There’s probably no controversy in saying it’s difficult to frighten modern horror audiences. When so many clichés have come and gone, and you can watch real people die on TV or the Internet, horror authors are constantly reaching a bit further to shock us. ‘Further’ is a term that applies literally in some cases.
A recent trend involves Westerners stealing elements from Japanese movies, such as Ringu, Tetsuo, or Ju-On. Haunted televisions and creepy little girls are increasingly common tropes in Hollywood. With Monolith’s FEAR, the trend has migrated to the PC; but like most of the Western copycats, it doesn’t entirely succeed, at least not at the terror part. It fares better as a straight first-person shooter.
The single-player story positions you as a new recruit to a spec-ops unit meant to counter paranormal threats to America. The spirit of a dead girl has possessed the telepathic commander of a new clone army, who in turn have launched strange attacks on various targets. Naturally, your goal is to assassinate this commander before he accomplishes whatever this girl is telling him to do.
It’s a mildly interesting setup, but the first problem is that it hardly goes beyond that. E3 footage of the game seemed to promise plenty of cutscenes and dialogue. In the final product there’s less than a handful of cutscenes, and what little you know about the characters is revealed mostly in computer data or phone messages. It creates a feeling of detachment, which isn’t exactly conducive to sympathy for the fate of anyone involved, including yourself.
FEAR does make up for this somewhat by littering the game with paranormal events, some of which can provoke the shock they’re supposed to. I thought the closing phase of the game - you’ll know when it starts - was particularly effective at making the player feel like death’s hand could reach out of the wall at any time. But here again the game is something of a disappointment, as in the rest of the game, the supernatural isn’t really a threat. Gory visuals and flickering lights lose their power when you begin to realize that they (probably) won’t hurt you.
The game also suffers from unbelievably bland level design, relying almost entirely on office and warehouse environments. Not quite the blackened catacombs and aging Irish mansions of a title like Undying. Even if the game wasn’t trying to be creepy, a certain ennui would set in before reaching the halfway point, much less the ending.
It would be intolerable if FEAR weren’t one hell of a pyrotechnics display. You might spend a good deal of the game in an office complex, but it comes apart nicely. Debris flies and glass shatters; explosions distort the air; bullets spark off metal, kick up powder, and chip off wall fragments. Very cinematic, and perhaps slightly cathartic if you do work in an office.
It’s these shootouts that sustain the game and elevate it to something worth playing, the graphics actually being the smallest part of it. It’s the AI that steals the spotlight. Ignoring some minor flaws it’s easily the best AI we’ve seen in an FPS title since Half-Life 2. It sticks to cover, shoots around corners, and will go to extraordinary lengths to flank you, detouring through rooms and doors you may have forgot existed. It’s been given the ability to dive through windows too, or crawl under objects like pipes. With this in mind, enemy soldiers can be far more scary than ghosts if you’re playing on a reasonably challenging difficulty setting.
FEAR boasts a couple of features that have the dubious honour of being more practical in multiplayer than in single-player, when they would normally be considered unworkable online. I’m referring of course to melee attacks and the SloMo mode. SloMo is FEAR’s version of a bullet-time mechanic, but in single-player I found I never used it nearly as much as I did Max Payne’s equivalent. It was more important to anticipate what an enemy would do than to react quickly. Surprisingly, meanwhile, the AI is too quick on the draw for a player to rely on melee attacks. You’ll often be shot down mid-air if you try a jump-kick.
But melee works fine against human opponents, assuming you spot them first. It’s an immensely gratifying way to take someone down; I laugh maniacally when I can ambush someone at a doorway. As for SloMo, multiplayer FEAR tends to be frenetic, so it’s rather welcome when you can enable it (in the form of a power-up) and slow the whole match down for a moment. In case you’re concerned about this, yes, there are plenty of servers not running the SloMo game modes, though that somewhat defeats the purpose of playing FEAR instead of Counter-Strike or Quake 4.
Which leads into one of my remaining issues with the game. Unique weapons and features do give FEAR multiplayer a personality many titles are missing. That doesn’t mean much however when it’s limited to generic modes, namely Deathmatch, Elimination, and Capture the Flag. It feels like wasted effort on Monolith’s part. On average I’d prefer to play Counter-Strike, because despite that mod’s age, I’ve been deathmatching and capturing flags for longer still.
Then there’s the strange bug I’ve encountered, which will cause a computer to lock up if you’re running other applications at launch. At least, I think that’s the connection. What’s strange is that the lock-ups won’t happen every time another app is running, and I can’t isolate specific apps as making the game more or less prone. For safety’s sake I’d just close any app larger than an instant messaging program. That seems to remedy things.
In that E3 footage I mentioned earlier, FEAR contained something of the ‘wow’ factor you might’ve felt while watching clips of Half-Life 2 for the first time. It was something gamers had never seen before. And to an extent, I’m sure that will hold true for people buying the game today; the difference is that HL2 was given the effort to keep it going throughout the final product, whereas FEAR shows its brilliance intermittently. In this sense it’s a disappointment, but a game hardly needs to be perfect to be playable. Especially for people who need something like a horror fix to tide them over, FEAR is a solid FPS.