While Doom 3 may have excelled at giving us a cheap scare thanks to enemies jumping out of hidden closets and awkward use of a flashlight in a remote base on Mars, FEAR ups the ante and brings us the true definition of horror: ghostly little girls and cubicles. Lots of cubicles. Okay, that may have sounded a tad condescending, but rest assured, beneath the special forces facade lies a great and incredibly creepy game that will not only test your wits but will scare the hell out of you at the same time. The result is one of the most immersive, plot driven first person shooters since Half-Life.
FEAR puts you in the shoes of a nameless soldier who is part of a special recon team in pursuit of an out of control commander named Paxton Fettel. Fettel has taken control of an army of cloned soldiers and is wreaking havoc on a city in search of something, though your superiors can’t seem to put a finger on what exactly he’s looking for. That’s for you to find out as the lone point man of the team.
While the visceral experience in FEAR will jump right out and grab you by the throat right away, it’s not just a case of all looks and no substance. The gameplay is about as smooth as a FPS can get and manages to combine a great sense of strategy (thanks to the often brilliant AI) with the shooting gallery style of gameplay employed by earlier games. There are even some enhancements to the formula with the ability to perform slide and bicycle kicks to take out enemies and a bullet time ability to make everything slow down and help to give you an edge. Your standard compliment of weapons is here like pistols, shotguns, submachine guns and assault rifles. There are also a few surprises thrown in like a hand cannon, the penetrator that pins most enemies against walls, a triple barreled rocket launcher, and a particle cannon that turns baddies into skeletons. The conventional weapons all do a great job of getting the job done and offer their own strengths and weaknesses like certain assault rifles are great at long range while shotguns are best for close range encounters…though FEAR’s take on the shotgun is almost ridiculously satisfying and has a better range than expected. The rocket launcher, while scant on the ammo, is possibly the best of the unconventional weapons since it has more practical uses than the particle gun or penetrator due to their slow rates of fire. You’ll also have grenades, remote bombs, and proximity mines at your disposal as a means of crowd control or to flush the baddies out.
Don’t think for a second that you’ll be clearing rooms with grenades – the AI pretty much makes sure that they’re not taken out that easy. You’ll be taking on full squads of enemies as opposed to trickling out one at a time. In essence, they’re like snakes – when you encounter one, it’s guaranteed he’s got friends nearby. The AI controlled enemies will realistically file into a room and find the nearest means of cover while occasionally popping up to take a few shots at you. If you decide to hide, you’ll eventually get flushed out with a grenade yourself – a move that I fell for more than once I might add. Lucky for you, the replica army consists of a bunch of loudmouths that you’ll be able to take verbal queues from and adjust your strategy accordingly. They’ll announce to each other that they’re going to flush you out, advancing, or just in a panic to which one will tell another to advance and the other will respond with an adamant “f-you”. The AI really shows its genius status when you start firing on them as they come into a room. If you manage to take one out, the rest will wait outside for you to come to them and start to put the pressure of feeling trapped on you. Sometimes the AI will slip up and opt to come charging straight at you, but it’s a rare occurrence. You can also try to make them follow you into hallways and wait blow them away as soon as they enter the door, but again, that only has a limited success rate. It’s also possible for you to sneak up on enemies as they’re easily taken out when they’re not alert. While this is a neat feature and helps to introduce some simple stealth elements into the gameplay, it’s a tad flawed. You can find one guy all alone and get an easy kill while his squad mates are alerted in another area. No matter how much you try to hide, the rest of the squad will always know where to find you and fire upon entering the room no matter how hidden you think you are.
Rest assured you’ll be navigating a fair share of dark corridors which you’ll be able to pull out your handy flashlight instead of having to feel your way around or blow more stuff up just to get some illumination. The downside to the flashlight is that its power is constantly draining and will eventually shut off and have to recharge after a few minutes. While this may get annoying after a while, your flashlight will never go out at inopportune times.
The driving force behind FEAR lies in its storytelling. You’ll start the game as an unassuming rookie in the beginning and end up feeling totally different by the end. Ironically, most of the story isn’t exposed during the periodic mission briefings but told to you through a series of ghostly hallucinations, flashing images, and voices you’ll encounter as you work through your operation. You’ll also be able to get an even deeper view of the story through voice messages you’ll find on phones and data you find on laptops. While it all may start off sounding like boring office politics at first, the tidbits will get juicier as you progress. FEAR also has its fair share of memorable moments where you will almost end up jumping out of your seat or just feel the pressure of induced panic. The presentation as a whole really comes together well. Each mission is fairly large and checkpoints are placed strategically to where you won’t have to replay large sections over and over again. You can also quick save right before you get into a particularly hairy situation.
FEAR offers up a good deal of realism behind all of the supernatural chicanery. Admittedly, no game has quite captured the essence of an intense firefight quite like FEAR both visually and aurally. Objects will realistically fall or blow up when hit by gun fire or some well placed pistol whipping thanks to a nicely done physics engine under the hood. Stray bullets will leave realistic bullet holes in walls or sparks flying off of metal objects. FEAR also has the best use of smoke effects hands down. In some really intense firefights your field of vision will be affected by lingering smoke. Shining your flashlight into the smoke will do nothing but illuminate it if it’s thick, just like in real life and you’ll sometimes be forced to wait for the smoke to clear before you can make your move. The realism is really pushed in the fact that there are no boss battles whatsoever. Your only real obstacles are the replicant soldiers, their ilk, and your environment.
You’ll venture through a variety of locales that range from a water treatment plant to navigating through cubicles in an office building and exploring dingy industrial areas. Each environment has been “creepified” for the game and the great level design helps to ease you along to your next mission objective without a lot of backtracking or confusing “WTF?” moments. Those interested in following the storyline will feel at home since the game will always attempt to lead them in the right direction with minimal trouble. Every environment you’ll go into is appropriately creepy to where even a normal office building becomes dark and foreboding once you step foot into it. The same goes for some of the less sanitary environments you’ll find yourself in where every surface seems to have the right amount of grime, rust, or dust coating it. Of course the lighting and shadowing are excellent and really bring depth to your environments, especially when an explosion rocks the room you’re in and the lights start swinging back and forth.
In addition to taking on the enemy AI you can also engage in the game’s multiplayer modes. The standard matches are here with deathmatch, capture the flag, and team deathmatch. All of your moves and abilities are carried over from the single player game with a couple of strings attached. Only one player is able to use bullet time during the match. In turn, that player will be visible to everyone and make them basically a primary target. The player who kills the bullet time player inherits the ability at that point. Aside from that, all of the weapons and martial arts are available for you to use as you see fit.
The great visuals go beyond the environments. Every character in the game looks great no matter how trivial a part they play. While the replica soldiers are repeated, there’s a good variety of them to keep things interesting and just when you’ve seen every ace in the hole they throw at you, you’ll continue to be surprised up until the very end.
Great visuals and a forboding visceral experience will only take you so far since a game needs a great set of noises to compliment the dark visuals, and FEAR has that in spades. You’ll be immersed into the experience thanks to an excellent ambient soundtrack that will seamlessly shift from menacing to all-out creepy in a matter of seconds. There is an occasional music track here and there but they’re put in to add to moments of danger or pivotal points in the game and do a great job at it too.
Beyond the ambient effects, it seems that every item seems to have a sound that has been hand crafted for it; from the lowliest mop bucket to the mightiest box, every item will clank and tap with realism for the lack of better descriptive words of course.
Of course nothing beats the pulse pounding sounds of a gunfight. Explosions, gunfire, and even punches to the face pack a wallop. It’s a treat for the ears so to speak. While your character remains silent aside from some breathing and grunts here and there, the game features a good amount of voice acting. All the parts are played well from the abrasive civilian engineer to your superior. Paxton Fettel does a great job of delivering his lines and sounds appropriately creepy as well.
FEAR has managed to cement itself as the forerunner of the FPS of the year competition. While it may not have the pizzazz of Quake 4 in terms of visuals and environments, it excels in terms of sound, story, and providing a great gameplay experience overall. FEAR offers an experience that any fan of first person shooters will enjoy.
- Brad Hicks (Dr. Swank), SwankWorld Media
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