For a while now, Monolith has been getting screwed when it comes to delivering great games that simply don't sell. The release of the instant classic No One Lives Forever (and its equally great sequel) proved to reviewers out there that these guys have what it takes to make a top-quality game, even if the gamers out there never even found out what the hell a "NOLF" is. Well, the guys behind both of those titles have decided to move on to a completely new property, and in the realm of first person shooters, it's pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum.
F.E.A.R. was described to me as taking the action of The Matrix and the horror from The Ring and then mashing that into a cinematic first person shooter. That's pretty close to my impression, although this description doesn't address the many unique strengths (and weaknesses) that F.E.A.R. exhibits. This game is not a ripoff of anything, and while it borrows from popular media in making its gameplay mechanics work, it comes together very nicely. It also borrows from Half-Life 2 in that the entire game, other than the first cutscene, is viewed from the point of view of your character. In fact, they go a bit further than Valve Software did by not only giving your character no voice, but no real identity either.
During development of the game, Monolith was very reluctant to give out any information about F.E.A.R.'s story. Now that I've played it, I understand why, and I will hold to the same ideal. The best I can say is that you're an operative in a government-run military organization called First Encounter Assault Recon (yes, F.E.A.R. for short) and you've got superhuman combat skills. Your group specifically is targeted towards supernatural occurences, and in this game you'll come across plenty of that stuff - it's full of creepy moments and chilling story elements. You'll start off tracking a crazed military man who has mastered psychic control of a battalion of trained soldiers. The story's of course quite a bit more complicated than that, and you'll see that it actually has many intriguing twists - but at the start, you have almost nothing to work with.
What you do have, though, is a flashlight that can be turned on separately from your weapons. You're going to need it, too - F.E.A.R. in many areas gets just as dark as DOOM 3 did. While the game doesn't use the dark to make things jump out at you whenever the lights do go back on, what it does is increase the tension. This way, when something does pop out at you (whether it's in a well-lit room or not) you're going to be more prone to a big scare. Overall this works pretty well, even if we've seen this tactic before in many horror games.
The combat in F.E.A.R. must be mentioned specifically because the designers have done their best to bless gunfights with impressive visuals that only get better as more bullets fly. The inclusion of a bullet-time-style mode called Reflex mode feels a bit gimmicky when you first try it out, but as you explore how both you and how your enemies fight, you'll realize that Reflex mode is a necessary skill for survival. And it's an ability you'll have in abundance, as your store of Reflex energy is not only expandable with new powerups you pick up, but it also refills fairly quickly over short periods of time.
The weapons you'll have access to here are immensely powerful and extremely satisfying to fire, and if your aim's true, you can score a lot of one-hit kills even with the starting pistol. You'll need to be able to kill quickly, too, as your enemies use possibly some of the smartest AI ever seen in a shooter. These guys will flush you out with grenades if they have the numbers, get behind you, push from both sides, cover each other when one's taking fire, and just all-around make it harder for you to kill them by way of using brains rather than brawn. They can retreat when outgunned or camp behind a box waiting for you to poke your nose out, lean around corners to expose as little of themselves as possible, and communicate with eachother on your whereabouts.
What this amounts to is an excellent style of combat where you'll need to keep an eye on the enemies you can see, as well as a brain cell tracking where the ones you can't see might be going. And when they pop up behind you (as most combat areas give them a chance to flank you), it's immensely gratifying to switch to that shotgun, turn on Reflex mode, spin around and blow them apart at the waist with a beautifully rendered shot from the hip. And the best part is that you can do the same fight a dozen times and still have fun the thirteenth, because each time it's always at least a little different.
It's not all blowing away commandos and chewing bubblegum, though, because there are some serious horror elements in F.E.A.R. that borrow heavily from Japanese horror films. Not the least of which is the little girl with the long black hair (which is quickly becoming a staple in Japanese scare flicks) who will pop up and scare the bejeesus out of you, even though there are plenty of other ways that the game will make you jump or cause your skin to crawl. This is augmented with excellent pacing that keeps you guessing and beautiful, scary-as-hell ambient sound that really makes you wonder what's around the next corner.
F.E.A.R.'s soundtrack is largely minimalist with only hints of music, while rest is a large array of ambient sounds. The voice acting is very solid and fits in with the rest of the soundscape nicely. And when it comes to gunfights, that's where the sound really hits you. Combat has rarely sounded so satisfying, as every weapon has great punch and your enemies buckle and scream in convincing ways. And once the smoke and dust (literally! - in most firefights, you'll see plenty of smoke and dust left over that slowly dissipates) clears, you'll know there was a big fight there. Actual chunks of walls and colums can be taken out, and debris from explosions is left everywhere.
All this said, I've got some serious concerns about F.E.A.R.. The first is that the horror elements are part of the story and generally don't play into the combat; rarely does your character come into any actual danger (well, danger that you can avoid as the player) during these scenes. It kind of feels like the story and the action are two separate pieces that fit together nicely, but do little to create a single cohesive experience.
Next, the environments are just nowhere near diverse enough. You've got the derelict industrial areas, beat up urban corridors, and deserted office buildings, and that's really about it. While this would be fine with enough variation and originality in level design, most rooms are pretty nondescript and there are many useless hallways and useless areas in these environments. Since the path through each level is pretty linear, the overall feel I got of the maps was that just not enough time was spent on them.
Finally, the story encompasses a host of cloned soldiers controlled by an insane commander, and while these troops use a variety of weapons, no enemies have any distinct personalities (a huge contrast to what we saw through the voice acting in Monolith's previous NOLF games). It makes fighting the same guys over and over pretty tiring, even though the actual fighting is still very satisfying and fun. Sure, there are some new and tougher enemies later on in the game, but they're mostly underused and the developers seem to have dropped back to using their basic soldier far too often.
Multiplayer modes in F.E.A.R. consist of a pretty industry-standard set of deathmatch, team DM, and capture the flag games. The incredible graphics that make up the game's combat has made it over in its entirety for the mulitplayer modes, and while the depth of the actual gameplay is lacking when compared to multiplayer-oriented titles like Battlefield 2, it's still not bad at all. Many aspects of the single player game are here in the multiplayer modes, including Reflex mode - which will slow time down for everyone, and is activatable by whoever has the ability at that moment. When you kill the guy who's got the ability, then it moves from him to you so that you can slow down time when it's convenient for you.
Despite my complaints, F.E.A.R. is still a very enjoyable game. But you've got to really be into both the horror parts and the visually stylish gunfights to really get your money's worth out of this game. The single player campaign will last you about ten to twelve hours, and while the multiplayer mode includes many of the great features of single player, it doesn't include enough game modes or maps to really keep you playing for more than maybe a week.
Frankly, I kind of expected more from the masterminds behind the No One Lives Forever series. While F.E.A.R. is by no means a bad game, the separation of horror elements from its heart-pumping action (with only a thread of admittedly great story actually holding both together) make the experience partially disappointing. But if you're looking for fantastic action and a good scare or creep-out mixed in, then F.E.A.R.'s dingy and abandoned alleys, rooftops, and office complexes will certainly satisfy.