Mind-blowing A.I., and an absolutely chilling atmosphere.
It's difficult to know where to begin with my experience of playing through F.E.A.R. In fact, I've spent the last ten minutes re-writing this first paragraph over and over again simply trying to think of a way to begin talking about the game, so let's just get down the basics. F.E.A.R. puts you in the role of an unnamed operative of the First Encounter Assault Recon team, known only as the F.E.A.R. point man, as you track down the rogue commander Paxton Fettel and deal with his army of telepathically controlled soldiers.
The point man isn't just any ordinary operative though, since as soon as you take control of the character you learn that your reflexes are "off the charts". This is pretty much the focal point of F.E.A.R. As soon as you begin playing you'll quickly discover that you possess the ability to literally move at super-fast speeds for short bursts of time, effectively slowing down time for everyone around you. This ability is not only incredibly satisfying to use - it is essential to your survival. Surviving F.E.A.R. without this ability is all but impossible, seeing as you will also encounter quite possibly the smartest enemy AI of any first person shooter of the last decade. Not only that, F.E.A.R. also combines horror with incredibly disturbing atmosphere and sound design. All of this combined just makes for a really unique experience unlike any other I've had in a really long time.
The combat in F.E.A.R. is really something special. There's just something really satisfying about going into slomo, jumping into the air, and kicking an enemy soldier in the head and listening to him groan as he flies over a balcony ledge in slow motion. There's just this really visceral feeling to the action that gets you really pumped to keep pressing onwards. One of my biggest gripes with the first-person shooter genre is when a game doesn't adequately capture the intense feeling of shooting a firearm. Let it be known that F.E.A.R. passes this with flying colours, as the weapons are all very satisfying to use and just feel really powerful. The weapon selection is admittedly limited, and you'll only be able to carry three guns with you at the time, but the weapon selection is not the main focus here, it's the intensity of the action itself that keeps the game interesting throughout. It's just a nice feeling when you've got a pistol in your hand but it doesn't actually feel like a useless piece of crap, even if it is the weakest gun in the game. It's even better when you can dual wield them so you don't feel utterly defenseless against a bunch of dudes equipped with rifles, submachine guns, and shotguns. The aforementioned weapons generally make up the selection of weapons you'll have throughout F.E.A.R. but there are also several others you'll be able to get your hands on, such as a grenade launcher, rocket launcher, burst-fire sniper rifle, the ridiculously awesome nail gun that impales dudes to walls, and a particle cannon - which is without a doubt one of the most satisfying first-person shooter weapons, ever. There's just something really awesome about shooting a giant purple beam at an enemy and watching him vaporize instantaneously into a skeletal frame accompanied by a pile of ashes. Not only that, but you will also have access to several other fun to use weapons, such as grenades, proximity mines, and remote detonated sticky-grenades. To top it all off the point man is also capable of pulling off a slew of fancy martial arts moves such as a flying triple kick, and a jumping round-house kick.
Regardless of the almost essential slomo and satisfying weaponry, what really brings the action together into an incredibly satisfying cohesive whole is the enemy artificial intelligence. Never before have I ever encountered enemies as intelligent as the ones found in F.E.A.R., and I assure you this is no exaggeration. Often times you will read about how great the enemy A.I. is supposed to be in some game and when you actually play it the enemies don't seem half as intelligent as the back of the box claims they are. F.E.A.R. is the one game where the A.I. actually does everything developers have been claiming their A.I. will do since the 90s.
You'll mostly face off against an army of clones, who are being controlled telepathically by the central antagonist of the story; Paxton Fettel, who is some disturbed rogue cannibalistic commander. One thing you will quickly learn in F.E.A.R. is that the enemies you will face are much easier to take out when they are not aware of your presence, they will even die in less hits. That being said, once they're alerted to your presence you better get ready for a serious fight. These guys will literally move all over the place, they move about the terrain flawlessly, they will seek out cover, flush you out, communicate with one another. These guys will hunt you down relentlessly until either you or they are dead. It's really awesome when you're in a fight with a bunch of enemies and the commander yells "get to cover!" and the other soldier yells out "where should I go?" in an absolute panic - as he can't find cover. They will even yell several obscenities such as a notorious S-word when you pop out and they have nowhere to hide. These guys just aren't about hiding though, if you're hiding somewhere yourself they'll accurately toss grenades to force you out - where you literally have to leave your cover and come out into the open or die in the explosion. If you're persistent on hiding these guys will take alternate paths to come around from behind you, or even creep up slowly to your position to try and take you out if you refuse to move. They are also especially anything but dumb, since as soon as they are shot at they will instantly run to cover and try to figure out where the bullets were coming from. Words simply cannot adequately describe the enemies in this game. While it is true that you will spend the vast majority of the game, literally, fighting the -exact- same enemies for almost the entire game, combined with the excellent weaponry and their absolutely insane intelligence and tactics you'll never get bored of fighting them. That being said, it is worth pointing out that there are some other types of enemies you will be fighting such as cloaked teleporting cyborg ninjas, flying robot drones that shoot super-heated lasers at you, as well as giant mechs. These enemies do not appear very frequently, but whenever they do it's usually a blast to fight them, but you'll be glad you won't be seeing anymore for a while once they are defeated. The A.I. though, is just something you have to experience for yourself because no matter how much one drones on and on about it, words simply cannot do the A.I. in this game justice.
What makes F.E.A.R. especially special though is that aside from all this intense action there is also this really creepy psychological horror element to the game that pops up every now and then to keep you on your toes. If you've played Doom 3, or at least heard about it, you know that Doom 3 relies on extremely intense in-your-face scares that make you jump out of your seat. Although, Doom 3 also has absolutely amazing sound and atmosphere, which helps ratchet up the anxiety and scares. F.E.A.R. is not a horror game in the same sense as Doom 3, as after the first level or so which are focused mostly on scares the game calms down into a much more atmosphere-heavy environment that rarely if ever has cheap in-your-face scares a la Doom 3. F.E.A.R. has excellent sound design, which is just full of absolutely chilling ambient and droning background noises that repeat over and over again that just send an absolute chill down your spin, even though nothing scary is actually happening, it just instills that feeling that something should be happening but it never actually does, until you are least expecting it. Regardless of the fact that F.E.A.R. doesn't really have any jump-out-of-your seat scares aside from a few key moments, it easily has some of the absolute most disturbing spine-tingling, demoralizing, disturbing, heart-pounding scares I've ever experiences. One in particular where you are looking at a computer monitor and the creepy little girl Alma Wade, who is a central focus of the plot slowly scrolls up from the bottom of the screen to just glare at you in the most chilling way possible, which is easily even more chilling than any of the demon-spawn scares found throughout Doom 3.
It helps that F.E.A.R. takes place in mostly the same areas for the majority of the game. Even though it's kind of a drawback that the game lacks aesthetic variety, the industrial setting of the game, and indoor office complexes that you'll be spending almost the entirety of the game fighting in absolutely perfectly fit F.E.A.R.'s combat, as well as the horror aspect of the game. It is true that the F.E.A.R. feels like it could benefit from a few more interesting areas, the combat will have such a tight hold on you that you won't even really have time to stop and reflect on the fact that you're starting to feel a bit tired of seeing the same looking areas over and over again. That being said, the final area is unique enough to make up for it if the repetitive levels do start to wane on you after a while. One thing that I really loved about F.E.A.R. that I felt was worth mentioning, was the attention to detail. In many games when you deploy an explosive device, it's gone for good. It's going to stay wherever you put it until it explodes or you just abandon it there and move on. However, in F.E.A.R. at one instance I had placed a sticky mine in a terrible location and had never detonated it during the fight, I soon realized I was able to salvage it for later use, and could also do this with proximity mines as well. This is a very minor thing, but it's something that goes to show the love and care that went into the creation of this game, and that instance stuck with me throughout my entire experience.
F.E.A.R.'s biggest weakness is the fact that one of its most interesting aspects is the unique storyline, which is told rather disappointingly throughout long stretches of the game. That's not to say it's terrible or anything, but you generally will learn about the plot through uploading computer files to your mission director who is in contact with you for pretty much the entire time, who will then tell you a little bit about whatever was in the file you uploaded to him. The annoying part is that it just seems too easy and convenient that these laptops are openly placed throughout the levels for your immediate use where all you have to do it click one button to immediately start uploading top-secret documents to your allies. The other way you learn about the plot is through listening to answering machine messages left on people's phones throughout the various locations you will visit. It isn't necessary to listen to these and they generally are not very interesting to listen to either, which is kind of disappointing. The good part is that the story also advances through these bizarre dream-like flashback sequences and creepy hallucinations involving the little girl Alma, as well as Paxton Fettel. It's just a bit disappointing when you've got an above-average plot in a first-person shooter that uses a mostly uninteresting method of listening to answering machines to advance the story.
When it comes down to it F.E.A.R. is just an immensely satisfying experience. While it is true that F.E.A.R. could have benefited from a slightly more interesting way of conveying the plot, as well as some more interesting locals to explore, as well as a bit more weapon variety, the overall experience is just so good that it's ridiculously easy to completely look passed any flaws you can come up with. F.E.A.R. is an absolutely excellent game and has without a doubt earned a place on the essential must-play first-person shooters list of the current decade.