It's perhaps not the kindest thing to say about the PS3's launch line-up, but it's undeniable - for anyone who plays PC games or has already bought into the next generation courtesy of the Xbox 360, it's looking like Sony's entry to the market is more of a chance to revisit old friends than anything else. A limited selection of exclusives in the range are bolstered by a third-party line-up that looks suspiciously like an edited showreel of the 360's greatest hits - not, perhaps, the image that the pricely wunderkind ought to be projecting at this point in time.
On the plus side, though, being able to cherry-pick some of the finest from the 360's range does mean that the PS3 will be getting some very polished (if rather familiar to many of us) games in the first weeks of its life. Among those is F.E.A.R. - a stunning first-person shooter from American developer Monolith, which combined some of the most over the top and pyrotechnic action sequences ever seen in a game with well-directed horror elements lifted from Asian films like Ring and Kairo. F.E.A.R. (which stands for First Encounter Assault Recon, the rather cumbersome and unlikely name of the military unit in the game) first spooked PC gamers back in 2005, before landing on the Xbox 360 last year; this March, it'll take a late bow on the PS3.
A Tale of Two Systems
Now that we've got beta code of the game whirring away in our debug PS3, one thing is immediately apparent - there is pretty much no major difference between the content of this version of the game and the excellent Xbox 360 version which came out last year, one obvious exception being the inclusion of a single PS3-exclusive weapon (a rapid-fire shotgun which is a rather nice room clearer, but comes at the cost of the Xbox 360 exclusive weapon, namely dual SN15 machine pistols).
Like the Xbox 360 version, the content is the same as the 2005 PC game, bar one extra level which reveals a previously untold part of the story through the eyes of a Delta Squad member whose team gets smeared all over the walls before the arrival of the main character. As with the weapons mentioned above, each next-gen console gets its own exclusive version of this level, so in the PS3 port you'll play as a different member of the Delta Force squad and experience events from yet another perspective. There's also a console-specific "instant action" mode which drops you into a level and allows you to get blasting away without any regard for the storyline - instead, the whole thing is on a timer, so the emphasis is on rushing through, taking out the bad guys and getting great stats in the detailed end-of-level statistics page.
Aside from that, what you'll find in the PS3 version of the game is no different from the game that's been around for two years - F.E.A.R. is very much a direct port (it was actually developed alongside the Xbox 360 version). The exclusive weapon and level are nice bonus content, but almost certainly not enough to entice even the most dedicated fan of F.E.A.R. on another platform into a purchase. As such it's solely going to be of interest to people who don't own a gaming PC or Xbox 360, and haven't played the game in the time since its launch.
To those people, it almost goes without saying that F.E.A.R. is shaping up to be an incredibly attractive prospect. The PC game was a high watermark for first-person shooters, with a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, brilliant level design, spectacular set-pieces, pleasingly chunky and powerful weapons and enough sparks, flames, explosions and general mayhem to keep even the most dedicated action game fan happy for weeks. The console port of the game, as evidenced by last year's Xbox 360 version, transplanted the game extremely effectively onto a television-and-joypad setup, with well-balanced controls, good multiplayer support and the clever inclusion of the instant action mode. It's not for nothing that Eurogamer awarded it a richly deserved 9/10, in spite of protests that it was a year-old PC port; it remains one of the best games around on any system, frankly.
Fear the Future
Playing through the early chapters of F.E.A.R. again on PS3, we're reminded of how bloody brilliant the game is when it really gets into its stride - even on a second play-through, it's still a hugely entertaining experience, and the sparing but effective use of horror movie techniques is still fresh, interesting, and largely unrivalled within the genre. Although the code we're playing is beta standard, and there are noticeable bugs and problems remaining, the framerate is pretty solid even when taking on multiple enemies and making lots of things blow up at once - with some final tweaks, it should hopefully run very smoothly on the PS3, although that's really the least you'd expect from a game which is, after all, almost two years old now.
That aspect is one which does show through to some extent; while F.E.A.R. does look great, some of the environments are rather low-detail compared to more recent games, and new PS3 owners expecting this to showcase the power of their new toy will be sorely disappointed - next to games like Gears of War, F.E.A.R. is starting to look a bit dated on the visual front, even if it more than holds its own in terms of pure gameplay and entertainment. Perhaps the biggest graphical disappointment, though, is that F.E.A.R. doesn't support 1080p in the current code - not something that will bother too many people given the paucity of 1080p displays out there, but still a shame given that PCs have been able to run in the game in resolutions that high for at least a year now.
One thing prospective PS3 owners will be pleased to hear is that the multiplayer support of the game is present and correct, and while we weren't actually able to try out the online multiplayer on our beta version, the range of options and features available in multiplayer looks exactly the same as it does on the Xbox 360. The primary strength of F.E.A.R. is its superb single-player mode, but the multiplayer mode on PC and 360 was fast-paced, entertaining and brilliantly over the top, so it's good to see it making the transition to the PlayStation 3's network intact.
On the downside, we're not entirely convinced by the control system adopted by the game. Aside from the peculiar decision to assign firing to R2 in all of the control configurations (we ended up finding the one which placed the least potentially lethal option on R1, after a few too many embarrassing self-grenading incidents), the game also highlights the dead zone problem of the PS3 pad - which is far less noticeable on the Sixaxis than it was on the Dual Shock 2, but continues to pose a slight problem when manoeuvring in FPS games, often forcing the user to over-compensate and hence overshoot their target. It's something which developers can overcome with a bit of tweaking (as demonstrated by games such as Resistance: Fall of Man), so hopefully the team working on the PS3 port at Day 1 Studios will spend some time on that. While they're at it, it might be nice to reduce the complexity of the control layout by moving the vital-but-annoying controls for leaning from side to side off the D-pad and onto the Sixaxis' motion sensors - leaning by tilting the pad is a shoe-in for motion sensing, and it's disappointing that F.E.A.R. doesn't seem to take advantage of this aspect of the PS3 at all.
Whether you want to interpret F.E.A.R.'s appearance on the PS3 as a sign of weakness in the line-up, or as an opportunity for a new group of people to get their hands on a bloody brilliant game, is entirely up to you. For our part, the glass is definitely half-full on this one. F.E.A.R. is one of our favourite games of the last two years, and we're delighted to see it being ported competently to yet another platform; the more people that get to experience it, the better, frankly. Aside from the minor niggles outlined above, F.E.A.R. is shaping up very well on PS3 - and while all eyes should be on the prospects for a proper sequel to the game, anyone planning to pick up a PS3 early in its lifespan really should add this to their watchlist.