What are little girls made of? Sugar, spice, and unrelenting evil.
I'll be frank - I was all set to not like F.E.A.R. Maybe it was the awkward subtitle (First Encounter Assault Recon, sir?), the little girl they kidnapped from The Ring, or the big deal its marketing tried to make out of bullet-time. I was ready to call CPS and complain before I even got this out of the box.
But of course I didn't, and instead loaded this anticipated fragfest onto my rig...and had my mind blown. Just like Alma (the game's poster child), F.E.A.R. is slow-moving, deliberate and bursting with powerful intensity, even if it wears its conspicuous lack of originality like long, black locks. But where Alma is a being of strict portent (she's almost more mascot than enemy), F.E.A.R. is one of explicit, explosive violence. It takes destruction to orchestral heights and gives you the conductor's baton. Bravo, Monolith.
You play the faceless, nameless point-man in a group of ghostbusters sent to neutralize the psychic leader of a clone army ,who has apparently been inflicting his own brand of the Dark Side on a research facility's staff. Evidently, the researchers were toying with tech reserved for the holiest of holies, and in doing so created a very short, pretty monster who managed to kill them all with the help of her psychic friend before you even arrived on the scene.
So there isn't a lot of talking. Your only contact with context comes from voice-mail messages and the cryptic ramblings of the psychic master. While the former are a little silly (do all commandos stop and listen to other peoples' voicemail when they infiltrate offices?), they work surprisingly well. The first messages are mundane tidings from friends and wives, all ironically ignorant of the recent violence. As you progress, the plot slowly surfaces through these dispatches like a gassy corpse, the disembodiment of the voices doing the game's ghostly themes justice.
Still, the poltergeist motif could use some work. Instead of battling lots of scary, preternatural enemies, you battle impressive squadrons of men with guns. Then, in between battles, you watch spooky business happen as you walk down hallways. Rather than providing a scary first-person shooter, Monolith has created a game that is half shooter, half haunted house.
While the gruesome images and random encounters are nice and creepy for the first hour or so, they're quickly eclipsed by the game's real monsters – the insane firefights. These are governed by F.E.A.R.'s overwhelming control scheme. You have buttons for ducking, zooming, peeping around corners, melee attacking, jumping, throwing grenades, firing and concentrating. Simply organizing these in a scheme that makes sense is the game's first challenge, as the default setting stacks every command around the WASD keys for some funny, if fatal, mishaps.
Finding a good ring for your keys is essential, because you'll be executing all sorts of commands at once. This is made possible thanks to Concentration; in other words, your ability to slow down time. Concentration is measured by a meter that slowly depletes as you focus, and then slowly recharges when you leave the Zen-like state. Your first instinct will be to simply turn Concentration on at the start of a gun fight, do all you can until it's about to run out and then hide, letting it slowly recharge before you venture out for more violence. As you play, though, you'll begin to use it in little tiny spurts, just enough to give you a reflex advantage over your enemies.
For instance, you can turn it on before you strafe around a corner, quickly aim at a head, then fire as you leave Concentration for a quick head-shot and relatively little loss of brain juice. If an enemy pops up unexpectedly, you can slow the tempo and decide whether to fight or take cover without getting filled full of holes.
You'll need every neuron of your augmented brain powers to keep up with the well-coordinated A.I. of your foes. The clone troops always travel in squads, sweeping through areas until they spot you, at which point they'll take cover, throw a grenade, lay down fire and either send a guy to flank or rush. Even with your super-reflexes, they'll take you out with well-placed grenades and wicked ambushes, and should you find yourself out of focus, they'll quickly move in for the kill.
Fortunately, you have some very big guns on your side. The arsenal includes dual handguns, an SMG, an assault rifle, a combat shotgun, a semi-automatic rifle, a rail gun and a triple-rocket launcher. This is hardly a huge selection, but Monolith went for quality over quantity. The guns are really fun to shoot, especially those with high rates of fire. You can carry up to three at a time, mixing and matching with dropped weapons as you go.
You also have three types of explosives: grenades, proximity mines and remote mines. They're the life of any first-person party, but there aren't enough of 'em. The visual effect attached to each explosion is epic, the enemy reaction realistic and comical, and the tactical advantage they provide indispensable. Unfortunately, enemies never, ever drop them even though they all seem to carry infinite supplies.
When things get up close and personal, you get to deal the final insult with one of three melee attacks. Obviously, you can pistol whip your foes, but you can also execute a sliding takedown (which is mysteriously fatal) and a slick jump-kick that has great range and looks so awesome in slow-mo you'll wish F.E.A.R. had an instant replay.
The only real chink in F.E.A.R.'s combat armor is the dearth of good boss fights. Instead of real bosses, you have to square off against gimpy dudes in mech-suits who are supremely exploitable since they'll only follow you to a certain point in the level. After that, they just stand there getting shot. Still, the regular firefights are easily boss enough for me to recommend the game.
F.E.A.R. also has some navigational issues. Like Doom 3, this is an extremely dark game that uses branching paths to camouflage its linearity. Levels in F.E.A.R. are structured like chain links, with two paths diverging and converging repeatedly. Some of these "links" can be a hundred yards long, leading to some confusing circles. Say you choose the right path, get to the end of the link and take a left - five minutes later you find yourself back where you started. And since everything is so dark and the game takes place mostly in spooky industrial buildings, it can be hard to tell whether or not you've been somewhere before. A simple map or radar would have helped tremendously, even if it would have diminished your sense of fear and paranoia.
Maybe they were right in that, because at times the game is enormously tense. . It had nothing to do with scripted events, though. The environments are littered with rubble and debris, and if you brush up against any of it you'll be shaken by a loud, jarring sound effect. Even more nerve-wracking is the fact that your flashlight battery lasts just long enough for you to forget about it, then goes out. Your inner child will cry...
...and then laugh maniacally once you dive back into a firefight. These shoot-outs burst like piñatas with eye candy. On our hulking office Megatron of a machine, the game always ran smoothly, whether time was passing slowly or lightning fast, regardless of what debris or limbs were flying through the air. Still, to get the full effect you're going to need cutting edge tech; this beast comes at a high system resource price.
You'll also want some quality speakers, because F.E.A.R. sounds amazing. Nothing says impending doom like a really scary soundtrack, and this game's got one. The music tracks usually precipitate a wimpy mech-fight, but until you see that stupid sucker come around the corner you'll be ready for Godzilla to appear, it's so intense and evocative.
F.E.A.R. might well be the year's best single-player PC experience, but it won't win any awards for its multiplayer. Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag are the only game types, and there aren't many maps. The only interesting twist is that players can capture a power-up allowing them to use Concentration. When triggered, your allies are slowed a little and your enemies are slowed a lot, giving your side a small reflexive advantage. Also, F.E.A.R.'s online content is powered by the same diesel engine that powers the single-player game, so you're in for intense, violent fun even if most of the best multiplayer bells and whistles were left on the development room floor.
Besides, multiplayer modes have made leaps and bounds over the past year. Developers seem to love jacking up their online content and releasing last year's single-player game plus a new plot, but not Monolith. They've built a single-player first-person shooter so good and so unique it will remind you why you got into gaming in the first place - because girls scare you.