F.E.A.R. Exclusive Single-Player Hands-On - The First Four Levels with Spoilers

You've seen bits and pieces of Monolith's and VUG's upcoming horror thriller. We've gone through the entire first part of the game. Exclusive info and many spoilers inside.

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By now, you've hopefully heard of Monolith's F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon. If not, the studio has already summed up the game in a single phrase: a combination of the highly kinetic action of The Matrix with the supernatural themes of the Japanese horror classic The Ring. What we've learned so far is that you play as part of a small and highly elite task force put together to investigate paranormal activity, and your latest assignment is to launch a surgical strike to clean up a top secret military snafu. Apparently, a clandestine research project in conjunction with the government has produced a battalion of clone supersoldiers that follow the orders of a genetically engineered commanding officer with the power to broadcast his thoughts mentally. Unfortunately, the commanding officer (one Paxton Fettle) has, for some reason, gone berserk, along with the rest of the troops. As we'd heard previously, your primary mission is to neutralize Fettle before the rest of the clone army can do any real damage. We've learned more of the story, as we've now played through the first four levels of the game--though as we found, these areas raise more questions than there are answers for. Join us now for exclusive story details on what is easily one of this year's most anticipated action games, but please be advised that there are quite a few story-related spoilers ahead.

This thrilling shooter will pack in the fast pace of big-budget action movies and the supernatural elements of modern Japanese horror cinema.
This thrilling shooter will pack in the fast pace of big-budget action movies and the supernatural elements of modern Japanese horror cinema.

Apparently, the opening sequence of the recently released demo of F.E.A.R. may in fact be the opening sequence that will appear in the game. The in-engine cinematic shows the game's mysterious little girl (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the ghoulish girl in The Ring) approach Paxton Fettle, and apparently she drives him mad with such whispered words of encouragement as "kill them all." The commander escapes from his cell and ambushes a guard by effortlessly slicing open the man's throat with a single, backhanded swipe. Soon afterward, ranks of the clone army snap to attention and begin attacking the unprepared guards at the research facility. The introductory sequence closes with a small group of clone soldiers standing watch over Fettle, who is hunched over the mangled corpse of a guard. He then looks up to reveal that his lips are smeared with blood as a result of devouring the body. Make no mistake--this introductory sequence is only the very tip of F.E.A.R.'s iceberg in terms of violence and gore. The game gets much more disturbing and graphic, but we'll get to that soon enough.

After the introductory sequence, a black screen flashes with what appears to be the name of the game's first chapter (or "Interval 01," named "Inception"). Behind the black background, a terse phone conversation goes on between a woman and a senator. The latter has apparently just been roused from his sleep to be informed that "Project Origin" has gone awry, and that Paxton Fettle has taken over the army of clones. As the faceless congressman voices his shock and dismay, the scene fades out to your first mission briefing, which takes place from a first-person view. You're standing in a control room of sorts with your colleagues, the Dennis Franz-esque commissioner, Rowdy Betters, and your fellow agents Jankowski (a fellow with a shaved head and a loud mouth) and Jin (a more even-tempered female agent and the group's forensic investigator).

You've been assigned to put down the commander of an army of supersoldiers. Not bad for your first day on the job.
You've been assigned to put down the commander of an army of supersoldiers. Not bad for your first day on the job.

At the beginning, Fettle has just gotten loose, and Jankowski is less than pleased with the idea of fighting a thousand clone soldiers. But apparently Fettle has some kind of microchip implanted in his head, so tracking him should be easy. You can piece the situation together pretty quickly from your teammates' banter (especially Jankowski's lack of faith in your abilities, since you're being assigned to the job on your very first day with the team), as well as from their animated facial expressions, which seem remarkably effective in expressing emotions and tossing you sidelong glances when you're not looking. What they don't mention is your remarkable ability to temporarily slow time around you (or why you even have this ability for that matter), which helps you outmaneuver your enemies and even dodge bullets. Just before you hit the first drop site, you're treated to a brief intermission, presumably from Fettle's perspective, in which you hear the officer ask no one in particular, "What's the first thing you remember?" The voice of a young girl (possibly the same one that appears in the introductory sequence) screams, "Where are you taking him?" To which a third man's voice replies, "You will be a god among men."

Did You Hear That?

What we saw next differs quite a bit from what you might have experienced in the demo of F.E.A.R. After the briefing, Betters drives you to the first site, the Auburn district where Fettle was last sighted, and where, according to intel, most clones should still be inoperative (yeah, right). You hop out of the car into a trash-strewn alley in the industrial district outside of a warehouse. If you care to, you can fire off a few potshots or use your melee attack (which lets you whack your enemies with the butt of whatever gun you're carrying, or perform spectacular leaping or sliding kicks while jumping or crouching) to bounce around the trash cans and rubber tires, since most of F.E.A.R.'s environments will be highly interactive.

Even though you've got some teammates on your side, you'll still be on your own, at least in the early parts.
Even though you've got some teammates on your side, you'll still be on your own, at least in the early parts.

You enter the premises and begin casing the place, using your recharging flashlight to scout through dark areas and rendezvous with Jankowski, who gives you your very first false scare of the game by smashing open a window behind a barricade before telling you to circle back the other way. You'll also encounter your first "booster" item, a stimpack that permanently increases your maximum health slightly (there are other types of boosters in the game, as well, such as one that increases your ability to slow time--more on that later). This is when you'll also have your first paranormal sighting. For whatever reason, passing through a room with a blinking fluorescent light briefly conjures up the shocking image of a mangled and bloodied corpse's face (superimposed on your retinas). You then enter a raised loft room to see what looks like Fettle's silhouette turn a corner in front of you before dissipating into ashes. "Why did you bring me here," asks Fettle's voice. "Why did you bring me back?" In this building, you'll encounter your first few clone soldiers, who call out to each other with various audio cues but aren't much of a challenge...yet.

After breaching a door by blasting off its padlock with your gun, you climb a winding staircase, where you're given another fright by a hanging fluorescent lamp that snaps off of its hinges and sways crazily, tossing distorted shadows around the room. As you climb to the top of the stairs, you find the door barred by a shelf of junk. You then see Jankowski yank the shelf away and ready himself to break down the next door with you. He counts to three, and just as he kicks the door down, your vision goes blank and you can see nothing but a bright, white flash. You also hear Fettle's voice mutter, "You were born here...I was there," presumably to the mysterious girl who appeared to him earlier. (But it's not certain who Fettle is addressing. If he is speaking to you, this is perhaps one of the first cues you're given to make you suspect your own abilities, identity, and why you were put on such a difficult assignment on your first day.) When you return to reality, you find yourself standing in a room with Jankowski and a mangled, bloody corpse sitting in a chair. Your teammate mentions that he'll guard the room until Jin can arrive to examine the body, and he sends you topside to see if Fettle is still around.

You'll battle an army of elite clones, decked out in some seriously high-tech armor.
You'll battle an army of elite clones, decked out in some seriously high-tech armor.

You proceed to a roof-level loft where you find, of all things, an active laptop computer sitting on the floor. You'll apparently find abandoned computers like these over the course of the game that you can use to download information for Commissioner Betters. He mentions this time around that the laptop contains info for a "Project Icarus," a bioengineering program that no one had so much as heard about since the 1970s.

After grabbing the data, you climb the last set of stairs to the skylights. Now keep in mind that we did warn you about spoilers (this is your last chance to stop reading now if you want to keep the game's early moments surprising). You open the door and emerge topside, only to be ambushed by Fettle himself (a real shock, since he's only appeared to you in the form of ghostly images, and since you were probably expecting to encounter him only toward the end of the game). He leaps from behind the door and wallops you with what appears to be a 2-by-4 plank of wood, and just before you pass out, you see him standing over you. "The dead man's name is Charles Habegger," Fettle growls. "I...can't remember if this is her memory, or mine, but he deserved to die."

Did You See That?

As you come to, you're given the order to come back down and regroup with your teammates, who are chatting about you in what has become classic Monolith shooter fashion. Like in the award-winning No One Lives Forever, characters in this game will have idle conversations, and you can eavesdrop if you care to. Your teammates apparently realize that there's something different about you, but don't divulge what they've heard. It's time to move on to the next mission.

Here's one thing about this job: it isn't pretty.
Here's one thing about this job: it isn't pretty.

Each of F.E.A.R.'s level transitions is spaced out with a loading screen that also serves as a mission briefing. It seems that Fettle has escaped and made his way to an industrial facility, and you're going after him with support from Delta Force--a sign that your top secret mission is becoming less secret by the minute. You climb into a chopper with a few other soldiers, approach the drop zone, and take a zip line down to the back door with two other soldiers, who instruct you to sneak through a back alley and flip a switch to open the gate. So far, so good. You enter the premises and pick up a reflex booster, a special item that increases the length of your slow-motion meter (so that you can slow down time for a longer period). You then locate the switch, where, perhaps not surprisingly, you find a bloodied corpse lying facedown in front of it. Once you flip the switch, your Delta Force buddies, who are visible from the window, move in through the gate.

As you descend the stairs, you hear gunfire, as well as a call for help through your headset. As you emerge back into the alley your vision is again blocked out by a blinding white light, and through the light, you can see only a few glimpses of the soldiers' fate. A tiny little girl with dark hair, wearing a red dress and walking barefoot is framed by a wall of flames. She stalks the soldiers, who flee in panic but are cut down by invisible forces. One soldier's flesh is completely peeled from his bones; his bloody skeleton tumbles limply to the ground, and as your vision returns, you're staring at his blood-covered bones.

Now alone, you make your way to the nearest door, only to find a dying guard who begs you for help before expiring. Behind him you hear the voice of a clone soldier, reporting to someone that "all civilians have been neutralized." This is your next hostile encounter with enemies in a confined area where they have ample cover. You've probably already played the single-player demo of the game by now, so you should be familiar with how smart (and occasionally slippery) your enemies are. As soon as they hear gunfire or catch sight of you, they'll run for cover, regroup, and if you take too long, they'll begin stalking you. At this point in the game, you'll be carrying a handgun and a submachine gun (you can carry a maximum of three weapons at a time), and along with your time-slowing ability, these few soldiers shouldn't be much of a threat, unless you allow them the opportunity to drag a nearby bookcase in front of them for cover, or crawl under a countertop to flank you.

Considering the game's supernatural overtones, its deadly enemies, and its interactive environments, you'll probably be startled at least a few times as you play.
Considering the game's supernatural overtones, its deadly enemies, and its interactive environments, you'll probably be startled at least a few times as you play.

Once you're done with these guys, you'll pass through a storage area where a single box falls from a shelf to give you a start (and where, for some bizarre reason, a small surge of purple-colored lightning briefly flashes above the opposite doorway). You'll then pass through what appears to be a shipping office, complete with soda machines, discarded magazines, and an office phone with voicemail. You can actually check any blinking office phones for messages, and this one, like the other phones in the first few levels of the game, comes from an employee in a different department who has heard strange noises, and is curious rather than alarmed about what might be the cause.

You then emerge from the office space to crawl under a gate (or sneak out of a side door) to an open courtyard full of decommissioned railroad boxcars, and where your next group of enemies awaits. Many of F.E.A.R.'s battle sequences seem to have at least two different points of entry, and one is usually more direct that the other. This outdoor battle with clone soldiers is one of the first in the game to really show off your enemies' excellent artificial intelligence.

Watch Your Six

As you may have already read about, or experienced yourself, the enemies in F.E.A.R. are extremely smart and will work as a team to outmaneuver you, pin you down, flank you, and destroy you. These guys will not only call out and run when you toss a live grenade at them (you can actually use a separate hotkey to throw grenades rather than switch out weapons), but they'll also call for help, peer around corners, and use move-and-fire tactics to hedge you in. They won't hesitate to also use their surroundings to their advantage. For example, they'll drag small fixtures like shelves and boxes in front of them for cover, or even hop over rails (or crawl on their bellies under low surfaces, like the boxcars in the courtyard) to get to you.

Combat is a viscerally exciting affair, with all sorts of debris filling the air.
Combat is a viscerally exciting affair, with all sorts of debris filling the air.

After you dispose of these guys, you enter the office on the far side of the courtyard and are drawn into a slow-motion sequence beyond your control. A ghostly version of Fettle walks hunched in front of you, and you follow him to another pile of bloody skeletons. You return to reality and are faced with the problem of how to get across a gap between two raised warehouse platforms. You eventually solve this by turning on a nearby crane and using it to drag a boxcar across the gap, which you can jump on and then cross to the other side. Naturally, there are a few enemy soldiers hiding among the boxes on the other side, but for the most part, the transitions between the game's supernatural "moments" and its action sequences appear to be seamless, at least so far. Once you're across, you must jump down through a window into a narrow corridor full of crates and boxes, only to find that the exit is blocked by the mysterious little girl, who approaches you methodically, leaving a trail of flames in her wake. Your only choice is to retreat down the dead-end hallway until the explosions hurl you upward and outward through a nearby window, signaling the end of the second level.

According to the third mission briefing, Fettle is on the move again, and Jankowski is apparently MIA. You come to at the beginning of mission three to see Jin standing over you. Your teammate incredulously reports that you "don't seem to be injured," and you're given the order to get back up and get right back into the action, much to her surprise. You do just that, reentering the facility from a side door to encounter more mangled corpses in the doorway and more active clone soldiers in an outdoor lot.

After you fight your way into the compound, you need to discover a switch that will rotate a gigantic metal bridge in the center of the area to get you access to the basement level. From what we've seen, F.E.A.R.'s puzzles don't seem to get much more involved or time-consuming than this, at least so far. You then go down to the sewers using a series of ladders, which the game lets you easily climb by "using" them as you would a door or other environmental object. As you descend to the sewer level, you need to make extensive use of your recharging flashlight in the dark. As you're making your way down, you also begin to hear the laughter of a small child, and you begin to see the little girl in the red dress run past you and then vanish completely. In case you've had doubts about whether you've been hallucinating, this next sequence will set you straight, as you'll experience the most insane hallucination in the game so far.

Rest assured, you will see some absolutely crazy stuff in this game.
Rest assured, you will see some absolutely crazy stuff in this game.

As you come to the sewer grate, rather than landing in the cold water below like you'd expect, you're again blinded by a flash of white light and you find yourself in a waist-deep river of blood in a narrow hallway blocked off on one end. You hear the sound of an infant crying incessantly as you make your way in slow motion to the exit, where a shadowy figure stands behind the glass-paneled door window. Just as you're about to make your way out, a bloody skeleton leaps up from under you and lunges at you in slow motion...and the vision ends. You make your way across the sewers and catch one last slow-motion glimpse of the girl running past you before you blast the padlock off the door to discover another laptop computer. This laptop contains information about a water contamination report. After uploading the data to Betters, you then make your way up and outside to a huge industrial cement courtyard full of a series of winding walkways and ladders. It is here that you fight the toughest battle in the early part of the game.

"I Hear Something Crazy Is Happening There"

The voice message you pull from a nearby phone (some pencil-necked geek calling his coworker buddies about how "something crazy is happening there") shortly before walking out the door isn't much of a primer for the next battle. We have to admit that the fight in this courtyard is really, really tough. What appears to be a continuous stream of more than two dozen clone soldiers armed with assault rifles and combat shotguns comes pouring out of the far side of the courtyard, and they come after you from pretty much everywhere. The two levels (the upper walkway and the pavement below) in this courtyard have connecting ladders and stairways that keep you continuously moving, as well as piles of boxes on the ground level that provide temporary cover. However, there's no single safe haven in this area. Your aggressive and determined enemies can and do climb ladders and stairs to hunt you down and keep you on the move. We'd also guess that even the most experienced shooter veterans will need at least an extra try or two to get past this fight, if for no other reason than the clone soldiers' astonishing ability to sneak past you and flank you, (which can include keeping you away from descending stairs or ladders while they sneak up under you and shoot at you from below, or pinning you down behind a palette of crates while tossing a grenade down your throat).

Phone messages and radio reports suggest that the civvies have no clue what's going down...yet.
Phone messages and radio reports suggest that the civvies have no clue what's going down...yet.

After this climactic battle, you enter an office space in which a radio is blaring a local news report about a major explosion at the nearby Armacham Corporation headquarters. While the reporter blithely drones on about how the explosion is being called a simple industrial accident, you receive a communiqué on your headset that confirms that the seated corpse from the first level of the game was in fact a Mr. Charles Habegger, and that your next stop is the Armacham headquarters.

The briefing for mission four informs you that Fettle is apparently on the Armacham premises and that Jankowski remains missing, though his vital signs are still stable, suggesting that even though he's incommunicado, he's still alive. You enter the facility, which seems lightly guarded at first by only a handful of clone soldiers, only to turn a corner past a storeroom where you're ambushed by Fettle himself. From what we can tell, Fettle's surprise appearances will be an ongoing theme in the game, and in some cases, you may wonder whether you had actually seen him just now, or if you were imagining the whole thing.

As you descend farther into Armacham HQ, you'll find the entrance to what appears to be an internal factory area guarded by a clone soldier on a balcony. Blast him off and his body tumbles downward, collapsing across a network of pipes and dropping down to an unseen pit below. You make your way toward the factory door, but it bursts open first, and you're attacked by what appears to be a heavy-duty version of a clone soldier (the same type, in fact, which appears at the very end of the single-player demo). This one wears heavy silver-plated body armor, carries a vicious nailgun (which can actually pin its victims to walls), and, even more disturbingly, seems to share your ability to slow time.

After defeating this tough guy, you enter the industrial facility to fight off a few more clone soldiers, until one of them shouts to his cohorts to fall back. At that moment, Betters contacts you on your headset and reports that apparently the clone soldiers all appear to be retreating. As you proceed farther into the factory, you receive one last vision of Paxton Fettle standing over someone else, interrogating him. While you can't see who's being questioned, you do hear him refer to his subject as a "Mr. Moody," and he demands to know the whereabouts of Alma--the little girl in the red dress. What's Fettle's connection to her, and what, if any, is your connection to these characters? While we gleaned a few hints from our time with the game, we still don't have any hard answers.

In case it wasn't obvious, F.E.A.R. will not be a kids' game. But it should have plenty to offer the rest of us.
In case it wasn't obvious, F.E.A.R. will not be a kids' game. But it should have plenty to offer the rest of us.

Unfortunately, that was the end of our time with the game, though we've come away with a stronger impression of it than ever. Unlike the previous times we've seen it, this time the game had been clearly optimized and had hardly any frame rate problems (though we did play the game on a top-of-the-line PC setup). We're told by producer Rob Loftus that "if you have a computer that can play Half-Life 2, you can play F.E.A.R.," because even though the game has some support for older-generation DirectX 8.0 video cards, it is intended for use with DirectX 9.0 hardware. In the meantime, F.E.A.R. appears to be more fast-paced, violent, and thrilling than ever. The game has no shortage of adult language either, so make no mistake, it is definitely not for children. For the rest of us who can handle this kind of action, we'll unfortunately have to wait a bit longer, since the game is scheduled to ship in October. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more updates.

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