Fight Endlessly Amongst Repetition.
Find Exit And Repeat.
Features Endless Architectural Recursion.
Obviously, this is one of those acronyms where they chose the word before deciding what each letter stood for. One of the most fun things about F.E.A.R. is that you can spend hours fleshing out that acronym, coming up with better results than the official version. F.E.A.R., Monolith’s first person shooter/psychological horror game, is short for “First Encounter Assault Recon”, the special forces team you play as a member of. It is a title that dares you to make sense of it, as it is full of vague contradictions. The only way I can rationalize this title as the name of a strike team is if I were to imagine them as a group of soldiers who just wander around, looking for something they have never seen before. When the soldiers eventually find something new (first encounter), they shoot it (assault), and then go over to the new thing they just killed/broke and glean information from it somehow (recon).
Ultimately, it’s easier to suggest that Monolith chose “F.E.A.R.” because they wanted a spooky name for a spooky game. Once you learn what the F.E.A.R. team does, this motive seems all the more plausible: F.E.A.R. is a secret unit that specifically targets paranormal threats to national security. Seems like there should be a P somewhere in their name, doesn’t it? Also, this broad, sentence-long description is all you learn about them. There’s no indication of past deeds or anything. It would have been nice to see a plaque somewhere commemorating a record number of captured sasquatches. Perhaps some radio banter, where a senior officer snidely asks the team to not repeat the mistake from that one time with the poltergeist? How about a framed photo of the team posing over a freshly-slain shuggoth? Nope, nothing. We have no idea who these guys are, or even if they’re any good at their job, and yet, they are eponymous.
F.E.A.R. is investigating/assaulting/being-first-to-encounter a man named Paxton Fettel. Fettel commands an army of psychically-controlled clone soldiers. He also eats people to gain their knowledge (Yum mmm nom nom). Fettel’s been very naughty, and someone has to stop him. Since all of his antics are enough to designate him as a “paranormal threat”, he falls under your team’s jurisdiction.
You’re a silent protagonist, so we can forgive any holes in the player’s character, as they are like the holes in a shirt that you would stick your head and arms through. You’re new to the team, and this is your first mission. In the intro, one of the other members says that your reflexes are “off the charts”, and this is your one distinguishing feature. It serves to explain why the player is capable of slowing down time during the game. Your role in the F.E.A.R. team is “Point Man”, which would mean something if you were travelling in a group. You spend most of your time alone, assaulting clones, recon-ing laptops and answering machines, and generally being the first to encounter something. On rare occasions, you’ll briefly meet up with other team members, and split off almost immediately.
F.E.A.R.‘s gameplay features were typical for a first-person shooter from 2005. You have health and armor levels that do not regenerate, which I’m all in favor of. Whenever I have regenerating health in an FPS, I don’t mind getting hurt. I know I can just take a few hits, wait a few seconds behind some cover, and then I’ll be all fine. Being indifferent to the consequences takes me out of the immersion of a game. It also seems weird to me that you would have regenerative superpowers, and nobody ever mentions it. However, F.E.A.R. also allows you to carry up to 10 medkits for recovering your health. This would work well if they were scarce, but they are quite abundant. I found myself constantly ignoring the medkits I would find because I was already carrying enough of them (I was playing it on the hard difficulty, too!).
F.E.A.R.‘s central gameplay mechanic is the ability to slow down time, known as Bullet Time in the game industry. Bullet Time allows you to make quick maneuvers, and ensure you always have the first shot when exposing yourself the enemy. It used to be a popular game mechanic in the early ’00s, and it was a good one. It eventually fell out of favor in the game industry. Overuse rendered it as cliché to critics, and a general shift in focus to multiplayer made it impractical to incorporate. I appreciate the few games that implement it nowadays.
If you take the time to explore every nook, crevice, tunnel, and closet, you might discover some glowing syringes hidden out of sight. These items grant permanent bonuses; the blue ones increase your maximum health, and the green ones allow you to slow everything down for longer stretches of time. This immediately raises a question: are your extraordinary reflexes, your one defining attribute, the result of natural talent, or years of drug abuse? Furthermore, is it really wise to be injecting yourself with these in the first place? You don’t know where they’ve been, and where they are now isn’t usually very pleasant. How desperate for a booster fix can you get? Hey, what’s this thing wedged in the corner of this rusted, smelly sewer? Why, it’s a hypodermic needle, filled with an unmarked, glowing, blue liquid! GET IN MY VEINS RIGHT THIS INSTANT!
A major problem with F.E.A.R. as an action game is the lack of diversity in the enemies. Over 80% of the enemies you encounter in the game are Fettel’s clone troopers. There are other enemies, such as armored soldiers, stealthy acrobatic assassins, turrets, mechs, security goons, and supernatural spectres, but they are rare. However, the clone troopers make for good opponents, and are frequently fun to fight. One of F.E.A.R.‘s strong points is the enemy AI. The clones are coordinated, and communicate with one another. It helps to listen to what they say during combat, as the things they say can provide you with strategic information, such as when the enemy decides to advance, how many members are left in a squad, or if a grenade is coming over to have a chat.
F.E.A.R. also features a good assortment of fun toys (deadly weapons) to play with. Aside from all of the standard-issue stuff you see in every FPS, there are a few unconventional weapons. One weapon, the Penetrator, fires large metal stakes that are capable of pinning an enemy to a wall. Some of the more rare weapons include a launcher that fires a trio of rockets each time you pull the trigger, and an energy beam weapon that can transform people into skeleton people. I found myself using the humble shotgun more often than the others; it packs a punch, and the range is perfect for the game’s mostly-indoor environments. As a bonus, approximately every 1 out of 10 times, a shotgun blast will inexplicably convert an enemy into a chunky red cloud. There are also a few different melee attacks: you can strike an enemy with the butt of your gun, perform a sliding kick, or leap at an enemy and pretend you’re riding a recumbent bicycle. A melee attack can drop a clone in one hit. Since most enemies turn into ragdolls when defeated, it can be fun to slide-kick into an enemy, immediately launching him across the room.