Rating: 9/10 - A great game.
Platform: Microsoft Windows
In F.E.A.R. you play you play an unnamed member of the special forces team F.E.A.R, First Encounter Assault Recon. It's a silly name, and it's not entirely clear what it's purpose is. It's some sort of special operations team for the supernatural. It's also not clear who you play, beyond that you're male, got excellent ratings in training, and are a rookie. It quickly becomes clear that you're more psychically sensitive than others. But you name, your background? No idea. But it's okay, we're not here for a character study.
We are here to be creeped out. It seems the military and a private corporation engaged in some massively illegal and unethical experimentation. Oh, military-industrial complex, will you ever learn? It seems that they took a psychic, Paxton Fettel, and created a bunch of semi-mindless clones of him. The goal was to create a psychic commander capable of leading fearless, perfectly communicating soldiers from afar. Unfortunately something went wrong. The psychic was locked up. Unfortunately they left the brainless clone soldiers armed. Big mistake. Big shock: Fettel somehow escapes, regains control of his 1,000 clones, and heads out on a killing spree.
The game starts simply: your team is to scout out Fettel's last known location. If possible, kill him. But things start getting weird. Lights go out. A row of ceiling tiles are knocked out. Doors close. Static on your headset and a mysterious voice you can't place. A shadow of someone who can't possibly be there. You see people who turn to ash before your eyes. You start seeing a little girl in a loose dress who disappears when she turns a corner. All of the tricks are simple, commonplace for a horror movie. But they work. For most of the game the horror elements are mere suggestions, little things. Something is going wrong, but you're not going to face it. Not yet. F.E.A.R is the the scariest game I can remember playing.
But it's not all creepy noises and strange shadows. You're facing Fettel's clone army. They're not the smartest AI's I've faced, but they're good enough to present a fun challenge. Later in the game you'll face a rogue security team which uses different tactics. Near the end you'll face several extremely difficult enemies. Some enemies appear to be invulnerable, leading to frustrating "run by them and hope they can't track me" moments. Others appear to have perfect vision and never miss, making fighting them a matter of hoping you destroy them before they do too much damage to you. Fortunately these are rare and mostly in the later parts of the game.
Interestingly, the spooky and action parts are distinct. Based on the audio, you can generally tell which section you're in. Instead of harming the game, this helps. The entire game is creepy, but you know when you should be worried about a ghost and when you should be worried about an ambush. The action parts of the game generally rewarded caution, so it was nice to be reasonably cued that I could move more swiftly.
Like most single player first person shooters, it's a bit contrived that you're alone for the majority of the game. The only other combat operative on your team quickly goes missing. The military forces you're supposed to be scouting for never seem to be around when they would be useful. But F.E.A.R. is immersive enough that it didn't bother me.
Levels are linear or very close. If you think too hard about them, you'll wonder what insane person designed these office buildings. But the game play is compelling enough that I generally didn't think about it.
You'll chase Fettel around the city, missing him at each location. (It's never made clear how Fettel is being so stealthy. You'd think a squad of soldiers moving through a city might attract attention.) However, as you nosily listen to voice mail messages at each location, it becomes clear that something big is being covered up. The visions you receive make it clear that the little girl is important. Fettel is after something. And while Fettel is insane and dangerous (the game opens with video footage of Fettel cannibalizing a security guard), he's on his own mission, one that isn't necessary wrong.
The game has one of the most satisfying endings I've played in a long time. The hardest portions of the game are near the end, but not at the end. While the endgame presented enough challenge to keep me at the edge of my seat, it was easy enough that I played the last half hour or so without needing to load a saved game. The story came to a climax and I played through it without being distracted by save games. I'd had my great dose of action, and now the action took a back seat to plot. It was the right choice. In the end instead of feeling, "wow, that took forever to beat," I was entirely immersed and enjoyed being part of the story.
Visually, Monolith has never been cutting edge with their graphics engines. F.E.A.R. is a nice looking game, but juggling it with the much older Far Cry, it does feel a little old. Still Monolith has always pushed what they did have as far as they can. The graphics drew me in. The opponents were well animated. Someone figured out a clever trick for representing large chunks being blown out of walls. It looks like a decal, but appears to have depth. On the down side, F.E.A.R has some positively awful reflections. The reflects appear to reflect a static view of the scene, not adjusting based on the player's position in the room. Only present on water surfaces, it's bad enough to jar me every time I saw it. All in all, a very solid graphics engine. F.E.A.R. represents a reasonable baseline for what future games should try to achieve.
The first person shooter action is solid. Combined with the general creepiness of the game, I recommend F.E.A.R. to any fan of first person shooters. The FPS action is intense, so fans of horror who don't enjoy FPSers will probably find F.E.A.R. frustrating.
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