Every year seems to be one game at E3 that gets a lot of good buzz that I don’t find out about until after the show is over. Two years ago it was Katamari Damacy and this year that game was F.E.A.R or First Encounter Assault Recon. It’s the name of the secret paranormal unit that you belong to. I’m not really sure why you would name a tough military unit FEAR (was PANSY taken?) but I’ll go with it since I’m sure a bunch of marketing guys put a lot of effort into coming up with a clever name.
I picked up a copy of the directors edition of the game to get it on one DVD and for some of the extra content. Opening the box revealed two bothersome items. The first was a note from Vivendi stating that if I wanted to enjoy the multiplayer portion of the game I would first need to go out and download a patch. I’m not sure how you ship something knowing something that major is broken and it’s one of those things that makes you wonder what else is broken in the game. I know this shipping post release patches is a new norm for PC games but including a note like that indicates that they knew of major bugs before the game shipped which irritates me to no end.
The second was that the game shipped with a paper slipcase instead of a CD case. I can see shipping the normal version in paper sleeves but not having one for a special edition just reeks of cheapness. I know budgets are tight but not having a CD case for the premium edition of a product just sucks.
Installing the game revealed a third problem. Whatever copy protection scheme that Vivendi put on the disc (looks like SafeDisc) prevents the game from running on my Sony DVD drive. Sure it will work once in a while but I had to put the disc in my secondary DVD drive to play the game. At this point I was about to take the game back to the store for a refund toward something else. Thankfully I decided to go ahead and work past these items as FEAR turned out to be a fairly solid shooter
The directors edition does come with a nice comic book and a few nice extras on the DVD (including a decent machinma from Rooster Teeth). The material on the making of the game is fairly interesting look into the development of the game without spoiling much of the plot of the game. The added video intro of the game about the mysterious girl in the game was a bit on the lame side though and felt like a direct rip-off of a similar scene in the movie “The Ring”.
You start the game off as the newest member of the FEAR unit and you arrive just in time to join a mission to check out an incident at the Armacham Company. It turns out that one of their military experiments has gone wrong. A powerful psychic named Fexell Patton who can control the minds of armies of mindless clones has gotten loose and is now tearing through the corporation and has taken control of the mindless Replicas. It’s up to you to put a stop Fexell and figure out exactly what the Armacham company has been doing. Along the way you learn a little bit about your own mysterious past.
The plot of the game feels like a mish-mash between “The Ring” and a sci-fi movie. It’s not bad but parts of it feel very derivative. It does keep you interested in the game though. As you progress through the game you unlock bits of the plot by hacking Alienware laptops around the building (nice product placement) as well as by listening to voicemails on phones around the company. It’s optional but it does flesh out the game a bit.
Gameplay in FEAR can be broken into three categories: scary, combat, and walking between scary and combat. FEAR is one of the few games in recent memories that actually did creep me out on a consistent basis. There are some really good scares in the game and not just the cheap “monster closet” crap that was so liberally used in Doom 3. This is the perfect game to play in the dark with the sound turned up late at night as the folks at Monolith did a great job of creating a tense, scary, “did I just see something move over there in the corner or is it just my imagination” mood in the game. I’ll talk about the combat section later on but FEAR does sport some of the best firefights I’ve played in a FPS. Alas there is also a bit of walking around with nothing happening. You’ll uncover some of the plot points in the game during this section and work your way through a few puzzles but they just feel like filler between the other two main gameplay types.
At the basic level FEAR is your standard every day first person shooter. You’re going to spend your time moving around and shooting almost everything that moves. The game features almost every FPS cliché in the book. From the generic office and warehouse locations to levels full of crates and explosive barrels, it’s almost like there was a checklist of things that had to be in the game. While these things do make sense in the context of the plot it gets a bit old quickly as you spend most of your time in a dark corporate tower. It’s like my day job except they turned the lights off. I’d also like to state that the Armacham Company has to be one of the most safety conscience companies I’ve ever seen as you can’t go more than 50 steps without seeing a medical kit.
FEAR does bring a few new things to the table though. The first is the SloMo mode which while it’s not unique (it’s a bullet time mode that we’ve seen in other games like the Max Payne series) the execution is one the best I’ve seen in a game. I like the fact that that enemy characters actually react to when you are in the mode by saying “He’s too fast for me” and other similar things. The SloMo mode also works well because of the addition of the new melee combat mode. Not only do the enemies slow down but you can actually see all of the bullets (incoming and outgoing) that have been fired which makes it a lot easier to dodge them. The sound effects even slow down while you are in SloMo which is a really nice touch as is the cool sound the game makes when you enter and exit the mode.
For me though, the biggest new feature is the afore mentioned melee combat system. It’s nearly perfect and allows you to do a lot of really cool moves when used in conjunction with the SloMo system. When you are standing still you do the standard rifle butt to the head move that you’ve seen in other games like Call of Duty and Halo. Where the game really shines though is that in addition to the standard mode you can also perform spinning kicks (ala Ken in the Street Fighter series) and flying scissor kick (similar to Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat series except without the bizarre yelling). This system allows you to take packs of enemies out in some amazingly cool ways. My favorite move of the game was hitting SloMo, jumping at the first guy in a group and taking him out with the flying kick and then taking out the two guys behind him with the shotgun. It sounds kind of dorky but it’s the first time I’ve pulled off something that cool in a FPS game.
The firefights in FEAR are another area where the game really shines as the gun battles have a very cinematic feel to them. What Monolith has done is to add all kinds of particle effects and graphical touches to world so that when you shoot a wall not only does it leave a mark but it also kicks up dust, creating clouds of debris that obscure your vision. It doesn’t sounds like much but after getting in some major battles you are often left with a smoke filled room that takes a while to clear.
Speaking of weapons there aren’t a lot in the game. There are only seven or so unique weapons in the game but you can only hold three at a time along with three grenade types (proximity, throw and forget, and trigger release). You have your standard pistol (which you can dual wield), a sub-machine gun, machine gun, nail gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, plasma sniper rifle (with hot disintegrating action), and repeating cannon that you pick up near the end of the game. It’s a nice mix and you’ll use all of them through out the game. I’m not normally a fan of the pick up a new weapon and retire the first set of weapons you get game play as it’s another way of marking your progress through the game but in FEAR the weapons set works pretty well. The grenades are a lot of fun as well. You have your standard throw and forget grenades as well as proximity mines which you throw and then try to bait bad guys into stumbling onto them. The final type of grenade allows you to attach the grenades to surface (or bad guy) and then detonate them remotely. Effective for when you know someone is going to come through a particular area or when you can get close enough to someone to attach them and then run away.
Another huge advancement in the game is the AI behind the enemies in the game use. For the first time since I played Half-Life I can tell that a lot of work has gone into the AI and that they work together to attack you. The enemies also use cover well and will actually create cover out of things like sofas, soda machines, and desks. The AI will also attempt to flank you and retreat when the tide of the battle turns on them. This offsets their amazingly loud voices and walkie-talkie communication which allows you to hear them long before you actually make visual contact. That’s not to say that you won’t be surprised by the odd lone patrol every once in a while but it is exceptionally rare. There is some variety to the AI as well. The replica troop AI is different than the rent-a-cop AI in the game in that the rent-a-cop AI doesn’t seem to work as well together and they don’t seem as bright as the Replica AI. It’s subtle but a nice touch in the game. The drawback is that there are really only five or six types of enemies in the game.
Graphically FEAR is the best looking shooter on the market. We’ve already talked about the cool combat effects but where the game really shines is the use of shadows in the game. The shadows play a major part in helping to generate tension as you will often see shadows of enemies before you actually see them as well as being used to hint at the scarier parts of the game. The rest of the graphics are excellent and well modeled. There aren’t a lot of bad guys but they are really well done and move very fluidly.
Sound is a very important factor in the game and Monolith did an excellent job on this part as well. Weapon sounds are robust and solid sounding and it’s easy to tell which weapons your enemies are holding just by the sounds. The voice work in the game is also strong and well done. The nerdy guy you meet throughout the game is a little on the annoying side but that’s part of the character. There isn’t a lot of music but it is used effectively in spots to help build tension in the game.
The world in FEAR is mostly interactive and most things work like they should. There isn’t a real sense of interacting with elements in the game like there was in Half-Life 2 though as you can only really knock things down using melee attacks or shoot them with your gun. This is a little frustrating as it would have been nice to be able to create my own cover like the AI can as well as being able to play around with things in the world a little more. I sometimes felt like Edward Scissorhands because you could see things in the world but you really couldn’t do anything with them. Maybe I’m just spoiled by Half-Life 2.
Multiplayer in FEAR is standard fare Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag. You can play with and without the SloMo feature turned on to add some variety to the gameplay but it’s nothing to write home about. It’s a nice diversion at a LAN party but not necessarily something that is going to be chewing up a lot of your time.
I can’t say that I didn’t have a lot of fun with FEAR but after finishing the game I just felt like something was missing. I don’t know if it was the lack of world interactivity or lack of variety to the levels but the game just didn’t feel as satisfying as other FPS games that I’ve played in the last year. That said, FEAR does raise the bar in a lot of areas in terms of atmosphere and enemy AI and is one of the few games in the last few years to have some really good scary moments. Hopefully the game sells well enough to warrant a sequel as there isn’t a lot holding this game back to becoming a solid new franchise.
While FEAR introduces some spectacular visual improvements, artificial intelligence, and an awesome new melee combat system the game is lacking the varied environments and game plays modes that would put it in the pantheon of great FPS games.