F.E.A.R. for PC Review

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F.E.A.R. came out when I was in high school and I remember being somewhat excited for it. I would look at screen shots every so often and remember thinking there was something different about the action. It had a cool factor and I really wanted to try it. I eventually obtained a copy but it ran like shit on my low-end laptop at the time. Years later, I acquired the 360 version but I think I got lost or stuck and simply gave up but remember being intrigued by the Instant Action mode. Developed by Monolith Productions, F.E.A.R. was released for PC in October, 2005, Xbox 360 in October, 2006, and PlayStation 3 in April, 2007. For this review, I played the PC version along with both expansions, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate. Clearly inspired by action films, F.E.A.R. is an action horror title that centers on the player uncovering the mystery behind a supernatural menace.

The main story revolves around the events of psychic commander Paxton Fettel who goes rogue and commands an army of cloned Replica Soldiers which were developed by the military contractor, Armacham Technology Corporation, abbreviated as ATC. In response to the crisis, a special unit known as F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is deployed to eliminate Fettel. The protagonist is the unnamed Point Man of the unit and it’s hinted early on that he has extraordinary reflexes. As he chases down Fettel, he witnesses unexplained paranormal events including some life-threating hallucinations, all of which seem be related to a little girl in a red dress named Alma that appears from time to time.

The horror in F.E.A.R. is very effective and one of the reasons why is because of how the story is presented. You’re never overloaded with information so you can discover things as you progress. You don’t really know what’s going on other than what you’re told but you can learn more about what led up to the crisis by accessing laptops and listening to voicemails on phones found in the environments. The plot does a great job at keeping the player engaged. Unfortunately, the expansions aren’t as gripping mainly because the mystery is already revealed, assuming the player beat the main story first. They’re also not canon. The sequel disregards the storylines.

The story in Extraction Point begins right where the main plot leaves off. After the F.E.A.R. unit’s helicopter crashes, the team must make their way to an extraction point. That’s the gist of it. The plot feels more like an excuse to give the player more of F.E.A.R.’s action horror gameplay. Perseus Mandate definitely contains the more interesting story out of the two. Set during the events of the main story, the plot centers on a different F.E.A.R. unit who are deployed to another Armacham facility after one of the company’s employees were killed by their own security. The protagonist is the unnamed Sergeant of the unit and on their mission to investigate the company and any wrongdoing it’s involved in, they encounter a mercenary group known as the Nightcrawlers who are searching for the genetic template from which the replica soldiers were created.

Being an action horror game, F.E.A.R. excels at the two most important things it should excel at – action and horror. I should clarify the main story excels at these things. The expansions, not as much. They do excel at action but the horror isn’t as effective. One reason why is because of the storylines as mentioned earlier. Another reason why is because of the action.

Both protagonists can perform the same functions. Entering Slow-Mo is the standout mechanic in F.E.A.R. When in SlowMo, time slows down for a brief time and you can enter it at the press of a button. Scattered around the environments are weapons, medkits, ammo, and health and reflex boosters which will permanently increase your health and reflex or Slow-Mo time respectively. You can perform a variety of melee attacks but getting close to enemies is usually not ideal. Thankfully, the game gives you plenty of cool weapons ranging from traditional firepower to more interesting stuff.

The gunplay in F.E.A.R. is phenomenal. All weapons have nice a kick to them and you can turn foes into gibs, splatter their blood on surfaces, blow off body parts, and send bodies flying. Bullets will tear up the environments and objects, particles, and sparks will go flying, and firefights can result in dust and smoke filling the air making it hard to see. The shotgun is one my favorite weapons simply because it can turn bodies into a cloud of blood. As you progress, you’ll find some of the cooler weapons the game has to offer like the Multi-Rocket Launcher, Penetrator, Repeating Cannon, and Particle Weapon, one of the greatest weapons in the game. It fires energy bolts that can turn enemies into skeletons.

The storylines in the expansions may not be as compelling as the main plot but the excellent action is carried over and I would even go as far to say that the new weapons, alone, make them worth playing through. I love them all. Extraction Point adds in deployable turrets, a minigun and a Laser Carbine. Perseus Mandate features all the weapons from the base game and Extraction Point and adds in a grenade launcher, Advanced Rifle, and Lighting Arc Weapon which, as the name implies, fires lightning.

F.E.A.R. is a great shooter and action game for a variety of reasons and what makes it an effective action horror title is balance. The balance of action and horror is almost perfect and the two elements are always complimenting each other. That’s what makes it all work. The plot only tells what you need to know when you need to know it, much of the horror is subtle, enemies are smart and dangerous, and the atmosphere is creepy. You’ll see things inexplicably move, hear voices, lights will flicker, and dead bodies and blood can be found around the environments. That’s the subtle horror. Things won’t be jumping out at you every five seconds. As a result, any kind of jump scare is usually earned. What’s great about the subtle stuff is that none of it is shoved in your face. It just happens as your moving through the environments and you can easily miss some things if you’re not paying attention. A few violent and gory sequences and hallucinations are the only types of horror that are forced upon you. They’re basically scripted events and they don’t occur often enough to be annoying. All the horror is implemented in a way to keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

The horror in the expansions is not as effective because they don’t have the same balance. The gameplay seems to lean more towards action. That’s not to stay the campaigns are not creepy in any way but I think the horror is overshadowed by all the action. The main campaign is paced so that firefights don’t occur around every corner. They become more frequent as you progress but they’re not predictable and are small in scale. The expansions are shorter and firefights are more frequent. Furthermore, they’re larger in scale and go on for longer. As a result, all the action diminishes some of the horror. Regardless, there are some really awesome firefights in these campaigns, especially Perseus Mandate. You’ll often be accompanied by friendlies in this campaign and when two enemies factions are going at it and then your team is thrown into the mix, battles become memorably chaotic and fun.

F.E.A.R. features a decent variety of enemies. You’ll face armored foes, unmanned aerial vehicles, and Replica Assassins which are quick and agile and can partially cloak themselves. You’ll also face Alma Nightmares from time to time. All these enemies are unique because they have a gimmick and they also don’t appear as often as the more common foes which are easily the most enjoyable enemies to engage. These include Replica Soldiers, ATC forces, and in Perseus Mandate, the Nightcrawlers. All of these enemies showcase the game’s artificial intelligence which is still amazing and impressive to this day.

Even if you know very little about programming and/or the design of artificial intelligence in general, you should still be able to see that the AI in F.E.A.R. is something to behold. And on the surface, it’s because the AI in most other shooters is average at best. Sure, there are some exceptions, the Covenant AI in Halo is one, but based on experience, I would say the AI in most shooters is usually not that intelligent. As a result, the well above average AI in F.E.A.R. is very noticeable. The same enemies will always appear in the same areas but no firefight will ever play out the same. Enemies will not only shoot at you and throw grenades but also communicate with each other, use suppressive fire, take cover when under fire, push over large objects to use as cover, lean around corners, verbally react to situations, they’ll take different routes to flank and surprise you, climb ladders, jump through windows, and vault over railings.

At this point in time, after all these years, with all the advancements in technology and the developments made in the gaming world, I feel like artificial intelligence has been neglected. I say “neglected” because F.E.A.R. and even some games that came before it clearly show that above average AI can be accomplished and implemented successfully. I’m sure there’s a variety of reasons as to why developers don’t focus on improving it but I do think a lot of shooters would benefit from better AI. So when I come across a game that has good AI like F.E.A.R., I’m always intrigued.

After doing a little research, I learned the AI was implemented by Jeff Orkin, an engineer at Monolith Productions during the time they were developing F.E.A.R. The game uses an architecture called Goal-Oriented Action Planning (GOAP) which and I quote “is specifically designed for real-time control of autonomous character behavior in games”. He actually has a website that goes into detail on how this architecture works and I would recommend checking it out if you’re at all interested.

Now I’m going to circle back to what makes F.E.A.R. an effective action horror title. The great balance of action and horror. One of the reasons the action is so effective is because of the good AI. You’ll always be outnumbered and the challenge doesn’t come from spongey enemies (although there are some of those). It comes from their accuracy and intelligence. They can shoot you from a good distance and they won’t hesitate to flush you out with grenades. Furthermore, they can flank you so you really need to be mindful of your surroundings. Staying in one spot and repeatedly popping in and out of cover to get shots off doesn’t always guarantee safety. They can and will rush you if they have the opportunity.

The smart AI makes the enemies dangerous and that compliments the horror. Common enemies actually pose a threat which makes them somewhat terrifying. They aren’t scary in the visual sense, it’s their intelligence that you should fear. They don’t follow a set movement or attack pattern and they won’t just randomly stand out in the open during a firefight. They’re unpredictable. In the main story, they always appear in small squads. You take out one and you’ll often hear another react and call for backup. Their radio chatter is always loud and clear and you can often hear them before you spot them but many times you won’t know how many are actually in the area. They will run to cover and when firefights result in a lot of smoke in the air, that’s when shit gets intense because it’s harder to see and you might not know where the enemies are and then they get the jump on you and take you down.

One thing I like about F.E.A.R. is the realistic and rather mundane locations. They help make the action stand out more. Other than the hallucination sequences, you won’t be engaging enemies in any what I would consider exotic areas. A good chunk of the base game takes place at Armacham Headquarters which contains a bunch of offices. It gave me Die Hard vibes. You’ll also move around a Wastewater Treatment Plant and Apartment Complex. The expansions will take you through a Church, Hospital, Subway, Warehouse District, Tunnels, Sewers, Trainyard, and you’ll get to engage enemies in more outdoor locations. In general, the environments in the base game are more claustrophobic than those in the expansions. I think the smaller areas with smaller squads work better because they make for more tense situations.

I can’t talk about the environments in F.E.A.R. without talking about how repetitive they are especially in the base game. It’s easily the game’s biggest problem. You’ll move through a lot of similar looking basement and office areas. The environments are linear but often contain branching paths and multiple routes to destinations and they all tend to look and feel the same making it easy to get turned around and lost. The expansions feature more diverse locations, some of which do get a bit repetitive but it’s usually not long before you move to a new area.

F.E.A.R. does come with a multiplayer component but the servers were shut down some time ago. At some point, the multiplayer component was released for free and as far as I know, it’s still supported by the community. The console version of the game does come with some additional content like a new weapon and the Instant Action mode which I actually really enjoyed when I played the game on Xbox 360 years ago. The mode consists of several maps that pit you against numerous enemies and the goal is to survive and reach the end before time runs out and your scored based on your performance. The closest we get to Instant Action on PC is the bonus missions in Perseus Mandate. These are unlocked after beating the campaign and the goal of each mission is to survive and progress to the end.

For its time, F.E.A.R. was a visually impressive game. It runs on the Jupiter EX engine which is a codename for what was, at the time, the latest iteration of Monolith’s LithTech engine. F.E.A.R. features physics, parallax mapping, volumetric lighting, and other advanced effects that were impressive in 2005. For the most part, it still holds up visually. The presentation is very slick and I think the visual effects still remain impressive and watching the chaotic explosive action in Slow-Mo is still cool. On the audio side, the action is accompanied by a lot of moody and ambient tunes that perfectly fit the dark tone of the game. And I find the main tune that’s heard at various parts in the game to be haunting. Music is utilized very well. It doesn’t play all the time, sometimes you’ll hear more creepy and ambient stuff and then the more dramatic tunes kick in during encounters. As for the sound effects, all of the weapons sound powerful and I really enjoyed the Replica radio chatter. They’re very vocal during firefights and I simply enjoy listening to them scream and shout. When they panic, it’s both humorous and satisfying.

I did play the Steam version and running this maxed out on a modern system and keeping it stable did require some tweaking. I would recommend consulting the game’s PCGamingWiki page to see what tweaks and adjustments you may want to make. For one thing, enabling soft shadows will have no effect if Full Sreen Anti-Aliasing (FSAA) is enabled but there are ways to get around it. I used an SMAA Injector. Do keep in mind some methods may have a negative impact on performance. For some reason Extraction Point doesn’t come with any widescreen resolution options in-game so I had to edit the configuration file to get it to run in widescreen. The expansions do seem more unstable than the base game. Both would crash or freeze when loading new areas and more often in Extraction Point. Sometimes I would get kicked to the main menu and was greeted with a “disconnected from server” message. I also noticed these expansions seemed much brighter than the base game on the default gamma setting. Finally, the frame rate would sporadically tank in both expansions which I resolved by exiting and relaunching.

F.E.A.R. is an all around excellent title. A classic. I would consider it one of the greatest shooters ever made. It’s the kind of game that does everything it aims to do very well. The story is engaging, the horror is effective and the action and gunplay are exciting and fun. Even if you’re not a fan of the horror genre, F.E.A.R. is still worth playing for the action alone and the gameplay still holds up. The expansions may not be canon or as captivating as the base game but they offer the same great action and even though it kind of overshadows the horror in these campaigns, it’s just so much fun so I didn’t care. The action in F.E.A.R. is very flashy and there’s substance to it. Firefights are more than just an exchange of bullets and explosions. They’re actually intense and force you to think on your feet. The AI in F.E.A.R. is incredible, even today, and I feel it should have set precedent for the first-person shooter genre.

I would absolutely recommend F.E.A.R. to anyone. It does a lot of things right and is brilliant in terms of design. It’s engaging, atmospheric, creepy and fun. The repetitive environments in the base game and less effective horror in the expansions make up the only low points in the overall F.E.A.R. package. But these things can easily be forgiven thanks to all its other amazing qualities. Definitely check it out.

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