It’s a title that needs to be pronounced in slow, gravely tones, like the sound of a gravestone being dragged across shattered bones. Feeeeeaaaaaarrrr…
But you can’t say it like that; note the full stops. F.E.A.R actually stands for First Encounter Assault Recon, which is apparently a branch of the
Well, anyway. You play a guy who’s job it is to shoot other guys. Sadly you’re not blessed with anything so conventional as a name, presumably because the developers wanted players to imprint bits of their own personality onto him in a misguided effort to “connect”, as well as implying some sort of (sigh) MYSTERIOUS PAST. Considering that the entire scope of character interactions throughout the entire game consists of shooting at some guys and occasionally pressing some buttons though, it’s an utter waste of time. Personally I imagined my guy as looking a little bit like Buddy Holly, because the poor sap cursed with being your boss is limited to referring to you as “Buddy” because he doesn’t know your name either. Don’t military types at least get a callsign these days?
I guess Buddy must be some sort of social outcast because the aforementioned commander is pretty much the only (non-psychotic) person willing to talk to him. And even these communications are kept to a strict, taciturn minimum. Commander Betters (the wobbly-voiced blond kid from South Park) is ostensibly along for the ride by issuing orders over the radio, but chips in so rarely that I frequently forgot he was even there, so a sudden quip from him made me jump as much as anything else in the game.
Now admittedly I have precisely zero real-life experience of military life but I imagine that Betters’s job description as field commander would include something to the effect of “tactical support”, but he shows utter indifference to the amount of peril you have to go through all day, and chimes in to tell you that you’re about to go out of radio contact with the simmering sense of relief you’d expect from a jilted lover turned co-worker. Maybe I’m reading too much into it.
With a title like F.E.A.R you’d be within your rights to expect some occasional horror, and the game is happy to oblige on this front, provided you’re happy with it being “occasional”. I was not happy with this, because whenever the game’s not trying to be scary it’s an incredibly tiresome shooter with identikit enemies who go one further than most FPSs by actually being clones. These body-armoured dullards are purportedly in the thrall of a psychic commander which presumably accounts for their amazing inability while your own weapons seem content to shoot at pretty much anything else at all. Maybe they’re possessed as well.
But back to the scary bits. I’ve been skirting around them so far which is rather unfair because they’re pretty much the only parts where the game pokes it’s head above the parapets of mediocrity. Having a base mental state best described as “a little bit funny”, Buddy starts seeing and hearing all sorts of things which probably aren’t there. Usually this is either the aforementioned psychic baddie or the game’s ubiquitous spooky little girl Alma, who occasionally turns up to say boo.
The developers seem very keen to point out how their game has a more advanced sort of scary than all those others, but no matter how hard they may protest it really is just more monsters jumping out of the closet. It’s shocks rather than scares, and frankly Thief: Deadly Shadows shames it in every way.
And while the parts which are genuinely pant-dampeningly terrifying are easily the highest of highlights in the game, they don’t occur nearly frequently enough to make F.E.A.R genuinely recommendable. The version I played had a slew of bonus content including a live-action “prequel” video which rips off the River Tam Sessions from Serenity, and there’s about as much narrative and atmospheric content in that short 5-minute clip as is contained in the entire game. The rest of the time you’re just blasting away.
The game seems to exist in a binary state; if it’s not scary, it’s shooty, and proper moments of reprieve, those bits that make Half-Life 2 work so well, are too few and far between. It gets too predictable too fast if you know that once the enemies stop turning up, something spooky is about to happen, and if you know you’re about to be scared, it becomes far, far less scary.
Level design is turgid at best, seemingly afraid of using any angle not divisible by 90, which helps to make the tediously repetitive gunfights only more so. It’s worth mentioning that the big gimmicks here are the ability to slow time and kick people, but the latter is utterly redundant because by the time you close to kicking range you’ve generally had all your health shot off, and the former is so necessary in order to actually get a clean shot off it becomes habit, and I soon found I was turning it on for every single kill.
I’m having a hard time trying to recommend F.E.A.R. FPS fans will probably find the combat more tolerable but the sudden change of pace whenever you come across the scary bits might be jarring. Horror fans, or at least anyone who wants a bit of actual atmosphere in their games, will go wanting in a desert of repetitive, tiring gunplay.