F.E.A.R.

‘F.E.A.R.’ is a very frustrating game from a structural standpoint.  For every single step forward taken into progression in first person shooter design, it seems to take an equal number of steps back, resulting in an experience that, while fun, just doesn’t seem to be nearly as good as was originally promised.  ‘F.E.A.R.’ was hyped to death before its initial release, touting itself as THE next-gen shooter, packed to the brim with horrific atmosphere as well as incredible action, but the end result is a game that’s great in its best moments, but also extremely rigid and clunkily designed, with an overall feel that never really seems to hit its stride, though it does jerk upward in quality frequently enough to warrant a play from the typical FPS lover.

In ‘F.E.A.R.’ you play a faceless, mute protagonist who lacks any and all personality in a search and destroy mission for one Paxton Fettel, who does possess a face and is somewhat less mute (though similarly devoid of personality, what little of which is primarily relegated to flat, ‘dramatic’ monologues and an interest in munching humans that’s never really explained).  Apparently you’re a member of the elite ‘F.E.A.R.’ (First Encounter Assault Recon, in one of the clumsiest and most forced acronyms this side of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) team, a squad (though you’re the only one who seems to do anything) of specialized commandos designed to respond to paranormal threats.  The aforementioned Fettel has a psychic link with a battalion of cloned and heavily armed supersoldiers who obey his every telepathic command.  The death of Fettel will result in a mental shutdown of the clones, rendering them harmless and the situation effectively neutralized.  There’s also a small girl in a red dress named Alma who causes people to explode by walking near them.  I guess you have to give Monolith credit for somehow managing to create such massive plot holes in a story as paper-thin as this one, but at the same time it’s a good metaphor for the game as a whole, where the idea of not seeing the forest for the trees is granted the status of holy commandment and obsessive details are given full reign over the most basic logic of design.

‘F.E.A.R.’ is a first-person shooter that’s relatively devoid of bells and whistles, save for one: the ever-popular ‘bullet time’ system (though they refuse to call it that in the game or manual for some reason, going for the much less pretty-sounding ‘slow-mo’ instead) which allows you to slow down time in order to attack your enemies with greater precision and effectiveness.  This is explained by the game as your character having ostensibly superhuman reflexes, so in actuality, it’s not the world slowing down as much as it is you speeding up.  It’s a novel spin on the concept, though in practice such a distinction has no bearing on the game itself.  Aside from this and the much-discussed ‘horror elements’ (more on those later), ‘F.E.A.R.’ plays like a conventional if mildly tactical shooter.  There’s not really much unique on a gameplay level going on.

But, of course, a huge emphasis has been placed on the ‘horror sections’ as being a defining element of the gameplay.  ‘F.E.A.R.’ regularly takes a stab at generating some level of creepiness and atmosphere, generally by the incorporation of Alma doing something sinister (re: walking somewhere), various auditory or visual hallucinations, gigantic pools of blood (scary, apparently), and other sundry attempts at worming its way into the gamer’s subconscious.  One of the things that makes ‘F.E.A.R.’ different from other games with attempted horror elements is that it genuinely tries to take the high road, moving to generate a haunted, ominous atmosphere with a palpable sense of dread instead of relying on cheap jump scares to immerse the audience.  The problem with that, as earnest and well-intentioned as that attempt might be, is that it doesn’t really work.  Apparently all the ideas for really effectively creepy parts were used up within the first few levels of the game, because after those, ‘F.E.A.R.’ just rehashes the same attempts at atmosphere that it did in those opening sections.

Okay, so the first level of the game is really cool: there are no enemies at all.  It’s simply you trying to find Fettel in an abandoned building (this is a setting you’ll get very familiar with throughout the course of the game).  While getting a feel for the controls, the game really manages to establish a morbid, dark atmosphere through effective uses of lighting, scene changes (the game will regularly send you into an ‘alternate dimension’ of sorts where most of the supernatural goings-on occur), and distant sound effects.  There are some parts after that level which are cool as well: turning around to go down a ladder to see Alma at the ledge you’re descending from, and upon reaching the bottom, seeing a hallucination of Fettel approach you.  That one actually made me jump; it’s honestly creepy and really well done.  But the majority of what the game throws at you is nowhere near as subtle.  Huge pools of blood aren’t scary, nor are fleeting sights of Alma after the fiftieth or so, nor are the same cut scenes repeated ad nauseam to seem ‘cinematic’.  I don’t know about you, but apparently I will be a god among men.

But ‘F.E.A.R.’ isn’t ‘Silent Hill’.  It’s a shooter.  And as far as being a shooter goes, it’s really fun.  The enemy A.I., while not as incredible as some people make it out to be, is pretty capable and interacts well with the environment, bursting through windows, taking cover effectively, tossing grenades realistically, etc.  Your weapons run the typical shooter gamut: pistol, submachine gun, assault rifle, bigger assault rifle, rocket launcher, supersexy laser, etc.  Your enemies maintain a similar variety: your basic troopers, robots, ghostly specters, and even some mech-like troopers in massive powered armor.  The problem with the combat in ‘F.E.A.R.’ isn’t the variety; it’s the artificial restrictions the game places on that combat.  Yes, there’s a wide variety of weapons: stuff like the repeating cannon (imagine a fully automatic grenade launcher) and the ASP rifle is incredibly fun to play with, but you never get enough ammunition for most of those weapons to be used regularly.  Combined with the strict limit of three weapons carriable at a time, and you end up snagging the rarer guns, enjoying them while you have them, and promptly throwing them away after wasting all the ammo, because, hey, you’re not going to see another for three levels.  So even though the game DOES give you more unconventional weapons, you end up just resting on the familiar set of assault rifle, shotgun, and miscellaneous bonus which is pretty unnecessary as a whole.  The same issue goes with the enemies: while there are robots and powered armor units and all sorts of other cool additions, the fact is that throughout the game you’re going to be sawing through trillions of the same basic replica, with the only changes being the skin on the model and the gun in their hand.  It’s weird and frustrating that the game would be designed with so much handicapped potential; why would they make it like this?

It doubly sucks because those rarer elements are some of the coolest in the game.  Fighting the replicas is fun, but it’s so much better when spiced up with the ‘heavies’ (extra-armored and slow moving replicas) and invisible, environment-manipulating assassins.  During those moments when you’re fighting varied enemies with interesting, powerful weapons are the very best in the game: there’s nothing like some of the parts in the game’s middle office levels where you’re thrown into a pitched battle with dozens of basic replicas backed up by heavies and flying robots, and getting to watch the cubicles around you get systematically shredded to pieces by every bullet that flies.  I think that one of the big issues is that Monolith wanted every ‘large’ enemy to have a huge, spectacular entrance, crashing through walls or being dropped from a plane or something else similarly great in scope and surprise.  But because of that, the majority of the game is much more static, and designed in the ‘pulse’ form of combat: walk around, find the next area with a group of enemies, kill them, see step one.  Even though that combat is fun, don’t we expect more from modern game design than something so… well, for lack of a better word, primitive?

Another huge issue that plagues the game is the interaction of the ‘new’ elements with each other.  For all the emphasis the game places on the slow-mo feature, it’s really unnecessary throughout 99% of the game.  Most of the time I was playing, I would forget to use it simply because the gunfights aren’t THAT challenging, contrary to what many would have you believe.  I can only offhandedly think of a few instances where I had to reload my save more than a couple times, and it’s generally only in those instances where I bothered to use the slow-mo feature.  The most obvious and glaring one of those flaws in interaction is found in the interplay of shooter sections and those that emphasize the horrific elements.  Simply put, there is none; the two sides of the game NEVER interact with each other in any significant way.  Alma never visits in the middle of a gunfight, you’re never thrust into an alternate dimension while batting away laser-firing drones, and overall, the two styles of gameplay just never seem to mesh properly.  In fact, the seams show so badly between the two main styles that the game might as well give you an audible cue to signify it: “You’re going to be shooting enemies now/You’re going to see hallucinations now.”  On top of this, each one of those sections is mercilessly protracted, going on fifty percent longer than they have to, and never leaving any doubt as to when a new replica will be stumbled upon or a little red-dressed girl will act suspiciously.

There’s so many features in this game that seem to be really half-baked and useless.  You’re able to execute melee attacks on your enemies, including a variety of martial arts-inspired kicks, but you’ll have maybe three opportunities to use them in the game because your enemies are nearly always facing the way you’ll be entering any given room.  There are multiple grenade types, but you’ll end up using them all pretty much the same way: you’ve got normal frag grenades, proximity mines (which can be thrown and used as frag grenades), and remote bombs (which can be thrown and used as frag grenades).  The latter two are supposed to be used for ‘setting traps’, but the gunplay in ‘F.E.A.R.’ is so lacking in subtlety that there’s no opportunity for you to ‘trap’ anything at any point.  All this time used to create and program these essentially useless features (you can even throw the slow-mo on that pile, though it is fun as a novelty) could have been used to put more meat on the bones of the game: streamlining the levels, making the horror and combat interact to some extent, or, I don’t know, giving your character a voice.  But in the end, you’re left with about fifty ideas that wander around aimlessly instead of half as many that pack a real punch.

Overall, the game brings to mind a developer that thinks much more of itself than anyone does of them.  I can see that ‘F.E.A.R.’ is trying to be a ‘cinematic’ experience, something that a lot of games are trying to be (which I think is a misguided idea myself, but that’s for another day), but its attempts at that style seem to employ the most pretentious and overwrought parts of that artform instead of the most engaging.  ‘F.E.A.R.’ is trying to be ‘a shooter with a brain’, but really, this game is more brainless than a hell of a lot of other popular shooters out there today by the flaws that it really heaps on itself in an attempt to seem meaningful.  ‘F.E.A.R.’ excels in its most unpretentious moments: destruction of the environment (as sterile and repetitive as those environments are), beautiful graphics and sound effects which bring a massive viscerality to every round fired and body blown apart, and the incredibly fun gunfights that dominate the majority of the game.  The heart of ‘F.E.A.R.’ is a remarkably solid, fun shooter; it’s just all the extra stuff piled on that’s so deeply flawed.

If ‘F.E.A.R.’ lost its huge sections of dead space, weird issues of variety in weapon and enemy selection, and generally clumsy implementation of additional features, it would be hands-down one of the best shooters in recent memory.  The gunfights are spectacularly violent and thrilling, and when the horrific moments are working right, they’re truly atmospheric.  It’s the lesser parts of each that bring ‘F.E.A.R.’ from brilliance to merely being very slightly above average, instead.  I guess it all boils down to this, though: when you’re not looking at it from a critical perspective, weighing all the elements of the game, most of which you’ll only really criticize after you’ve finished it, and are just playing through it as normal, is it fun?  Hell yes it’s fun: killing clones in slow-motion glory is a great time for all, and I do recommend this to shooter fans.  It’s just not as great and immersive as it could have been.  I’d be more merciful if it were simply advertised as a good, very beautiful shooter.  When viewed from that angle, this is a great game.  But as the tour-de-force that Monolith wants you to believe it is, no, I can’t say it succeeds in that dimension.  It is, however, a great deal of fun while you’re in shotgunning angry Dollys to death in warehouses and office buildings galore.

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~ by noktorn on January 13, 2008.

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