When you get down to it, the gun is the heart and soul of a first-person shooter. Even the genre's name alludes to this fact. Yet while shooters have been around for more than a decade, very few of them have actually captured the visceral experience of firing a gun. It's an intense and violent act, not to mention loud. Enter F.E.A.R., the highly anticipated action game from Vivendi Universal Games and developer Monolith. F.E.A.R. is a shooter that captures the sensation of being in wild and desperate firefights like no other game before it, and it's an incredible, kinetic, almost exhausting experience from start to finish. More than that, though, is the fact that it's also one of the most atmospheric and creepy games ever made, as well as one of the most intense shooters that you'll play this year.
The challenge in describing F.E.A.R. is trying to avoid any spoilers, because this is definitely a game that you want to experience unspoiled. What we can tell you is that you play as the newest member of the First Encounter Assault Recon, the military's top-secret task force assigned to deal with paranormal situations. And the mission in F.E.A.R. certainly counts as above and beyond the regular call of duty. As explained in the opening cinematic (which is also game's only third-person cutscene), a military commander named Paxton Fettel goes insane and takes command of a secret army of cloned soldiers that are telepathically linked to him. Fettel and the battalion of elite soldiers then go on the rampage in a nondescript American city. They appear to be searching for something, though their objective is a mystery. It's up to you and the rest of the F.E.A.R. team, along with units of Delta Force, to find out what it is they're looking for and stop them.
F.E.A.R. works because it elevates first-person shooter combat to cinematic levels. And while we've certainly seen games with movie-quality combat before, you've never seen anything quite like this. Playing F.E.A.R. is like battling through a John Woo movie like Face/Off, because when firefights happen in this game, they're downright glorious to behold. Bullets tear chunks out of concrete and wood; blinding clouds of dust and debris fill the air; bodies are torn apart or slump on the ground; and the deathly silence of the aftermath contrasts so sharply with the sheer chaos that erupted only moments before. Gunfights in F.E.A.R. just feel right.
Part of the reason for that is because the weapons that you have in the game feel powerful, like weapons should. You have the standard fare of guns to play around with, including a pistol, submachine gun, assault rifle, shotgun, and rocket launcher. There's also a scoped, burst-firing rifle that's a dead ringer for the Master Chief's battle rifle in Halo 2; an incredibly nasty particle weapon that sears the flesh off of opponents; and a few other special toys. All of these weapons, even the pistols, pack an incredibly satisfying punch and are capable of putting down opponents quickly (you can even dual-wield the pistols, for that extra John Woo-style gunfight action). This goes against the genre's convention, since most shooters usually scale weapons on a curve, with the smaller and lighter ones being next to useless later on in the game. That's not the case in F.E.A.R., and virtually every gun you use can tear up the place.
You can't run around like a pack rat carrying every weapon, though, because F.E.A.R. limits you to only three weapons at a time. This is a familiar gameplay mechanic, but it's a good one, as you have to weigh the pros and cons of each weapon. Obviously, you'd like to have a close-range weapon, a decent long-range weapon, and a heavy weapon for those special encounters, but it's tempting when the game offers you a rocket launcher or a repeating cannon that you weren't expecting. At that point, something has to be sacrificed. In addition to guns, you also have grenades in your arsenal. And unlike most shooters, in which you have to equip grenades separately prior to using them, the grenades in F.E.A.R. can be readily thrown at the press of a button. This eliminates the need to fumble around with your inventory, and it opens up your tactical playbook, as you can toss a grenade without a moment's hesitation and force the enemy to react.
As a member of the F.E.A.R. team, it goes without saying that you've got some special abilities at your disposal. For example, you can kill foes with a swift drop-kick or scissors kick, which is such an awesome move that even when you pull it off in desperation (like when you've emptied a clip and don't have time to reload), it still feels incredibly cool. Yet your most important ability is your ultrafast reflexes, which can be activated in short bursts to create a sort of Matrix-like bullet-time. Now, bullet-time has been done to death over the past few years, but the execution of bullet-time in F.E.A.R. is still well done. When you kick in the reflexes, everything else slows down, and you can see the vortexes in the air created by bullets. You can only activate this ability in short bursts before it runs out, but it recharges at a decent rate, so you generally can have it at your disposal in most fights. This slow-motion ability is almost essential for surviving some of the tougher battles; you can use it to whittle down the odds. With that said, we almost wish that it were a bit rarer in the game, as F.E.A.R. really comes alive when the firefights are at full speed, not slow motion.
Without a doubt, you've got an extremely formidable arsenal at your disposal, but you're going to need it against the artificial intelligence in F.E.A.R. Put simply, these are the smartest, most aggressive, most tactically oriented AI opponents that we've ever encountered in a shooter, and they're downright impressive. The AI is incredibly sharp, and they'll do things that you don't expect, like pin you down while one of them flanks you. Or they'll pin you down and plop a grenade down next to you. These guys move around from cover to cover; they communicate with one another; they'll react to any sound or sight of you; and they'll also react if they see the beam of your flashlight approaching. They've got the same weapons that you do, and their guns do the same amount of damage to you as it does to them. So you've got to use cover and lean around corners as much as possible, because it doesn't take much to shred your armor and health to zero. This can create situations in which you're pinned down, firing desperately to keep their heads down while trying to figure a way out of your current situation. The AI can also take advantage of the game's physics system, and they can knock over objects to create cover.
You'll take a lot of damage during the game, but thankfully, there are countless health packs and armor kits that you can pick up. You can also collect up to 10 health kits for later use, which you'll use liberally in the heat of battle to keep yourself going. And while there is a way to permanently boost your maximum health level, as well as your stamina, sooner or later you'll fall to the enemy. Fortunately, F.E.A.R. uses a combination of checkpoints, quick saves, and auto saves to keep track of your progress, and you can automatically reload at the last save point in just a matter of seconds, or go back to an earlier save to try something different. It's a good system, but our only complaint is that there are only 10 save slots, which is a bit limiting since you'll want to save a lot.
F.E.A.R. features excellent combat, but as good as the AI is, it doesn't take too long for you to get used to taking down small groups of soldiers, and these encounters can feel a bit repetitive after a point. Since you're dealing with an army of clones, you're essentially battling the same guy over and over, so this also lends to an air of familiarity with your opponent. It's not until you run into the huge, set-piece battles against upwards of a dozen foes that things get tricky. The game does introduce a few new foes to change things up a bit in the middle of the game, but the cloned soldiers represent the opponent you'll battle most of the time. And while they're solid opponents, we'd love to have seen more variety, such as more of the high-tech ninjas that appear midway through the game. These guys can cloak themselves to be invisible, they can climb up walls, and they possess the same ultrafast abilities that you do. The first time you encounter them can be a shock, and it's disappointing that they show up again rarely afterward.
The environments can also feel a bit repetitive after a time. F.E.A.R. takes place in basically three settings: a deserted industrial area, a deserted office complex, and a deserted and rundown urban setting. Notice a pattern? While the levels are designed to allow for wild and wooly gunfights, F.E.A.R. could certainly use more variety when it comes to environments, because there's a certain point where you feel like you've explored the same factory or office complex for the umpteenth time. It would be nice to also have an unpredictable element in the game, such as civilians who you need to protect, or at least, not harm.
It's well known at this point that F.E.A.R. is a game that's heavily influenced by Japanese horror movies, most notably The Ring. In fact, the game uses many of the same kinds of visual tricks to scare you that you've probably already seen before in a movie, like the split-second appearance of a ghostly apparition when you least expect it. And while the imagery in F.E.A.R. may not exactly be entirely original, it's exceedingly effective. The designers are smart enough to realize that less is more when it comes to building tension. There are stretches in F.E.A.R. when you don't battle anything, and it's unsettling to search abandoned office buildings, finding nothing more than pools of blood or the voicemails left by family members trying to contact their loved ones. Then there are areas where you expect some kind of gargantuan throw-down and you brace yourself for battle, but nothing happens. You certainly feel like you're being watched the whole time, though, as there's always some kind of noise or rattling of objects to greet you, or the fleeting image of someone in the corner of your eye. Admittedly, some of these tricks become a bit too familiar over time, but they're still enough to keep you on your toes, and there are a number of jump-out-of-your seat moments in the game.
This omnipresent tension combined with the outstanding combat make F.E.A.R. a superb game, though one that can leave you a bit emotionally exhausted after a while. And as much as we enjoyed the game's atmosphere, we must admit that we were a bit disappointed by the plot. Rest assured that F.E.A.R. features a complete story, as well as an ending. The trouble is that it feels like several plotlines lack some kind of satisfactory payoff for all your trouble, so the game's a bit of a letdown in this aspect. The end level is also disappointing in that it's surprisingly easy, especially compared to what you've experienced to get to that point. Thankfully, F.E.A.R. does end on a spectacular note, though we won't spoil it for you.
The single-player story should take you a good 10 hours to get through, which is on par with most other shooters. When you're done with the single-player, you can tackle the generally excellent multiplayer game. F.E.A.R. features all the standard multiplayer modes that you'd expect, including deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag, but it differentiates itself by incorporating many of the cool features found in single-player, such as the ability to slow down time. Basically, one player can control the ability at a time, and you can wrest control if you kill that player. The downside is that you can only use the slow motion ability for limited bursts, and everyone knows your location at all times, so this can be used to hunt you down. On the flip side, you can also use this to set a trap in a team game, because your teammates can set up ambushes to take out players who are out to get you.
Your martial arts abilities are available in multiplayer, and this can create wicked gunfights in which guys are leaping into the air to drop-kick someone, crouching down to side-kick them, or simply melee punching each other to death as the bullets and explosions fly around. The multiplayer is extremely fast-paced, and you'll get a lot of kills, die a lot of times, and come back for more. With that said, we wonder about the multiplayer's lasting power, as the gameplay doesn't feature the kind of depth of other multiplayer-centric shooters. It's still a lot of fun, though, and you'll probably wring out quite a bit of gameplay before you're done. And, generally, the multiplayer performance was good on our high-speed connection, though it did slow down a few times. This is a concern, because there's so much action in the game that any kind of lag could be crippling.
Throughout F.E.A.R., the graphics, the particle effects, the physics, and the sound effects combine to create the sense that all hell is breaking loose. On the surface, the level design and textures aren't all that complex compared to other PC shooters. The level design features lots of sharp angles, and they give the levels a somewhat generic look and feel. Meanwhile, objects have a chunky look to them, and some of the character models look more like plastic dolls than human beings. But what F.E.A.R. lacks in high polygon counts, it more than makes up for with astounding particle effects, as well as an excellent lighting and shadowing model to set the mood. All this comes at a high price, though, as the game can tax a cutting-edge system. We played the game on a fairly high-end system, as well as an older system equipped with a two-year-old video card. On the high-end system, the frame rate dropped at times, and there were moments of stuttering as the game tried to load the next part of the level in midgame. Meanwhile, we had to tone down the visual settings to "medium" to get the game to run smoothly on the older system, and the game lost some of its atmospheric creepiness due to the reduced lighting and shadowing effects, as well as the blander textures. The good news, at least, is that F.E.A.R. ran solidly without a single crash, which is impressive for such a technically complex game.
Meanwhile, the audio in F.E.A.R. is outstanding, and the sounds go a long way to establishing the mood. In a game that's all about making you afraid of the dark, it's often the little noises that can send you spinning around, ready to blast whatever it is that created the sound. F.E.A.R. will mess with your sense of hearing a lot this way, particularly if you have any kind of surround sound system. Combat also sounds glorious, and you can hear almost every single noise in a firefight, from glass shattering apart, spent brass cartridges hitting the floor, and the thud of explosions. The voice acting is generally good, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to overhear the cloned soldiers discussing the latest happenings, or listening to a news report over the radio describing the escalating situation in the city. That's one of the cooler aspects of the game, in fact, because there's a palpable sense that events are spiraling out of control.
F.E.A.R. is quite easily one of the most intense and atmospheric games that you'll play, and it's a spectacular blend of horror and action. You can't help but get the feeling that this is a game that's the spiritual successor to the original Half-Life, because it's so obviously inspired by that classic game. Indeed, some of the locations and enemies are highly reminiscent of those in Half-Life. This is a game that will thrill you one moment and scare you the next. F.E.A.R. features some of the greatest gunplay available in a first-person shooter, and it elevates the art of firing a gun to whole new levels. This alone makes it an incredibly intense game that must be experienced. The fact that it's also one of the creepiest games ever made is just icing on the cake.