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Fear Effect (PlayStation) artwork

Fear Effect (PlayStation) review

"Every once in a while fantastic new technology is introduced to the game playing masses, and eager to show off this new technology designers can all too easily forget the fact that the new technical mumbo-jumbo is supposed to be used to help make games greater. A prime example of this is Fear Effect for the Playstation. The front cover proudly boasts that this game is 'Featuring Motion FX Technology'. What it neglects to mention is that this game is also 'Featuring intensely bad load times, rep..."

Every once in a while fantastic new technology is introduced to the game playing masses, and eager to show off this new technology designers can all too easily forget the fact that the new technical mumbo-jumbo is supposed to be used to help make games greater. A prime example of this is Fear Effect for the Playstation. The front cover proudly boasts that this game is 'Featuring Motion FX Technology'. What it neglects to mention is that this game is also 'Featuring intensely bad load times, repetitive play, poor controls and non-stop death sequences'. Must have been an oversight at the printers.

This game tells the story of Hana, Glas and Deke, a group of ruthless anti-heroes out to make a quick buck. When the daughter of a powerful Chinese businessman vanishes under mysterious circumstances, our morally suspect trio leap into action, hoping to find her... so that they can sell her back to Daddy. Of course, things turn out to be a bit more complex than that, and the game takes you from an alternate Hong Kong right down to Hell itself (that isn't a comment about the way the game plays, although it easily could be). While the plot is actually very good, and it's refreshing to see a game where your characters aren't whiter than white good guys, it's unlikely that half the people who start playing this game will see the plot through to the end.

Beneath the plot lies a game that is, well, pretty awful to be honest. Controlling one of the three mercenaries (you don't get to choose - it's certain characters for certain scenes in Fear Effect) you solve puzzles and shoot bad guys, just like in most third person action-adventure games. Only in Fear Effect it's much more a matter of trial and error than anything else, since progressing in this game tends all too often to amount to finding which button on the control pad to press to avoid your character's untimely death. And there are so many ways to die in this game - towards the end of the first disc for example, you find yourself running along a platform. There's nowhere else to go, and if you stop moving you get killed. Reach the end of the platform and the game launches into a cut-scene where your character is unceremoniously introduced to the grim reaper. Eventually you learn that you have to press one of the action buttons at just the right moment to avoid your demise, but there is no logical reasoning behind this - it's just the way the game works. This near-random death wouldn't be such a problem if it weren't for the fact that the game has absolutely crippling load times. It can take over a minute to get back into the action after you die, and since you die so often you'll spend so much of your time staring at the loading screen that you just don't care about the game anymore.

When you actually do progress through the game, there is absolutely nothing to make the wait worthwhile, either. The gameplay doesn't flow very well with or without the load times - it's more like a sequence of set pieces, most of which are horribly simplistic. Get across the pipes, but don't stand on the hot ones. Avoid the fire while walking through the village. Try not to get fried while walking across an electrified floor. It's all so basic, and it's been done so many times before, that you just can't help feeling that you've just shelled out your hard-earned cash for something that's been done better so many times, many of which you've already bought.

One of the few original concepts in this game is the fear meter. There are no energy bars in Fear Effect, no medipacks, no apples to restore health. There is only the fear meter. When the fear meter (presented on screen as a heart monitor) is green then all is well - your character isn't scared. If an enemy discovers you, you perform badly in a fire fight, get hurt etc., the fear increases. When the fear meter is red (as bad as it can get) one hit will kill you. Perform well in fights, solve puzzles or just go a long time without screwing up, and your character gets more confident, and the fear meter starts to return to the green zone. In principal this is actually a pretty good idea, but it is so flawed in execution that you just wonder why they bothered. Fights often go on far too long, meaning that your fear increases without giving you a chance to recoup, while on other occasions fights happen so infrequently that there is very little challenge - your fear meter will have returned to green long before the next enemy raises it's ugly head.

There are some nice touches in the game, though. The enemy AI is impressive - turn a corner, see bad guys, and run back to your hiding place, and they will come looking for you. This is a feature that is present throughout the game, but other moments of greatness are rather few and far between. Still, when these inspired moments come along, they are often just what you need to convince you to play for just a few hours more, believing that this game may just be redeemable. An early example is a fight with a helicopter on top of a tower block - I won't ruin the moment, but when you figure out how to take the 'copter out, you'll realise that there have been attempt to raise this game above merely being a shoot-this-kill-that formula - it occasionally tries to make you think. The problem is that it doesn't present scenarios like this often enough. Sad as it is, play through the first disc and you've pretty much seen all the best bits that the game has to offer. As you progress through the swamps and train yards of disc two to the seedy establishments of the third disc to disc four's finale, you can almost see the game losing it's inspiration and becoming more soulless with each passing puzzle.

The game is also very difficult. Normally this would endear it to me, as I'm a fan of difficult games, but this is sadly not the case here. The difficulty in Fear Effect doesn't stem from any maniacally tricky boss fights, or from any fiendishly clever puzzles. It stems from the, frankly terrible, controls. For the first few hours of play it's likely that even the most co-ordinated players out there will be sending the characters floundering around the levels like fish thrown out of a bucket. Not only is it a challenge to get your three protagonists to navigate the levels, the menu system is insanely complex. Basically the circle and square buttons cycle through the items in real time, as the action progresses around you. However, this system is unbelievably cumbersome. There's no real reason why it shouldn't work well enough, but it just feels so unresponsive that it's hard to keep your patience as the legions of hell are tearing you to pieces because you tried to attack them using the mobile phone that you brandished by accident. By all means make games difficult, but please, please, please make the difficulty intentional.

On the other hand, this game is presented beautifully - easily one of the most aesthetically pleasing Playstation games available. This game isn't spread over four discs because it's long (each disc is about the length of the second disc in Metal Gear Solid - i.e. not very), it's because the graphics and CD quality sound takes space. Everything is presented graphically in a Manga inspired cartoony look, almost like a precursor to the Cel-Shading seen in Jet Set Radio. The backgrounds are in a constantly moving loop, making the environments seem very busy and real - the city carries on beneath your feet as you traverse the outside of the tower, the flames burn healthily around you as you explore the village or the depths of Hell. It's eye candy of the sweetest and most satisfying kind, but it is just that - eye candy. Much like the crusty old game Dragon's Lair, the pretty graphics and fluid animation are just a mask, hiding behind which is tedious repetitive and bland gameplay.

There are also far too many cut scenes in the game - if you aren't waiting to play while watching the loading screen, you're waiting to play while watching the plot unfold. You don't want to watch these things happen (unless you're happy to spend so much money to do nothing but spectate) you want to be doing it yourself. Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy just about manage to get away with filling the discs with cutscenes, because when you play the gameplay is so good. Fear Effect doesn't have the good gameplay to fall back on, unfortunately.

What we have here is, in essence, a poor, rushed game that wouldn't have been given a second look by anyone had it not been for the utterly jaw-dropping presentation. This game did well enough to spawn an (admittedly far superior) sequel, but really it didn't deserve to. If the graphics had just been ordinary, it would have sunk without a trace. Buy it to ogle at the graphics if you must, but remember, the constant cut scenes and the obscene loading times make this a very passive experience.

tomclark's avatar
Community review by tomclark (March 06, 2004)

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