F.E.A.R.

While most everything else has been given the royal treatment by the FPS genre on the PC, horror has only a few titles to look to for representation in this competitive arena. System Shock and its sequel and Undying come to mind, but Monolith has thrown their hat into the arena with the aptly named F.E.A.R. sporting a new engine and what promises to be a blend of action and pulse pounding supernatural terror.

The “Director’s DVD” of F.E.A.R. patched with 1.01 was was experienced on a PC.

I Want to Believe

Monolith has always had fun with the storylines and the characters behind the titles that they bring out. No One Lives Forever, Blood, and SHOGO are only some of the games that they’ve shown a flair for the dramatic, the funny, and the completely out of this world to create experiences that gamers continue to talk about even today. The world that they’ve created for F.E.A.R. is no exception.

F.E.A.R. stands for “First Encounter Assault Recon” which our nameless hero is a part of as “the new guy”. The group was formed to investigate paranormal phenomena in 2002 and to meet it head on covertly and silently and they’re going to have their hands full with their next mission. Think of them as the paramilitary branch of the X-Files.

Something has gone horribly wrong at a research facility with a man called ‘Paxton Fettel’, a genetically bred psychic commander with the ability to control cloned soldiers called Replicas. He has apparently taken control of the Replicas and has launched a violent uprising, killing most everyone at the facility where he was last seen. Working somewhat in tandem with Special Forces while the public is kept in the dark, our hero is sent in on his first job in the field, a mission where not everything is as it seems and where even your mind is not safe from assault.

Of course, what no one told our hero is that he’ll be all about the last part of F.E.A.R.…Recon…as he goes in alone with his commander acting as a guardian angel in his earpiece. But hey, he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve that can give him an edge against Fettel and his army of mind controlled warriors as he tries to find out what reasons are behind his rebellion.

Max? Is That You?

F.E.A.R. is an FPS title that attempts to involve the player in an evolving horror slanted storyline regarding a psychic commander with a fetish for cannibalism, a corporation with more secrets than Enron, and tons of gratuitously gory violence thrown in for good measure all wrapped in what feels like an action film.

Controls are easy to handle if you’ve played an FPS before, with your typical WASD layout set as the default. You don’t need to check the manual for much more than what new Deathmatch types are offered since it’s pretty scant on everything else. The introductory level of the game and subsequent scenes do the job of tutor, giving you onscreen guidance on how to move about the game world. One thing to mention with movement is in how ladders are handled in the game. If you’re groaning at having to fiddle with more ladders in order to find the ‘sweet’ spots to latch onto and shimmy down from, F.E.A.R. solves that by allowing the player to ‘use’ ladders automatically as they swing onto them and either drop or climb up to the next platform.

Aside from the point and shoot mechanics of the title, you also have access to a deadly array of melee moves and the ability to use ‘reaction time’, or slow motion. Similar to the bullet time trick made popular by the Matrix and game developer Remedy’s Max Payne, seeing it in action as part of your FPS arsenal not only provides some eye candy but also makes it possible for you to see what no one else can see and do what no other man can do. Well, maybe not the ‘see’ part, but you get the picture. For a lot of the combat in the game, it becomes almost indispensible and does a good job in making combat a unique experience.

The interface is non-intrusive, displaying only the vitals of our hero on the bottom of the screen. Body armor and overall health are shown along with another bar showing you how much reaction time you can burn. Both health and reaction time can be improved in small increments throughout the game by finding boosters for each. Exploration is rewarded.

Your commander and whoever else might be on your comlink buzz in from time to time with advise or a head’s up on the situation ahead, giving you the impression that you’re not alone. While you won’t have a party of gun toting partners following you, the impression that you’re the lone wolf being sent to sniff out the opposition is certainly made to set you up for some of the creepiness that the title throws at you. You don’t feel completely isolated from the outside world, but at the same time, you feel a lot like a cleaner who is sent in to get things in ‘order’ before anyone else from your team shows up. Whether or not you feel that this is a great thing depends on what you are expecting. For me, I thought it worked for the title’s narrative, raising just the right amount of tension whenever you start to hear static when the shadows ahead seem much worse than they should be from something…not entirely human.

Weapons felt well balanced along with their placement in the levels and the availability of ammunition and armor. There’s just enough out there to keep you alive and fighting, but don’t expect to be a walking arsenal. There were several times that I have had to throw away weapons in favor for something else because that is what the enemy was carrying at the time. You’re also limited to only three slots for weapons, four if you count your melee option, forcing you to pay more attention to what you need to keep for the long haul ahead. You can also carry fragmentation grenades that explode on contact with the living, remote detonated sticky bombs, and proximity mines for anti-personnel urges. The guns you carry are also just as lethal from dual wielded pistols to the impacter gun that can pin foes to walls, to the particle cannon that blows the flesh off of your enemy’s bones leaving a fried skeleton behind. Gruesome.

Ghost in the Machine

The physics in-game helped to make the enemies look as good as the rest of the scenery as they were thrown back by bullets, punches and kicks, or torn apart by explosive firepower. They stagger, they fly through the air, or keel and fall over a railing making many of the scenes feel ripped from an action film along with the bodycount from Robocop or Commando. Or both combined. The physics also applied to several other things including their weapons, lending itself to scenes where guns would go flying from the hands of someone that had stepped too close to a mine you left for them, bouncing off of a wall and clattering to the floor or into your hands as you ran up to them; or office equipment flying everywhere from the shockwave of a well placed ‘nade.

The graphics certainly looked great, even on my aging 9600 Pro graphics card, and the environmental effects were also impressive. Gas mains explode, lights play on the walls casting their own shadows if you happen to shoot at them, fire looks…err…fiery, and smoke can fill your field of vision along with steam bursting from pipes or metal twisting and falling away. Lots of great eye candy showing off what the engine is capable of. Your character even casts his own shadow and has his own reflected silhouette if you stare down at a puddle of water that you’re standing on. The self actualization of your character in the same was done exceptionally well, especially when you can see your feet kick out and your fists fly during melee. Sparks from errant gunfire rattling off of metal surfaces, chunks of masonry torn loose from riddling a wall with bullets leaving shader created divots in place and filling the air with dust, and blood splattering on walls and on everything else from a firefight gone wrong for the opposition. In slow motion, distortion trails from bullets follow them to their marks.

Monolith is also known for pushing their engines to throw the player into some remarkable scenes. Catwalks can collapse, walls explode, and glass shatters most everywhere. In the tradition of creating memorable gameplay experiences such as NOLF’s sky dive sequence, SHOGO’s mix of giant robots and on-foot action, or NOLF 2′s tornado scene, you’ll find that the game has substituted other experiences such as falling elevators or darkened hallways instead. A lot of the effects, given the subject matter of the title, are a lot more muted and focused on tension and suspense than in pushing adrenaline levels past redline. The combat is there for that. The outdoor stuff, though, didn’t look too impressive. Looking at low res buildings from the rooftop wasn’t exactly as awe inspiring as some of the natural vistas you got to see in Half Life 2.

As for the AI in the game, Monolith did their soldiers service by making them out to be more than pretty cannon fodder. These are soldiers with personality. You’ll hear soldiers order others to go check something out, sometimes getting a yelled “No Way!” as a reply. Many times, they’ll just swear at you as they suddenly realized how exposed they are to your fire, listening to them scream for support or call out “Contact!” as they see you. And they’ll follow individual tactics, too. Forget waiting for soldiers to run in like lemmings towards a doorway with you on the other side. They’ll pitch grenades, wait you out, or try and flank you (or notice if you’re trying to do the same thing). They won’t stay in one position for long, moving from cover to cover to get a better vantage point. They’ll jump over bannisters and shoot through glass to get at you. Going into the same situation twice will normally get them to do something different both times. These are smart guys and it made every fight an exciting encounter.

The sound design also deserves kudos. The environmental sounds of each level manage to pull you into what is going on, whether it’s the hum of machinery or the clutter of what falls on the floor to the wind blowing through empty lots. There were several times where I’d accidentally knock over a few paint cans and froze, wondering if my foes had heard my clumsy attempt to sneak up on them. The music of F.E.A.R. was also spot on, lending many of the episodes a kind of haunted feel to them. The music also ups the tempo for those scenes that demand it, throwing itself into the thick of the action as a squad of troopers comes through to kill you as soon as they see you. It all works well to keep the pace exciting and the tension just right.

Despite how nice everything looks on the surface, however, there are a few things that are less than polished. Some of the metallic and surface textures have that plastic look to them and clipping is still an issue. Some weapons can get ‘stuck’ at odd angles in walls, or (rarely) drop through the floor entirely as what happened to me when I tried swapping out one weapon for another and watched as the weapon I pitched dropped through the ground at my feet. Some of the characters also suffer from some odd deformities, such as one ATC trooper I killed whose neck looked to be stretched like rubber.

X-File

Then there’s the story. The game would be just another pretty face on the shooter scene if it weren’t for the pacing of the story and the horror elements that it uses to help set it apart. The introductory cinematic does a decent job in setting up your expectations for what is to come. Another interesting side note is that many of the cinematic moments in the game that are used to string together the story appear to be all in-game with the effects that come with the package to keep the player immersed in the game world.

Altogether, the storyline works fine for what Monolith intended for it in giving the player some motivation to go in and blow everything apart and keep going, but the story itself is not as remarkable as one would hope it would be. The atmosphere created in the game by the environment and the effects deserve much of the credit. The setup of stringing the player along with laptops and phone messages felt a lot like a breadcrumb trail placed a little too conveniently.

The player learns snippets of the story from these devices. While it was interesting to listen to the voice messages and pick up pieces of the story from the Alienware laptops that Armacham had apparently ordered for their staff (lucky), it still felt a little too “by-the-numbers”. System Shock and its sequel gave a lot of personality to the environments that they took place in with e-mails and little snippets of other information that you could pick up. Undying also added a lot of personality to the environment in using its surroundings and the discovery of family heirlooms, journals, and cinematics to help create more of the oppressive dread the developers wanted to have the player feel. In F.E.A.R., finding ‘key’ information just lying out in the open felt a bit too much like breadcrumbs along a trail with only a loading screen as the only real break in the action from one level to the next.

This is made worse by the single minded pursuit of Paxton Fettel in the game that can sometimes feel as if it is simply dragging you along for the ride. Despite having a lot of ‘stuff’ in the game to shoot at, knock over, or otherwise hide behind, not a lot of it was used as additional storytelling devices aside from the scripted events or to create spectacular firefights with stuff flying all over the place. The story does make sense, but I came away with the feeling that a lot more could have been done with it and world supporting it. As for the ending, it certainly leaves several possibilities open and be sure to watch the credits all the way to the end.

The scripted horror pieces did feel well paced so as not to feel overused and spent before the grand finale begins to play out. But the ending sequence begins to fall apart into something entirely less than horrifying and more of a cross between Rambo: First Blood and The Ghostbusters which was disappointing. I would have preferred to see something more along the lines of anime such as Akira or Spriggan, something that was more in keeping with what came before, something that could send items and furniture flying at your face in all directions or warping the very walls of reality around you. It’s not terrible, per se, but it wasn’t something that I had expected from the climax.

The characters that are on your team are also interacting with you on a very basic level and you really don’t get to know any of them well apart from a later section in the game if you just hang around two of them talk to each other to pick up snippets of personal info. Otherwise, that’s it. So much for character development. The only one who comes across as having any kind of personality is your commanding officer who you really can’t avoid since he’s in your earpiece.

There are parts of the game that actually let you do something apart from having to fill bodybags such as escorting individuals through to safety or to help someone else. These sequences, however, are few. These sequences and the levels that are found in the game, while feeling wide and open to exploration, tended to feel like linear experiences leading the player on to the exit sign at the end. Fortunately, this wasn’t a pervasive feeling and Monolith has set up certain hot situations where it is possible to try different angles of approach to get the jump on the bad guys. Still, it doesn’t hide the fact that the approach to many other levels felt somewhat linear.

The gameplay mechanics are still more than capable of generating a lot of excitement and grisly, bicycle kicking, gore that is makes for some great action scenes, but as for bringing anything new to the table, I found myself looking at previous titles such as HL2, Far Cry, and Max Payne. But although the gameplay mechanics were familiar, the sheer fun found in the firefights and the occasional flying kick is something that never gets tired thanks to how well everything makes them look and sound.

Deathmatch

Deathmatch offers your typical batch of gametypes such as Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Elimination, along with the team versions of these themes. There’s a total of ten maps that come with the game, eight dedicated to all other gametypes with only a two created for CTF. A maximum of 16 players appeared to be the upper limit on any map. With the introduction of slo mo in the game, a few of these gametypes are expanded to include “Slow Motion” versions of Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag. For example, in Slo Mo Deathmatch, one player can pick up the slow motion power up and watch it charge as long as they can hold onto it. Once charged up, that’s when you can use it against the other players until you get killed. In the team variant of this, the effect can include the entire team. It doesn’t make you as invincible, however, and sharpshooting players can easily take you out just as if you’ve never used it.

The maps were fun but crowds made several of the maps feel small and confined. It was far too easy (especially on the crowded servers) for players to spawn camp and rack up massive kills in this gametype as there didn’t seem to be any way to set timed spawn protection, but campers tended to die rather quickly. Fighting felt fast and brutal without much lag on a broadband connection, even when bullets were flying, dust was choking, and explosions were blowing through the air. The effects helped to create some great moments. In one instance, I was running down a narrow corridor choked with smoke, firing blindly ahead of me at another player that was running for cover. I suddenly emerged into an open area, light shining down from the left from an open stairwell. Too late I realized that I hesitated as another player stepped out from the smoke on my right like a ghost made flesh, his trigger finger sending a steel rod into my head. Oops. The melee combat was also in there, as I’d see several players change up and start fly kicking at each other with deadly results.

Given the lighting details and graphics quality of the interiors that I had it set at (Medium for most everything) along with the physics, I was surprised at how smoothly it played on my system especially given the disappointing performance of Doom 3′s multiplayer with the same number of players. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Director’s Cut

The Director’s DVD of the game has several extras that make this a worthwhile option. Not only do you get all of the machinema episodes that had been released on the ‘net for F.E.A.R., you also get a ‘Making of’ video, a live film sequence showing an interview with Alma, a Dark Horse comic created for the game that acts as an ‘extended’ intro to the one that you see in the game, and the ‘Director’s Commentary’ film where several lead members of the team that created the game give their commentary on what worked and what didn’t as you watch a demonstration of the title being played. This last is full of information on why certain things had to be dropped such as the car chase sequence everyone saw in the previews (it wasn’t working out as well as they thought it would). The developers also go on to talk about what led to their decisions on things such as the pacing of the game, its levels, and the frightening sequences found scattered throughout the title. For anyone that likes to know what goes through the heads of those putting a title like this together, it’s full of information that makes it worth watching.

Classified

F.E.A.R. is an exciting FPS that blends together several conventions to create an entertaining and chilling experience. It’s an exceptional shooter, but only just. While the mechanics seem familiar and the formula typical, the atmosphere and the scenery all around the player build up the tension and the excitement making every firefight and every discovered secret wrapped around the dark story something to appreciate. F.E.A.R. might not be the end all, do all FPS that fans of the genre are looking for, but that shouldn’t keep them from loading up and heading out into the nightmare that Monolith has waiting for them just around the next corner.

- World 1-1

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