"F.E.A.R. is essentially a one-trick pony, but is salvaged by the fact that it's an exceptionally clever one. F.E.A.R. does 'Bullet Time' better than any title has managed yet. It somehow functions a whole load better from the first-person perspective than it ever did in its third-person origins, and it forms the backbone of F.E.A.R.'s trick. This is Monolith's take on FPS set-pieces. The twist? Create your own."
If we were to judge F.E.A.R. on the amount of initial fun it is to play, we'd be dealing with one of the greatest games in the world here. It's important not to underestimate the entertainment value of slowing down time, charging towards an enemy, tripping him up and then blasting him with a shotgun as he flies through the air - particularly when such sequences are so fabulously executed by the latest Lithtech engine. Mechanically, this beast is flawless.
Of course, things are never as clear-cut as that. This review will enthuse like a fanboy at points, as F.E.A.R. is a genuinely enjoyable and thoroughly refreshing action romp. And yet something's wrong. I still had to force myself to return to the game for the purposes of this review.
A bad sign, certainly, but all's not by any means lost. It stems from the fact that F.E.A.R. is essentially a one-trick pony, but is salvaged by the fact that it's an exceptionally clever one. F.E.A.R. does 'Bullet Time' better than any title has managed yet. It somehow functions a whole load better from the first-person perspective than it ever did in its third-person origins, and it forms the backbone of F.E.A.R.'s trick. This is Monolith's take on FPS set-pieces. The twist? Create your own.
It's virtually impossible to enter a battle in F.E.A.R. without activating the 'Reflex Time' feature, since the faster-than-light pacing of the fire fights on offer here is so disorientating that most who attempt to face them at normal speed will be ripped to shreds in seconds. What this means is that, as the feature is practically forced upon you, you'll quickly come up with new and inventive ways of fending off the reams of foes the game throws your way. The one in the first paragraph is relatively lightweight. Once the basics are mastered, within a couple of hours of starting the game, it's a wonderful playing field of disgusting imagination and creativity. Lob a grenade into a crowded room, shoot it midair at head-height throwing Replica soldiers every which way, then finish them off with a well-aimed blast to the head as they fly back from the force. Lure a group into a line and slide-tackle the first guy, watching the others fall like dominos as you shoulder your weapon. My particular favourite move involved a combination of all the above, culminating in tabbing back out of Reflex Time and sending the last remaining soldier flying through the cloud of dust the fracas had created. Half-Life wowed the player with its cleverly crafted scripted sequences. In F.E.A.R., none of the best moments are pre-determined. Here, it's you wowing yourself.
This interactive action film is brought to life even more by Monolith's in-house engine, which, perhaps for the first time since its initial conception in 1998, is absolutely fantastic. F.E.A.R. looks astonishing, sounds spectacular, and plays blisteringly well. The lighting in particular is tremendous, surpassing even the previous benchmark Doom 3. The motion blur while in the Reflex mode is a stroke of genius, and the wishy-washy hallucinations that frequently crop up look glorious. Bullets ring off surfaces, the sound echoing around the room, out of your speakers and into your ears. Everything is crafted to perfection. Playing with all the graphical details maxed out can be a real system hog, and there are some serious frame-rate issues at times, but it's forgivingly scalable, and gamers with mid-range machines should still be able to get a decent experience out of it.
It's definitely somewhat surprising that all this is F.E.A.R.'s major triumph, since its main selling point has always been its story and atmosphere. In fact, in this area, F.E.A.R. is oddly lacking at times. The plot stays interesting and well paced throughout, but it relies a little too much on horror clichťs. Moreover, through the absence of truly memorable and well-written characters, it lacks the emotional pull of some of its finer peers. For a game claiming to be so inspired by Eastern horror, the whole game is surprisingly Western in its approach. It's more about big bad guys with big bad weapons than it is about deep psychological and emotional terror, which will disappoint some. Thankfully, the little girl on the box plays a suitably large and unsettling role. Without her involvement - which I'll say no more about, as she provides for some nice and unexpected moments in the story - F.E.A.R. would be a somewhat blander experience.
Does it live up to its (slightly paradoxical) name? Well... a bit. F.E.A.R. has probably the best 'boo' moment I've seen in any game, and it's the first shooter in a long time to make me squeal like a little girl. Does it get under your skin, into your brain, and slowly twist until you're scared to go to bed at night? No. It's suspenseful and spooky, but the story is more interesting than truly scary. Hats off for the ladder trick, though. You'll know it when you play it.
There are some more minor points to mention. While level design is consistently thoughtful and logical, and there are a number of locations to visit, practically all of them are warehouse complexes. It occasionally feels like a betrayal of the fabulous engine that, predominantly, it only has to render the colour grey. Frustratingly, since each corridor looks decidedly similar to the last, it can be fairly easy to get lost, and end up backtracking for minutes without realising. Easy mode is too easy, but hard mode is fiendishly difficult, and those who opt for the highest setting straight away may find themselves struggling to progress past the first few battles. And, perhaps most significantly, by half way through the game F.E.A.R. has given almost all it has to offer. You'll plod on to reach the end of the story, which incidentally does reach a satisfying climax, but you may feel a little cheated by the lack of any real gameplay progression.
The fact that F.E.A.R.'s main attraction is something on offer from the start means there's not always a real sense of achievement, and that's what stripped me of any real enthusiasm to return to the game for subsequent plays. This is a shame, because once you are back playing it's delectably good fun. Playing in short bursts may lead to boredom. Pull an all-nighter, play with the lights out, and complete it in one sitting for optimum, action-packed fun.
Freelance review by Lewis Denby (August 29, 2008)
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