If there's one thing we know about fear, it's that eventually, it'll lead to suffering. If there's one thing I know about F.E.A.R., it's that I've never played it, mostly because I wasn't too interested in the idea of psychological horror creeping into my FPS.
There are genre crossovers that not only work, but perhaps make sense, and horror witnessed through the first-person viewpoint is definitely one of those merges that live long in the mind - providing, I suppose, that the game that comes out of that merger does something worth remembering.
Does F.E.A.R. provide us with something worth remembering other than all the periods in its title?
Could you maybe bump that font size up a bit, please, F.E.A.R.? Or are you trying to pull me closer for a jump scare? The year is the near future, I assume, and the existence of the First Encounter Assault Recon unit implies the existence of some otherworldly threat that needs countering.
It's a good job I put the subtitles on, eh? A man in a cell, it seems, is having visions or hearing things, or both, and is urged to kill. It looks rather good. So far as I can tell, it's in-game graphics on show here. Just a shame about the text size.
The guy we're introduced to, Paxton Fettel, is the commander of a bunch of telepathically controlled super-soldier clones. He appears to have gone rogue. He's also a cannibal. I can't think of a better scenario to give to a newcomer to the force - us.
But don't worry, for we are special. Other than being the protagonist, of course. No, our test scores are remarkable, reflexes off the charts, almost like, oh, I don't know, we're a super-soldier who may or may not be a clone?
As if that hint wasn't obvious enough, we immediately start to get visions.
So, F.E.A.R. isn't going to be our run-of-the-mill shooter, that much is obvious. How much horror does it want to give us? I noticed a 'Gore' option in the settings, so I expect blood, but is this more of a psychological horror than anything else?
I don't have a clue, and despite the bleh plot so far, I'm interested in seeing how it plays out.
It's not long before I'm really rather interested, as F.E.A.R. begins to impress in the graphics department. Like Doom 3 before it, it's a game of lights and shadows, and the stark contrasts between the two. I wasn't expecting this when going into the game, I know that much. I should have - I mean, it's 2005, and games know how to look pretty good by now.
We navigate the dingy rooms of wherever we are and meet up with Jankowski to take down Paxton. There's a tracking device in his head or something bonkers like that, and it leads here. But as we burst through the door, my mind appears to be elsewhere.
Snapping back to reality, the voices leaving my ears, we find a corpse that doesn't belong to our target. He's given us the slip. Can you believe it? The head of a telepathically controlled super-soldier clone battalion is one step ahead of us. But he must be nearby because we're still tracking him. Don't worry, Jankowski. I'll go look for him.
Well, I walked right into that one. Found Paxton, though.
He lets us go back to our friends and the mission ends. It's a bit weird. The game just stops, turns to black, then shows us a new mission briefing. It cuts to black a lot. The checkpoints aren't exactly seamless, but let's not focus on that. How are we going to find Paxton after he's given us the slip? Oh, we're narrowing down on his location again. Well, let's get going, then.
Our squad of F.E.A.R. troops can't open a door without our help, so off we run to look for the door controls when we come across some reflex enhancing serum or something. It's a bright yellow pick up to refill our reflex bar. I've not used it yet. I assume, given there's a pickup for it, that it's important. I'll be on the lookout. Need to look for the door switch first, though.
Found it. And what do you know, as soon as I pull the lever and the rest of the squad walk through it, the radio is ablaze with chatter. Alarmed, borderline-screaming chatter. Better get back qui-and they're all skeletons now. Great.
There's a lot of blood in F.E.A.R. But there are some soldiers up ahead, so we're in safe hands. Though it must be said that I don't actually know if these soldiers are friendly or not. I can get quite close to them, but they've not turned around and talked about the horrendous bloodshed that has occurred here...
They were, indeed, not on my side. The firefight was brief, but there was something unusual about it. Something different.
These super-soldiers don't move like video game soldiers usually move. These guys have some smarts about them. They'll hunt for cover. They'll make cover. You can see them try to flank you, working together to get you out of the picture. Or am I just thinking that they're smart?
In all honesty, the gunplay is lovely. I wouldn't say it's realistic, but I want to point out that I've never shot a gun in my life. I just feels so different from other shooters. Is it the ragdoll physics? Is it the artificial intelligence? Is it all the lighting and special effects? There's something special about the combat in F.E.A.R. that, frankly, my screenshots don't do justice.
These, for example, show the slow-motion reflex mode. The screen blurs. New colours make themselves known. Bullets leave trails in the air, particles hover, and of course, everything soooounnnnds sllllooooowwww. Stop reading this awful blog and watch some footage of F.E.A.R. - in slow motion or not, it doesn't matter. This is great.
Great until it's not again. Visions lead me down a corridor where a spooky black-haired girl stood, engulfed in flame. My only escape is to be thrown out of a window, where I plummet to the concrete below and am found by someone whose name I probably should have learned by now. She remarks at how I have no signs of injury, despite being thrown through a window and dumped on the floor, and then lets me get on with the mission - alone.
Ok, well, let's just ignore that and venture into this dark industrial sector alone again. Clearly, we can manage without backup. Where do we need to go now?
The route through the levels is largely obvious. Doors that would lead the wrong way are blocked, and if there are ever multiple exits, they usually loop around to the next area anyway. They may be big, detailed, and well-lit levels, but at the same time, they are a tad bland and generic. Concrete, metal, machinery, more concrete.
Further Fun Times
But then, just when you start to get bored, you walk into a skirmish, and the room comes to life with gunfire and blood. I thought I had the jump on these guys, but no, they spotted me in seconds, and one guy literally thought that the best course of action for him to take would be to burst through the office window, diving into a roll on the walkway outside.
It was at that point that I knew for certain that F.E.A.R. will be memorable not for its plot - not so far, at least - but for the enemies it throws against you, and the smarts they have. Or try to have. For the most part, they succeed. They spot you and suddenly split off into different directions, firing at you when they can, from unexpected places of cover.
In other shooters, you'll have an idea of what an enemy might do, because they're usually fairly straightforward threats. Not here. Sure, I'm on a lower difficulty, so they're not overwhelming, but they cause some pause for thought - especially when you're not sure if they're dead yet, and their bodies regain some composure and start returning fire again.
When you're not shooting, and you're not in a boring section of this... wherever we are, the lighting and effects look top-notch, and when you least expect it, you drop down into a nightmarish vision.
I'm not sure what's going on. Something about a birth, I gather. Ours? Our child's? No idea. Definitely wasn't this much blood when it happened for real, though. What's causing these visions? What's the story behind them? I guess we'll have to wade through and find out.
After instakill melee attacks (which include a ridiculous dropkick, if you're feeling fancy), snooping through shadows, getting lost amongst the scenery and then killing everything that moves, I find myself resorting to blowing up proximity mines to help deal with ambushes. Most satisfying.
More visions lead to another body in a chair. This time, the victim is still alive. Not for long, though. Actually, I might still be hallucinating. But he mentions an Alma, and then the room turns into yet another skirmish.
If I'm being honest, I was getting a little bored of F.E.A.R. by this point. I'd seen some excellent fights, some really fancy effects, and lots of spooky psychological horror, but I was aware of how video-gamey this whole place was.
It was rather linear, even with rooms involving multiple entries and exit points. We were being led down a path - we had to be if we were to be spooked at certain points along it - and when the path wasn't full of fighting and lighting, it was full of concrete and metal and dirt that you could see in any other game.
After an hour of gaming, I thought I'd go out by not caring about my health. Charge in, guns blazing, and just see what happened.
Instead of shooting an enemy with my shotgun and watching him explode into a misty red cloud like his mate, I shot a pillar right in front of me, allowing him to shoot me first. Which he did, obviously. And that was fine by me.
I'd played F.E.A.R. and I liked my time with it more than I thought I would. It perhaps seems like being a little-known or underappreciated title, but with multiple sequels, it did something right. That something has to be some combination of the artificial intelligence and the setting you and they find each other in.
Alma, not to spoil it, is the spooky kid on the cover. The spooky girl you see murdering your squad and setting things on fire. She's up to something. If the plot didn't start with telepathic super-soldier clones, I might be more interested in finding out what her story is.
But then I simply cannot ignore the gameplay, which absolutely keeps you moving through the game. The odd physics puzzle to navigate so that you can move to the next skirmish may too feel a bit generic when it comes to FPS titles on the PC (everything's inspired by Half-Life and all that), but the combat is as different as you can get - to the point where some games today don't come close to doing what F.E.A.R. did.
There is, thankfully, a slider to reduce the amount of head bobbing your character does on his travels. It's not an excessive amount of movement, but as time went on, it was getting to that motion sickness point. Drop that, and I reckon I'll be back to playing F.E.A.R., and if it gets too difficult, well, hopefully by that point I'll know whether I want to see the rest of the story.
Whether you care about the plot or not, F.E.A.R. has to be played. Get a few fights under your belt. Watch how the AI tries to deal with you. Wonder why games don't feel like this anymore.
The parallels between F.E.A.R.'s Alma and The Ring's Samara are fairly obvious, but the idea of a little girl being the main threat is simply because it's scarier than a grown adult. A grown adult is someone you think you can defeat. A little girl who can turn squads of soldiers into skeletons? Yeah, you can't fight that.
F.E.A.R., developed by Monolith Productions, first released in 2005.
Version played: PC, 2005.