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.