Reviewed on PC.
Do you wish your tactical room clearing shooter was a little more spooky? I have the game for you.
In F.E.A.R., you play as an operative, who is part of an organisation that deals with the supernatural called First Encounter Assault Recon (or F.E.A.R.), who obviously wanted a cool acronym. At the beginning of the game, you are sent to eliminate a telepathic cannibal named Paxton Fettel, whose name sounds too much like a sort of posh meal to be threatening. Fettel has assumed control of an army of clones and assaulted a technology company. Over the course of the game you uncover the company’s dark secrets, and are increasingly pursued by a spooky J-horror girl. The premise has a lot of potential, suggesting a sort of gritty Ghostbusters, but the horror sections are brief and divided up by long stretches of military shootouts. The tone is muddied further by the inclusion of Hong Kong action elements, like bullet time and martial arts moves. If the game indulged a bit in the silliness of this mix it would have been more enjoyable, but it is played completely straight. As a result, it feels like it could have been split into two or three games with more congruent tones: a psychological horror game, a tactical shooter with impressive enemy AI, and a goofy action game with slow motion flying kicks. Some of the story is filled in by listening to people’s answering machines, but unlike the System Shock/Bioshock method of having an audio log play while you explore, you have to stay near the phone, hurting the game’s already poor pacing. The characters are all dull, which is saying something when the villains are a telepathic cannibal and a psychic demon child, and the story as a whole is just not that interesting.
F.E.A.R. regains some goodwill with it’s gameplay. It’s a first person shooter where you take on squads of soldiers that work together rather than single enemies placed around the map. These enemies are notable for their smart AI, which allows them to perform actions like flanking, sneaking, blindfiring, and crawling across the room. The enemies also shout orders and call out what you are doing, which respectively give you an opportunity to respond to their tactics and make encounters more believable. The squads feel like a genuinely challenging and intelligent enemy, particularly on higher difficulties, and so outsmarting them feels very satisfying. The problem is a lot of the game has you fighting the same squads repeatedly, and this can stretch out for long periods of time without any sense of progression. There are several enemies that aren’t copy-pasted supersoldiers – heavies, drones and robots – but these are rarely seen, and soak up way too much damage to be fun. At a few points you fight off supernatural enemies, and I think there should have been more of these skirmishes so the game would inch a little closer to the genre implied by the title. Another element that ratchets up the tedium is the environments. Almost all of the game takes place in either an empty warehouse, or an empty office, and it’s made even worse when you are forced to backtrack through these places. The levels can get so repetitive that I lost a save and was sent several chapters back, but did not realise for a while. If F.E.A.R. was a fully-fledged horror game, setting it in a single office building would create a complimentary feeling of claustrophobia, but shooters often need some sort of variety to keep things fresh, whether it’s new enemies, environments or mechanics.
The weapons are generally enjoyable to use. As well as the standard fare of pistol, SMG, battle and assault rifles, you get a shotgun that feels extremely powerful and occasionally turns foes into sickly red mist. Later on you get access to some more exotic weapons: a nailgun that pins people to walls, a beam cannon that simultaneously incinerates and electrocutes victims, and a sort of revolving cannon. These make gunfights a lot of fun, but having a cannon that causes people to evaporate removes any tension from the horror moments when spooky girl is walking towards you in slow motion. In addition, all the automatic weapons have awful accuracy and recoil, so during many combat encounters I wished I could just have a normal gun that wouldn’t praise the sun the moment I pulled the trigger. On a similar note, the melee attacks are amusing, but are rarely useful, since flinging yourself towards enemies is a good way to efficiently get killed, and so you only do them if you’re getting bored and have a health kit to spare. One other annoyance is the fact that the lean function doesn’t extend far enough, which means you have to expose about half your body when trying to shoot from cover.
F.E.A.R. puts emphasis on visual spectacle to support it’s Hong Kong action stylings. Opening fire will cause dead enemies to ragdoll, sparks to fly, dust clouds to form and broken glass shatter everywhere. The effect is amplified by activating bullet time, which makes the chaos seem almost choreographed and sort of beautiful (maybe not the evaporating people). The blood-soaked psychological sequences are also pretty interesting to see, even though they don’t ever feel threatening.
I did have some fun playing F.E.A.R.; overcoming the early gunfights made me feel like a tactical genius with lightning reflexes, but the experience lost a lot of impact after it started to seem like I was hitting quickload every time I cleared a room. On a technological level, F.E.A.R. is pretty impressive, and the AI outshines most games released since. Ultimately though, I can’t recommend a game that has a relatively short run time, yet feels like it’s dragging.