Version tested: Xbox 360
Music aficionados will know this term to refer to the song structure dynamic favoured by noiseniks down the years (think Pixies, Nirvana and beyond), where the chaos of fractured guitars and ravaged vocals gives way to contrasting sweet melodies and calm reflection. F.E.A.R adopts a similar approach in gaming terms; constantly amping up the gunplay to almost unbearable levels of intensity before giving way to quiet exploration. And back again.
But, in truth, F.E.A.R. is a game where the pressure's never really off.
It's a shooter experience where the tension of dire expectation is almost as intense as the actual combat itself. It's the perfect game for late nights, drawn blinds and low lights - much like Monolith's debut 360 effort, Condemned.
In fact, both have a lot more in common than the same developer (although to be fair, the 360 port was handled by others). Both games share the same engine, a very similar gloomy visual style and intensity, and both even manage to contrive to share a plot centred on an insane madman that's able to control the actions of a united enemy. But while Condemned encourages you to skulk slowly and silently in the shadows with a mighty iron bar and wrap it around the head of filthy tramps, F.E.A.R. encourages players to skulk silently in the shadows before unleashing a hail of bullets into the skulls of well-drilled clone soldiers. In slow motion.
Enter the Max Payne Matrix
Yes, Bullet Time is back. Stop yawning at the back. Yes, if you wanted the laziest approximation possible, it's an FPS with slow-mo, but it's so much more than that. As Tom succinctly noted in his 9/10 PC review over a year ago, "F.E.A.R. isn't a game of specific set-pieces, it's a game about making your own". Ok, it's perhaps too much of a backhanded compliment for Vivendi to stick it on the box, but it completely nails the fact that Monolith's paranormal shooter is very much a game that doesn't prescribe the fun the way that other shooters do, and that the fun you make is of the very highest calibre.
But it's also the archetypal game of two halves, and one that has been the subject of intense debate over whether it deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as the true greats of the genre. In some senses it's, without doubt, one of the best shooters ever conceived, thanks to some of the most astounding, intense and unnerving combat sequences you'll come across. Sequences that change every time you play them, and make you want to keep playing until every last clone soldier is defeated.
The first weapon up Monolith's sleeve is that the game is blessed with effective, reactive and above all unpredictable AI, and this instantly gives what could have been a standard corridor shooter the kind of unscripted excitement that's sorely lacking in rival titles. F.E.A.R. consistently pits the player against the sort of enemy that knows your weaknesses. Rather than simply appear in front, above or below you, you'll soon begin to notice how good they are at exploiting the environment. They may well start off above you, but if you skulk off into the shadows and try to merely pop out from cover now and then, forget it.
They'll flank, track back, work as a team, make decent use of cover, and radio in your position to their fellow clones. Very quickly, you'll realise they genuinely are hunting you down and willing to use very human tactics to flush you out from your hidey hole, rather than just wandering down pre-determined sentry paths. They'll spot your errant torchlight glow from afar and notice when you clatter and bang against objects, and they'll report back once they realise you've moved on. You can never, ever relax until the radio chatter is gone for good, because if you let your guard down for a second, it could be your last. Time and again, they'll second guess where you're heading to, creep up behind you from behind, lob a grenade in to force your hand, send a second set of units to approach from the front and leave you with no choice but to fight back. They're an enemy worth having, and after playing against so many shooters with insipid, boring 'duck and peep' scripted AI it feels like a true progression. It's as if Monolith took the Opposing Force enemies that enlivened the original Half-Life all those years ago, made them even more aggressive, built a host of environments tailored to show off their capabilities and essentially fashioned the entire game from there.
If this was just any old shooter, you'd genuinely struggle to cope without your slow-mo abilities. Okay, for the first few hours you can generally squeak by in real-time thanks to the ability to store up to 10 medi-packs on your person at any one time, but without the PC's cheating quick-save ability, you're forced to be a lot more skilful for concerted (but manageable) chunks of the combat. When you begin to come across enemies that are as fast as your are in slow-mo (like those cloaking Ninjas that leap from the ceiling) then you know there's no choice but to even the odds and use those oh-so-handy heightened reflexes. (Incidentally anyone who can manage to play the game on Normal difficulty or above without using slow-mo gets awarded a special achievement - but that will take supreme reserves of skill.)
Using your recharging slow-mo ability isn't just an easy means of dealing with being massively outnumbered - it gives you the perfect means of sending multiple foes to their doom in the most spectacular fashion currently possible in videogames. With some extremely impressive rag-doll animations, destructible scenery and a multitude of explosive particle effects, otherwise standard scenes of FPS carnage are instantly transformed into a balletic bloodbath, with bullets and explosions that rip apart the very fabric of space around them In so many ways that matter, F.E.A.R. looks, feels and plays like no other shooter before it. Yes, you could quite justifiably call it next generation.
And yet you could just as readily question many of the game's less celebrated elements - such as why Monolith thought it was a good idea to often set the game in bland and repetitive environments that appear to cut and paste the office/warehouse template to the game's detriment. It's not fair to say that the game's always like this, but it's enough to be noticeable. Repetition is certainly one of the key arguments used to rail against the game (and, believe me, it will be again), such as the unavoidable truth about how a significant chunk of the game pits you against the same clone enemy - the very same ones you meet at the beginning of the game. It's also a game where the storyline never grips hold of you and plays as big a part as it perhaps should, where it's hard to be truly engaged by yet another generic 'hunt down the insane bad guy' storyline, especially when the supporting characters are given so little room to impose themselves on the proceedings. Even the spooky Asian horror influences aren't used as well as they could have been. The horror interludes are all a bit like walking down Max Payne's rocky path to madness, rather than anything truly horrifying, to be fair.
F.E.A.R. tries to make up for the lack of character interaction by filling in the blanks via voice mail messages left in the many abandoned offices - but the sound quality of the voice recordings is so badly mixed (even on a high quality surround sound set-up) and sampled at such a low rate that you have to strain to hear what's being said. And even when you can discern what's being said, it often adds little colour to the narrative other than various stern warnings being from concerned staff members about the goings-on around them. Standard stuff.
So, essentially what helps the game transcend such concerns is a game with exceptionally strong combat and the promise of the occasional new weapon and new baddie to fight against. In this department, it might look a bit hit-and-miss, with a selection of standard variations on shotguns and sub-machineguns providing a solid but unspectacular base - until you see how much more fun it is when you're busy unloading them in grooooooaning slow motion and watching the explosive chaos unfold. You won't know whether to grin or grimace half the time, but your heart will want to beat out of your chest half the time. Better still is the best use of a nailgun ever seen in a videogame, literally pinning enemies to the wall and even through the head- which has to go down as one of the most satisfying ways to finish an enemy off ever. Topping even that for absolute "have some of that" impact is the terrifying and uncompromising particle ray gun that allows you to zoom in on your target and strip the flesh right off their bones in one deliciously satisfying hit. Even the obligatory rocket launcher has to take a back seat to that one.
In terms of delivering frantic, blood pumping thrills, there hasn't been a game this all-out exciting since Burnout 2 first burst onto our screens, and no-one had any problems with the repetition or storyline in that one, did they? When the core experience is this well honed, this refined, you're more than happy to forgive the repetition. The qualms over repetition are rendered meaningless waffle once it dawns on you that every single encounter plays out differently every single time.
Perhaps the only reason that F.E.A.R. hasn't had the build-up and attention it perhaps deserves is that it's only a PC port - and a PC to console port that's followed over a year after the original's release to boot. In this case, the usual pre-release mystery, hype and speculation isn't there, when the reality is that it's arguably the 360's finest shooter right now, and one that has been ported by Day 1 Studios with a great deal of care and attention. Played in high-def on a big screen set-up, it's easily the equal of the game running on a high-spec PC, albeit on a pad. And even in that sense, the transition to the 360 has been handled flawlessly, with a control set-up that's intuitive, perfectly responsive and sensibly mapped.
Visually, the game is a dazzling array of effects when the combat gets underway, but never really that amazing for the rest of the time. You always get the sense that if only Monolith had spent more time on livening up the environments that people would have warmed to the game just that little bit more. As it is, the fact that the game looks so incredible during the slow-mo combat more than makes up for any daft quibbles people might have about the wall texturing or the general repletion of the game environments. In my experience, that soon pales into the background.
As a special 'bonus' the 360 comes with an extra mission that unlocks after Mission 10 (Blindside), but it's a rather pointless ten-minute exercise in fleshing out a part of the story that didn't really require any embellishment. What it does do, though, is force players to experience what the game might have been like if you had no slow-mo abilities - which is to say frantic, skilful and dangerous!
Elsewhere, the 360 version also comes with four 'Instant Action' missions, which are essentially segments of the main campaign (with some changes, specifically the fourth one) set against the pressure of the clock. With 15 minutes to successfully clear the mission at hand (and no check points or saving allowed) you're forced into an all-or-nothing sortie where the pressure's on. Regardless of your success or failure, you're given a score at the end based on your performance (related to how many enemies killed, time taken, ammo left, etc) which is then uploaded to a worldwide leaderboard - with separate leaderboards for Moderate, Hard and Extreme difficulty modes.
But where the game really takes advantage of Xbox Live is the game's eight online multiplayer modes. With 16-player support as standard, you get the usual array of standard solo and team-based modes in the game, including perennial favourites such as Deathmatch, Capture The Flag and the one-kill-and-you're-out DM variant Elimination. Played with the more interesting weapons that F.E.A.R. offers, they're superb fun with - from our real-world playtest - little evidence of any lag-related issues to spoil the fun, although given that none of these modes support slow-mo, the single-player's key novelty factor is notable by its absence.
But where F.E.A.R. differentiates itself from the shooter herds online is the three slow-mo modes, with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch and CTF all adding a reflex booster to the map, and giving one player the added advantage of being able to slow everyone else's time down while they carry on as normal - essentially allowing them to react far quicker than anyone else. The only problem, dammit, is that the player with the booster glows blue and becomes visible on everyone's HUD. Once the person with the booster gets killed, they drop the power-up and it becomes available to pick up - and so it goes on. It's excellent, uncomplicated online fun, and certainly adds an extra incentive to continue playing long after you've cracked the 12-15 hour solo campaign.
As far as shooters go on the 360, deciding whether to buy F.E.A.R. is a simple decision to make. Stood next to its direct competitors like Call of Duty 2 and 3, Quake IV, Perfect Dark Zero and Far Cry Instincts it's leagues ahead, and there's simply no better on the 360 right now. F.E.A.R. is the 360's first shooter to score a nine on Eurogamer for the simple reason that it's such a consistently exciting game that gets the core of the experience so absolutely spot-on that most of the niggles are swiftly swept aside. Slow-mo gunplay and cunning AI don't sound like next generation ideas, but somehow Monolith combines the two so expertly that it feels more alive and more exciting than could ever seem possible. With a more exciting and varied set of environments and a more polished narrative it'd be an effortless 10 - but for now a celebratory and 9 seems entirely justified for what is easily one of the most richly entertaining action games released this year - or any other year for that matter.
9 / 10