LAS VEGAS--Just about every big first-person shooter you can think of was released toward the end of last year. Doom, Half-Life, Halo--they're all out there now. So what do diehard shooter fans have to look forward to given this sudden hype vacuum? No One Lives Forever developer Monolith offered one possible answer at E3 last year with a noninteractive demonstration of F.E.A.R., a new FPS with a mysterious, supernatural story and explosively stylish action. We finally got to try our own hand at the game at Microsoft's booth at the Consumer Electronics Show with a playable version of the same brief segment of the game that Monolith showed off in Los Angeles last May.
The roughly 20-minute demo of F.E.A.R. hasn't changed a whole lot since it was shown at E3, except that we couldn't play it then and we could this time around. The demo started us off aboard a helicopter en route to a building that had apparently fallen under siege. Though we were accompanied by some teammates in the helicopter, we had to go it alone as soon as we hit the ground. As we made our way through the occupied office complex, we encountered several groups of enemy commandos who seemed strangely intent on gunning us down. Further into the demo, we fought new, more-agile enemies using thermo-optic camouflage to render themselves invisible. But were they human? Who's the tough-talking teammate we encountered briefly and then were separated from again? What's with the spectral little girl that's killing all the soldiers? The demo posed a lot of questions and offered no answers, but it did remind us repeatedly of one universal truth: It's fun to shoot stuff.
We got to use a cheat code and check out a number of weapons in the F.E.A.R. arsenal. Aside from a machine gun, submachine gun, and shotgun, we saw a railgun-like beam weapon, a launcher that fired a three-missile burst, a heavy weapon that fired one massive slug (if the craters in the wall are any indication), and what appeared to be a sort of rapid-fire flak cannon that gouged holes in the terrain as we tried to chew up enemies with it. Regular and sticky, remote-detonated 'nade varieties were also on offer to round out the list of weapons. You can also do a weighty melee attack while any weapon is equipped, Halo-style, which brings down foes quickly. The game will even let you jump-kick enemies if you time your leap correctly, but sadly this feature wasn't working in the build we got to play, so we'll have to wait till next time to try it out.
Arguably the most significant gameplay feature in F.E.A.R. is the ability to slow down time, a la The Matrix, and wreak havoc on your enemies and their surroundings with stylistic abandon. Going into slow-mo is as easy as hitting the tab key, though the duration is governed by a meter that slowly refills as you run around at normal speed. You won't keep your own speed while you slow down enemies; you move as slugglishy as they do while the effect is enabled, which takes some getting used to. It does give you more time to react, though, and more importantly, it lets you watch sparks, shards of glass, and plenty of other debris exploding impressively around you in the midst of brutal firefights. Monolith has focused on giving the battles in F.E.A.R. a hyperkinetic quality that's perfectly suited to being viewed in slow motion. We can imagine all kinds of nifty applications for this effect later on in the game; hopefully, the designers can too. There will presumably be a story-related explanation for your ability to manipulate time in this fashion, but Monolith and Vivendi are being pretty coy about the game's plot for the time being, so we'll be left to wonder what exactly is going on in this creepy, atmospheric game as its release approaches.
Monolith has gotten a lot of mileage out of its always-evolving LithTech engine, but surprisingly, F.E.A.R. is using all-new technology rather than the company's perennial workhorse. Not so surprisingly, it looks great. What we've seen of the game is extremely dark, in keeping with its tone and atmosphere (and the title, natch), but at least you'll have a flashlight that you can use to light up the dark places--and yes, you can enable it while wielding a weapon. The game uses normal- and bump-mapping in subtle ways to enhance the realism of the characters and backgrounds, not to mention a number of DirectX 9 shaders, which are always nice. We're looking forward to seeing the game in a more polished and complete state to see how its impressive visuals finally shape up.
Shooter fans looking forward to feeling the F.E.A.R. won't have long to wait, since Monolith has recently committed to a firm release date: June 7 of this year. With any luck, the game won't join the ranks of certain other famously delayed shooters and will indeed come out on that date. And of course, by "luck," we mean "hard work and dedication on the part of Monolith," a dev house that's certainly proven itself several times before.