First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R. from now on) tries to be multiple things at once – a first person shooter (FPS) with a gimmick, a horror title, and a technology showpiece – and does a competent job, which is probably why some have claimed it’s the best FPS of all time. F.E.A.R. is far from the greatest FPS of all time, but it is a blast to play (especially in the dark) and combines that helplessness of being outnumbered and the rush of taking on those odds without so much as a scratch to show for it. The horror elements are more of a thematic tone for the minutiae, but the proper use of shadows, lighting, and occasional jump scares do help to justify it all. That and the two main antagonists, Paxton Fettel and Alma, do a fantastic job of creeping you out and making you dread the eventual encounter with either or both of them. Visually, especially on the PC, this title can go up against a decent number of today’s shooters and impress, so naturally it was a showpiece when it premiered in 2005. Put it all together and you get a game that shouldn’t be ignored.
The F.E.A.R. team is a fictional spec ops group that works in tandem with Delta Force – a real military group – to handle special situations like the ones faced in the game. You play as Point Man (who’s name is withheld), the leader of F.E.A.R., which is most likely not a long lasting career because you are tasked with leading the assault along with cohorts Spen and Jin. A terrorist named Paxton Fettel has broken into a tech company named Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC in the game) and taken control of the genetically engineered super soldiers they were developing. As you progress through the game there are several encounters with Fettel that include his psychic abilities, apparent links with you, and his cannibalistic nature that also happens to consume the victim’s memories. Not only that, but a little girl named Alma appears to be roaming about the facility and her powers can cause…quite a mess. While there is a creepy supernatural story that unfolds as you progress through F.E.A.R., the brunt of the game’s overstretched 10-12 hour campaign will be corridor shooting and kill box ambushes against unfair odds to progress through what is quite possibly the largest building I’ve ever seen. To its credit the writing is good and distributes just enough information in an easily digestible and upfront fashion that when the twist hits at the end and the subsequent roller coaster of the epilogue, you know exactly what’s going on and why it’s significant. Also stay tuned after the credits for a bit more back story.
In 2005 there were more than enough FPS titles to choose from and most of them were military shooters like F.E.A.R., so naturally the game needed a gimmick. Fortunately for developer Monolith, the gimmick of slowing down time to essentially allow your character to make judgment calls and aim accuracy that is seemingly impossible, was quite an effective one. When you play even a short demo of the game, few encounters can be effectively handled without slowing down time, especially when you consider this is a health/armor system without regenerative health so every bullet you are hit with counts. Slowing down time to have pinpoint accuracy or the ability to blow away a pack of enemies while running in circles around them is not only a great way to take on groups, but it makes you feel overpowered. Given that this ability is finite, although it does slowly recharge, can provide a balance to the one-sided nature of battle; however, the game’s hide happy AI will give you plenty of opportunity to fall back and wait for a full recharge. That’s not to say F.E.A.R. is unbalanced in favor of the player, because there are plenty of encounters throughout the game – especially as you near the conclusion – that are downright unfair and take a mix of ability and luck to overcome regardless of special abilities.
Probably the easiest way to get your hands on this game is on Steam (PC) where it is consistently going on sale (although not at this moment), is compatible with modern day systems while also having low enough requirements that most contemporary machines can run it at the highest settings, and includes the expansion packs Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate. If PC is not an option, you can also pick this title up on 360 or PS3, but keep in mind the expansion packs are a separate title on 360 (F.E.A.R. Files) and not available on PS3 – although full disclosure I have not yet played either of these packs and probably won’t for some time, so it’s not exactly a deal breaker. Regardless of where you play it, F.E.A.R. looks good, however I find it to look exceptional on the PC. Details like dynamic lighting and shadows play with the player’s perception and contribute to the eerie atmosphere of the ATC office building. Additionally the graphic depictions of what has happened to the unfortunate workers and soldiers that came in contact with Fettel, Alma, or ATC super soldiers is presented with so much detail it felt uncomfortable to look at for more than a few seconds. I was surprised how the game kept track of fallen bodies, bullet holes, shattered glass, and arterial blood spray as I went on. I’m not sure if each of your victims in the console version painted the walls like they do in the PC port, but I’m betting they do and it’s an impressive touch.
When you put it all together F.E.A.R. is a title that has easily withstood the test of time in the 9 years since its release. Fans of the FPS genre should give this first title a go if only to see if you find the slowdown mechanic worthwhile and fun, because that is easily the biggest draw to playing the single player component of the second and third title. Sadly the multiplayer component has been brought offline by both WB and eventually Gamespy, but for those who want experience the multiplayer that has equally defied the obstacles in its way, fear-community.org provides a free version of the MP along with a master server and support to start your own server. It’s an interesting mix of fresh blood and nine year veterans from the look of things, but since competitive shooters have never been a strong spot for me and I found this game more difficult than most FPS campaigns, I decided to steer clear of what is a blatant hardcore community. Despite the repetitive nature and elongated campaign that outstays its welcome for about 25 percent of the content, F.E.A.R. was an excellent weekend play in the dark to kick off my month of horror games.
Final Score: 4 out of 5 (Review Policy and scoring system)