We've been thinking rather a lot about fear lately - the emotion, that is, rather than the game. Because for all that Doom 3 made us jump with fright and surprise, true fear is a more difficult thing to provoke in a player. It takes timing. Suspense. Imagination.
First Encounter Assault and Recon (F.E.A.R.) could be the most terrifying experience since Thief: Deadly Shadow's infamous Cradle level. Despite putting you in the role of a tooled-up terrorist-basher, the game pulls the rug of trigger-happy invincibility out from under your feet with a supernatural presence beyond the rules of bullets and swift death. The ghostly girl, around whom violence and gore explode in showers, is an unexplained, rarely seen force, and terror is born from the unexpected, the unknown, the uncontrollable.
Initially, however, things are more predictable (albeit still hugely impressive). Your counter-terrorist unit faces bad guys in tight, twisting indoor locations. Hardly a new premise, but dragged into the 21st century using an all-new graphics engine, not Monolith's traditional Lithtech gubbins. Shadows, particles, lighting effects, physics and ragdolling are all deeply convincing. Time will tell how long Half-Life 2 will sit at the top of the visuals tree.
F.E.A.R. may well end up being a truly horrifying experience, but it'll be a disappointment if the action fails to live up to its early promise. A mouthwatering arsenal of vaguely futuristic weaponry, including automatic rifles, sub-machineguns and grenades, promises satisfying gunplay; but there's more to the combat than this. Monolith are attempting to incorporate hand-to-hand fighting too, an ambitious element which we've yet to see work appreciably in an FPS. Depending where you're aiming when close to an enemy, and depending on whether you're moving, crouching, running or jumping, a context-appropriate attack will be delivered, thus keeping the interface simple at a moment when timing is everything.
Add player-controlled, slow-motion effects and a dose of film influences, and F.E.A.R. becomes a very exciting prospect. Monolith's experience with TRON 2.0, No One Lives Forever 2 and Aliens Versus Predator 2 demonstrates they have the ability to create a consistently atmospheric experience, not just another shooter with fancy effects. Anyone else working on an FPS for next year should be afraid.
F.E.A.R. is out on PC in 2005