Retrospective: F.E.A.R.

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The way F.E.A.R. went downhill is honestly really sad, but a wise lesson to up-and-coming IPs. This once-esteemed horror FPS just kind of stumbled through its life, making a mess of its timeline without having many games, before ending on the pitiful F.3.A.R.. Let’s take a look back at this series and see what it did right and what it did so very wrong.

What is F.E.A.R.?

F.E.A.R. was a horror-themed first-person shooter that released in 2005 courtesy of Monolith Productions, who also handled the Blood and Condemned franchises. A fitting mix, one would say. F.E.A.R. stood for First Encounter Assault Recon, the name of a secret organization of special ops soldiers trained to combat the paranormal. The game put players in the role of a faceless, nameless member of this organization and tasked them with a mission to capture Paxton Fettel, a man with the ability to command an army of psychic clone soldiers belonging to the military contractor Armacham.

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All games in the series would be first-person shooters, with the original F.E.A.R. gaining 2 expansion packs and a direct sequel. These expansion packs would be formally disowned by Monolith, as they were the product of a different team. The PC game would also receive an exclusive port to the Xbox 360 in 2007. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin followed in 2009 and was, from the start, released both on consoles and PC. This game too would earn itself an expansion pack. Finally, F.E.A.R. 3 released years later in 2011 and was a massive flop that received mediocre review scores and sold poorly. The franchise disappeared from the radar, save for a brief multiplayer-only FPS that was abandoned before exiting its beta stage.

With that, the franchise has gone into a coma and will probably never see a continuation.

Unique strengths

What made F.E.A.R. an interesting sell was its mixture of satisfying, gory action and horror. Players would be tasked with fighting their way through the game’s levels, entering firefights with enemy soldiers, mechs, and paranormal creatures. At the same time, the game interspersed these action-packed battles with slower, atmospheric sections, packed with jump-scares and mysterious phenomena. Allies would vanish suddenly, doors would lead you to strange places, and central to all these scares was the mysterious Alma.

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Alma is a little girl in a red dress who would haunt the player throughout the adventure. She’d appear suddenly and often vanish before players could react, or she’d lure them to the way forward. Documents, audio recordings, and side-characters would reveal more and more about her origin and what was truly going on at Armacham that led to Paxton Fettel’s escape.

Struggles

The original F.E.A.R. was a major hit and a game that, at the time, was among the finest of PC Gaming experiences. It was a fast-paced game with combat that felt satisfying, impactful, and destructive. It also boasted revolutionary AI, capable of giving the players a run for their money. I feel confident in saying that the AI of the original F.E.A.R. hasn’t been bested in FPS games since.

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The struggle is that none of the game’s follow-ups would match the original’s ambitions. The second and third game in the series would tone down the destructive nature of the combat, would reduce the gore, and even fail to match the original’s AI. F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is little more than a standard 7th generation first-person shooter, with only the bullet-time setting it apart from its contemporaries. F.E.A.R. 3 would plunge even further, turning the game into a cover-based shooter with regenerating health and focussing on a poorly-implemented co-op feature.

I don’t want to sound like a PC elitist, but it feels like the franchise was toned down in order to suit the console standards. The original was a tough game to run on computers in 2005 and featured a high standard for environments, clutter, physics, and lighting. The second and third installments were mere visual upgrades, while silently phasing out the more impressive details that these games provided. At the same time, these games would also introduce mechanics like turret sections, cover-based shooting, regenerating health, quick-time events, and bits where you control a mech for a few minutes. A whole bunch of following trends without actually establishing something new.

Spooks

Story-wise, I also have my issues with the games. The decision to have mute protagonists and keep the other members of the team generic means Alma quickly became the star of the series. This meant future games had to keep building on her character, even as her arc felt very much done by the end of the original game. The torch of writer was passed around, eventually ending up with the final game being made by an entirely different company. The plot got retconned, characters that are important in one game are forgotten in the next, and the big ending to the trilogy is just frustrating and kind of pathetic.

If I may be so bold, I would have suggested that Alma was never made out to be such a huge deal. The idea of a military organization tasked with fighting the paranormal is entertaining, so if they gave us some strong support characters and did something with the player character, the story could move on after Alma. F.E.A.R. could wrap up its plot and the sequel could be about another paranormal issue. Heck, it could still involve Alma and keep the plot twist of the first game intact, because at least then we’d have a main character with personality to make that plot twist work. As it stands, the franchise merely milks a story I once enjoyed for all its worth, until its dried out and even the die-hard fans have given up on it.

The Future

I would be surprised if we ever see a proper continuation or even a reboot of F.E.A.R., as even the fond memories of it have grown muddled. The game’s 10 year anniversary in 2015 went ignored by Warner Bros. entirely, Monolith Productions is now making Lord of the Rings games, and Day 1 Studios has been acquired by Wargaming.net. Even if a sequel or reboot would be attempted, it’s hard to imagine it could inspire the same awe it once did or salvage the franchise’s reputation.

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