The multiplayer mode of F.E.A.R., though, shines like a beacon. Once online, players will soon discover the challenge of one-shot head kills and a frantic world. Maps that were sectioned off in the single player campaign are now wide-open, and it’s some of the most exciting gaming I’ve come across in a while. The slow-mo option may hinder the fun of the single-player, but it’s positively deadly in multi player. It works by slowing everyone down slightly, while the player who activated it moves about freely. If you play against someone who is excellent with strategy, then this maneuver will blow your mind. It’s a wonderful time. The game currently offers the basics of deathmatch and capture the flag, but I have hopes the mod community will come up with additional gems in the future.
Despite the frequent monotony of the single player campaign, F.E.A.R. is worth hanging onto for a while. Since the game is only frightening the first time, the crux of the single-player mode depends on the fun action sequences. There are so many variables on what can happen that once the adrenaline kicks in and you’ve blasted one enemy in half and blown another’s head clean off with two more still flanking you, it’s almost impossible to bring yourself to move forward. The multiplayer demo received raves around the internet, but the full version is even more fun. Running around with the knowledge that one shot to the head is all it takes to bring you and others down adds an even more frantic feel to an already fast-paced match.
One can only hope the mod community zealously tears into this game because this game practically begs for it. New maps and new variables can only add to an already fun multiplayer mode, and it should be fun to see what people come up with in the coming months.