In case you've been oblivious to the various pre release information surrounding this title, F.E.A.R is all about the paranormal, the supernatural, and the down right freaky. Played out in a first person perspective, as the gamer, you take control of an unnamed elite solider whose job is to head a task force built for dealing with situations no one is meant to know about - a task force suitably named First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R). Suitable because this is one game you may want some spare underpants on hand for.
As it would happen, an unidentified paramilitary force has stormed a multi-billion dollar complex and have not issued any demands. This gets the government's attention, who naturally go to their standard special forces units to respond, however, communication with these forces are lost due to an eerie radio interference. After the interference passes just moments later, all special forces units are dead, slaughtered by an unknown supernatural force. This is where you and the FEAR team come in, on a mission to find the source of the interference and an explanation of the killings.
The game does not waste much time on the introduction, and features no traditional training or initiation section. You watch a brief cinematic clip explaining the above scenario and are pretty much thrown into the action straight away. As you make your way through the initial stages of the game, hints and tips will be displayed telling you which button does what, so the first few minutes of the game, even though they are related directly to the storyline, are somewhat treated as the training level.
The main storyline in the game itself unfolds as you play throughout the levels, or "intervals" as they are referred to in-game. FEAR has a very involved storyline that isn't clear until the very end of the game, and even then many questions remain. Without spoiling too much, you basically receive the bulk of the story in the form of nightmare/visions that can occur at any time during the game. These are perhaps the game's more intense moments, as the collection of distorted visuals and eerie noises and music really makes for some "late night fright" gaming, and what's even better about these visions is you still have control so it isn't just for show, they become integral parts of the gameplay. While it is true some of the elements in the story are a little cliche in regards to the horror film genre, that still doesn't prevent the story in FEAR from becoming immersive and frightening at times. When you see and hear the detail Monolith have gone to in making the cinematic aspects of FEAR unique, you will be amazed, it is captivating stuff.
One of the first things you'll notice about FEAR is that, even though it is a game based on the paranormal, the weapons you use are realistic weapons - well the weapons of the game's early stages are anyway. The usual suspects are here - pistols (and dual pistols), an SMG, Assault Rifles, a Shotgun etc, as well as a nail gun (which can nail enemies to walls), a rocket launcher and a "particle gun" (where realism strays a tad) to name a few. The selection of weapons is nice and each have their own strengths and weaknesses related to power, rate of fire, accuracy and your ability to move. It would have been nice to see a flamethrower for the close range situations as it would show off the game's brilliant fire effects, but you can't win them all I guess.
As you make your way through the game's bleak and grimey settings, it will become distinctly clear that the AI in FEAR is not to be underestimated. In fact, if there is a FPS out there with better AI than FEAR, I must have forgotten to play it because as far as I'm concerned, this is the smartest FPS to ever hit the PC platform. There is just so much that impresses you with FEAR's AI, it is hard to know where to start describing it. First of all, enemies will not only see you approach if you're in clear sight, but hear you, and even sense you should you move an object or walk into their vicinity with your flash light on. Secondly, the combat AI displayed by enemy NPC's in FEAR is exceptional. Baddies will take cover, use suppressive fire, flush you out with grenades, and move about tactically in their environment, jumping over ledges and crawling under spaces. The end result is, perhaps, the most challenging and dynamic enemies you have ever played against in an FPS. FEAR is also not the type of FPS that creates "patterns" with its enemy AI making them easy to exploit once you become accustomed to their style - it's almost like you're playing against well seasoned Online Multiplayer veterans who know the ins and outs of the game's control system, as every encounter has its own level of uniqueness. "You snooze, you lose" is a very relevant phrase for FEAR as you have to be alert at almost every point in the game or you risk a quick death to a surprise attack.
However, perhaps the best part about the AI in FEAR is it is believable and realistic. Good AI isn't just about being challenging, as often we see games provide challenging but "robotic" AI, which usually consists of enemies with perfect accuracy and reflex times. Not in FEAR. In FEAR you will see enemies miss fire and make mistakes. Sometimes you'll even be able to out smart them and do some surprise attacks of your own. This is what gives FEAR an authentic feel - even though it is based in a world of supernatural occurrences, the overall feel of the game, which the AI largely contributes to, is that of a real and believable world. I guess that is what makes FEAR so suspenseful - half way through you're so enthralled and immersed you may forget the whole thing is just a computer game.
As is the standard with FPS titles now days, FEAR's engine features real time physics and rag doll effects, however this is probably the engine's weakest area, if only because the rest of the game sets such high standards. At times objects such as dead enemy bodies will position themselves awkwardly, and you may see the occasional dead body somehow fall through the floors of above walk ways. A few times we even saw enemies stick to ceiling's after being blown away by a shotgun. On top of this, on a few occasions we did see grenades and bullets go through walls, but don't read into it too much, it is not a huge problem by any means and in all likeliness, you probably won't even spot it yourself at all since we only saw it occur maybe twice or three times in the entire single player experience. Outside of the small quirks here and there, the engine featured in FEAR is definitely in the upper echelon of engines we've seen in the FPS genre. The game feels very solid and you get a real sense of force and weight when firing weapons and moving about. Large gun battles are of particular excellence, as bullets fly every which way taking out bodies and damaging walls and objects in the process.
Another standard emerging in the FPS genre is "time controlling" abilities for the player, and FEAR delivers here as well with a function simply called "SloMo". All you have to do is press Left-CTRL and you will go into a "Max Payne" like super reflex mode which allows you to shoot and kill enemies before they even have the time to let a bullet off. The amount of time this mode can function is shown by a meter shown at the bottom center of your screen, and while you can pickup "upgrades" throughout the game to make this meter larger, you don't need to do anything special for it to regenerate - it comes back itself in a few seconds. Get use to this function, as a lot of the game's many sticky situations will require "SloMo" execution to stay alive.
Perhaps the only real short coming of FEAR's gameplay is the fact the game does not explore the area of squad based combat at all really. This is a bit of a shame because having command of a few other FEAR soldiers could have made for some very strategic gameplay, as the enemy units work very well in squads. This is only a small let down that is obviously subject to personal opinion, but I still feel for a game based on a team called "FEAR", you'd see more of the teammates actually doing some work - the whole game is basically you and some chump shouting commands to your via a comm link.
Once the single player mode is out of the way, you still have multiplayer to attend to. Not only will you be able to play all the standard modes including Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, CFT and Elimination and Team Elimination, you can also play in SloMo Deathmatch, SloMo Team Deathmatch and SloMo CFT, which utilizes the game's SloMo feature found in the single player mode. The multiplayer in FEAR probably won't challenge the likes of Battlefield and CS for popularity, but it is great fun and will serve the FEAR fan base nicely, and who knows, it might just take off. The netcode featured seems pretty decent as well, however, you will most definitely want a broadband connection.
Visually, FEAR is up there with the best on the PC. Both the characters models and the environments look sensational, and with the bevy of options available to tweak and tune, setting the game up to your system's liking is possible. However, naturally, with good visuals comes high system requirements, and FEAR is probably the highest we've seen on the PC to date - the game recommends a 3GHz P4 or equiv CPU, 1GB of system memory and an ATI 9800/NV 6600+ videocard with 256MB of video memory. We used a 3500+/1GB/X850XT system and could achieve good gameplay with "Computer" set at "Medium" and "Graphics Card" set at "High" in the Performance Options menu. To get the best the game has to offer, you're probably looking at an Athlon 64 FX/2GB/7800GTX type of setup, although don't be too depressed if you have a reasonably dated system, as the settings can be toned down quite a bit, just don't expect to play the game at anything much higher than 800x600.
When you put all the features together, FEAR is a very fine FPS indeed. While some of the horror elements to the storyline may seem a tad cliche, the game's almost perfect fundamentals and solid extra's makes it an instant nominee for 2005 PC Game of the Year, and I can tell you now, unless we get a surprise in the next two months, I have a feeling FEAR will be receiving a vast array of industry wide acknowledgements for just that. FEAR is not indisputably the best FPS we've seen on the PC, but it is one people will remember for a long time, and if/when a FEAR 2 arrives, it will be very highly anticipated. The bottom line is, even if you're only a remotely active fan of the FPS genre, you should go out and get FEAR....and maybe a videocard upgrade on the way back.