Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Post-Launch Review
F.E.A.R. (PC)
Developer: Monolith Productions
Released: October 2005
Played: story complete in 6h:12min (replay)


The First Encounter Assault Recon unit - F.E.A.R. - has received their first assignment. Experimental psychic commander Paxton Fettel has gone rogue, taking control of a battalion of clone soldiers. The mission: take down Fettel to stop the soldiers. But it's not that simple. Fettel has an agenda, and it involves a dangerous research project that was shut down and covered up decades ago...

At Launch

F.E.A.R. was well received, earning average review scores of 88%. Reviewers praised the graphics, combat, and AI for creating a gripping gameplay experience. The story and horror elements were also highly praised, with a few detractors who felt that some elements dragged or were cliche. The biggest complaint was the very high system requirements to play the game at its best, which is pretty funny to look back at ten years later.

Post Launch

Two expansion packs were released under a different developer. Extraction Point follows Point Man's escape from the aftermath of the main story, while Perseus Mandate follows a second F.E.A.R. unit attempting to recover evidence and opposed by mercenary super-soldiers called the Nightcrawlers.

I love F.E.A.R., but recently I realized that F.E.A.R. 3 is the only one I've actually reviewed here. Time to fix that problem!

I played F.E.A.R. very soon after it first came out, probably a month into 2006. At the time I was blown away by the textures, the particle effects, and the grenade shock waves. Going back and playing it in 2015 is... considerably less impressive. The textures of Point Man's arms and weapons are blurry at high resolution, and signs or labels in the environment are often difficult to read.

But that doesn't mean the game looks bad. No, despite being nearly 10 years old, F.E.A.R. has held up pretty well, due in large part to its moody high-contrast lighting. This is one of the first games I recall playing that had good dynamic lighting, and while it's nowhere near as fancy as today's lighting systems, it still does a great job of setting the mood. When the room is pitch black except for the sharp, narrow glare of the overhead lamps, you really notice when those lamps start to swing around. The creepy contrast is especially effective at making boring normal areas look spooky (like the Armacham office building). Plus the grenade shock waves are still neat - it's an effect I haven't really seen duplicated elsewhere.
The music also helps set the mood. Much of the music is creepy backdrop, often with a haunting sort of ring that sticks out to me as an audio trademark of the series. It's real tough to describe in words, but you'll know it if you hear it.

The visuals and audio combine with excellent pacing to deliver a real psychological horror. F.E.A.R. isn't a game packed with jump scares - it expertly builds tension by layering creepy lighting, spooky audio, and uncomfortably empty environments. Sure, there are a couple of jump scares, but they're made more effective since the game doesn't rely on them to create fear. Much more often, you run into invisible tripwires that will trigger an apparition, but it's not one that leaps out - F.E.A.R. prefers to let you notice it on your own. For me, this is the most effective kind of horror: suddenly noticing something that wasn't there before and shouldn't be there at all always makes me jump.
That said, there are a couple of minor stumbles. A ghost appears and a music sting plays, but if you're looking in the wrong direction - say, scrounging for supplies - some of those bits are easily missable, and you're left wondering what the spooky music was for.

F.E.A.R.'s story is also top-notch, and well built as a developing mystery. But before I get into that I have to point out one of the mechanisms for revealing the story - F.E.A.R. has the best audio logs I've seen in any game I've played. What makes them the best? They're messages left on answering machines. The logs in many games don't make much sense if you stop to think about them - really, all these people grabbed tape recorders in the middle of a crisis and took a break to record their thoughts? But no, here the audio bits are all phone calls left on answering machines, some as the crisis unfolds and some left over from before.
So yeah, the actual story. Spoilers ahead, highlight the blank space if you want to read.

Over the course of the game it's slowly revealed that Armacham's psychic super soldier program is derived from a young psychic girl named Alma. Armacham locked her away in a vault, and believing that the psychic ability wasn't just genetic, let her out only to forcibly impregnate her and deliver her babies at the age of only fifteen. She died, and the project was buried... but that wasn't the end of it. Alma, sustained by her sheer hatred despite her death, psychically polluted the area above the vault for decades, and managed to communicate with her second son - Fettel - manipulating events so she could be freed from the vault after being buried for twenty years.

That's all pretty horrific. The people involved are all awful human beings, but what they inadvertently created is worse still. Super dark, but you know, it's a horror game.

Before I wrap this up, I've got to touch on the combat. F.E.A.R. has been renowned for its fabulous AI that flanks and communicates. Looking back now, it doesn't really seem all that advanced, but it is certainly well dressed up. Enemies chatter at each other, talking about cover and positioning, swearing when surprised, getting scared when most of the unit is gone. They also have a tendency to stick to cover but keep closing on the player, but it's actually the level design that makes them seem clever. Combat areas feel claustrophobic but always feature multiple routes, so I think the AI isn't really flanking so much as just running around. But since there are multiple routes and a variety of triggered voice lines, it looks and sounds like they're coordinating.

What really makes combat great, though, is the overwhelming power of the slow-mo reflexes combined with the speed and lethality of normal combat. In reflex mode, Point Man has all the power - you're faster than the enemies, your accuracy shoots up, and you have plenty of time to aim. You can clear a room before the enemy has managed to get you in their sights. But you're also very vulnerable out of reflex mode: enemies deal a lot of damage, fire rate is high, and you're much less accurate. It's very easy to die at full speed, and much harder to track the constantly-moving enemies. It's a delicate balance - you can't use your reflexes forever and you're in danger when you run out, but with smart application, you're almost unstoppable.

Should you play F.E.A.R.? Yes, absolutely. It's an excellent psychological horror FPS that does a great job of mixing action and scares, leaving you guessing as to what comes next. The story is excellent, and the slow build of the mystery kept me interested and eager to find more. The horror has lost some of its impact on what I think is my fifth playthrough, but it still got me tense and jumpy, especially towards the end.

Recommendation: play it.

Oh, wait, the expansions! 

So here's the thing. Monolith developed F.E.A.R. for publisher Vivendi, but after a legal dispute over the rights to the title, Vivendi hired another studio - Timegate - to build two expansions. Extraction Point was competent, but departed from F.E.A.R. in a few ways, and leaned more on action and less on horror. Perseus Mandate was just a mess, going in weird directions and widely considered bad (I agree). When Monolith got the rights back, they made F.E.A.R. 2, which completely ignores the expansions.

So not only are the expansions not very good, they're also actively rejected by the original developer and the sequels. 

In other words, don't bother.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me how, a few years back, I'd always wanted to play this game, along with Dead Space. Ended up playing FEAR 3 and Dead Space 3 last year, damn they were crappy. Currently playing the first Dead Space (finally) and so far so great. And I have a feeling that the original FEAR should be awesome too, as you pointed out in your review.