It is rare for a game to come along which can raise the banner of revolution as these days the majority of companies tend to prefer to invest their money in something safe rather than in trying to push their chosen genre forward. Personally, I don't think this is too terrible a thing as if every game were pushing the boundaries then it surely wouldn't be long before there was no where else to explore and gaming would die a lonely, forgotten death. Gleefully, Kansas School Board-baiting words are apt to describe titles such as FEAR (sorry, we're averse to repeatedly typing "." - Ed) for while it may not be as revolutionary as some would claim it integrates enough new features to make it stand out from the crowd and warrant your support.
At its core FEAR is a deceptively basic run and gun shooter. Assuming the role of a mysteriously augmented super soldier the player acts as the vanguard for the secret FEAR team, an assault squad called in whenever the shit flies through the fan. Initially charged with tracking down one Paxton Fettel, a seriously creepy menace with a penchant for human blood and the psychic leader of a hundred clone troopers, the player finds themselves embroiled in all the repercussions that inevitably befall any shady corporation that meddles in the human genome. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the Armacham Corporation has been involved in some highly unorthodox research. The kind of research which may well explain why every once in a while the game loads up the creepy music and scares the bejesus out of the player with a spectral apparition or nightmarish dream sequence. Tracking down Fettel is going to be more then just a simple case of shooting at everything with a gun...
FEAR is the kind of game that begs to be played alone, at night and with all the lights off. From the beginning you know that things are going to freak you out and the developers have done a wonderful job of exploiting the unnerving effects of unusual sounds, eerie music and flickering lights. Not to mention the sphincter-grabbing effect of a raven haired little girl suddenly appearing at the top of a ladder or behind a sheet of glass before disappearing in a jagged puff of black smoke. A few games of recent years have managed to give me a good fright yet until now none have managed to make the hairs on my legs stand to attention along with those on my arms and neck. It's odd, as FEAR actually doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before. Buckets of dripping blood, eviscerated corpses felled by no natural means, shadowy figures with intentions unknown and the aforementioned sound effects; all of these things have been done before. Although there are too many empty corridors between the wonderful firefights the overall pacing is well engineered to heighten a sense of paranoia. The later stages of the game reach an intensity which may cause the more faint hearted to retreat to their bed for a bit of a lie down. Your tolerance to adrenaline comedowns are also worth considering.
So FEAR manages to excel when it comes to grabbing the focus of the player's mind. It also does a fine job of attracting the notice of the senses. No other game has come close to replicating the kinetic action of films like The Matrix or early John Woo, with each firefight being an occasion to fling all kinds of material into the air. Masonry, paper, computers, pictures and bodies, everything that is hit by a bullet or blast-wave will take to the skies and dance a merry dance. Not only is this highly satisfying to the destructive urges of every FPS fan it augments the combat experience. A gun battle down a long corridor will often throw up so much dust and debris that it becomes impossible to see your opponents. You can use this opportunity to advance or lean back from the edge of the wall and reload and re-gather your composure. It's a real shame then that most objects are impervious to the effects of your weapons and that no matter how many times you blast a desk or bookcase it will stoically resist your attempts at disintegration. Hopefully the advent of dedicated physics cards will usher in a new dawn of fully destructible environments as until that happens the selective mayhem on show here will only contrast more starkly with the imperviousness of other objects. The ragdolls are rather good and the animations of wounded soldiers limping off to safety or flying across the room in a cloud of broken glass and shredded memos are guaranteed to crack a grin on even the most jaded of shooter fans.
All of this visceral destruction would only be so much eye candy if it wasn't for the fiendish AI that commands the enemy troops. While each foe has its own methods of attack all are united by a strong sense of both self-preservation and situational awareness. Grunts will dive through windows to escape your generously offered grenade, roll out of the way of seeking gunfire, push over cabinets to create cover and act together with guns and grenades to dismiss any notions of sanctuary that the player may be entertaining. The gun battles are always a challenge although you get the distinct impression that if it weren't for the slow-mo feature - which is wonderfully implemented - the compartmentalised nature of the combat would tire quicker than it does. While there's a splattering of scripting going on each firefight will pan out differently on subsequent attempts with many memorable set pieces, such as those in the underground car park or the rooftop insertion, destined to enter the gaming hall of fame.
FEAR certainly isn't without its faults, the largest of which is that it seems to expect to blind the player with its psychological and combat aspects in the hope that they won't notice the pedestrian nature of the level design and total absence of any challenge that doesn't involve aiming a weapon. FEAR has so many indentikit levels that I would believe it if I were told that the artists were blind to any other architecture than office buildings. Fighting through the umpteenth collection of cubicles or pipe-encrusted maintenance areas the tedium of repetition settles in depressingly quickly. FEAR is also found lacking in some cerebral puzzles to distract the brain with. Throughout my entire run I think I had to activate 20 buttons, most of which tended to operate some machinery three inches away from the player's right ear. I did occasionally experience moments where I was unsure how to progress but this was always down to the way forward being hidden behind a pipe or above a rickety stack of furniture. There were also a number of times where I was sure I couldn't get through a gap or window only to find I wasn't jumping at precisely the correct moment. FEAR is afflicted by too many areas which seemed to have escaped the playtesters notice.
FEAR is a very well titled game for while the tricks employed by the developers do a splendid job of thrilling the player it is the imagination of the gamer that provides the framework over which the cladding of the game is laid. The story is unusually engaging and while its revelations are likely to only surprise the most dim-witted, the sense of immersion from the aural and visual departments along with the cunningness of the AI works in enlivening the plot to the extent that the player finds themselves pushing on even when their sense of self preservation is recommending a quiet game of Solitaire instead.
FEAR will probably only eventually warrant a few sentences in the bumper book of gaming history. It does what it sets out to do very well but it feeds off of other games without bringing enough of its own offerings to the table. It's certainly highly entertaining and lasts for just the right amount of time. It even has a satisfying conclusion which wraps the story up with a nail to the head. With a wider variety of tasks and environments and an engine that someone has at least taken a stab at optimising this could have been a true classic (a free pair of fresh pants would have helped as well). But don't let it's missing out on such a label put you off, FEAR is one of the very best shooters of 2005 and perfect company for those dark winter nights.