F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Developer: Monolith/Day 1 Studios
Publisher: Vivendi Games
Release Date: 10/31/06
I love the FPS genre. When they’re done right, FPS games embody what is wonderful about gaming: they allow you to experience an environment, a game world if you will, as you WOULD experience it. And I’m not just talking about Doom or Unreal or whatever; Oblivion and Shadow Tower embody these traits as well, and do so beautifully. Granted, most of these titles accomplish this feat while asking that you turn everything before you into Ragu, but this is also part of the appeal of the genre: making stuff dead, be it with an axe, buckshot, or a freaky alien gun makes the genre what it is, and as fans will attest, they’d not have it any other way.
And as developer Monolith has certainly proven, they’re adept at giving fans what they want. After the intense and visceral title Condemned debuted with the 360, Monolith turned their attentions to porting their biggest success to date to the big white box: F.E.A.R. (henceforth referred to as FEAR, because I’m lazy). In case you somehow managed to avoid it, FEAR is a multiple award winning FPS that presents a wonderful addition to the genre, due in part to the squad-based tactics employed by the enemy and a freaky, dark atmosphere Doom 3 only wishes it could match. It’s chock full of dark imagery and cheap scares, but actually managed to do something spooky with them, enough so to impress the hell out of a lot of gamers.
And now, a year and change later, Day 1 Studios (the credited developer), in conjunction with Vivendi Games, has brought the experience to the 360. Does it stand tall on the big white box? Can it hang, or has the time that’s passed left it by the wayside? And did it even translate well in the first place? Let’s take a look.
You play as a nameless member of a black-ops group known as First Encounter Assault Recon, AKA F.E.A.R. F.E.A.R. is a specialty group that deals almost exclusively with problems that have paranormal undercurrents; in other words, they’re one part Rainbow Six and one part John Constantine. Your first mission as a member of F.E.A.R. is the taking down of one Paxton Fettel, who has taken control of a group of mentally controlled clone soldiers and is using them to… well, no one’s really certain. Fettel has issued no real demands and has taken no documented hostages; rather, he seems interested instead in killing anyone and everyone he sees, though to what end is unknown.
The generally vague storytelling of the game works largely in its favor; while the storyline isn’t what one would call “deep”Â, it remains compelling largely because it is revealed in small portions, in such a way as to make the player actively desire to uncover more of it. Monolith has managed to take a fairly simple concept and turn it into a strong narrative simply by limiting the player’s knowledge of events to bite-sized pieces, which makes the experience more enthralling; just when you’re beginning to lose focus, a new piece of the puzzle comes up to draw you further in. Also, the whole “hallucinations/evil spirits”Â concept (as in, is this real or fake?) is neat, though it seems a touch Ring influenced. Oh, and those who have played Condemned will notice that the stories of both games seem somewhat similar for the most part. Still, the story in FEAR is solid enough to keep you playing, and revealed in such a fashion as to keep you guessing until the end.
Story Rating: 7/10
FEAR is a year-old PC title that’s finally finding its way to the 360 console, and this shows. The graphics, while still very nice overall, aren’t up to snuff compared to some of the more visually impressive titles in the system. On the upside, characters animate very nicely and are very well detailed, and the various game environments are well designed and manage to look sufficiently different from one another. Firefights look brutal, in the most positive way possible; the environments get ripped apart quickly, leaving cracks in walls and clouds of smoke in their wake, which helps the player immerse themselves in the experience even further. Lighting effects are also used to great effect, and the various special effects, including the “SloMo”Â effect look very good. Oh, and enemy forces “Ëœsplode real purty. This is important to me, I don’t know why, but when you shoot someone with a shotgun and the effect is tantamount to said enemy BEING ERASED FROM THE SPACE-TIME CONTINUUM, I can comfortably say that the action is sufficiently visceral.
On the other hand, graphical glitching is noticeable; on more than one occasion, I noticed enemies and weapons get stuck in the environment, and while it’s occasionally amusing watching an enemy get his head stuck IN a wall upon death, it’s by no means a good thing. Also, what would seem to be a no-brainer effect is strangely absent, that being the “step in blood, leave bloody footprints”Â effect. Considering how often one leaves a bloody mess in one’s wake, one would think such an effect would be a priority, but alas, this is not to be. FEAR is still a visually solid and impressive title, but it’s not quite what one would expect from a title that was considered to be amongst the most visually pleasing titles of 2005. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not great.
Graphics Rating: 7/10
FEAR’s aural experience is very solid and well presented. There’s very little music in the game, for good reason: it would detract from the ambience of the title. When it is there, it’s usually either ambient or dramatic, with the occasional pulse-pounding track here and there for battles against ROCKET-SHOOTING DEATH ROBOTS or some such, and works to good effect by and large. Most of your aural presentation has been devoted to the sound effects, however, so the music isn’t really going to be your primary concern. Oh, and it’s compatible with the custom soundtrack option, but… uh… I wouldn’t recommend it. Just trust me on this.
The voice acting is mostly all quite good and fits the tone of the game well. The “voice”Â of the clone troopers is the only real sticking point I have; on one hand, it’s completely understandable that five thousand clones of one guy would share the same voice, but on the other, hearing the same voice over and over through the whole game wears on you after a while. That aside, the rest of the actors turn in good performances that match their characters well. The sound effects, however, are where FEAR REALLY shines; each and every weapon sounds VERY powerful, and helps to sell you on the experience nicely. Ripping through walls with an assault rifle is only half visual presentation, so it’s great to see that so much attention was spent on making sure the weapons SOUND powerful too. Oh, and the sound adjusts very well when switching into “SloMo”Â, which is good, especially when an enemy realizes this and blurts out something profane shortly before you end them. This is still amusing to me. I’m not sure why. Anyway, kudos to the sound guys; overall, FEAR’s aural performance is exceptionally solid, and minor complaints notwithstanding, ends up another awesome performance this year.
Sound Rating: 8/10
FEAR should feel familiar to fans of the FPS genre, though the button layout may feel unfamiliar to those who have played/are playing other FPS titles. Left stick moves, right stick looks, right trigger fires your weapon left trigger throws grenades (which is what might screw people up, so be aware of this), right bumper switches weapons, etc. It’s all pretty easy to adjust to, so even if you’re not the king of the FPS, you can get it down simply enough. The controls feel tight and responsive, for the most part, and most of the game should feel familiar from the get-go.
But there are some distinct differences. First among them is “SloMo”Â, as the game documents it, which is essentially meant to represent your reflexes kicking in hardcore. Essentially, SloMo is bullet time (remember that?), only minus the nifty shoot-dodging. It’s still highly useful and quite cool, though; as time slows down, you’ll see the trails bullets leave as they cut through the air, and you’ll be able to aim with a great deal more precision, partly due to your heightened reflexes, and partly because enemies move like they’re stuck in pudding. This ends up being a fantastic dynamic that makes the game more than just another FPS.
Another thing that makes the game great is the very solid enemy AI. In many games in the genre, enemies are built to withstand a few shots, but their intelligence is left as something of an afterthought. In FEAR, the opposite is true; you can whack most foes with only a few shots, and shooting out their legs or arms cripples their offensive capabilities nicely, but they fight smart. Most of the enemy forces move in squads, and they communicate with one another and use group tactics to wage war against you. You’ll see enemies flank you if possible, use suppressing fire, call for reinforcements if they’re hurting, and try to flush you out or pin you down using explosives and cover to good effect. You really get the sensation that combat is you versus a highly trained army of soldiers, because of the way your foes act and react in battle, which not only sells the experience well, but also makes combat that much more interesting.
And of course, let us not forget the horror elements that permeate the product from beginning to end. FEAR attempts to live up to its name by scaring the bejeezus out of you in various different ways. Most of them involve creepy light flickering or sounds, and these end up doing a decent job of giving you the willies. A lot of the time, though, you’ll be presented with various scenes of a small girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to the girl from The Ring, only in color. It’s established fairly early on that she has something to do with Fettel’s craziness and the subsequent uprising he’s leading, but she’s usually used as a harbinger of bad stuff, whether or not such is the case. Lighting is also used to great effect here; you’ll find yourself poking around in the dark more than a few times in FEAR, only to hear strange noises or squad communication off in the distance that makes your blood run cold. The game also throws outright nasty enemies at you that you’ll fear by existence, including cloaked ninja-esque foes and giant rocket shooting robots of death, so as to remind you that things that go bump in the night aren’t quite as scary as things that go boom in your face. All told, the horror/fear theme is solidly done, and though it tends to rely on as many shock value scares as genuine ones, FEAR does a good job getting you into the scariness the game has to offer.
If you should happen to tire of the single player experience, you can also take FEAR online, which works quite well overall. The game offers various variations of Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Last Man Standing (called Elimination here) gameplay modes, including some team game modes. What makes the online play really fun are the SloMo modes, which work ala Goldeneye’s “Man With the Golden Gun”Â mode. One person is given control of SloMo, and as such can use it as it would be used in a single player game. Whack this player, and you can use SloMo yourself. In free-for-all SloMo matches, this can get pretty hairy, but the gimmick really shines in team battles; those with SloMo are displayed on the map at all times, so if enemies come to hunt you down, you can set traps and use teammates to your advantage to mow down enemies who are coming to steal this valuable gimmick. In short, it’s a lot of fun and adds depth to what would otherwise be somewhat standard online multiplay. You can also jump into an Instant Action mission, which is really just set up for you to destroy a bunch of enemies without the confines of the story to deal with. This is entertaining as well, but there are only four missions you can take on, which kind of limits the entertainment of it.
The variety of weapons in FEAR is also pretty solid; along with your usual compliment of standard armament, IE pistol, machine guns, shotgun, grenade, you’re also offered all sorts of neat weapons, like a triple shot rocket launcher, a particle beam cannon that reduces enemies to smoking skeletons, and a hand-held 50mm repeating cannon (my personal favorite), all of which are more than capable of obliterating stuff well. The game uses the now standard “limited weaponry slot”Â dynamic; you can carry three weapons at one time, which limits your combat options, but makes it easier to find what you need at any time. In case you’re stuck with little weaponry or with an unloaded weapon, you can also leap into battle with vicious roundhouse kicks to put the enemy down for the count. In short, FEAR is lots of fun, and there are lots of fun toys and things to do in it.
Of course, for all the good in the game, the bad that’s here can’t be ignored. The single player campaign, while an awful lot of fun, tends to kind of bog down during the last hour or two, largely due to the fact that, challenging though they are, the enemies are really all the same. It’s great that Monolith came up with a reason for the repetitive enemy designs and all, but that doesn’t really excuse it. Also, considering that there’s an expansion available for the PC, and the total price for both the original PC title AND the expansion pack is identical to the price for this version (and the multiplayer client is now available online, for free), there’s not really any reason to buy the 360 version of FEAR if it’s at all possible for you to buy the PC version. There is a Bonus Mission, but it’s a very limited experience that’s really only worth looking at once, and had it been left out, it would not have been missed. And I think it goes without saying that if you’ve played the PC version, there’s no real reason to play this one unless you loved the game that much. Still, if you have no access to the PC versions, the 360 version is quite good, and limitations aside, it’s a very solid title that’s strong in gameplay and well worth playing.
Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10
The single player mode, fun though it is, doesn’t feature any new tricks beyond ramped-up difficulty in successive playthroughs, though heavy firefights will keep their interest. The “Bonus Mission”Â is about, um, fifteen minutes, and there’s absolutely zero reason to ever play it after the first time. There is also the Instant Action option if you just want to drop in and shoot stuff up, and trying to rank on the leaderboard might entertain you for a while. The Achievement set here is decent, but a lot of the Achievements require you to do absurd things (beat the game by only using 600 bullets, you’re funny) or complete the game multiple times, which may be beyond your interest. The MAJOR positive to replay is that the online modes, especially those that feature SloMo, are fun as all get-out, assuming you can find enough people to get your shoot on. All told, FEAR is about as replayable as any FPS with online play, but is made slightly moreso because of the SloMo multiplayer modes, which are a hoot.
Replayability Rating: 7/10
FEAR, once you learn how it works, is solidly balanced overall, but there’s a learning curve involved… you can’t play it like Halo or Doom 3; doing so gets you dead. Enemy weapons hit hard, and the enemies use group tactics to take you down hard and fast. It’s not Splinter Cell or anything, but once you learn to play smart (drop proximity mines, then wait, or shoot from behind cover, for instance), you’ll find the title to be pretty well-balanced, and there are multiple difficulty levels for those of you who are FPS gods amongst mortals. Multiplayer is also balanced in a solid manner, though players of higher skill will chew you up, obviously. Some sections of the campaign can be a bit on the tough side (dealing with snipers all wielding Type 22 Particle Beam guns, for example… woof), but for the most part, FEAR offers a strong, engaging challenge throughout that should be manageable for those of all skill levels.
Balance Rating: 7/10
The idea of doing a FPS/horror game isn’t new (hi, meet Doom 3 and Undying), but said concept being designed in a fashion that WORKS certainly is. Most FPS/Horror hybrids work in a cheap scare sort of way, but FEAR manages to be genuinely spine-chilling in more than a couple instances. The SloMo mechanic is also quite spiffy; you’d think more game developers would’ve ripped off the idea by now, but this appears to not be the case, sadly. At its core, FEAR is still an FPS, but what it does to distinguish itself from the pack is done sufficiently well, enough to make it stand out from the crowd. On the other hand, it doesn’t stand FAR out, thanks in part to the fact that A.) it does nothing to distinguish itself from its PC counterpart, and B.) Condemned hit the 360 a year ago and did an essentially similar thing. Still, it’s original enough that if you’ve not played it, you’ll definitely be surprised by some of the things done in FEAR.
Originality Rating: 6/10
The presentation, white-knuckle action and sporadic storytelling all combine to lend a highly addictive feel to FEAR. You’ll want to keep playing, whether it be to get some more story clues, or to gun down some poor saps, or whatever… and five minutes will become two hours without feeling like it. The gunplay in FEAR is downright awesome, and if you’re an FPS addict, this will be your new crack for quite a while. And the horror theme is very well developed, so if you’re looking for a game to creep you out, flip those lights out and get to playing. Well, maybe not Alex, but most folks will feel that little tingle up their spine when they hear squad communications around the next corner. In short, FEAR = really damn addictive. Kay? Kay.
Addictiveness Rating: 8/10
9. APPEAL FACTOR
Let’s get this out of the way up front: if you own the PC version of FEAR, there is absolutely NO reason for you to want to own this version. Nothing’s changed, nothing’s new or different, it’s the same thing you’ve seen before. Okay? Cool.
If you missed FEAR, however, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re an FPS fan. Besides the strong rep it garnered from the PC, it’s also a very strong FPS with a few special tricks up its sleeves. The solid single player experience and the very solid multiplayer have taken on lives of their own, and if you have even a passing interest in the FPS genre, you’ll find yourself drawn to FEAR like a moth to flame.
Appeal Rating: 8/10
I made mention previously that FEAR for the 360 isn’t worth buying if you’ve played the PC version, which I imagine was a pretty obvious assessment. It also bears noting, however, that FEAR treads a lot of the same ground that was trod upon by Condemned, so if you’ve played that, you’ll feel a lot of deja vu when playing FEAR. Also, if you weren’t a fan of Condemned, FEAR might not be for you, either… unless your rationale was that you hated the melee combat, in which case, FEAR might well be right up your alley. FEAR provides a more cinematic experience overall, whereas Condemned provided a more rough and gritty one, though both end up as entertaining experiences, though for drastically different reasons. If you’re a fan of Condemned, you’ll most likely have a lot to like about FEAR, but it just bears noting that it’s a similar experience, in case that’s not what you’re looking for.
Miscellaneous Rating: 6/10
Overall Score: 7.1/10
Final Score: 7.0 (GOOD).
Short Attention Span Summary
FEAR is a strong addition to the 360 library, as well as to the FPS genre. It’s not the most original title in the world, and if you’ve played Condemned you might find you’ve seen a lot of the tricks before, but FEAR still looks and plays great, and is an entertaining experience while it lasts. If you’ve never played it before, FEAR is definitely worth your cash.