A long time ago, in a Walmart not too far away, I noticed a copy of F.E.A.R on sale for $20. Taking note of the fact that the game was apparently noteworthy enough to be a Platinum Hit, I snatched it up, brought it home, and promptly forgot about it for a few months thanks to bigger titles snagging my attention. After re-discovering it last week, I decided to whip out the dusty first-person shooter and give it a whirl. And you know what I found?
A decent, if old, experience that shows how far gaming has come since it was made.
The game begins with the player character, an entity known only as the Point Man, being briefed on the first mission he'll be undertaking since having transferred to F.E.A.R: a military unit designed to deal with paranormal incidents. Unfortunately for you, your first assignment is a bit of a toughie. It turns out that the government has been working on groups of cloned super-soldiers, and these groups are led by telepathic commanders: one of which, a man named Paxton Fettle, has gone a eensie bit mad. Not only is he killing people and drinking their blood: he's also sent his battalion of soldiers ripping apart various areas looking for something. Your team has orders to capture/kill Fettle, which will cause the soldiers to go inactive. Problem is that Fettle isn't easy to catch: and on top of that, a little girl with terrifying powers has appeared and started killing people.
If all of that sounds preposterous, don't worry: it is. The entire plot is built upon a dual obsession with soft science and ghostly shenanigans: it revels in the ridiculous... and to be honest, it's a better game for it. The departure from realism just feels right somehow in this game. Sure, it's built on crazy amounts of bullshit... but it's fun bullshit. The game gives you the feeling of being a character in a modern-day ghost story, and thanks to that, it can actually THREATEN the player. Sure, the waves of super-goons are only mortal, and about as threatening as any other FPS enemy: but whenever Fettel or Alma (the little girl) show up, the player is suddenly thrust into a position of powerlessness: a position where fear can actually be a legitimate, psychological response.
Ooooh, I always wanted to try an alternative weight loss program...
F.E.A.R's gameplay comes from the old school of first-person shooting: health and armor are quantified in number values rather that meters. You're also severely outnumbered, and need to use cover to survive, peeking around walls and over boxes in an attempt to score hits on your foes without exposing yourself. If you still find that you need to even the odds though, you can activate Reflex mode (aka bullet time), allowing you to turn enemies into a fine red mist. Literally. When you shoot enemies, blood splatters out in slow motion, and in some extreme cases (mostly when using the shotgun), entire body parts can be severed/blown to meaty bits. These cases of contextual damage are fun to experience, even though they tend to be on the rare side.
Just because you have bullet time abilities doesn't mean that the soldiers you fight throughout the game are lambs headed to the slaughter though. F.E.A.R does an excellent job with the waves of supermooks that you wind up fighting: sure, they only come in three varieties (normal, armored, and OH FUCK MECHA RUNRUNRUN), but thanks to two things they stick in my mind as being the best enemies I've fought in a game since Halo's Grunts. The first quality that sticks out is their radios: the player can over-hear enemy communications, which leads to you listening to your foes for valuable combat intel. For instance, if one of them says "Everyone get down!", that's a signal that one of them has thrown a grenade. In a twist of irony, the radios also do a good job in making the (cloned) goons feel like individuals: for instance, some will respond to situations with fear, while others will be more agressive, telling the scaredy-cats of the group to shut up.
The other quality that makes F.E.A.R's enemies fun to fight is their adaptable AI. The AI in this game is EXTREMELY impressive for a four-year-old game: enemies will flank you, throw grenades to flush you out of cover, use the environment to their advantage, and is generally just be challenging to beat. These guys aren't your typical doofuses: they're aggressive, but they tend to not walk into many obvious traps (with the exception of landmines, which the AI somehow ignores despite mines having a glowing lights on top of 'em.) They use whatever they've got to their advantage, and it makes them more fun to fight in general.
Did I mention this game is challenging, by the way? Because it is. Even on normal difficulty, if you get sloppy, you'll quickly find yourself pushing up daisies thanks to the way the game manages health, armor, and ammunition. While you can carry up to 10 medkits at a time, it won't do you any good if you're not armored, because without some protective coverings your health drops faster than a barfly attempting to binge-drink tequilas. And while in the early stages it's easy to get ammunition, once you reach the latter ones (and the enemies begin carrying a more diverse armament) you wind up running low on bullets unless you grab new guns from your fallen adversaries. All in all, on the first couple difficulty settings the game has a good pace to it: the player finds himself/herself constantly on the edge, without being pushed over it.
That is, until you try the Impossible difficulty setting.
However, for all the good things about this game, it has several distinct negatives. While I like the paranormal nature of the plot, there isn't a real sense of progression to it: you're just sort of being strung along through waves of baddies. it doesn't help that the level design is very samey: you wind up working your way through three basic environments (an office, a sewer, and a warehouse) over and over again. The game's atmosphere also suffers from relying a lot on the player to be looking where he/she is supposed to. For example, if a shadow is supposed to appear on a wall after the player walks past a certain point, but you aren't looking at that wall at that EXACT moment, you miss seeing it: however, the audio cue indicating that you just saw something scary still gets played, leading to a break in the immersion as you try and figure out what you just missed.
The sideplots/backstory of the game, revealed through cracking laptops and listening to phone messages, is (to use a pun) phoned in. Some of it is useless bullcrap, some of it is relevant but boring, and a little of it is interesting... but all of it is hard to hear thanks to the messages/intel being played through a grainy audio filter. This audio filter also hampers your ability to understand what your team leader is saying, so at times you can't even understand your what your objectives are. There's also problems with parts of the main plot being dropped. The most glaring example of this is when one of your teammates goes missing: after he disappears, you have visions of him throughout the game, but you're never informed about what exactly HAPPENED to him. It would be fine if it were simply implied that he were dead, but the game doesn't even let you think that, thanks to your supervisor occasionally remarking about how your buddy's transmitter indicates he is still alive. The dude just sort of drops off the radar story-wise, and it feels sloppily done.
Even with all these complaints, I still liked F.E.A.R, mainly because I see how it's influenced other, later games. The phone messages were copied/improved by Bioshock, a similar adaptable AI was used in Batman:Arkham Asylum... the list goes on. F.E.A.R may not be a stellar game when compared to today's fare, but that's probably because it was an influence, an experiment, a stepping-stone for what came after. And thanks to its atmosphere, interesting plot, and general fun factor, it's still worth a look-see, even though it's got a few grey hairs. I'd suggest giving it a rent, though by this point it might be cheap enough to warrant a purchase.