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The classic game appreciation section: F.E.A.R.

So it’s 2005. I’ve recently seen F.E.A.R. played on my friend's PC. It looks very, very special indeed. And even better, my friend’s PC isn’t as good as mine, so there’s no way I’m not going to be able to run it. So I buy a copy. And it doesn’t run. It turns out that my rig's specs trump my friend’s in every respect but graphics card. Mine is about as powerful as a piece of toast. Sad times.

So I have two options. I can either take F.E.A.R. back to the shop with my tail between my legs, or man up, invest in some upgrades, and take the full plunge back into serious PC gaming territory. Naturally, I do the latter, and £150, one afternoon of tinkering and 120 frames per second later, we're in business. Was a single FPS worth all of that? Damn right it was. Now listen up and I’ll tell you exactly why.


Atmospheric disturbance

 “Stark”. That is the word for F.E.A.R. From the very first playable scene, in which you and your squad-mates quietly gain entry to the abandoned building currently sheltering Paxton Fettel, psychic madman and enemy commander at the centre of the whole supernatural maelstrom that is F.E,A.R.’s plot, it’s clear that this is a cold game.

Above: The opening score is a goosebump-frenzy  

Taking place in an under-saturated world, life and light pulled out of it by the kind of stale, overcast skies that can force you to use a torch outdoors during the daytime, F.E.A.R.’s opening is a quiet, understated one. Underplayed dialogue plays out intermitted over long, quiet periods of exploration. Brief, ambient soundscapes punctuate the silence, rarely, but with supreme effectiveness. The stillness of the atmosphere permeates everything you see, hear and interact with, the only sharp or sudden movement coming from F.E.A.R.’s still viscerally-affecting dynamic light and shadow system.

It’s stifling and electrifying all at the same time, and that’s a quality that F.E.A.R. maintains throughout, simultaneously choking you with its atmosphere but adrenalising you with a knife-edge tension.


The horror, the horror

F.E.A.R. isn’t a survival horror game. It’s an FPS through and through. One of the most visceral and air-punchingly cinematic ever made, in fact. But six years ago it achieved what many developers still find impossible. It makes a brutal, immediate shooter a simultaneously terrifying physiological experience without ever hampering either side of the equation. Monolith built a strong reputation for horror game development with the Condemned series, but it cemented that reputation with F.E.A.R. And for all its unsettling achievements since, that first encounter has never been topped.

How does Monolith make its horror delivery just so damnably affecting? As a big horror fan myself, it’s obvious that the developer understands how this stuff really works. Direction, pacing and atmosphere. They’re what it’s all about.  But while that’s a simple list of check-boxes to reel off, making them work in an interactive medium isn’t easy at all. Not if you’re going to do it right.

Unless you’re going to take the lazy Call of Duty route and regularly take control away from the player in favour of automated camera control, one of the toughest but most under-rated skills to master in first-person game design is making sure that the player is looking in the right place in the right time in order to effectively catch whatever environmental set-pieces you’ve decided to deliver. In horror, there’s even more to consider. Timing. Subtlety. The element of surprise. The building of almost subconscious ambient tension. Predicting the player’s gameplay reactions to the scares and accommodating them. There’s so much to think about if you’re really going to do it properly that it becomes elevated to the level of an art form. And in F.E.A.R., Monolith had that mastered with razor-sharp finesse.

There are no closet monsters here. No big toothy things exploding through windows. No cheap weapon-removing contrivance. F.E.A.R.’s horror direction is all about the subliminal, the subtle, the things just caught out of the corner of your eye that you really, really hope you imagined. Alma, F.E.A.R.’s creepy little girl ghost, has been mistakenly referred to as a Sadako rip-off numerous times, but her persona and the way she is used are far removed from the big-eyed, TV-birthing, broken bodied horror of Ringu’s antagonist. She won’t come barrelling down a corridor towards you, or scrabble at you with her fingernails in the dark. Her mere presence is all that is needed.

Quiet, solemn, almost mournful in her stillness, she’s an intangible presence both invading your world at the same time never really existing within it. You’ll catch a glimpse of her through a doorway as you turn a corner. You might hear a sign of her presence upon walking into a room dripping with the morbid aftermath of a recent bloodbath. You’ll inspect a computer or check out an item on a shelf, and then casually turn around to see her silently watching you through a window to the room you were in previously. You’ll try to reach her, but the second your view of her is obscured by wall or door, she’ll be gone. She comes and goes without flashes of light or noise-erupting announcement. She’s just there, and then she’s not there, and she’s then often both at the same time. Sometimes you might miss her. You’ll almost certainly think you saw her when you didn’t. But you’ll always feel her influence.

There’s no predictability to F.E.A.R.’s pacing. No swirling musical lead-ins to jump-scares, or grunge-like quiet bit/loud bit repetition. F.E.A.R. constantly subverts your expectations. Tension-wreaking noisescapes often lead to nothing, and the most unsettling moments occurring at the quietest times. Except of course, when they don’t…

But atmosphere and ghosts aren’t the only scary things in F.E.A.R. No, much like in real life, some of the most intimidating and dangerous elements in F.E.A.R’s world come from the cold, calculating intelligence of the human mind. And that’s something that the game simulates with terrifying believability.

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41 comments

  • saintjordan - August 14, 2011 1:03 p.m.

    I didn't get to play Doom 3, so I only heard stories how scary it was. F.E.A.R. I played, and it sure scared the living daylights out of me. And it was a great FPS game, which I only got to appreciate after finishing it, and somehow, the scare factor was no longer there the second time (and countless times afterward)since I knew when Monolith would play tricks on me. Without the scare factor, I was able to play it as great FPS game, not as a scary FPS game. There is a cheat where you can make your slow motion bar longer, and I maxed it out, really maxed it out, and it was slow mo heaven. There is this stage where you enter a room full of enemies, and I would really just charge in, in slow mo, with a shotgun, and a full load of grenades... FPS heaven.
  • TheJHat - July 22, 2011 1:51 a.m.

    F.E.A.R. is still one of my all time favorites.
  • gilgamesh310 - July 18, 2011 4:29 p.m.

    @ZigzMagoo, my arse it is. Play Amnesia. That's the scariest game ever created, and it hardly gets any attention :(
  • gilgamesh310 - July 18, 2011 4:26 p.m.

    ParanoidAndroid, to put it simply, no, the 360 version is a rather poor port. As well as the graphics being inferior, the controls are poorly mapped and it's just not the same without a mouse and keyboard.The ability to be able to shoot grenades in mid air is almost impossible with a control pad, as are a lot of the other activities. The game was bred for the PC, where as the rest were console games.
  • StonedMagician99 - July 15, 2011 8:35 p.m.

    While I don't agree that F.E.A.R. 3 was a CoD clone, I do agree that F.E.A.R. is one of the greatest FPSs of all time. Great article, sir!
  • Groocifer - July 15, 2011 6:01 p.m.

    I enjoyed F.E.A.R., but not half as much as most of the other posters on here. Admittedly I have only played it on the 360 (my PC wishes it was as powerful as a piece of toast), but I just didn't find it as scary as I hoped... whereas Condemned - a game that never seems to get the love I think it deserves - made me mess myself. Frequently.
  • CanadianBeaverHunter - July 15, 2011 4:38 p.m.

    "So I buy a copy. And it doesn’t run. It turns out that my rig's specs trump my friend’s in every respect but graphics card. Mine is about as powerful as a piece of toast. Sad times." Been there.
  • philipshaw - July 15, 2011 1:12 p.m.

    Headline is spot on, played this when it came out but it was the last game I played on my P.C before I switched to console gaming
  • bass88 - July 15, 2011 12:34 p.m.

    I really enjoyed F.E.A.R. I remember almost filling my underwear when I got onto a ladder and saw young Alma standing right in front of me before disappearing. And then the bit where Fettel shoots himself and all enemies are still. I was just expecing them to turn on me when I was halfway. Very suspenseful. The part where older, skinnier, naked Alma is released is terrifying too. And thank you for saying Sadako and Ringu. I remember being pissed at reviews and articles for comparing her to Samara from The Ring. If you want to compare a horror game to a movie, pick the scary (and good) one.
  • gamerkx - July 15, 2011 10:33 a.m.

    loved this game ! this was back when the F.E.A.R. series was still scary !
  • faraany3k - July 15, 2011 9:56 a.m.

    Awesome article. I must add this game has a completely free multiplayer component aswell. Try that out instead if you are competitive type. http://www.fearcombat.org/
  • lordvader178 - July 15, 2011 8:46 a.m.

    F.E.A.R is quite possible the best 360 game I ever played. i've been through it 50+ times and it just amazes me at how it's better then every other game i've played so far. The AI, the setting, the story. Nothing has beaten FEAR yet and I doubt anything will. For those of you who havnt played it, do yourself a favour and do it. You won't regret it because it's such an amazing game.
  • Yeager1122 - July 15, 2011 6:20 a.m.

    Ive only played a little of the first F.E.A.R i liked the little i played.
  • Imgema - July 15, 2011 5:26 a.m.

    The first FEAR just felt right to me. Even though most of the game took place in offices and other similar environments, it still managed to get me hooked. Its a shame that the sequels aren't as good. Its another example of the decline in gaming quality the last 5-6 years.
  • decxan - July 15, 2011 1:38 a.m.

    Love this game. Same story with me, friend had it on his pc then I got it on my xbox and just fell in love with the gameplay. Still play it now and again with a few beers trying to unlock achievements. Dont know what happenned with the last 2 games, different developers?
  • Valcrist - July 14, 2011 10:54 p.m.

    I think I have a new favorite feature here, great job as usual, and just like the other commenters, I´m off to get F.E.A.R. as well
  • Spybreak8 - July 14, 2011 9:55 p.m.

    I played the demo way back when back in college. My college roommate watched behind me for all but the whole demo. The part where Alma freaks you out by appearing after you come down and swing around from the ladder he said I can't take this anymore it's too f'n scary! Haha the last game I played with the lights off and with 5.1 surround sound was Doom 3. FEAR and Doom 3, games that any FPS fan must play for sure. I'd throw in RE4 onto that list but the controls are horrible. Here's hoping the remake this year fixes that but I'm not hoping too much since Japanese devs just don't get it sometimes.
  • Enclave84 - July 14, 2011 9:53 p.m.

    I remember seeing this in the gamestop and picking it up, although it was for 360 not much changed. As for the sequals, the add ons for the first are excellent, the second in the series is okay....and as the look back said, don't even bother with the third in the franchise. Then again, it wasn't made by monolith but rather by a company that was most remembered for Mech-Assualt.
  • armerus - July 14, 2011 9:32 p.m.

    I recently acquired a F.E.A.R expansion game, F.E.A.R Perseus Mandate, Thankyou very much GamesRadar, and I will share a moment with it. I was standing looking around a corner, and a man walks into a corridor. I walk forwards and follow him in, and find only a med-pack at the end of the corridor. I walked forwards, took it, turned around, and the man was standing right in my face. At this point a friend of mine had also been drilling a hole into the wall so I could connect an ethernet cable to my computer. This mix of him in the face, and the loud drill sound made me jump up, slam my knee into my desk, and fall back onto my chair angrily and in pain. Pain aside, the game is epic. I liked the horror to the game, and it was, amazing. Thankyou again GamesRadar. - Oliver Armitage
  • ZigzMagoo - July 14, 2011 7:42 p.m.

    This game is imo the scariest game ever created.

Showing 1-20 of 41 comments

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