With it being October and all, I was in the mood for a decent horror video game that fulfills my basic requirements for a game — that it be old enough so everyone else has lost interest in it, thus driving the price down to an affordable ten bucks or so. Of the many recommendations I got, I decided to go with F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon, because I thought the blend of supernatural horror with a SWAT type first person shooter would be interesting. Plus, I’d been told the game was genuinely scary in many places. Seemed like the perfect late-night indulgence. And for portions of the game, it was. It’s a fast paced shooter that does indeed boast some incredibly effective spooky material. But it’s also too repetitive, and the horror often gets forgotten in favor of room after room of shooting it out with basically identical opponents gussied up in the same sort of assault team gear your own character is wearing.
Your character is the newest member (isn’t that always the case) of an elite fighting unit that specializes in combating particularly bizarre situations — and I do mean combating, complete with Blackhawks, body armor, and assault weapons, sort of like if Ghost Hunters traded in their night vision cameras and pointless blinking doodads for rocket launchers. As the game opens, you’re being choppered in to investigate what sounds like a decidedly non-supernatural conflict: an army of cloned super soldiers have seized an office building, and it’s your job to take them out. Simple enough. Once you are on the ground, however, things don’t go as planned. For starters, as is always the case, your teammates are beyond useless, and those that don’t get killed or injured outright are the standard “we’ll secure this random room while you scout ahead” types. Fine with me. I hate having to care for dumb AI-controlled team-mates in video games, whose sole purpose seems to be to randomly run across my line of fire during the middle of a battle, then complain that I just shot them.
But as you lead the one-man assault from some loading docks and eventually into the office building itself, you are afflicted with bizarre hallucinations full of fire, corpses, and ghosts. There are also creepy shadows, momentary glimpses of skulking things, and the apparition of a little girl that keeps popping up to startle the bejeezus out of you. In these moments, F.E.A.R. is at its horror game best and is more genuinely scary than most modern horror films. The designers make superb use of your peripheral vision and limited sight distance to pop these “ghosts” up in ways that provide both a cheap but fun jolt and a more lingering sense of horror. Before too long, I was dreading climbing up a ladder or stepping into a dark corridor, because who knew when I’d catch a flickering glimpse of that little girl or strange smoky phantom?
I was delighted with how effective this element of the game was, and that they found ways to employ it that didn’t seem like the same thing over and over. Unfortunately, the moments of the game that aren’t infused with creepy spectres are pretty rote. Gun battles with the clone soldiers and assorted chump security guards are fun for a while, but around the halfway point of the game, they started getting increasingly dull. It was the same thing over and over, killing the same guys, with the horror elements dropped in favor or pretty standard first person shooter combat. Some bits are fun, of course. For instance, the fact that you frequently have to face off with a large number of enemies from a position that allows them to flank you and sneak up from behind or pop through another corridor or door means you have to do more than just squat down behind a desk and pick guys off. The computer opponents are also smart enough so that you can’t do the otherwise tried and true move where you dash in and out of a room then pick off the idiots as they file one by one through the door. These opponents are smart enough to just yell, “There he is,” then take up strategic defensive positions that force you to be the sucker who steps through the door if you want the game to progress.
But you can only clear so many rooms of these guys before it starts to wear on you. Bogged down in a firefight, I frequently found myself impatient to just be done with these generic SWAT guy clones so I could apprehensively drop down into another murky hallway or sewer where I might stumble upon a horribly twisted and mangled corpse, be startled by something flickering in and out of existence in the corner of my eye , stuff like that. The combat is OK, but the horror in this game is done so well that I wanted more of it — either a better balance with the straight-forward combat or, perhaps, even more horror than action. Something that better blended the two aspects of the game.
Game play was perfectly acceptable. Weapon and movement controls were intuitive and mostly easy to use, though I did tend to press the “throw a grenade” button when I meant to switch grenade types or re-equip my gun, but hey — you can’t blame the game for my spastic playing style. The art design is the recognizable dark corridors and gloomy alleys in which most action video games (and most scifi movies, for that matter) take place, though with a few twists. It was nice playing through levels set in a perfectly modern office tower, and there’s a sequence inside a ruined building that manages to be creepy even though it’s an almost entirely action-oriented level with minimal spooky character appearances. So nothing groundbreaking, but it’s “the predictable” well-executed, and I can live with that. In addition, the dialogue is limited but what is there is, for the most part, delivered well, with only a few bits and pieces where the delivery of the voice actors is as stilted and awkward as we’ve come to expect from video games.
The writing is convoluted, and even bythe end of the game I never had a clear idea of what was going on. Pieces of the story are doled out to you in a variety of fashions, but primarily through abandoned laptops and unchecked phone messages. The problem is that a lot of these are boring filler. You have to stand around listening to messages about canceled meetings and dinner plans in hopes of getting some meager morsel of actual information. In the end, even someone like me who values the story and writing in games can find oneself impatient and prone to just not caring anymore. The action in the game doesn’t depend enough on the plot. You can blast your way through the whole thing without any idea why, and it wouldn’t effect the ultimate outcome. I’m much happier when a game has a good story and forces you to pay attention to that story by making certain aspects of the game dependant upon your comprehension of what’s happening around you.
Much of what i know about the story I actually read is summaries rather than gleaning from gameplay. The gist of things revolve around the usual secret experiments to create some sort of psychic super soldiers, or something. Maybe? Anyway, said nefarious research involved pretty nasty experiments on a woman named Alma, resulting in the increasingly bizarre paranormal activity into which you stumble from time to time. Not surprisingly, your character ends up having a “mysterious past” that ties you intimately to the strange and terrifying events. I don’t mind having to piece together disjointed fragments of information into a more complete picture as I play — it makes sense to do it that way, after all — but the collection of these pieces in F.E.A.R. is tedious more than revelatory, and the final picture doesn’t live up to the amount of effort you have to put into assembling it. I mean, you spend a large portion of the game chasing some dude who seems to have almost no bearing on what ultimately happens, as well as encountering several side characters who occupy a lot of screen time without contributing much of anything other than behaving like idiots then dying while you stand around outside the room in which they are being slaughtered.
And don’t even get me started on the flashlight. OK, I guess now I’m started on the flashlight. You have a flashlight, and you need it to see around. It also helps create the creepy mood, because it so limits what you can see clearly. But the thing only lasts for a minute, then you have to turn it off and wait for it to recharge. Seriously? All this high tech military hardware, and you give me a flashlight that only lasts a minute? We’ve have flashlights that last for hours on end for decades now. You can buy them pretty much anywhere. I know, given that this is a game where you are fighting spooky little girl ghosts and clone soldiers, complaining about the unrealistic nature of your shitty flashlight seems petty, but that just proves the old adage that you can ask the audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable.
The finale sees you running a gauntlet of Alma-summoned revenants as a space age research facility explodes around you — another interesting blend of genres — with the ghost of Alma herself appearing from time to time, but no longer always as the creepy little girl in the corner of your eye. Now, she’s a full on ghoulish force to be reckoned with, culminating in a fiery finale that is visually impressive but not altogether satisfying. Still, I was so thankful not to have to shoot my way through another room full of clone soldiers that I let the mildly disappointing climax slide. For the most part, the end was a pretty exhilarating blend of action and horror — the sort of white-knuckled fun I wanted from the rest of the game.
F.E.A.R. ended up being enough fun to keep me moderately entertained for one play-through, but it’s not a game I would revisit. I recommend it — especially for the price you can get it these days — because it’s fun to play for a while, and because the horror, when it makes itself known, proved to be every bit as scary as I was told it would be. I know that, even in 2005 when this game came out, the “little girl with long hair” ghost image was played out, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still prove effective. Unfortunately, the impact of that horror was watered down by room after room of just fighting anonymous Call of Duty guys. This means that F.E.A.R. is remarkable mostly for what it could have been if only the makers had dared play outside the norms of the first person shooter more often.
Like many video games, F.E.A.R. hovers just on the cusp of doing something really excited and delivering a game that is different and fun — but then it pulls back at the last second and contents itself with grinding out more of the same old, same old. Somehow, that makes the sting hurt worse, because when it takes chances and leans on the horror, it’s just so damn good. The idea of a more or less military first person shooter stumbling into the world of horror still has potential. F.E.A.R. almost gets it right — right enough to be playable and worth it for the scares, but also right enough that it’s frustrating that it isn’t more right. It was good enough that I’d give the sequel a go, even though I suspect that it will be a case of more of the same. Maybe they’ll at least give me a working flashlight.