It's hard to get excited about ports. They're like leftovers, tasty but stale, and they always get the microwave treatment. That's where a lesser studio handles the porting duty and half bakes everything, so even though it's still the same game, it isn't nearly as crisp or juicy as the one prepared by the original chefs. That's why our mouths didn't exactly water when the Xbox 360 version of F.E.A.R. rolled in. They kind of frowned, especially at the sight of the sixty dollar price tag. Then we turned it on, jumped in and were shocked to discover a port that almost perfectly retains the bloody flavor and violence of the original. Props to Day 1 Studios, they used the oven.
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.
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.
We know it sounds scary, but the poltergeist motif could use some work. Instead of battling lots of 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.
Concentration is measured by a meter that slowly depletes as you focus (slow down time), 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, new dual automatic pistols, 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. There are also some weird issues with the translation from the keyboard and mouse to the Xbox 360 controller, like a sticky action button. Half the time when you press it to reload, nothing happens. Walking is weird, too. If you slightly press forward on the L-stick, your guy will move forward slowly, as he should, but he'll still be running. And he swims like a cat in a bathtub, he's all over the place.
F.E.A.R. also has some level design 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. The game doesn't always run smoothly, especially when you're climbing down ladders, and some of the textures are surprisingly flat. The firefights are as smooth and cool as liquid mercury, though, slowing down and speeding up without a hitch, regardless of what debris or limbs were flying through the air. F.E.A.R. also 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. offers a great single player 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.
New to the Xbox 360 version is Instant Action mode. Here, you can dive into one of four timed levels, bursting with baddies, and attempt to shoot your way through as quickly and accurately as possible, and then your scores are recorded and uploaded to an online leaderboard. We'd rather blast people than compare stats with them, but Instant Action mode is still a good addition because it's just one giant fire fight after another. We like this, because months after you've beaten the game you can throw it in your Xbox 360 and blow people away without having to shuffle through save files. And trust us, this is violence worth reheating.
But is it worth sixty dollars? This is a port, afterall, and it's got a few niggling issues, yet it costs twice as much as the PC version, and the same price as brand new games like Splinter Cell: Double Agent. That new price tag on an old game gives us the willies, but we love the gunplay, the new mode, and the creepiness. If you have the cash, you have nothing to fear, but F.E.A.R. itself.