What happens when you combine first-rate AI with supernatural horror?
F.E.A.R., or First Encounter Assault Recon, sought to innovate the FPS and horror genres. To do so, they developed a nifty artificial intelligence (AI) for NPCs, which allowed for reasonably intelligent enemies and intense encounters. In addition, Monolith Productions – the developer of F.E.A.R. – created cleverly scripted terror in the shape of a small child named Alma. During its initial release in 2005, F.E.A.R. was well received and enjoyed by most critics; but how does it hold up today?
The first thing you’ll notice about F.E.A.R. is your silent protagonist, known only as Point Man. Together with your small First Encounter Squad – Janikowski and Jin – you seek out the wanted Paxton Fettel. Unfortunately for you and your squad, Fettel is a highly trained telepathic commander and has powered on super soldiers in an effort to conquer the Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC). The story revolves around Point Man’s journey to kill Fettel, unraveling a terrifying narrative in the process when Alma reveals herself and liquefies Point Man’s backup. Somehow, you survive.
Gameplay in F.E.A.R. was solid but varied based on your platform. This review will focus on the PC version (the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions suffered from awful port controls). F.E.A.R.’s shooter aspects bring little innovation to the genre; Point Man finds a series of weapons that gradually increase in power as he progresses through his adventure. Shooting was fairly crisp for 2005, and the AI utilized strategies and a higher intelligence that most players hadn’t experienced yet. Where F.E.A.R.’s shooter elements shined was during reflex time, a period of time where Point Man’s reflexes became enhanced. During reflex time, Point Man’s speed increased a thousandfold, and he is capable of dodging bullets, sprinting to or from combat, and pumping an exponentially larger amount of ammo into Fettel’s super soldiers (or ATC’s officers).
But in retrospect, the combat in F.E.A.R. didn’t have to be spectacular. For me, F.E.A.R. was a masterpiece due to its craftsmanship of the eerie atmosphere and the believability of its world. I find few games, movies, novels, or any medium of horror to be less than frightening. Jump scares are little more than shock value and are usually a cheap scare. While F.E.A.R. certainly makes use of jump scares (though these are at least well scripted and few enough where you’re not sure when Alma will say hello), Monolith Productions built a world where Alma thrives. The atmosphere of Armacham and the surrounding city and buildings reek of Alma and the presence of Fettel’s super soldiers – whether it be in the form of bloody corpses, poltergeist objects, or the whisperings of a child.
What draws me back to F.E.A.R. – outside, of course, of the grand narrative and excellent atmosphere – is the aesthetics. There’s something special in my heart of nostalgia that loves the visuals of F.E.A.R. The character models are outdated, should we view them presently (though they’re not necessarily bad); for its time, F.E.A.R. looked pretty good. But what really stuck with me was the setting and scenery. I love(d) wandering the halls of Armacham in between action sequences. There was a stark realism there for me; I loved seeing the Dell XPS computers with late 90’s screensavers; I loved listening to phone messages – the ones not pertaining to the mystery of the narrative; I loved looking out of the windows to find a city alight in the night skies. For me, these are the reasons why I return to F.E.A.R. routinely.
In its day, F.E.A.R. came with a multiplayer function. If you found a game, the multiplayer was mediocre. F.E.A.R. brought little innovation to multiplayer, consisting of modes like deathmatch or capture the flag, which had already been established by prior shooters. In Monolith’s defense, a few game modes incorporated the reflex power up, making for an interesting set of matches. Otherwise, the game gave players its adequate gunplay in interesting settings, but it offered nothing new in the way of multiplayer, and soon found itself abandoned for other, more established MP.
To play F.E.A.R. for the first time in 2016 may be a struggle, but it’s one that I highly recommend you squirm through – and then hunt out its sequels and spin-offs (Perseus Mandate and Extraction Point are technically not canon). But F.E.A.R., in retrospect, was still a tremendous achievement of its time, and remains today as one of my favorite FPS games of all time.