F.E.A.R. is a linear first person shooter in the vein of Half-Life. Released in 2005 by Monolith Productions, it’s a fairly fun game that holds up in the graphics and gameplay departments. The visuals and 3D audio (look into installing those drivers) make the game extremely atmospheric with little detriment to gameplay. There’s 2 expansion packs which I haven’t played, and 2 sequels which weren’t quite as good.
So how does a game that came out in 2005 still look fresh? For one, F.E.A.R. was the first game made on its engine. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the game was made in order to show off the qualities of the new technology, while working around its downsides. Its heavy use of lighting effects helped mask undesirable aspects, since shadows help define an environment better than any fancy textures can. Doom 3, which came a year before it, also put lighting at its forefront, but made the mistake of constantly keeping things dark. F.E.A.R. feels free to light as many rooms as it can, only partially turning lights off to show you the effects. My only gripe about the lighting is the player’s flashlight doesn’t cast shadows, which seemed like an obvious choice. There’s a mod that fulfills this, but that’s no excuse.
So the player in F.E.A.R. can slow down time with the press of a button. Imagine Max Payne but with a lot less flair. This is the only notable gameplay mechanic in the game, but that’s not really a bad thing. You can also do a few special melee attacks, but I rarely had a use for them, even on the hardest difficulty. Health is managed with health packs that you use manually, as well as limited regeneration based off difficulty (play on hardest for no regen like a man). The balance of health packs to encounters felt really odd: I would get stuck on a difficult part with only 1 or 2 packs, but after these encounters, during the easier sections, I would reach 7 or 8 of them. By the time another hard part came along, I was back down to 2. I’m not sure if this was done on purpose to make the player get good, but it did that for me. There are quick saves, slow saves, and checkpoints, the latter were spaced fairly enough to not encourage the former. Exploration can reward you with ammo, extra health packs, or permanent upgrades to max health and slowdown meter. This is how it should be and it is good.
Outside of that, it’s a standard fare first person shooter, there isn’t much that’s really notable in terms of gameplay. You get three guns at any one time, which is an odd departure from the industry-standard two. The selection of weapons is pretty standard: pistol, sub-machine gun, assault rifle, nail gun, shotgun, rocket launchers…
Wait, a nail gun? Hell yeah there’s a nail gun. This motherfucker can impale enemies to walls and makes kills incredibly satisfying with its sound effects and high damage output. Only problem is you can’t carry much ammo for it, and extra ammo doesn’t show up frequently enough to use it 24/7. This is where the 3-gun limit comes in, it effectively discourages you from hanging onto a gun you like for too long, but if you really want to, you’ll still have 2 other slots. While playing, I never felt like I had to make any sacrifices, since each weapon is effective enough in most combat situations.
Most enemies in F.E.A.R. are faceless soldiers that go down pretty easily. They’re mostly fodder for the player to plow through, but that doesn’t mean they don’t put up a fight. The AI in this game is probably the most notable quality out of the whole package, but more on that later, because there’s more than one enemy type. Beyond basic soldiers and security guards, there’s snipers and recon units and the like, which are basically the same with slight visual difference. It really gets interesting with the powered armor units, who drop in every once in a while and make your life hell. They hit hard, have a shitload of health, and won’t let up. They remind me of the cyberdemons in Doom with their projectile rockets, but they’re not nearly as fun to circlestrafe. There’s also assassins, who crawl on the walls and can become invisible. These aren’t that bad, and they’re nice enough to let you blast them with a shotgun before they attack you. But the worst ones of all are the heavy armor types, the Blue Fuckers.
Blue Fuckers are deployed throughout the game and are assholes in every way possible. They take too much damage than they should, and they don’t even bother to take cover to rub it in your face. But that doesn’t mean they don’t move, since they’re more than willing to roll to dodge a grenade. When you use slowdown to shoot at them, their accuracy will increase, and you’ll just end up wasting health. They also equip some of the most powerful guns in the game, which somewhat rewards you for defeating them, but you’ll go through more ammo than they drop so it seems pontless. There’s also turrets, which are still annoying but not as much as Blue Fuckers. The turrets shoot for a certain amount of time, then move on to find the target. With slowdown and a rocket launcher, you can beat them without taking any damage, but good luck on doing that.
My biggest problem with the enemy variety in F.E.A.R. is the game doesn’t like to mix and match. The only enemy that is deployed with normal soldiers are the Blue Fuckers. The power armor is technically deployed with normal enemies in a couple points in the game, but it’s so powerful that everything else is going to die first and you’ll be left alone with this guy.
The AI (outside the Blue Fuckers) is good for a strange reason: Monolith actually tried. Simply put, each AI is given a goal to accomplish, usually something like “kill the player” or “get to cover”. Being a fairly simple game in terms of interaction, the amount of variations to solve a goal are diminished, which helps hide the cracks in this design. Where the
AI really shines is when they suppress fire, flank the player, give orders to each other, and generally kick ass. But that’s all smoke and mirrors, since they’re still just following those previous goals. Communication is simple: the AI figures out what to do, but waits to say it before executing. While this may sound stupid from a tactical standpoint, in gameplay it both makes the AI seem more coordinated, and gives clues as to what they’re about to do. Flanking is the more impressive behavior, but it actually doesn’t exist in the game, it’s even more smoke and mirrors. When the AI needs to find cover, they’ll go to the closest possible spot that won’t make them vulnerable. Sometimes, that best cover position is down a path that loops behind the player, or at a choke point in the map’s design.
This clever use of the AI is great, but problems arise when you need to accommodate the levels to make them work well. Floor plans often have obvious loops to allow fluid traversal. It’s usually done well and feels natural, a good sign of quality design. It’s when you’re not in combat that the levels make you ask questions. After a firefight, you might end up turned around and on the wrong side of the level. All these loops and side paths, along with samey visual design and architecture, can leave a player wandering around looking for a door like a Doom 2 city map. Maybe not that bad. When the game’s not using loopy arenas, it’s hallways. Entertaining, curvy, diverse hallways, but hallways nonetheless. I can’t hate them, since many games before it and since were worse, and they’re short enough to feel like breaks between big levels.
It’s a wonder how I’m not tired of industrial complexes and office buildings after playing this game, since 90% of the game took place in these repetitive, mundane areas. Subtle changes in design kept levels surprisingly distinct. I can easily remember distinct parts of the game which did exciting things with the otherwise boring scenery. One stand-out example was a set of elevators that open at regular intervals, delivering waves of 2 or 3 enemies at a time. This could be approached the “normal” way, by treating it like a regular firefight, or you can get creative by laying proximity mines at the elevator doors. Making the encounter memorable is one thing, but giving options of attack goes a long way into keeping the game exciting. You’ll have levels where you go inside a cargo loading bay, one where you go across, and one where you emerge from a different but similar one. Each time it’s a different dynamic, despite being the same type of area. On top of all this, audio logs are scattered around the maps, in unread voice mail, or in data from laptops. They help flesh out the backstory and explain some details a bit more clearly.
Despite my above descriptions, F.E.A.R. does actually have a story, and it has a heavy hand in showing it to you. I don’t love how aggressive it is with scripted events and the like, but it’s a slight step up from sitting in a room waiting for NPCs to stop talking at you. That shit still happens, but it’s very infrequently. The game almost feels scared to let you alone in a room with a friendly, probably because it wants to scare you by letting you alone in a room with a non-friendly. The game’s main antagonist is Fettel, a science experiment gone wrong that can telepathically control all those soldiers you fight in the game. He’s a fucking lunatic as you might expect, so he goads the player by running just out of reach, or by talking at you behind a window. You can chase after him, but he’ll disappear before you can catch up. That stuff isn’t very creepy, but it’s preparation for the encounters with Alma. That’s the little girl on all the promotional material for every entry in the series, and her role in the story is deep enough to justify that. She likes you, so she’ll show up in different places and you’ll get to see some shit. I won’t ruin the surprise, but it’s not really jumpscares or anything cheap like that. Like I said, I don’t like the approach to story this game takes, but it’s well written and it knows when to shut up.
So this is a Halloween article (and if I can stay on track, one of a few Halloween articles), so I should probably explain how spooky this game is. Well, there’s that stuff about Alma which is kinda creepy I guess, but none of that compares to the spookiest part of the game. Brace yourself, because this is a good one:
Yeah you heard me. A gun that turns people into skeletons. But that’s probably not right, just doesn’t make sense. My guess is it sacrifices a living body to the depths of hell in order to summon a skeleton in its place. That’s some crazy shit, especially when they start using it on you later in the game. I’m not sure if I’ve played another game where each of the psychological, existential, and slapstick horror dials are cranked to 11. And if there is another game like that, I don’t want to play it.
Be sure to tune in for the next article in March at this rate
Also published on Medium.