F.E.A.R.

Wave of mutilation.

Loud-Quiet-Loud.

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

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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.

"He's flanking!"

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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.

Horror, hurrah

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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.

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