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 captured the visceral experience of firing a gun. It's an intense and violent act. Enter the Xbox 360 translation of F.E.A.R., last year's acclaimed PC action game. F.E.A.R. is a shooter that captures the sensation of being in wild and desperate firefights, and it's an incredible experience from start to finish. More notably, however, it's one of the most atmospheric and creepy games ever made.
If you played the PC version, you'll find the Xbox 360 version almost exactly the same in terms of content. If you didn't play the PC game, 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. You play as the newest member of the First Encounter Assault Recon, the military's top-secret task force that is 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 sequence, a military commander, named Paxton Fettel, goes insane and takes over a secret army of cloned soldiers that are telepathically linked to him. Fettel and the battalion of elite soldiers then go on a rampage in a nondescript American city.
F.E.A.R. works because it elevates first-person-shooter combat to cinematic levels. Playing F.E.A.R. is like battling through a John Woo movie, because when firefights occur in this game, they're downright glorious. 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. This is partly because the weapons you have in the game feel the way weapons should--powerful. You have the standard array 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.
You've also got some special abilities at your disposal. For example, you can kill foes with a swift dropkick 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 activate this ability only in short bursts before it runs out. Because it recharges at a decent rate, however, you can generally 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 because F.E.A.R. really comes alive when the firefights are shown in full speed, not slow motion.
Because the controls are a bit clumsy for a game that relies on split-second reactions, all of this complexity comes at a price. Even near the end of the game, we still had problems where we accidentally threw a grenade when we meant to go into bullet time, or we unnecessarily burned through a health pack instead of activating the flashlight. (Unfortunately, F.E.A.R. still relies on the overly hackneyed contrivance of having your elite military trooper equipped with a flashlight that has a 30-second battery life.) Halo 2 veterans will most likely have trouble adapting because the left trigger tosses a grenade in F.E.A.R., whereas most Halo veterans have been conditioned to use the left trigger to fire whatever weapon is being wielded in the left hand.
Without a doubt, you've got an extremely formidable arsenal at your disposal. And 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 opponents are incredibly sharp and will 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 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. They've got the same weapons as you, and their guns do the same amount of damage to you as yours do 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 knock over objects to create cover.
You'll take a lot of damage during the game, but thankfully, you can pick up countless health packs and armor kits. You can also collect up to 10 health kits for later use, which you'll use liberally to keep yourself going in the heat of battle. And while there is a way to permanently boost your maximum health level and stamina, sooner or later, you'll fall to the enemy. The 360 version includes only a checkpoint save system, which means that when you die, you'll fall back to the last checkpoint. Although there's no way to manually save the game at any point, the checkpoints are reasonably spaced. So we didn't run into any issues where we had to play lengthy sections over and over again.
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. Because you're dealing with an army of clones, you're essentially battling the same guy over and over, which also lends an air of familiarity to your opponent. It's not until you run into the huge, set-piece battles against a dozen foes or more 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 make themselves invisible with a cloak, can climb up walls, and possess the same ultrafast abilities that you do. The first time you encounter them can be a shock, and it's disappointing that they rarely show up again afterward.
The environments can also feel a bit repetitive after a while. F.E.A.R. takes place in basically three settings: a deserted industrial area, a deserted office complex, or a deserted and run-down 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 you'll start to feel as if you've explored the same factory or office complex for the umpteenth time. It would also be nice to have an unpredictable element in the game, such as civilians you need to protect, or at least, not harm.
F.E.A.R. is 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 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 only to find pools of blood or the voicemail left by family members who are trying to contact their loved ones. Then there are areas where you expect some kind of gargantuan throw-down, brace yourself for battle, but nothing happens. Because 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, you certainly feel as if you're being watched the whole time. Admittedly, some of these tricks become a bit too familiar over time, but there are still enough of them to keep you on your toes. And there are a number of jump-out-of-your-seat moments in the game as well.
This omnipresent tension combined with the outstanding combat make F.E.A.R. an immersive game, even if it leaves you a bit emotionally exhausted after a while. And as much as we enjoyed the game's atmosphere, we were a bit disappointed by the plot. Rest assured that F.E.A.R. features a complete story and an ending. The trouble is that it seems as if 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 because 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 other shooters. When you're done with it, there's a neat little instant action mode that serves as sort of a time trial, where you have to get through a level as fast as possible. Your score can then be uploaded, and you can see your ranking on the leaderboard. The 360 version also comes with a "bonus" mission that lasts all of 10 minutes, if you're lucky. In this mission, you get to play as Holiday, the F.E.A.R. team's leader, where you escort a freed hostage to the roof. Because Holiday doesn't have the same enhanced reflexes as the main character, this means that all of the firefights occur at full speed, and this gives you a taste of what F.E.A.R. would feel like if it were played as a "regular" shooter. On a related note, the achievements in the 360 version are fairly disappointing because most of the points are skewed to having you play the game over and over again in incredibly challenging conditions, such as never dying or never using your enhanced reflexes. Most of the other achievements are locked up in having you perform impressive feats with certain weapons or racking up kills in multiplayer mode.
Speaking of which, the multiplayer mode on Xbox Live is as fast-paced and furious as the bullets can fly. F.E.A.R. features all of 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 mode, such as the ability to slow down time. Basically, one player can control the ability at a time, and you can wrest control of it if you kill that player. The downside is that you can only use the slow-motion ability for limited bursts. And because everyone knows your location at all times, this can be used to hunt you down. On the flip side, however, 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.
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. The 360 version features some enhanced lighting over the PC version, but for the most part, the visuals are equivalent to the PC version running on a high-end system. And the frame rate holds up quite well throughout the game. We noticed only a few moments when it barely stuttered. Obviously, the game looks best in high definition, but even standard definition manages to look pretty sharp. Meanwhile, the audio in F.E.A.R. is outstanding, and the sounds go a long way to establish the mood. In a game that's all about making you afraid of the dark, it's often the little noises that send you spinning around, ready to blast whatever it is that made the sound. Combat also sounds glorious. You can hear almost every single noise in a firefight, such as glass shattering apart, spent brass cartridges hitting the floor, and the thud of explosions. The voice acting is generally good, though we do wish that the mixing was better because it's sometimes hard to hear the dialogue over everything else.
F.E.A.R. is quite easily one of the most intense and atmospheric games on the Xbox 360, and it's an excellent blend of horror and action. F.E.A.R. features some of the best gunplay available in a first-person shooter. 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.