Friday, May 3, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: F.E.A.R. - First Encounter Assault Recon

I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Game: F.E.A.R.
Developer: Monolith
Publisher: Sierra
Published in: 2007
Genre: FPS/Horror
Rating: M

I decided to dip a little deeper into my PS3 library and pulled out F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon - the horror/shooter from 2007. It's very much a product of it's time, when PS2 game developers were just starting to learn how to make PS3 titles. It's not very pretty in the light of modern games, but I'm finding it slightly ironic that I'm reviewing this right after Bioshock Infinite. Sometimes a gamer just has to shoot things.

They're both shooters where the main character have a mysterious past and a young girl with strange powers that holds the key to the mystery. Both protagonists possess special game play altering powers: DeWitt has vigors, "Point Man" controls bullet-time. But that's where the similarity ends. F.E.A.R. is a sparse as Bioshock Infinite is lush. Let's game up and play some F.E.A.R.!

The cover of F.E.A.R. shows us what's what - shooting first, scary second. Which is surprising because what F.E.A.R. does best is scare... or at least startle. Outside of the survival horror genre, only Dead Space does as good a job as being scary but F.E.A.R. does it more subtly than Dead Space. It might be a product of it's time - limited polycounts and textures don't lend itself to great levels of detail, but F.E.A.R. manages to hold it's own even to this day. The manual is typical - black and white but informative without any attempt to be creative or artsy. I love me a manual that tries hard to incorporate itself as part of the game but F.E.A.R.'s manual definitely isn't that.

The start screen of F.E.A.R. shows some sort of tactical display with soldiers gearing up for battle. Wait a few minutes and you get the attract video which shows lots of footage of shooting carnage interspersed with a few "horror" shots of Alma (the creepy little girl). F.E.A.R. doesn't try to disguise that it's a shooter first. We're given the choice of Campaign (single player), "Instant action" (the game without the story I guess) and Multiplayer. Since I don't like playing games with other people, I choose campaign. Starting a new game allows me to select from four difficulties (Low to Extreme). I pick Moderate.

The load screen fills me in with some background - F.E.A.R. team has to report to an emergency, this is my first assignment - A brief video says F.E.A.R. was formed to combat supernatural threats and brief credits play. Mysterious images of a man in a prison being approached by a girl in flames plays. The little girl comes to the man (who hears creepy whispers) and we're shown a platoon of soldiers "come to life" - the man now out of his cell kills a guard. I guess he's the bad guy. The strange thing about the credits is that I'm not sure if the names are of the voice actors or the development team. I would think the team would get credit above the actors, but this is 2007 when games were trying to be as movie-like as possible. Now the mysterious man is eating someone.

Gameplay starts with the player in F.E.A.R.'s command post watching video of the bad guy (Paxton Fettel - a odd name choice F.E.A.R. writer, but OK.) and we're assigned to go after Fettel and his army of clonetroopers. We can move the camera around a little in this scene. Now there's a movie playing showing Fettle in an operating room and a doctor telling me that I will be a god among men. The mystery is being laid on pretty thick from the get-go.

Another load screen and we're finally into the game. Point Man is in a car (still in "look around" mode) driving to the site. I didn't know soldiers drove to military operations in a sedan. Or only sent one soldier. F.E.A.R. unit must run on a budget. F.E.A.R.'s controls are pretty simple, but a little too PC-oriented. You can tell by the way aiming in done that this was a mouse-controlled game first. The player can throw grenades, slow down time, switch and shoot with the shoulder buttons. Regular buttons reload, jump and punch. There's two meters for health and shield plus an ammo gauge and a bullet time timer. After accidentally throwing both my grenades while playing around with control schemes, I go into to check things out. I make my way through a spare-tire infested courtyard to a grubby building. There are rats to shoot and cans to "kick" and trash bags all over the place. Why can't the bad guys ever attack anywhere nice? A headlamp is a nice touch and I'm sure it will make things creepy later on in the game.

The first level is pretty drab looking

It's at this point that one of F.E.A.R.'s better story telling mechanics kicks in. I call it the "talk to guy through the window" trick. It's where you can't get right up to your team mate or directly see the bad guy, save through a little hole in a door or window. It adds a nice element of tension and separation that fits the creepy environment. I find and pick up a health booster (which raise my health from 100 to 105)

F.E.A.R. tries to build it's creepy-ness with flashes of gruesome images and knocked over furniture, doors that close in your face and eerie music punctuated with disembodied whispers. It's best scare-tactic is to have figures walk past doorways - making you wonder if something is going to jump you on the other side. Out of all F.E.A.R.'s tricks, it's the most effective.

And of course there's blood. You're scared of blood, right?

Another observation - F.E.A.R.'s level design is cleverly just long enough for the informational V.O.'s to play as you run back to your team mates. I noticed this in several places and it keeps the backtracking from getting too repetitive. I finally rendezvous with my partner and come across a dead body. A mysterious voice tells me that I "was born in this place" as everything goes all bullet-timey. Something I've noticed about my AI partner is he doesn't like me very much. Whenever he talks to me, he's insulting and demanding. I wonder if I get to shoot him later. I'm ordered to go after who ever did this and get ambushed by Fettel. It's a genuine startling moment in the game which a nice build up. After another cut scene  I return to the crime scene I see yet another cutscene - hinting at what must be my mysterious origins.

There are some nice "startle the player" moments in F.E.A.R.

Next scene lands us and the rest of the F.E.A.R. team to check out a wastewater plant suspected to be Fettel's hideout. Man, there are a lot of cut scenes in F.E.A.R. - granted this was during the era where you made as many as you could, but it seems somewhat excessive. Landing at the waterplant, my comrades order me to open a gate. The level design, while simple is actually pretty intuitive. There are plenty of nice architectural clues to lead might to where I need to go and the brightly glowing powerups are clearly seen in the otherwise drab environments.

A simple but effective level design example
First I see the lit window where I need to go...

...then I see a bridge leading to the office...

...then I reach the controls overlooking the gate

After opening the gate, the evil girl Alma makes her first appearance as she wipes out my compatriots.
 I'm all alone when I come across the first of the clone soldiers who are busy executing dock workers. The AI isn't half bad and particles fly everywhere - filling the room with dust and sparks.

Things get pretty obscured with dust during shoot-outs

I can't say I'm a big fan of gun controls - fire is R2 and swap is R1 - thanks to Halo (and every other shooter since), I'm used to it being the other way around and I end up toggling between my pistol and machine gun often. Another note, this is a game that doesn't screw around getting you back in the action. You die without fanfare (a rarity in a horror game) and it throws you right back into the game. It's at this point that the Point Man hits the hour mark.

Little girls - they've been creepy since the Shining

So should I fear to play more of F.E.A.R.?

What would I do differently? Aiming and shooting controls needed to optimized for the PS3 console. A few less cutscenes would have been appreciated. I just started to get into combat by the hour mark. I guess that's why there's the "quick action" option at the beginning. A few more med-kits would be appreciated, but all in all F.E.A.R. isn't half-bad. It's just more a product of it's time.

Would I keep playing? I'm curious to see if things get scarier in F.E.A.R. but to be honest, I'd rather play Dead Space again.

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