The Only Thing We Have to Fear
In recent years, it strikes me that the larger video game devs have become a bit too arrogant for their own good. The strategy is to throw enough money at a franchise until it becomes the golden standard for the genre (think Call of Duty, Resident Evil) and then you don’t even need to bother with innovation. Just put a shitload more work into the trailer than into the game itself, tweak one or two things from the last game so that you can justify a full retail price, and slap the franchise name on it in as big a font as you can manage and sit back while the profits roll in.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise then that for the most part, the best games of the past decade have been new intellectual properties from a fledgling developer who can only get their foot in the door by creating a game that’s, y’know, actually any good. Released in 2005 for Windows, F.E.A.R. was exactly that, a new IP for the previously unknown Monolith Productions. Ported to the PS3 in early 2007, this first instalment went on to spawn one of the more successful horror franchises (and developers, for that matter) in recent video gaming history with two sequels across three platforms.
Primarily a first person shooter, you assume the role of the ‘Point Man’, the aptly-titled newest member of the First Encounter Assault Reconnaissance team: a special forces unit assigned to the investigation of all things paranormal, and one of the more cringeworthy acronyms in recent history. You’ve gained the unit’s attention due to your incredible speed and reflexes which, in-game, allow you to slow everything down to bullet-time for a limited period. Your mission: at the game’s outset we’re introduced to Paxton Fettel, a telepathic cannibal (you heard me) who has assumed control of a veritable army of clone soldiers. You’ll spend the game trying to figure out exactly who he is and what he wants, but all you know is he must be stopped.
...Yeah, alright, it sounds a bit shit when described like that. But once you get into it, F.E.A.R. is a unique blend of out-and-out first-person shooter with supernatural horror constantly hovering over it like a storm cloud ready to burst.
As said, F.E.A.R. is far from traditional survival horror. The gameplay is stock-standard FPS with open-area combat against up to five opponents. Think Resistance: Fall of Man – room to manoeuvre during fights which fails to hide the almost painfully linear level structure. It’s not any better or worse than other FPS’s out there in these respects, but it’s the added touch of the supernatural which gives the game a unique atmosphere. It’s not about cheap scares and zombies jumping out at you – for the most part it’s refreshingly free of clichés. For almost the entire game you’ll just be fighting security forces or Fettel’s clones, but it’s the occasional and frequently unexpected paranormal occurrences that always keep you on your toes.
It’s horror 101 to an extent, because the atmosphere is established through a combination of lighting effects, creepy sounds, and a mystery-solving approach with plot elements being revealed progressively. Not until the end will you have a true appreciation of what the hell the Point Man’s gotten himself into, but you’re ever aware of the threat. From the moment the white noise sounds over your comm., to the slowing of time and blurring of your vision, you know something’s about to go down – but exactly what occurs runs the gamut from the subtle (was that a little girl you just spotted out the corner of your eye?) to the in-your-face (wading through pools of blood). It’s the way these are worked into the mainstream FPS gameplay that is such a change from other offerings in either the horror or shooter genres. Disturbing as your hallucinations can be in and of themselves, it’s the anticipation and suspense which will unsettle you more. Exactly the way supernatural atmosphere ought to be.
She’s special enough to warrant her own discussion. Forget the Point Man, forget Paxton Fettel and his army of clones – Alma is the undisputed queen of the F.E.A.R. franchise. It’s unnerving enough in and of itself to run around abandoned buildings and huge office blocks in the dead of night with an army of soldiers trying to splatter you all over the walls. But what could top off the taste of the unholy more than seeing your squad’s steaming, skeletal remains lying in a veritable lake of their own blood than the simultaneous appearance of a little girl in a red dress?
In tune with F.E.A.R.’s more psychological approach to horror, Alma plays on your inherent fear of the unknown. Or rather, things which you know should be cute, cuddly, and harmless are so much more disturbing when you find out rather emphatically that they’re anything but. Remember the Twins from The Shining? Regan from The Exorcist? Or Samara from The Ring? There’s just something about murderous little girls which awakens primordial terror within even the most iron-clad heart. She’s the fulcrum on which all the game’s scares pivot – all the more so because you learn in one of your first encounters that there’s no fighting her. She can destroy you at her whim, and you have no choice but to run and pray. You’ll love her almost as much as you’ll fear her.
Fear itself: Judge Alma by her cover at your peril
Nothing about the weapons available to you during F.E.A.R. is particularly innovative. There’s a decent range, and with something like ten different guns to choose from – a pistol, several rifles and shotguns, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher – all the bases are covered. Round it off with some grenades and some proximity and remote-detonation mines, and you’re provided with enough choices to cater to all but the most discerning tastes.
What is unusual is that you’re only able to carry three different types of firearm at any given time, and it actually makes for some difficult decisions. By far the most abundant ammunition is for the basic SMGs and rifles, which naturally do less damage than their higher-powered brethren. Particularly with increasing difficulties, you’ll struggle to take down stronger foes before they take you down with a pistol, but it’s not as simple as finding and keeping the three most powerful weapons, because you’ll never find enough ammo for them to keep you going. Whether to drop your uzi for a rocket launcher therefore isn’t as obvious a choice as it sounds. And even the most common ammo types still won’t let you be wasteful. It’s not so scarce to warrant a survival horror moniker, but if you try to gun it Rambo style you’ll find out very quickly how far that gets you – especially since saves are automatic and checkpoint-based and you won’t get a chance to backtrack to replenish your stores.
Unlike other shooters, melee attacks are also a worthwhile addition (I’m looking at you, Dead Space). They’re surprisingly powerful and are second only to shotguns for close-quarters efficacy. They’re also dependent on your stance, so if you’re feeling particularly athletic you can perform jump kicks or sliding tackles rather than smashing your opponent in the face with the butt of your rifle. Be warned, though: your enemies can perform them too, so it’s not always worth charging in to melee range just for the hell of it. All of the above factors in to the experience in the form of subtle tactical choices at every turn, and it’s really very effective.
The game’s difficulty perfectly straddles that line between challenging and satisfying. Since you can only carry a limited number of health packs and weapons and your bullet-time only lasts for a very short period at a time, you can’t hope to just throw yourself into the thick of combat every time and come out smelling of roses. Your opponents can actually take a fair bit of punishment and deal out a respectable amount of their own (getting a shotgun in the face in close quarters hurts, for once). As the game progresses you can find upgrades to your health and reflexes through (extremely limited) exploration, but each upgrade will only supply you with a very small increase. You’ll find yourself searching for them just to keep up, and slaughtering your opponents will only come through superior tactics and practice, rather than any inherent discrepancies between your stats and theirs.
Difficulty levels only vary in terms of enemies being able to take more or fewer hits before dying, but it has a surprisingly effective follow-on effect. Since more health requires more bullets to deplete, it makes resource management more difficult in addition to giving your enemies more time to blow significant chunks out of your own. I went the whole game on the easiest setting and I wasn’t ever bored by it. Heck, I even died on a few occasions. Of course that might say more about me than the game, but it’s a nice added touch that you can change difficulty at any time, in case you’re finding it too tough or too easy.
Bullet time’s your only real advantage over your opponents. Use it wisely
+1: Gameplay length
In fairly typical fashion for a modern FPS a playthrough will set you back a touch under ten hours. Whether or not that’s enough to justify retail price is a matter of opinion, but if you’re the sort of person who needs a game to last at least 25 hours to fork out for it then you probably shouldn’t be looking at FPS single-player campaigns in the first place. The game’s old enough now that you’ll be able to get it pretty cheaply anyway.
In any event, it seems about right for F.E.A.R. because it ends just before the repetition of the gameplay becomes monotonous. Level designs are fairly uninspired but infused with that supernatural aura and survival horror storytelling techniques there’s enough to keep your interest throughout. It’s spaced as thinly as it could manage without being boring, the pacing’s fairly consistent and you genuinely want to find out what the hell’s going on with Fettel and Alma. The supernatural elements – the game’s heart – also build steadily towards the game’s climax which comes right at the end and is thoroughly satisfying. It’s nice when developers can come up with a great premise for a game without exulting in their excitement by overdoing it.
Besides Alma, enemy AI is perhaps F.E.A.R.’s greatest legacy. It set a new standard for what gamers should be able to expect from even the rank-and-file soldiers they come up against. From the word ‘go’, the very first time you encounter Fettel’s clones you’ll witness them communicating (‘enemy sighted!’), taking cover (and what’s more, shooting from behind cover!) and employing tactics appropriate to the different weapons they carry. They’re smart. They throw grenades if you’re hiding, they’ll rush you if they have a shotgun, they’ll strafe and suddenly change directions. They’ll run away and try to sneak up behind you. And they’re actually decent shots for once. It was revolutionary, and it was all the more surprising because it wasn’t what you’ve come to expect from shooters even to this day. You learn to swim or you sink pretty damned quickly.
The voice acting is also worth a mention. It’s awful, but it’s attuned to what’s happening and changes accordingly. Enemy soldiers attack in squads, and when you kill one or two, you’ll hear the others on the comm asking them to report. When you’ve wiped out all but one, you’ll hear the survivor calling for backup. It’s not as well done as it could have been, but you do end up using the intel it provides. Plus, at times it does add an unexpected, if unintended, element of humour when you hear some of their banter. My personal favourite:
”He’s over there!”
“Shut the f*** up!”
It’s something of an extension of the above, but the game’s most memorable moments are the ‘hallucinations’, which effectively comprise the sum total of the game’s ‘scary parts’ and, as such, are its heart. It might be the anticipation of hallucinations which provide a creepy atmosphere, but even this wouldn’t be effective if the hallucinations themselves were impotent. They’re not.
I won’t spoil them, because they’re everyone’s favourite F.E.A.R. experiences and not knowing what’s going to happen even when a hallucination begins is all part of the fun. You never know when they’re going to occur, which gives the aforementioned sense of dread and anticipation and will have you reaching for your flashlight any time you’re forced to head down a dark, secluded corridor. The real genius comes from subtlety: not every hallucination will be a full-blown interactive cutscene. It can be some simple poltergeist-like activity with one or two items falling off shelves. It’s entirely possible that you’ll miss it altogether; more than once my radio started giving static, the lights start flickering, and I’m spinning on my heels like a demented ballerina trying to find the source. You might hear it but you won’t always see it. Sometimes it’s Alma appearing in the distance, even for a single frame, and if you blink or aren’t looking in the right spot at the right time then you’ll miss it. But you’ll know it was something, and your trigger finger will itch for some time to come.
Of course, there’s something to be said for the full-blown hallucinations too. When your bullet-time’s triggered without you doing so, the world begins to blur and your motions slow, you know some serious shit’s about to go down. It delivers what it promises.
When subtlety’s lost on you, there’s always Plan B.
–1: All round crappy port part one: Graphics
The colossal irritation of the PS3 version of F.E.A.R. is that it’s about as bad as ports get. All the things that make the game great are even greater in the PC and 360 versions, which are likewise free from all the things which make the PS3 version shit. You know what I don’t understand? How a game ported to console in 2007 can be worse than it’s year-and-a-half old predecessor AND what should have been an identical port to a same-generation console six months prior! What gives, Day 1 Studios?!
Maybe I’m just a spoiled console gamer, because it’s usually the PC enthusiasts who get the shaft-end of the stick when it comes to bad ports. The graphics reminded me of something I might have seen in a slightly amped-up version of Perfect Dark on the N64. Frustrating enough considering that the PC version’s graphics crap all over it, but I’m willing to overlook mediocre graphics when other things make up for it. But the real kick in the nuts is when you go into the graphics “menu” to find there’s one – yes, one – changeable option (‘contrast’, which is, in fact, just brightness). I don’t know why a single option warrants its own menu, but even ignoring the fact that the graphics are sub-par for 2007 (which wasn’t exactly the gaming stone age), you can’t customise them in any way that you couldn’t do by pressing one of the buttons on your television. Absolute crap.
-1: All round crappy port part two: Sound
It really pains me to criticise F.E.A.R.’s sound, because this is supposed to be one of the greatest strengths of the PC version. Everyone knows that anything remotely horror depends on the quality of its sound, but on the PS3 it’s really terrible. To begin with, there’s no subtitles. I don’t know why: The storyline wasn’t anything great to begin with, but considering that it’s told entirely through dialogue and audio messages on answering machines or laptops you find throughout the game, you’d figure they’d want to make sure the message got across. Instead, the whole thing falls over badly. From the instant you begin you’re presented with a cutscene that’s crucial for orientation but unless you turned the SFX and music waaaay down and the speech volume to 11 you can’t understand a word they’re saying. I’m aware of a number of people who’ve played through F.E.A.R. and have had to google the storyline before they grasped it. I wasn’t quite that bad, but I must admit, having missed the introduction’s dialogue I was about halfway through the game before I had any idea why those soldiers in the funny suits were trying to kill me. Didn’t have a clue they were clones, and had an even vaguer idea of why they were helping Fettel. The only reason I was shooting at them was because they were shooting at me. Kind of a mood killer.
Eventually you figure out the sound settings but even then you need your television’s volume right up and hope that nothing external interrupts you. I’m sure it’s very effective if you’re sitting alone at night, on your computer with the headphones plugged in but for we casual cowards playing in broad daylight it really detracts from the experience. I’m even told that the PC version did have subtitles, in which case its omission in the port completely boggles the mind. It would have made so much more sense (and surely couldn’t have been that difficult) for plot elements to be revealed through text rather than sound – I mean c’mon, you hack into a laptop only to relay it to your boss, so he can tell you what it says over your comm.? Just read it for God’s sake!
-1: Non-port related issues
Two things which I can criticise the game for which aren’t (necessarily) related to porting are:
Wouldn’t have a clue what it’s like on other platforms, but considering how mediocre the graphics are I struggle to come to terms with how long the loading times take between levels. It’s almost laughably bad at times (I’m talking minutes rather than seconds). You can go pour yourself a drink, come back and finish it before the next level’s started. On the one hand it’s justified because, once loaded, there aren’t any framerate issues or major glitches but when you’re trying to ride the high of the brilliantly-worked atmosphere from one level to the next it’s a letdown.
This one at least I know is stable across all the platforms – level design is uninspired at best, and poor at worst. There’s nothing wrong with linear, it’s the convolution which pisses me off. There’s no map for you to check where you’re supposed to be headed, no arrow to point you in the right direction – just an objective with no description of how to meet it. I get it, you’re not supposed to know when enemies will appear, and when they do, you want a decent amount of corridor to run down, cover to hide behind, rooms to duck in – but every single level is bland, a slight variation on the previous, and confusing with no discernible landmarks to guide your way. It’s even difficult to realise when you’re going in circles. And it also means that, try as the developers might to hide them, you can always tell roughly where a health or reflex upgrade is going to be, because there really ain’t that many places to hide them. The whole thing reminds you of a masterpiece painted on a napkin for a canvas – a terrible setting for a remarkable concept.
Conclusion: The real art of horror is knowing when to be subtle and when to be obvious. F.E.A.R. represents a refreshing take on horror video games through a cerebral approach which plays your own expectations against each other. It’s not about being terrified of what’s happening, it’s about not knowing precisely what’s happening or what’s about to happen, and that is terrifying in itself.
It’s a classic because of its innovation, and so everyone should play it at least once if only to get an appreciation for what it started. It’s good rather than great, and will pale in comparison to future offerings – but only because it provided such a solid foundation for them to build on.
Oh, and er, give the PS3 version a miss. Get it on the 360 or PC, and you can thank me later.
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