They say PC gaming is dying, and never have those cries been louder than now, during the impending release of the Xbox360, our first next generation game console. Hell, I myself have proclaimed my imminent retirement from the genre. Whether or not you believe this to be true, however, I believe that agreement will be virtually unanimous on this point: As PC games go, F.E.A.R. is like a shot of adrenaline directly to the heart. It’s a much needed injection of well-made excitement to the genre, and to PC gaming as a whole.
F.E.A.R., or First Encounter Assault Recon, if you haven’t heard, is the latest first-person shooter from Monolith Productions, makers of the No One Lives Forever series and, previously, Blood. Sort of an unrecognized underdog in the PC games market, these chaps have proven their merit over and over again by not only developing their own LithTech engine from the ground up, but also going the extra mile by fabricating game after game — almost all of them good, mind you — around that engine. Monolith handles the whole package from start to finish, and they handle it very well. Which is why it’s nice to see F.E.A.R. gaining some recognition, for a change — suggesting that, perhaps, the industry isn’t yet 100% built on who-knows-ya favors, corporate politics and The Omniescent Decree of Electronic Arts.
The story behind F.E.A.R. centers around a special forces organization by the same name, created by the government to combat paranormal threats to national security. The game casts you in the role of the newest member of the squad, a man who has abnormally quick reflexes and an incredible grasp of combat tactics. There’s very little exposition as to who you are, why you joined up or anything else about past events — you’re thrust immediately into a crisis (which thankfully is at least explained up-front). A large tech corporation, one of the U.S.’s most noted defense contractors, has created a militia of “replicants” — cloned soldiers — who can be controlled telepathically by a psionic-gifted military commander named Paxton Fettel. Unfortunately, Fettel has just gone insane (cannibalistically insane, it seems) — and now the entire army of replicants has woken up and are following his macabre commands. In short, they’ve turned against the rest of humanity, and no one is sure what precipitated these events. You are sent in to neutralize Fettel, since taking him out will silence the replicants under his psionic command.
Right away you know that something is not quite normal about your character. For one, he keeps having freaky flashbacks to some earlier point in time, in which his memories are twisted and skewed in a macabre, Silent Hill-esque distortion of reality. Weirdly, you remain in control — able to move around, fire your weapons, and soforth — while engrossed in a flashback, most of which have you walking in slow-motion through a blood-soaked hospital setting while flames lick at the walls and screams can be heard in the distance. It’s quite odd. In an oh, so good way. There’s also the Max Payne-esque ability to slow down time with the push of a button (“bullet time,” to coin a ludicrously overused phrase), which always lends itself to some extra-cool effects. No exception here.
I figured that, like most games, I’d go and put the smack down on Fettel, wring some information out of his lunatic ass, and then get on with discovering more about my own character’s little peculiarities. However, I was wrong. I am now almost three quarters of the way through the game, and I still haven’t got my hands on Fettel. The plot has numerous twists and turns, and unexplainable things happen that baffle not only you, but the entire F.E.A.R. team — needless to say they’re all pretty cool, so I won’t spoil anything major. Along the way, you’ll be scared witless, driven to exhaustion from the tension, and thrust into some of the coolest firefights you’ve ever seen enacted, either in a video game or a movie. They’re that good.
Technologically, F.E.A.R. is a modern marvel. It uses all of the latest graphical technology, plus physics calculations on not only character bodies, but all the other objects in the game world as well — placing a substantial burden on both your GPU and your CPU. For the hardware cost, the payoff is certainly worth it — these are some of the most photorealistic graphics I’ve ever seen in a PC game. The level of technology is a notch above Doom 3, but the end result seems far more impressive due to the easily-recognizable, common settings employed (as opposed to Doom’s imagined Mars base). Texture bump-mapping gives an ultrarealistic look and feel to walls and floors, and the lighting dynamics are nothing short of jaw-dropping. Grilled security doors cast complex and unnerving shadows onto the adjacent walls, and shafts of light that filter through other portals dynamically move and distort as you open the doors or windows that they are passing through.
While your eyes have a feast in store, your ears won’t be disappointed, either. F.E.A.R.’s soundscape is rich and well-varied, with fantastic sounds of shattering glass and exploding tile accompanying terrific hailstorms of flying polygons as glass and ceramic breaks in the most realistic fashion I’ve ever seen. Bouncing shell casings sound different depending on the type of floor you’re standing on, and the spine-tingling music — pleasantly understated, but definitely palpable — establishes an A-grade creep factor. Even cooler are the freakish strikes, twangs and screeches that accompany the game’s many random, shocking appearances of unexplained paranormal events. For example, as I made my way through a seemingly abandoned steam tunnel, I slipped around a corner — weapon at the ready — and was treated to a sickeningly nerve-wracking, metallic yet musical skreeeech just as I spotted the silhouette of some thing standing in the pale shaft of light cast through a nearby doorway. When I went to investigate, there was nobody there.
Level design and enemy interaction are continued high points. While I must admit that the settings you find yourself exploring begin to get repetitive after a while (not as bad as Halo, certainly, and really only slightly more so than the original Half-Life), the sheer realism of your environments makes up for it. To describe most of your environments, think corporate/industrial workplaces. I often felt a bit like John McClane skulking through the construction corridors of Nakatomi Plaza. Or like an alternate Peter Gibbons in an alternate Initech! (Heh, there are even TPS Reports and a red stapler to be found.)
Of significant note is that this is the first FPS I’ve played that made you really treat firing your weapon as a very powerful and important act, not to be taken lightly. The reason is pacing. There are not great gobs of enemies to be blasted to hell and back. In fact, you may explore several minutes’ worth of the game without encountering anybody at all. You might not be consciously aware of it, but this is doing wonders for the atmosphere (which I’ll touch on later) and the tension factor. After you’ve explored that much blood-stained, pock-marked corridor and heard enough macabre, paranormal shit crackling over your commlink, when a replicant soldier finally shows up it nearly scares you half to death. You lose your cool, unloading your weapons in a panicked spray of rounds, hoping to God just to put enough lead in something so that it’ll leave you alone. Weapons bark loudly with gusto, their sounds bouncing realistically off nearby surfaces and sounding muffled around corners. Grenades detonate with a WHUDD, visibly distorting the air around them and sending a concussion of debris flying in all directions. A virtual snowfall of dust and plaster flitters down from above and volumetric smoke fills the room. When firefights occur, the sheer amount of carnage and destruction in even the simplest of them is enough to leave you spent, gasping for air, but grinning ear-to-ear because what you’ve seen is just so damn cool.
Which leads me to the thing I enjoy most about F.E.A.R. The atmosphere. Not since System Shock 2 have I played a game with this much heaping atmosphere — in fact, a couple of times I’ve thought I was playing that venerable game itself, what with the often similar music bed and similarly-colored heads-up display. You will take home plenty of memorable gaming moments while playing through F.E.A.R.‘s levels, and depite the fact that many of the scares and stings are scripted one-time events like those of a horror movie, you’ll probably get a thrill out of playing the game again and again as so many of us PC game aficionados do (pulling out our favorite old titles and giving them another whirl every year or two).
In fact, while playing F.E.A.R. I have come closer to feeling the same kinds of emotions as I did when I first played The Legacy: Realm of Terror in 1993. Legacy was another game which combined macabre, paranormal events with modern-day settings and weapons, a combination I have always found particularly enjoyable. I think the strongest similarity between the two games is the unreasoning dread of solitude. Even though you occasionally hear your team leader talking through the commlink in your ear, during 99% of the game you are alone in the haunted halls of Amarcham Corp or whatever other locale you’re exploring, and the tension weighs heavy on your shoulders. When paranormal events creep ever closer to you, the ambient lights begin to flicker and static crackles over your earpiece. UNKNOWN ORIGIN, reports your HUD as it attempts to ascertain who is transmitting on your frequency. And then you see the shadow of someone peeking around the corner, hear a whispering voice in your head saying things that don’t make any sense…it’s chilling, frightening, and a damn good time.
For all that, though, I applaud the developers for injecting the very occasional bit of very Monolith-style humor — just enough for some relief from time to time. One such example is Norton Mapes, an incredibly fat, Big Johnian engineer (whose belt buckle is embossed with the acronym “RTFM“) who is very reminiscent of Wayne Knight’s character Dennis Nedry in Jurassic Park, in behavior as much as in appearance, which should tell you everything you need to know. Then there’s the scene later on, when your team helicopter crashes while en route to a mission. Your forensics and medical tech, Jin Sun-Kwon, and your demolitions expert, Douglas Holiday, are injured in the crash and must stay behind to wait for medevac while you continue with the mission. Humorously, Doug tries to flirt with the badly-injured Jin (whose ancestors hail from Korea, but who was born in the US): “You know, I love kimchee.” To which Jin replies, “I like pizza.” As you collect yourself and prepare to ship out, Doug says to you, “Go on, get going, so I can get my thang on.” Jin looks up at you with a roll of her eyes and says, “Please stay.” Heh!
With the Half-Life-style near-seamless level transitions to keep you immersed, you might find yourself playing F.E.A.R. for hours at a time. I know I do. Each time I fire this thing up, I’m usually rooted for going on three or four hours, only eventually stopping because I’m sleepy, or my room has turned into a sauna from all the intense heat being radiated by my dual GeForce 6800GTs. What this says to me is that F.E.A.R. as a game that is definitely deserving of the accolades it receives, deserving of the hours you will spend with it, and deserving of your 50 bucks (or 55, depending on whether you get the CD-ROM or the DVD version). FWIW, the DVD version not only comes with the added convenience of being on a single disc, but also ships with some cool videos which establish backstory, provide developer commentary, and even a little machinima parody called P.A.N.I.C.S. — People Acting Normal In Crazy Ass Situations. Well worth the five extra bucks, in my estimation. Do watch out for the SecuROM copy protection, though — in order to play the game, it may actually require you to shut down or uninstall software like CloneCD, Alcohol 120%, Daemon Tools or even the download manager GetRight!
In a time when true innovation in the PC gaming arena seems to be drying up, F.E.A.R. is a bright, shining example of everything this genre could and should be. If you have the stuff to build up a rig that can run it, you’ll be rewarded with some of the best action, strongest atmosphere and tastiest thrills this side of an HDTV. In a word — okay, two — get it.