First Encounter Assault Recon
First Person shooters are still pretty much a big thing, what with the likes of Far Cry, Half Life 2, Doom 3 and many others that have hit the shops recently. The genre has never been stronger but with that strength is its greatest weakness, innovation. It can be said that once you've played two or three of the latest you've played them all.
So I wasn't expecting much from F.E.A.R to be brutally honest, since I am a bit sick of FPS.
I can tell you now however that I was wrong.
It would be a true shame for me to spoil the story of F.E.A.R so I am saying nothing, except that it begins with you as a Special Forces operative of the recently commissioned First Encounter Assault Recon force, a group of soldiers created to fight the paranormal and supernatural in a near-future Earth.
You are somewhat special however and have reflexes that Neo would be proud of.
The story is a twisted one and it's told throughout the game with first person immersion and you don't really get a feeling of being disconnected from your main character, if you're going to encounter a cut-scene you'll do so with it viewed from your main viewpoint.
If you read my Far Cry: Instincts review for the Xbox you'll have noticed that one of my big problems with FPS games are: ladders, well, let me get this off my chest right away. F.E.A.R handles ladders properly, it handles ladders in a gorgeous ladder handling way that every other game should emulate - F.E.A.R has got ladders down to a T or should that be an L.
All interaction in the game is based off the default F key and with it you can pick up spare ammo, weapons, activate objects such as doors and so forth. You can also quickly get onto a ladder, and then you'll be able to climb up and down properly and not look like you're sliding up the darn things like a ghost with no hands.
Gameplay in F.E.A.R is based off a standard FPS style system; you enter a level and have to find your way without a MAP to the next part. Now this might seem nothing special and in truth it's been done before, but F.E.A.R does it with style, it does it better than the competition and provides interesting challenges along the way.
Monolith, the developer have been looking for a big hit since a lot of their games appeal to a specific fan-base. I think they might just have found it with F.E.A.R because while it runs on rails, and there's nothing wrong with a linear game - it doesn't feel all that linear because you're sucked into the story/world and it never lets go.
You're able to see your character's hands/feet and this adds a dimension to the gameplay, spatial awareness is a quarter of the battle when you're trying to immerse a player into a world. F.E.A.R's world is a highly violent one and some people have said it's scary; personally I wasn't scared at all. I would put F.E.A.R into the creepy bracket, which works much better than scary.
F.E.A.R generates several kinds of gameplay: frenetic battles between you and the highly aggressive military/security forces, exploration of the massive levels. It is during these explorations where you are left to wander corridors/rooms and given a few pointers here and there from your F.E.A.R coordinator over the com-link that the 'creepy' nature of the game often plays out. There are some downright disturbing moments in the game that will jump out at you when you're least expecting it, and when you're expecting something dire to happen - nothing will.
The way Monolith have kept these sections interwoven makes for a very exhilarating experience indeed. One moment you're pitched head-on with soldiers and the next you're in underground subsection tunnels chasing apparitions, hearing strange voices in your head or face to face with creepy girl.
To help against the shadows you do have a flashlight, which lasts only a short while before it needs a recharge (ala Half Life) usually cutting out at a critical moment, or failing to work when something supernatural kicks in. It might flicker for a few seconds as a strange signal flickers across your com-link.
The soldiers in the game however will spot your flashlight if you use it while they're around, so it's best to quickly put it on, move, and turn it off and so on. You will want to explore thoroughly because some of the stranger moments of the game are hidden away in unlikely places and you'll miss out on health and reflexes pickups/weapons/ammo/armour if you don't scavenge every place in the game
You have health/armour in the game as per most FPS. You also have something called, reflexes - this represents your operatives' unique special ability. He can slow down time or rather move so fast to his enemies they hardly see him, while to him they appear in slow motion.
Nothing new there, you might say, we've seen it all in Max Payne and the Matrix plus several other clones. True, but again F.E.A.R does the whole reflexes thing with style. Being able to use that slow motion trick actually enhances the gameplay and makes you feel like you're a super-soldier trained in combat.
Talking of combat, F.E.A.R features a nice armoury and even allows you to mix it up hand to hand, but the hand to hand system isn't as good as the The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. It is still a nice/useful feature to use when you're out of ammo or in need to conserve what ammo you do have.
You can also use your pistol or a rifle to gun-butt slam and enemy, allowing you to conserve ammo that way and sometimes take them down silently. You can't carry an arsenal of weapons however; in F.E.A.R you have a pistol, and up to two rifle type weapons at any given time.
Ammo pickups and weapons/armour are fairly plentiful on some of the levels and new weapons are introduced, often in the hands of your adversaries - so bagging them adds an extra cool award when you finally get your paws on a new piece of kit.
A word of warning, the developers put in a weight system so if you pick up a heavy cannon - it will slow you down. Bonus points to them for that one.
You have access to several explosive weapons, grenades, sticky grenades, mines and pipe-bomb style remote explosives later on in the game. There are health kits/packs lying around and of course replacement armour suits/helmets.
In some of the levels you'll encounter useful NPCs (Non Player Characters) that will offer information, or objects that have messages/info upon them. Some NPCs will need protection and you can, when instructed, pass them a com-link so they can talk to your coordinator.
On the surface F.E.A.R handles like any other FPS, but the small things such as tight controls, good quality weapons and immersive environments push the game beyond the core shooter and into something much more impressive. You're going to be thinking a lot about where to go, what to do and some of the levels have several routes to your objective so going straight isn't always the best idea.
Normally I'd talk about the graphics and so on at this point but I feel compelled to break tradition and talk about the AI. Because in F.E.A.R as well as the level designs/challenges from finding your way around you're going to encounter the AI enemies and for once they are not dumb.
F.E.A.R AI will:
• Hound you relentlessly.
• Team up and work together.
• Use cover and concealment, making cover from certain objects.
• Use advanced tactics, suppressive fire and retreating fire.
• Peek out from around corners, over objects; fire wildly and inaccurately when panicked.
• Spot things in the environment that are out of place, flashlights and listen to sounds.
• Use hand to hand if you get too close.
• Flank you, toss grenades and retreat when injured.
• React to damage in different/sometimes amusing ways (hopping when shot in the foot).
• Try to work with you in the case of allied forces.
• Use the environment, leap and vault rails/objects etc.
• Inform allies of their status and hold minor conversations.
F.E.A.R.AI will not:
• Love you.
• Be your friend.
• Make you a cup of tea.
• Run blindly into hails of bullets unless it's wearing heavy assault armour.
• (Most of the time) Make stupid tactical errors.
• Fall for obvious traps.
• Run into walls; get stuck with dodgy path finding.
F.E.A.R AI takes AI to the next level; it uses the environment/team-mates to its advantage, reacts to situations differently every time and provides a challenge even on the lower difficulty settings. It will flank you, throw grenades to smoke you out and even sacrifice one unit to get you into a vulnerable position if it has to.
This is one game that I will play again just so I can see differences in battle tactics and try it on the hardest difficulty possible. I have, to be honest, been waiting for another game with AI like this since Far Cry, and in my opinion F.E.A.R's AI is even better.
You're going to need a powerful rig to get the best out of F.E.A.R because this is one of the first of the next-gen games that truly uses a lot of the twiddles of the new cards. It has advanced shaders/systems coming out of its bits and bytes, throwing up some gorgeous slick visuals and even comes with a test cinematic so you can see what settings will look like without having to play the game. I love that; every game should have something akin so you don't have to wait for aeons to find its going to run like a flicker-book.
F.E.A.R needs those graphical effects, especially in the lights/shadows. The game excels at creepy because the darkness feels real, the shadows are excellent and the lighting provides the kind of effects you're used to seeing in games like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.
The textures are not all that complex and the shaders either, but it doesn't need to be since the action is going to have you screaming and running around putting holes in the nice scenery. Yep, F.E.A.R has pretty nice decals, I only wish the blood/bullet holes actually stuck around a lot longer. Every weapon affects the environment differently and they leave big pock-marks depending on the calibre or type of the weapon. A small pistol will leave nice little holes, a shotgun leaves a spread, and one of the heavy cannons blows huge chunks out of the walls.
F.E.A.R also brims with nice little eye-candy touches that compliment the solid gameplay, even if you do set everything to minimal the game is that good you won't be worrying about the levels of detail when you're following the story and battling the adaptive AI. But for those of you with the rigs to run it, you're in for a treat when things start kicking off, especially if you use slow mo time. There's a great blur effect and all the bullets/shells/effects get brighter/trails and so on, you feel like you stepped into a war being filmed in Bullet Time.
So with good solid textures, effective graphics and lighting/shadow effects F.E.A.R provides a competent level of visual delight.
Some of the critiques I have heard about F.E.A.R is that while it is visually appealing, it lacks a certain clutter in a lot of the levels that makes it appear sparse. The levels are not as detailed as they could have been and so on, in some cases, on some levels this is true and it's not going to out insane Doom 3 or even Half Life 2 in the fiddly/detailed/twiddly level department. The latter is insanely detailed in the terms of levels and the former pretty much pulls out all the stops. But F.E.A.R doesn't need that level of detail, not considering the setting and the fact that you're not going to stop to admire the individual pixels/polys making up a stairwell.
What drives F.E.A.R is the coherent and competent story, which the environments are perfectly suited to. There are some pretty puzzling ways on and you're going to need to look around for ducts and alternate routes, there are no insane jumping puzzles or parts like the Zen level from Half Life thankfully. Every environment and level actually looks as though it's from the setting, a bright sparse office area leading to a hidden lab. Or a dingy twisted broken down building full of damaged floors and broken passages.
Most of your time in F.E.A.R will be spent in claustrophobic settings however and if you love the outdoors, you're not going to be doing much of that in this game. I liked the level design and the puzzles later on are fairly easy but they work within the context of the story, especially in the last few levels where your adrenaline levels will be going through the roof.
There are also some nice scripted moments that will use the environment and again in the context of the story, they work perfectly and you're not left wondering - why did that happen and why am I actually here now? There are a few barren levels where something more could have been done, but that may well have overloaded the game and the story.
There's not much that I can say about the models in the game, they are really well made and they have a very good level of detail. The enemy types are a bit repetitive but since you're up against a force of soldiers known as Replicas, that's not surprising really. Everything else is done well and I have no major gripes or further comments on anything that stands out, apart from your own character that has a physical presence in the world. As for animations, these are excellent and the enemy forces have lots of things that they do, based on the situation. I love the animation for their vaulting and some will even dive or combat roll out of the way, again pulled off with nary a frame missed or out of sync.
These animators are top notch and they have produced good solid animations throughout from combat, idle and cinematic animations to weapon animations and ambient/environmental animations.
There's an adequate level of physics in the game, ragdoll and impact based. There's even one or two environmental puzzles based on the physics system. They're not brain-churners by any means and we've seen that type of thing before.
You need good sounds in a game that works from atmospherics, one that tries to bring a fusion between shooter and supernatural. In F.E.A.R you have a nice number of flashy visual effects which are complimented by a regiment of aural effects. From the weapon sounds to the ambient/environmental sounds/effects the game doesn't push the sound envelope beyond what we have heard before - what it delivers is however good quality audio and meaty sound effects.
The voice acting in F.E.A.R is good; not A-list style material but the VA's do their roles with heart and soul. There are some notable performances from the various NPC actors and the voice of Mapes and his attitude makes him one NPC that I want to throttle. A little shout out must go to the voices of the soldiers, and the way they're used - along with the stunning visceral combat AI their vocalisations actually make sense most of the time, they'll report if a squad member is down and sometimes they'll reply with an expletive to a fellow squad-mate.
Creepy girl is also particularly effective, while she doesn't have a lot to say, when she says it - it's enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.
F.E.A.R takes a minimal idea regarding music, there are a few pieces now and then and they're good. Most of the time you're given a kind of ambient Resident Evil Movie style soundtrack that compliments the game and tends to react to situations, creepy music for the darker/nastier sections of the game for instance and some harsher stuff when you're thrown into a pitched battle.
Deathmatch: All vs. All in a fight to see who can score more frags.
Team Deathmatch: 2 teams against each other, the team with the highest score wins.
Elimination: One winner, like a last man standing. If you die, you're out till the next round.
Team Elimination: The team with the most players/any players at the end of the round wins.
SlowMo Deathmatch: There's a reflex booster in the level, grab it and score points for how long you have it. Once your SlowMo bar is charged you can initiate your special and dish out some Matrixy flashiness. You will move twice as fast to your enemies.
Team SlowMo Deathmatch: Just the same as the above, except that when the team's player with SlowMo kicks it in, the whole team gets the benefit.
CTF: Two teams battle to nick the opposition's flag, score points for nicking the flag and bringing it back to base. Defend your flag, your flag carrier and base to earn even more points for your team.
SlowMo CTF: Like the above but when you have the reflex booster and your SlowMo bar is charged, you can activate SlowMo and give your team a big advantage.
Multiplayer in F.E.A.R has its ups and down, it doesn't quite cut it with the rest of the game yet I have heard/seen people having more fun with it than some of the other shooters. The new SlowMo modes take some getting used to but the styles of gameplay apart from this offer nothing really new.
The weapons all have individual characteristics and you'll find you keep to a few favourites, like the Penetrator (the best nail gun in a game ever) which has a rapid fire, good damage and skewers your enemies like there's no tomorrow.
There are a few MP glitches with the game and server crashes but if the developers can iron out these problems, add more maps and so forth the MP side of the game won't just be an addition to the great SP.
Pros: Good looking game with some gorgeous and atmospheric special effects, twisted story. Excellent enemy AI and encounters, intense and gripping with frenetic combat. Unpredictable AI adds to replayability.
Cons: Short game, fiddly MP, not much MP innovation. Requires a powerful machine to run, requires a cutting-edge gfx card to get the best out of. Some levels are barren and feel empty. Repetition of enemies can make the game feel a bit samey at times.
F.E.A.R for those shortcomings is an excellent addition to the shelf of any shooter obsessed gamer. If you're not into shooters but you're looking for something to begin with, then F.E.A.R is a great entry into the crowded market and performs extremely well against the major competitors. The shortcomings don't stop this game from being one worthy of major accolades and hopefully a larger sequel.