"Nothing to fear but F.E.A.R. itself"
The F.E.A.R. series is an oxymoronic franchise of both action-horror and old-school FPS elements. It's derivative from both genres, yet it maintains its uniqueness with its subversions.
It’s generic environments, modern-FPS gunplay, odd design decisions for exposition and limited variety of enemies overshadows the greatness of the subtly of its writing, the high-intense atmosphere, the complex AI and the paranormal elements that make F.E.A.R. distinct. Even when it comes to the gameplay, the series has been torn between the disempowering nature of fear as well as the catharsis of the tension from its high-risk/high-reward combat.
In 2016, the horror elements have not withstood the test of time; the gunplay and difficulty surpasses many games made today that it will baffle you how we are behind the times for AI. In many ways, like other FPS classics such as DOOM or Quake, F.E.A.R is a milestone for the genre that has yet to be understood by the creators/publishers themselves for why it is such a classic.
T.E.N.S.I.O.N., not F.E.A.R.
If any game could warrant from a name-change, F.E.A.R. is the highest on my list. The paranormal elements of enemies, hallucinations, the Alma encounters, the scientific rationale for tampering with psychiatric forces beyond their control all warrant the name it is given. (In many ways, the generic abbreviation fits the game’s confusing mix-mash of ideas.) The horror elements are the focus of the game as well as its story, and none of this is to say that on first playthroughs the experience is not intimidating to your senses.
However, the game’s sense of building tension far outweighs any horror it can instill in you no matter how much you are FPS-Bullet-time-Jesus. From the ambush encounters of invisible enemies, squads that will flank you or employ tactics to get around your defenses, and the paranormal appearances with the atmospheric music all keep your nerves on edge. F.E.A.R. excels in this manner because the core gameplay–the combat–emphasizes that the tension is what will get you killed, not the scares.
The combat itself uses acceptable, if somewhat barebones, gunplay compared to the customizable, experience grind you will find in modern FPS (even old-school inspired ones). Resource management, of ammo, of guns (which you can hold three), of grenades and of medkits harken back to the design philosophy of DOOM-like games where resource management and mastering level-design are the key skills you must master. F.E.A.R., however, doesn’t stop there with this idea as its most marketed, iconic gameplay mechanic is perhaps one more resource to manage as your arsenal, bullet-time mode.
Bullet-time mode is not unique to F.E.A.R.; it’s how it is used that makes it more effective than a mere gimmick found in other games. Until I had played the game recently, I always wondered why bullet-time mode was such an integral part to the experience. In many franchises, bullet-time is a gimmick staple in FPSs that is only there because it’s a cliché. F.E.A.R., however, offers another reason for its inclusion that adheres to the similar idea of old-school FPSs: Resource management.
In many ways, playing the game without the reflex boost makes the game more difficult than the game was ever meant to be. That’s because bullet-time is another resource meter that offers an illusion of difficulty similar to games like Max Payne. Bullet-time is not just an offensive tool for combat efficiency but a defensive requirement as well; you use it to evade attacks, take out enemies in numbers beyond your normal means of control--and it’s a convenient way to offer the illusion of overcoming difficulty for both console and PC gamers with more time to react and aim your shots while reenacting your favorite John Woo fantasy.
This system would feel shallow and worthless had not the AI nor the high damage output warrant its inclusion. Enemies, rather than being class-specific, change their tactics based on the situation--a normal soldier could flank you while you are distracted, another could become a grenadier or they will fall back to regroup with a greater opposition. The banter, reactions and complexities of their AI system rivals most games made within the last decade since its release. The AI emphasizes that you play more smartly with your godlike abilities while the frailty of your character exercises caution. Use your bullet-time unwisely and you’ll quickly find yourself dead; use it efficiently and you can explode a grenade mid-flight to take out a squad. The added melee and momentum options for attacks/dodges combines all these individually excellent elements of F.E.A.R.’s combat system into one of the most entertaining FPSs you will find.
“You Have One Unread Message…”
Now when it comes to the storytelling of F.E.A.R., I find the experience as respectful of your intelligence as much as the combat demands from you being strategic. This isn’t to say that the storyline is original, memorable, or flawless but that the execution goes a long way to respect the player who wants to enjoy the greatest aspects of the game, the gameplay, and then realize all the connections upon each new playthrough.
Most of the exposition is hidden away in conversations, flashbacks/paranormal experiences, as well as seemingly irrelevant details tucked into voice-mails or laptops. (These laptops with super confidential data of immoral practices from corporations are lying around for anyone to discover at the facilities.) While the presentation of this important information is subpar to other games that use the same ideas, it’s the gradual coming all together of details, characters and motives that really establishes the darkest of themes touched on in this game and in future sequels.
It wouldn’t be until F.E.A.R. 2 that the squad would get some semblance of personality and add details about the corporation of Armacham; F.E.A.R. 3 would try, and fail, at establishing some personal motivation and character for Pointman (yes, that is his name as far as you know). The expansions for F.E.A.R., amusingly, foreshadow an understanding too late for the franchise now that the F.E.A.R “trilogy” should have died with the end of Extraction Point where the REAL ending of the series ends as far as the horror elements are concerned.
Looking back at the “trilogy” and the official trilogy, Perseus Mandate exemplifies all the future blunders that would sink the franchise down into the abyss of F.E.A.R. Online. PM retells the same story about Alma, choosing to focus on the horror elements rather than the elements that made the gameplay tense; PM highlights the same revelations of Project Origin with rarely anything new added; and it is a franchise that lives only by its successful marketing and profits are concerned until it all comes down to be ruptured into ashes. (PM is not bad as Timegate knows their stuff for making good FPSs, but it displays everything that befell the series from here on out as cheap cash-grabs.)
So… Who You Gonna Call?
Even as I write this review, F.E.A.R. is something I would hope warrants a reboot for the franchise where Monolith can return the series to the aspects that made the gameplay great, not the cheap-scares that were marketable. It is a game I can easily recommend, and if you have any interest in the franchise you should play the first game’s “trilogy” as well as the second game (I personally liked it but I can understand why people think it falls short of the original.)
In the end, F.E.A.R. exemplifies all that seems to be lost to modern games, especially in single-player games, where the gameplay is perfectly paced, interesting and the game knows where to end. The only thing that seems to be forgotten is knowing when something should end, stay dead, and something new should be made, not grave-robbing from the same corpse for sequels.
Community review by Brian (January 04, 2017)
Current interests: Strategy/Turn-Based Games, CRPGs, Immersive Sims, Survival Solo Games, etc.
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