I remember my parents used to be subscribed to a magazine that was sort of like a TV guide, detailing all the shows and movies that would be airing each week. As a teen I was mostly interested in when South Park would be airing and the comics in the back, but as I explored more I found that the magazine had some decent game reviews in it. The first time I made this discovery was the day I was sold on PC gaming, as it featured a wildly positive review for F.E.A.R., which sounded like an impossible game to me. When I finally got a PC able to run it, I was glad to discover much of what the review claimed proved to be accurate.
Why are we funding this?
F.E.A.R. stands for First Encounter Assault Recon, though I am fairly convinced they were determined to name it FEAR from the outset and just strung some military-sounding stuff together to make an abbreviation out of it. Either way, FEAR is a military unit dedicated to fighting paranormal entities and we take control of its newest recruit, the unnamed “Point Man”.
Our first mission concerns a psychic cannibal called Paxton Fettel, who belongs to a military contractor that was using him for an experiment where cloned super soldiers could be linked to a psychic commander for use in battle. Paxton has broken free from his prison and has seized the soldiers, so it’s up to FEAR to contain or kill him before he uses his army to do whatever he plans to do. As you start exploring his last known location it quickly turns out that something else is afoot, as you are haunted by bizarre visions, people fade in and out of existence around you, and you appear to be haunted by a small girl dressed in an all-red attire.
You pretty much just keep chasing Paxton as he keeps teleporting away, visiting various locations that have a tie with the Armacham company that “made” and owns Paxton. As you explore areas you run into phones with recorded messages that reveal more of the behind-the-screens activity at Armacham, it’s internal politics and power struggles, as well as laptops that provide insight into its projects. I actually do enjoy the story and the way it’s told, with you constantly finding new tidbits of information that make it clear how incompetently the company is run and how questionable its activities were. It also gets a really great pay off and the “villains” are absolutely great.
Its weaknesses, then, are that FEAR is kind of terrible at what they do. For an organization specifically tasked with countering paranormal activity, they have zero equipment or know-how about how to do this. Like, when Paxton just keeps warping around they blame their GPS tracker for being junk instead of entertaining, for even a moment, the possibility he might have some weird abilities. I honestly don’t believe these guys have ever fought anything paranormal before. The second weakness is that characterization is quite weak. I liked Norton Mapes and the bickering of his colleagues at Armacham was fun to listen to, but the FEAR operatives are all generic and lacking in personality; the choice of a silent protagonist also sucks, because it would clear up a lot of issues if our dude ever informed his comrades of what he was seeing and finding.
Story score: 8.5/10
Kill psychics like a Sister of Silence
F.E.A.R. is a horror game mixed with a first person shooter, though it’d be more honest to say it’s a first person shooter that sometimes goes into creepy mode; you are either shooting psychic soldiers or you are experiencing paranormal shenanigans, rarely both at the same time. It’s fortunate that both are really effective at what they do.
The shooting action in this game is brutal. The weapons have a lot of impact and tear the environment to bits, kicking up dust and pounding holes into everything. You get your basic pistols and rifles early on, then work your way up to rocket launchers, laser guns, and a gun that fires giant nails which pin enemies to walls. It’s super satisfying, but also super hard. The AI in F.E.A.R. is mind-blowing and remains a selling point to this day; enemies are really tough and respond in ways that almost seem too tactical. They are perfectly capable of flanking you, flushing you out with grenades, and taking proper cover. I have also seen them splitting up to surround you or retreating when their squad is damaged to link up with another.
There are a lot of subtleties to their behavior like this. You often have a chance to sneak up on them and take some out with instant-kill melee attacks, but if you leave your flashlight on by accident they will notice and immediately attack. Later on, the game introduces tougher enemies, like armored dudes with heavy weaponry, drones, and mechsuits with rocket launchers on them. You can use a slow-motion ability to help you out and, in my experience, you’ll need it to make it through the tougher encounters. To be fair, however, the bullet time is a bit easy to exploit and makes smaller encounters too much of a cakewalk when used.
In-between combat setpieces the game tends to slow down and have you explore your surroundings to find a way forward, which often goes accompanied with horror sequences. I found these worked really well, with some doing a lot of build up and getting a strong atmosphere going, whereas others just pop up really suddenly, almost like a jump scare done well. I was definitely surprised by them more than once and while graphically the game is showing its age, its gore is still sublime. An issue does arise in that a lot of the scares depend on you looking in a specific direction and while often this will be the case, I did find myself missing a lot of scenes or looking around in confusion when scary music played, trying to find what I was supposed to be seeing.
It is in these quite moments that the game shows its most obnoxious design, namely the progression through the stage. The layout of the map can often be confusing and unclear, forcing you to wander around its hallways trying to figure out what makes the game proceed. 98% of the scenery is just there to look fancy and then the remaining 2% is suddenly an object you must interact with, with nothing to suggest this is the case until you walk up to it.
The worst example was a segment where I got to a dead end five minutes into a level and a character activates turrets that attack you. After dealing with the threat there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go, I literally thought the game had bugged out and forgotten to unlock a door for me. Turns out you have to backtrack the entire level up to then where a new path had opened up. This happens a few times and never does the game really indicate you have to backtrack to anything. A bit of downtime is always necessary, but in F.E.A.R. I often found myself wishing I could get back to the action already.
Gameplay score: 8.5/10
Yeah… it dated a fair bit
F.E.A.R. used to be an enormous strain on computers at the time and was an early title for the newly-released Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. While at one point it was admirable, it does have to be said that it hasn’t aged very well at all.
A big factor in this is the utterly practical approach Monolith took to level design. The areas you explore and fight in are designed to look realistic and offer interesting combat encounters, which would be a good decision if it didn’t mean most of the levels were designed as boring corridors. The design is box-like, square and simplistic, and on top of that the colors are washed out or plain grey. With only a few exceptions, everything in F.E.A.R. looks lifeless and boring, even if it’s admirable how much stuff they designed just to act as scenery.
Even worse are the game’s character models, which may be the reason for why all the enemies wear face-covering helmets and your allies never stay around for any amount of time. Even for 2005 it looks really poor and it shows in the few scenes where you can get a good close-up look of a character. I really hope somebody can get around to making an HD remake of this game, because design-wise these are actually neat characters, they are just held back by the tech of the time.
A saving grace here is the impact of the various weapons you receive. You really feel like you are handling massive guns, thank to the different kinds of recoil each has and the fact that all of them (barring the pistols) absolutely tear everything to shreds. I have seen the shotgun pretty much explode a dude in close combat, the assault rifle tear off limbs and one gun just flat out melts people.
Presentation score: 5.5/10
Armacham needs an IT security professional
While the game is largely linear, there are often side-paths and hidden crannies you can find that lead to optional phone calls to listen to, laptops with data on them, or syringes that improve your health and duration of your slow-motion ability. While the extra bits of story are much appreciated, you generally don’t need to go too far out of your way to find those, it’s the upgrades that are hidden the best, and which cause some frustration. You see, you never quite know what path in F.E.A.R. is the logical way forward, so sometimes an obscure ladder leads to the level exit or a one-way path, when you were actually thinking it would hide some extras.
While this did make me slightly paranoid as I navigated the levels, on most difficulties you don’t really need these upgrades, they are just nice to have and a few can definitely help out, but the game isn’t doomed if you end up missing a decent portion of them.
Extras score: 7.5/10
- Sweet, delicious gore.
- The weapons are satisfying and powerful.
- An interesting story filled with intrigue.
- Effective horror scenes.
- Alma and Paxton are great antagonists.
- Unmatched enemy AI.
- Heavily dated character models.
- The FEAR operatives are uninteresting characters.
- Level progression can be silly.