Did I just bring bloghammer back from the dead? It would appear so. How apt then that this post starts talking about dead children. Anyways, Cutts asked me over the weekend if FEAR was any good. Given that some folks may not have played it back in the day, I thought I’d throw down some ideas about why it’s still worth playing in this modern day world of STALKER and Far Cry 2.
No one wants to be the New Guy. The New Guy usually dies. But here you are, freshly transferred into the US Government’s First Encounter Assault Recon (I see what they did there) team. The FEAR team investigates weird happenings, and they want to drop you smack bang in the middle of an event so paranormal it makes Ghostbusters look like a film about a man in a sheet.
Enter Armacham Technology Corporation. These geniuses not only decided that a clone army controlled by a psychic commander was a good idea, but also that the commander should definitely be a raving madman. Inevitably, it’s all gone belly up and Paxton Fettel, professional loony psychic, has got his brainwashed soldier mates to go round and shoot everyone. It’s essentially Order 66 from Star Wars, only the Emperor didn’t eat the dead Jedi afterwards. As far as we know, anyway.
It’s not all bad news though. Basic Training has clearly done a bang up job, giving you awesome gun skills and the ability to kill a man with your fists alone. And your reflexes are off the charts, apparently. You never find out what these charts are, but you’re so far off them you’re almost back on them again. You’ve learned the secret of medkits, and are able to swallow the entire contents of a box in the midst of a firefight in order to cure what ails you.
You’re also the main character, which improves your chances of survival somewhat. And thankfully it’s only your jerk sidekick Jankowski (Pronounced: dick head) that calls you New Guy. You’ve got a name. It’s Point Man. Take that, two dimensional marine characters from every other FPS!
Your FEAR team leader, Betters (As in “I’m Betters than you, Maggot!”) ships you, Jankowski, and your forensic expert Jin off to an abandoned warehouse where Fettel’s signal has been located. The poor bloke got chipped like a household pet. Soon enough though you’re separated from Jankowski, and Jin starts making an awful lot of “I need to go back to base to do some lab work” excuses. And so it falls to you to find out what the fuck (Betters says fuck a lot) is going on.
FEARs genius lies in the way the story and gameplay work around each other. Its very first point of order is to establish why we have to fight our way through hundreds of enemies who look the same. We accept from the off we’re dealing with a battalion of military clones, and can now quite happily get on with the highly entertaining job of killing them in slow motion.
Most fights are very similar on paper. It’s a piece of paper with the word ‘PLAYER’ scrawled in the middle and the word ‘ENEMIES’ at the edge, with a dozen or so arrows drawn from one to the other. The game keeps fighting interesting with the carefully crafted combat areas which allow for a variety of tactics and make for some awesome visual fights.
One such section takes the tried and tested “sniper alley” design, whereby snipers are on the rooftop and in nearby buildings, and it’s your job to get them before they get you. To make it interesting, FEAR replaces the mundane sniper rifle with a laser gun which vapourises all the fleshy parts of the target. It’s the design philosophy all over; why headshot someone when you can turn them into nothing more than a cloud of liquefied organs and a pile of bones?
The enemy radio chatter really makes the AI seem that much smarter. "Flush him out!" they cry as one of them tosses a grenade. "He's trying to flank!" yells another if I try and outsmart them. "He took down the whole squad!" cries that final soldier once I've killed all his buddies. I could just put a bullet in him. Instead I slow down the passage of time itself and leap into the air. The last thing he sees is my boot, as I break the unfortunate clone's neck with a midair scissor kick. That's just how I roll.
When the last enemy drops the place is always in a real mess. It’s that Matrix moment in the lobby but in videogame form. The bullets stop raining and the last few chunks of masonry fall from the walls. Then you run round nicking everyone’s ammo and looking for telephones, only these phones aren’t connected to a guy in spaceship in a futuristic sewage pipe.
The quiet periods between battles are the sections which drive the story; there’s usually an answer phone message or PC data from which you glean a little more insight into Armacham’s totally shady dealings. The plot has been written to work perfectly in bite sized chunks like this; through the drip feed of info you gradually learn the truth, without the plot becoming a bloated mess of conspiracy nonsense. At the end of the game, it does all make sense. Or at least as much sense as a game about an evil girl and clone soldiers can make.
And then of course there’s the matter of the little girl. You’ll be quite happily walking along minding your own business when it all goes weird. Your radio picks up crackly interference when paranormal stuff is going down. When stuff starts to get freaky even Point Man gets a little scared; He’s too manly to scream but he’s not above some heavy breathing exercises.
Alma is essentially that girl from The Ring, if instead of a videotape she’d made a game. Lights go out, stuff falls of shelves and Alma tends to whisper stuff in your ears a lot. That’s in a creepy way rather than an “Awesome, there’s a girl whispering in my ear” way, before you say anything. The game does everything it can to freak you out.
And it works, too. First time I reached “the ladder” must have been about 1 in the morning and I thought it was a good idea to play with the lights off. Had to calm down with some Theme Hospital after that. I don’t want to give away actual examples for fear of ruining their impact, but suffice to say anyone who has played FEAR remembers the ladder in question.
It isn’t a psychological horror by any means. After a while you learn the rhythm of combat to scares to combat, meaning you can almost guess when the next scary bit is coming. And the setpiece nature of the scares means that on replays you’re expecting them. But for shock value the game really does well first time through.
The nasty split between Monolith and Sierra wasn't kind to FEAR's legacy, sadly. Sierra churned out two expansions and various consoles ports. The expansions were perfectly serviceable, but their stories weren’t nearly as interesting. Extraction Point deals with your attempts to get a lift back to base after the first game ends, while Perseus Mandate delves into the origin of the clones some more. FEAR2 ignores these games anyway, and they’re considered some dodgy alternate reality.
So, if like Cutts you’ve never played FEAR, go buy a copy. It’s brilliant. Oh, and if you’re an FPS developer, play FEAR and ask yourself why your melee combat isn’t as awesome as this.