It's not often that I enjoy that “well this is a bit creepy” feeling while sitting in front of my PC. It's unusual for me to actually jump a little in my seat while playing a video game. It's even rarer that I recover from a sudden scare and don't laugh it off as a cheap shot. I don't believe I've ever combined any of the above with a first person shooter that compelled me to play it all the way through. First Encounter Assault Recon, AKA: F.E.A.R., combines an interesting story, a spooky atmosphere and an excellent combat experience in one package.
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the concept behind F.E.A.R. and you're not going to run into many gameplay elements that haven't already been done to some degree or another, but the joy of F.E.A.R. comes when you realize the game does everything better than its predecessors. Let's dig into the details, shall we?
The game is gorgeous. My gaming rig is getting a bit out of date (P4 3.0c with 1GB of DDR RAM and a Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB video card), but F.E.A.R. still looks excellent. Like many others, you can allow the game to test your system and recommend settings based on what it finds works best. I tweaked my settings a bit from this baseline and experienced a relatively smooth experience. This game is a resource hog, though, and will eat up whatever resources you have available. The sheer amount of configuration options will allow tweakers to get the best looking game possible for their system.
On that note, there were definitely times during the game when my settings appeared to be too high, as I experienced some graphics lag and hiccups. I'm sure I could resolve this by lowering more settings, but it was a rare enough occurrence not to cause me too much worry (although I did turn down my AA quite a bit early on).
The environments in the game are primarily industrial. You'll be spending lots of time in office buildings, in warehouses and running around rooftops. In fact, the lack of variety in environments is kind of a let down, but the game makes the most of the landscapes you do encounter. Most everything in the game can be moved, and I noticed that just by rubbing up against a steel shelf, I would make the cans or jugs rattle noisily. Of course, then there are the times that the items on shelves go flying into their air of their own volition when you walk into a room, but then you are a member of a force that deals with the paranormal.
Character models models are not particularly groundbreaking but they fill their roles well. The physics engine used in the game provides for excellent rag doll effects from flying bodies and it is possible to dismember enemies with well placed shots. One character that will definitely stand out to anyone who's seen “The Ring” or “The Grudge” will be the creepy little kid model. In this case it's a little girl who bears more than a striking resemblance to Samarra of “The Ring” and who at times acts just as sinister as said little girl. She'll pop up at random times throughout the game, oftentimes in ways which seem like cut scenes until you realize that you're taking damage and need to get the hell out.
Which leads me in to the “creepy effects” area of the game. Monolith took what Doom 3 attempted to do with atmosphere several steps further. Instead of relying simply on impenetrably dark areas where demons jump out at regular intervals, Monolith has dug deeper into how movies and ghost stories create their atmospheres and mixes it into their environments. Sudden static on the radio and some strange, double vision-like symptoms precede the appearance of what can only be described as ghosts or hauntings. Former teammates disappear around corners or break apart into hundreds of pieces as you approach them, their backs turned. You turn to climb down a ladder and, as you face back the way you came, the little girl is suddenly standing right above you before flying apart. Cans fly off shelves after you've passed them, strange noises can be heard, light fixtures shatter. All of these elements provide a constant tension that is only relieved when you get into firefights with the opposing forces (go figure).
The interface for this game is standard FPS. I chose the usual WASD and Mouse combination that I've used for years. Keys are re-mappable to the heart's content and there is a multitude of options for tweaking sound and video to get the best out of your gaming experience. One of the options you should be using a lot is the Lean ability, which allows you to expose a minimum of your characters body around corners either for checking out an area or for taking a good first shot. I found the lean option to be a bit difficult to use effectively, as I never seemed to be able to lean far enough to see anything without exposing too much of my character's body. Perhaps you'll have better luck.
Your character has the ability to slow down time in a Matrix-like, bullet time effect. This allows you to get great shots on the enemy while getting out of the way of their shots. You'll find that this option is one of the only ways to get out of many firefights without taking a severe beating or dying. The amount of time you can use this effect is dictated by the Reflex bar. It regenerates once you cancel the effect and you'll find Reflex Boosters throughout the hidden areas of the game that increase your reflex bar permanently. You're also find Health Boosters that increase your maximum health.
The enemy AI is worth mentioning in that is an excellent AI; perhaps the best AI I've seen since Far Cry. They react to your movements and the sounds you make very quickly, so you'll have to be careful moving around the environments so as not to knock over anything. They will also respond to seeing your flashlight, so it's not a tool you'll be able to have on all the time. The enemies work in teams and will actively try to outflank your position. They take cover well and move from cover to cover while exposing themselves as little as possible. They're not easy to take down either, as they are also wearing armor and use the same weapons as you do.
Speaking of weapons, you are only allowed to carry three types of weapons at a time and only 5 grenades of each type. This forces you to decide which weapons work best together and which kind of ammo you're most likely to be able to find. The weapons are generally pretty standard fare, including pistols that be dual-wielded, shotgun, assault rifle, SMG and rocket launcher. The more exotic weapons include the Penetrator, that shoots spikes (which will often spike your target to the wall, for a bit of gory amusement: see the screen shots); the Repeating Cannon, that fires concussive rounds that may not kill, but always screw up your target's balance; and the Particle Weapon, that is an energy weapons that can also act like a sniper rifle. Grenades come in the standard flavor, the proximity mine and the remote detonation version, that I had a great time using to lay traps for my enemies when retreating. The weapons all behave very well and give some challenge in handling them, as well as sounding excellent. There are also several melee attacks that you can use, and which the game will teach you as you play. Not only can you use the weapons as melee weapons, but you can do some funky, and fairly devastating, kicks as well.
The enemies you'll be facing with these weapons at the ready don't vary much. You'll generally be facing members of Paxton Fettel's army (he's the guy you're trying to capture for much of the game). When you're not facing them, you're facing private security forces for the places where you must pass through in order to continue your primary mission. As you progress through the game, you'll run into some new enemies to fight. You'll encounter the slow-moving, but heavily armored thug who shoots the 10mm Penetrator and who takes a lot of work to bring down. Then there's the assassin who wears Predator-style (or Ghost In the Shell-style) camouflage's armor which distorts the area in which he's moving. The assassin takes out your armor first (and quickly) and don't use ranged weapons, but they are so damn fast that they'll be on you before you know what you saw. Also there's the E.V.E., which is a full-on mechanized death-dealer. Luckily the game is pretty well stocked with armor and health kits, so you should be able to restore your character to good shape after some of the more abusive firefights.
F.E.A.R. Includes multiplayer in its game and comes with the option to install GameSpy Arcade (just like every other game) as your server browsing tool. The game modes are pretty standard fare (deathmatch, team deathmatch, elimination, ctf, etc.), but can get pretty heated. The environments act as excellent multiplayer maps and provide plenty of spots for firefights. Note that if you're having issues with the speed of your game in single player, it's not going to get any better in multiplayer, so you'll want to turn down those options (especially since the number of effects F.E.A.R. throws around during an average firefight is pretty impressive).
The bullet time effect exists in multiplayer, but it's a powerup like the Quad damage in Quake. When you get the power-up, you not only glow but you have to wait for the effect to charge up (much like the reflex bar regenerating). Once its ready, you hit the button and everyone in the game world slows down with the same effects as the single-player game, except for the power-up holder who continues to move and fire at regular speed.
F.E.A.R. is the whole package when it comes to action. This game combines excellent graphics with intelligent AI, great storyline and immersing (if creepy) atmosphere. It has a solid multiplayer component that should lead to plenty of fun for those looking to beat up on their fellow humans for a while. The game mechanics may not shatter any stereotypes but the sum is greater than the parts. I can honestly say that of the recent FPS' out there, only Far Cry and F.E.A.R. have captured my attention enough to explore them fully. F.E.A.R. is a different experience than Far Cry and one which is certainly worth checking out for any fan of action shooters and/or horror movies.
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