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F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon (Windows)

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87
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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
4.0
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Written by  :  Sharafciger (26)
Written on  :  Mar 15, 2011
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars4.86 Stars

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Summary

F.E.A.R. = Fulfilling Expectations And Revolutionizing

The Good

*Notice: This is long, but this game made so many fundamental advancements in the genre, I feel the need to explain why it deserves praise as one of the best FPS's of all time*

Welcome to every one of your boyhood fantasies regarding guns, explosions and armed combat being represented in a video game.

Every fire fight in this game, no matter how insignificant, has more bullets flying, shell casings ejecting, bodies dropping, blood spraying, debris zooming, sparks raining, concrete dust clouds floating and highly-flammable objects exploding than every single Jerry Bruckheimer film combined. It’s just a wonderful blend of destructive power and kinetic forces that leaves a very satisfying taste in your mouth. Especially post-battle, when you stroll through a typical office floor after you’ve slugged it out with Replica forces, and find it littered with enemy corpses, blood splatters all over the place, chunks of concrete literally dug out of the walls and clouds of pulverized building materials hanging in the air. There’s no better feeling in a first-person shooter than simply enjoying the results of your handiwork and F.E.A.R. really does give you an atmosphere to bask in that’ll make you feel like a real-life Ninja.

There’s no way to describe the combat in F.E.A.R. without using the words visceral, chaotic and intense. The game’s battles have all the ingredients casual and hard-core FPS gamers need: enough explosive energy to orbit the USS Nimitz, a varied arsenal of tactically-purposeful weaponry, plenty of opportunities to cater to your particular shooting style (e.g. Camper or Rambo) and enemies that’ll give you a run for your money (especially on the higher difficulties, where they’ll dish out just as much damage as you can; ouch.)

Much praise has to be given to the excellent Lithtech Jupiter EX engine which F.E.A.R. utilizes, and its incredible particle effects, volumetric lighting, soft shadows and physics simulation. It’s basically these 4 factors which make the combat sequences in F.E.A.R. so damned fun and cinematic.

Fellow FPS competitors in 2005 such as: Halo 2, Call of Duty 2 and Quake 4, were fairly “traditional” titles that didn’t stray outside of the box. Their only real innovations were more emphasis on vehicular-based combat, and enhanced multiplayer. Otherwise, they retold the formula of their predecessor titles.

F.E.A.R. not only scared you psychologically, instead of reflexively (e.g. Doom 3’s predictable “Monster Closets”), with its blend of Japanese-influenced horror and lucid hallucination sequences, but gave you incredibly well-programmed A.I. that battled like a professional fighting force. I would go so far as to say that as of 2010, F.E.A.R.’s A.I. still only has a few rivals in mainstream FPS games. Instead of meat shields standing around waiting to have their heads popped off, the Replica brought the fight to you. They flanked you whenever you decided to camp for a few seconds, they threw objects like tables or shelves around to create makeshift cover, they sprayed suppressive fire from behind walls and corners without peaking their heads over them, grenades were lobbed right into your lap to flush you out when you took shelter and they always, ALWAYS advanced towards you. Not to mention, their situational awareness rivals anything seen in previous FPS games; remember how in Battlefield 1942 or Star Wars: Battlefront, you could snipe a bot standing right next to another one who wouldn’t even blink? You’ll think twice before approaching a group of Replica with your flashlight turned on, as they’ll see the beam from a mile away. Just when you think you’ve gotten the drop on one of their team mates who’s hidden from their view, you’ll hear an electronically-distorted voice go: “Not getting a response, check it out!” and the rest of the squad will search for their missing member whom they’ve lost radio contact with. Their individual movement animations are even more eye-catching, and totally out of context for most FPS’s. Like something right out of Jet Li film, they’ll vault over ledges or railings and fling themselves through windows, climb up and down ladders or even duck out of the way of incoming rockets, showcasing their incredible flexibility to adapt to any environment. They are a frighteningly competent fighting force in a genre that for the most part, has been dominated by A.I. that has the tactical prowess of orangutans with guns. At several points in the single player campaign, it honestly felt as though I was playing online with actual humans; the A.I. really was that surprising and well scripted.

Speaking of fighting, hand-to-hand combat in F.E.A.R. is no longer just clobbering people with a rifle butt (although just to be familiar, you can still do that). You can execute three, Tae Kwon Do-style, acrobatic kicks (that are not just there to look flashy, they will kill most enemies with one blow), you can also literally power slide into your enemy’s legs and bowl them over and you can slow down time. Yes, “Reflex Time” as it’s referred to in F.E.A.R., is the unnamed, undescribed protagonist’s most overwhelming advantage against the Replica forces (the reason he possesses these almost psychic reflexes will become abundantly clear to you near the end of the game). It functions exactly like “Bullet Time” in Max Payne or The Matrix, but by collecting numerous reflex boosters scattered throughout the game, you can enhance the duration of the effect. Wonderfully useful in side-stepping out of the way of incoming rockets, sniping moving targets or just going on a melee frenzy and kicking heads left, right and center.

The distortion and blur effects during “Reflex Time”, especially the rippling shock waves created by explosions or bullets whizzing past your head, really give a cinematic feel to the action, making you feel exactly like The Matrix’s Neo bum-rushing a couple of Agent Smiths.

The “movie-like” feel is further emphasized by a wonderful cacophony of destructive sound effects. Sound design and effects are particularly crucial in transporting a gamer from his swivel-back computer chair into a world of ballistic brutality. F.E.A.R. does not fall short in this aspect either, all of the guns from the humble sub-machinegun, to the token, pump-action shotgun right up to the wacky and futuristic “Type-7 Particle Weapon”, which is basically a vaporizing death ray with a scope, sound just like you’d expect them to: mean and powerful. I especially loved the high-pitched, rapid shriek of the sub-machinegun, the metallic “KA-CHUNK” noise of the Repeating Cannon rotating it’s barrels and the remotely detonated mines, which when combined with a couple of explosive barrels, just create an orgasmic mixture of fiery explosion noises that really do feel like you’re standing 30ft away from a blast (not to mention the sound of Replica flesh being liquefied by blast waves… it gets more satisfying each time you hear it). It’s not just the sound of the arsenal that’ll have you feeling like you’re in a Michael Mann film, there’s also wonderfully apt environmental ambiance and sound effects from physics-enabled objects that’ll also add to the mayhem of fire fights. For example, shooting different surfaces in this game produces different noises. If you fire a round into wood, you’ll hear a dull, muffled “thud” but fire a round into a cardboard box and it’ll rip right through with a big “WHOOSH”. Better yet, try shooting an electrical fuse box and watch the cover blow several feet off and electrical sparks rain down in the vicinity, complete with very nice sounding “crackling” noises. Blowing chunks of concrete out of office walls I never grew tired of, the earthy crumbling and bouncing rocks accompanying anything explosive hitting a wall was music to my ears. There are so many subtle niceties in the game’s sound effects that just add up in conjunction with all the visual eye-candy this game offers during gun battles to create a very believable and realistic representation of close-quarters combat.

Something particularly never-before-seen, and very overlooked, that F.E.A.R pioneered and got absolutely no credit for (but which has since become commonplace) is the TRUE first-person perspective. No longer do you feel like you’re simply controlling a levitating gun with a pair of hands grasping it. All of your limbs are clearly visible when you look downward at your own body and animate when you walk, run, jump, execute kicks, reload, or crouch. In several scripted sequences, you’ll even witness your own body being tossed around like a ragdoll through the air from the first person perspective, complete with your arms and legs flailing wildly. Not only that, but the game puts a significant emphasis on keeping you in first-person perspective throughout the whole ordeal to suck you into the atmosphere. There are no real cinematics to break the ambiance (apart from the intro), no big, unwieldy HUD interfaces or inventory management menus, only some short hallucinations (which are still in-game) and pre-rendered flashbacks to the F.E.A.R. Point Man’s past. F.E.A.R. really does insist on eliminating the sense of “detachedness” and definitely upped the ante with the immersion factor more so than any other previous FPS with the exception of Half-Life 2.

Moving on to the story, well it’s nowhere near as ground-breaking as the actual gameplay but it deserves praise in that, while it quite freely plagiarizes John Woo’s directing style, Hollywood blockbusters, Japanese horror films like The Ring/The Grudge and bits and pieces of the Survival Horror genre, it’s sufficiently unique in the realm of the FPS to pretty much stand out (to this day) from any other title. Although the premise of a Special Forces unit dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena (hence, First Encounter Assault Recon) is quite obviously a lame mixture of the X-Files and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, there’s a very humane and emotional tale of suffering and abuse at the heart of the storyline with regards to Alma, the little girl who is basically the centrepiece of what transpires in the single player campaign. Very few FPS’s, and again Half-Life 2 is the only one that quickly springs to mind, manage to successfully give the player at least some sense of sympathy and understanding in what motivates the game’s adversaries the act the way do. Usually it’s just: this is the bad guy, he’s certifiably insane, kill him and ask questions later. Alma’s background is pretty revolutionary because of the fact she is just a child and yet your primary source of conflict in the game, and this does take the storyline into some pretty deep waters (particularly concerning her forced impregnation and torturous captivity at the hands of Armacham). Such a serious shift is completely out of character for an FPS, let alone most other genres but a pretty brave step I felt and a welcomed one, instead of the traditional Humans Vs. Inhuman mantra (e.g. Aliens, Nazis, Terrorists, etc.). Alma’s actions seem inexplicably hell-bent at first, but later are revealed to be a product of her twisted childhood as part of Armacham’s research into psychically-enhanced soldiers. Armacham Technology Corporation (ATC) is the stereotypical, ruthlessly unethical, mega-corporation that will pursue its own radical goals at any cost, that includes life and limb.

Mid-way through the game Alma turns out to be increasingly supportive of you as you progress, even helping rescue you from danger; this sudden change of heart is later revealed to be no mere accident or coincidence (don’t want to reveal too much here). On top of that, Paxton Fettel, the second primary antagonist, fulfils of the role of the “evil-for-the-sake-of-evil” arch-nemesis who telepathically controls the Replica forces (cloned, psychically-enhanced, “Super Soldiers”). He was part of secretive US military programs to develop cloned soldiers who could be remotely commanded. His menacing threats and demented rantings throughout the game (experienced via hallucinations) don’t really help explain his motivations in breaking free from the shackles of Armacham and but he does make a stunning revelation at the end of the game which will have you going “Oooooh, I should have guessed that”. The rest of the F.E.A.R. team who you sporadically encounter at the start of some levels are a pretty forgettable host of characters, aside from Rowdy Betters (Really? Rowdy as a first name?), the F.E.A.R. team’s leader who will talk to you via radio continually, giving you intelligence & reconnaissance updates; his voice acting and delivery I found very convincing for the “veteran, career military officer” type. Other stand-outs in the story were the unseen characters (another FPS rarity) of Genevieve Aristide, the lady with a fittingly pompous name at the head of Armacham, whom you only familiarize yourself with through a few phone message recordings and Harlan Wade, the bitter, old scientist at the head of the research efforts for Project Origin & Perseus (the above mentioned secret military programs) who is in continual conflict with Genevieve over her carelessness (revealed through a series of rather hilarious, and very hostile voice-mail messages). Although hardly fleshed out, Genevieve was very well integrated into the story as a continual source of blame for the events that allowed the Replica forces under Fettel’s command to break free from the “Origin Facility” and wreak havoc, despite the numerous warnings other characters gave her. The ending was brilliantly done and basically ties in all the themes that were briefly touched upon throughout the story, to form a cohesive timeline of what really happened, as well as revealing the surprising, hidden past of the F.E.A.R. “Point Man” that was the focal point of the game’s events. A few holes and questions will abound at the end of the game, but hey, I don't like to be spoon fed monologues; I'd much rather leave the unanswered questions as building blocks for an even better sequel.

Now, this point has had me stumped ever since I finished the game. The last big plus I’m going to discuss about the game was hardly ever mentioned in any serious reviews, and why it was overlooked is beyond me as it’s hard to play through more than a few battle sequences in F.E.A.R. without nodding your head in sync to the wonderfully intense, dramatic, militarily-austere soundtrack blaring in the background that just makes you feel as if you’re recreating every Hollywood action-film cliché. This is one of the best composed, videogame soundtracks I have heard in a game, period. Only The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the Command & Conquer Series, Half-Life 2, Halo, Mechwarrior 2, Age of Empires II and perhaps Rome Total War are on the same level, but they were composed by much larger, well-off developers who hired the services of top-level, professional composers and famed orchestras (including some who’d done Hollywood film scores). F.E.A.R.’s entire soundtrack, which is on the order of 2 hours long, was composed by someone called Nathan Grigg (good luck Googling anything about him), who’s only sound design experience prior to F.E.A.R. was Alien Vs. Predator 2 (which to be fair had a very good soundtrack similar to the Alien films) and Condemned: Criminal Origins. More surprising is the fact that he hasn’t composed a videogame soundtrack since F.E.A.R. Extraction Point in 2006, and yet he somehow managed to produce this truly epic, melodic blend of military drum beats, haunting and dark electronic ambient music and action-film inspired electronic guitar riffs; which really is impossible to describe but which will nevertheless have you hooked from that hauntingly beautiful song that accompanies the introductory cinematic. You have to listen to it for yourself, in my opinion the man would easily get an Oscar nomination in another line of work that got more commercial recognition. His soundtrack fits in seamlessly with every single level, it gives every fire fight, every tense hallucination/nightmare sequence and every disconcerting recon walk through dark, foreboding corridors the perfect atmosphere. I can’t overstate enough how good this soundtrack is. Nathan Grigg has a knack for timing and attention to detail that is uncanny. He knows how to put you into the shoes of a one-man army a la The Terminator and how to put you into the mood to just go all gung-ho like a 12-year old Counter-Strike player and lose any impulse control. He can take you on an acoustical roller-coaster from Almighty to Zombie-film terror in a matter of seconds.

The Bad

Let’s get this out of the way: Level design is not this game’s forte. This will become abundantly clear to you by even half-way through the game; as you’ll feel like you’ve walked along those abandoned office cubicles, warehouse aisles and industrial catwalks for the umpteenth time. The game will take place in one of three locales (for the most part): an abandoned warehouse complex located in a dock, an abandoned office complex located in a skyscraper and an abandoned apartment complex. See a pattern here? It’s hard to think of the endless, gray-walled corridors and ridiculously identical workplaces (seriously, the same desks, furniture, shelves, chairs, doors, floor tiles, etc…) as being anything else than claustrophobic, repetitive and boring.

Occasionally you’ll stumble upon some wide open spaces, like perhaps an office courtyard or a big loading dock, which are primarily used to trigger big set-piece battles with lots of Replica, but aside from that it’s just a never-ending grind of corridor mazes, run-of-the-mill offices, cubicles and cramped service/maintenance areas or shafts.

I can’t fault Monolith for choosing these particular settings as part of their storyline (indeed many other FPSs have used these kinds of generic settings with great success) , but I do criticize them for not breaking up the monotony. There are an infinite number of ways F.E.A.R.’s levels could be made more interesting: the rooftop and garage battles at the Armacham Headquarters were novel but far too short, they could have been expanded to give the player a chance to spend more time outside of the office labyrinths. The dilapidated Auburn apartment complex provided a great opportunity to allow the player to use non-linear approaches and hidden paths to reach objectives and outsmart his enemies (after all, it was a crumbling apartment block); a sort of urban-warfare feel to F.E.A.R. instead of just cramped room-to-room combat, but this was rarely emphasised (aside from a section of this level involving Replica snipers in apartment windows).

The linearity in this game isn’t all consuming though, as F.E.A.R. quite often gave the player a choice of 2 or sometimes 3 approaches to a particular problem (much like Far Cry): the direct way, which usually involved taking Replica head-on, and thus the most difficult solution but yet the fastest. Or the indirect way, in which you might sneak through an air-conditioning duct or inside ceilings and end up right in the enemy’s flank, or climb a hidden ladder to reach a high vantage point from which you could snipe. These were really needed breaths of fresh air in the later levels, as the combat did get fairly tedious, especially when you started facing large numbers of the more heavily armored Replica. However, when the game wanted to force you into a scripted sequence or a difficult, unfair skirmish with the odds stacked against you, it always would, which I hated. Particularly the way doors, elevators or previously accessible walkways would magically block themselves off, thus alerting you to the fact that some serious crap was about to go down and it was time to engage “Duke Nukem mode”.

I won’t complain about the steep system requirements (at the time of release), which was a common theme in reviews, as that’s really up to the consumer to be fully aware of his system’s performance before he buys any game for which he doesn’t meet the minimum requirements, as well as the fact that F.E.A.R. set a pretty high standard to follow which only helps the industry in the long-term. One last thing I would like throw in though is that this story and the succession of expansions/sequels could have been so much more; they really could have rivalled the Half-Life or the Call of Duty series as one of the greatest FPS franchises of all time. Unfortunately, every single sequel to F.E.A.R. (Extraction Point, Perseus Mandate and F.E.A.R. Project Origin 2) as of 2010 has fallen far short of the original game’s depth and intensity. Most seem extremely rushed, unpolished and a regurgitation of previously explored ideas and yes, I have played through all of them, being the die-hard fan the first game turned me into. I’ll leave it at that, but sufficed to say, this is another example of where a small-time developer like Monolith, who toiled in obscurity for most of its lifetime and had only released 2 noticeable titles before F.E.A.R. (Blood & AVP:2), entered the big leagues too soon, and were wholly unprepared for the level of attention and the fanbase they received. Being inexperienced with managing the production budgets, razor-thin schedules and large human resources that an industry leading software developer needs to have, they sold themselves out and bowed down to the commercializing requests from the larger, more cunning Warner Bros & Vivendi (in exchange for bigger profit margins), who drastically changed the direction of development after F.E.A.R. was released. Now, Monolith have simply resorted to mimicking the established, greedy heavyweights like Electronic Arts and sunk to that familiar routine in the gaming industry of milking a cash cow for all it’s worth with horrible sequel after horrible sequel (giving false hopes of achieving what the original game did) because they’re just glad to have finally “made it” and now want to bask in the profits of a 5 year old game forever. It’s a disturbing trend that’s repeating itself with teams like Crytek and Infinity Ward.

The Bottom Line

With a very commendable 12 “intervals” of game play totalling some 12 to 15 hours of solid playing time, this is just a shooter you cannot pass up or refuse to indulge in. If you consider yourself an FPS fan who wants to have the privilege of saying he’s experienced all of the classics, all of the ground-breakers that set precedents for every successive developer to follow: YOU MUST PLAY THIS GAME. It’s so good you can almost smell the gun-smoke in the air, you can feel the violent concussive effects of grenade explosions and with a decent sound card/speakers combination, your ears will come as close as near as makes no difference to actually listening to a high-calibre assault rifle or shotgun being fired inches away from your face and bullets ricocheting off walls and ceilings.

If we boil first-person shooters down to their basic elements, it’s all about guns. Yes, guns. How guns look on your screen, how they work, how they interact with the objects or entities they destroy, how they sound, how purposeful they are to your fire-power requirements, how much learning time you need to become proficient with them, how their strengths and weaknesses relate to the different enemies you’ll face and how they fit into the atmosphere the player resides in. Firing a gun, in real-life, is a loud, violent, mesmerizing experience and what F.E.A.R. has done is concentrated on bringing that home to you.

Guns, explosions, violence, tactical strategy, triumphant military music, urban warfare, The Matrix, all-out, no holds-barred aggression and wiping the floor with your enemies. If any of these preceding adjectives or statements takes your fancy… just play the damn game and enjoy the heck out of it.