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

Intelligent design

F.E.A.R.’s enemy AI was legendary at the time, and it’s still unbettered now. Every one of the SWAT troopers operating in defence of the Armacham facility at the centre of the horror will think around, react to, and pre-empt every situation you can throw at him with deadly speed and efficiency. Whether operating as part of a squad or on his own, every enemy will adapt to your evolving tactics, the changing state of the battleground, and his own side’s successes, failures and dwindling numbers exactly like a real, combat-sharpened, highly trained individual.

Above: Two opponents, but which one is the most dangerous one? Answer: Both of them

Every single enemy needs to be treated with the utmost respect, because every single one can and will take you down in no time at all should you let your guard down for a second. Camping will see you quickly suppressed as a rapid flank-and-flush operation kicks into operation. Rush-down tactics will see the clustered enemy scatter, only to regroup in a wider spread, engulfing you in a multi-directional embrace of lead. Take the team down to a single man in a wide environment and you could be looking at minutes of cat-and-mouse action as you both stealth around the empty battleground, using cover, elevation and misdirection to get the drop on each other.

The first thing you must do at the beginning of every firefight is take quick stock of the exact number and type of enemies you’re going up against. Lose track of just one, and you’ll find it all too easy to think you’ve wiped the whole squad only to find yourself whacked with a slug in the back of the head by a hidden lone survivor as you loot the bodies of the fallen for ammo.

Above: He's making a run for it. This could take a while

A friend of mine, the one whose PC I first saw F.E.A.R. running on, once regaled me with an anecdote of one such presumed victory, at the end of which his last opponent had fallen and gone quiet, presumed dead. Several minutes later, my friend was alerted to his survival by a hail of bullets to his own back, in a different room, several winding corridors past the battle. His Lazarus-like nemesis had observed his reactions to what he thought was the end of the fight, laid low, and deftly tracked him through the following areas of the level as he continued on his way, all the while waiting for the opportune quiet moment in which to make his move. It was the same guy all right. It was definitely the same guy. It’s just that now he was limping.

I had no trouble believing that story at all.

John Woo-hoo!

But F.E.A.R, isn’t all about intimidation. Its persistent sense of oppression, both supernatural and tactical, is tinged with some of the most crowning moments of badassery you will ever experience in an action game. The grim satisfaction that comes with ending each and every one of F.E.A.R.’s rapidly evolving fights goes without saying of course. With AI so good that the concept of the word “artificial” stops applying, every battle engages you intellectually and emotionally on a level that very few FPS ever manage. But on top of all of that rests the crown jewel on top of the gleaming platinum-cake. F.E.A.R.’s stunningly implemented slow-motion feature.

Above: Just wait 'til you see it moving. There's so much awesome going on it could make you vomit

Far beyond being a mere piece of post-Matrix aesthetic cool, F.E.A.R.’s regenerating bullet-time ability is a serious tactical aid, as much a tool in combat as cover or weaponry. Allowing you to pick and choose your priority targets with absolute precision, it needs to be used with total discretion in order to gain a tactical jump on the right opponents. Cloaked ninja picking you off from the shadows while ground troops keep you busy? Hold off the slow-mo and knuckle down with full-speed combat until you get a visual on him, then pin him down under a thick blanket of temporal soup and open up on him. Enemy squad hunkered down under unbreachable cover? Throw down a grenade to the side of them, then drop the slow-mo as they scatter, sniping them down like leaden trap-shoot targets limping through treacle.

As for those aesthetics though… Ye gods, F.E.A.R, is a spectacle. With all PC graphical effects cranked, it’s an incandescent, multi-coloured soup of motion blur, bullet-trails, Catherine-Wheeling particle effects, and glacially-erupting clouds of blood. The visual impact of the frag grenade’s detonation shockwave ripping through the air around it is worth the price of admission alone, and is still one hell of an arresting “Holy Hell!” moment to this day.

Couple all of this with F.E.A.R.’s excellent ‘stuntman physics’ (a much more refined ragdoll system that uses highly progressive ideas such as actual weighting and anatomical correctness) and the way the then-pioneering sense of full-body, in-game physicality for the player facilitates a brilliantly diverse and kinetic melee system, comprising punches, jump-kicks and slide-tackles, and F.E.A.R.’s combat is some of the most satisfying, stimulating and affecting that has ever graced a shooter.

Only one FPS can turn you into such a psychological wreck while also making you feel so apocalyptically badass. Only one FPS can leave you so invigorated while also so emotionally drained. And only one FPS so satisfyingly lets you slide-tackle into an enemy trooper, launch him into the air, and then pin his realistically-flailing body to the far wallusing a precision-aimed nailgun shot to the head, in one fluid motion, all in gloriously cinematic slow-mo. F.E.A.R is that game. Not even Monolith's own sequel could equal it, and you can forget about the atmosphere-deficient bullet-time Call of Duty that is F.E.A.R. 3 right off the blocks. No other horror shooter has so successfully blended all the required elements in such intelligent, lean, and satisfying fashion, and to be honest, I'm doubtful that any ever will again.

Did you play F.E.A.R. at the time? Are you tempted to now? Let me know in the comments and we'll have a nice big conversational exchange. And don't forget, if you want more of this sort of stuff, but want itin the form of a free-wheeling verbal ramble, we do an aurally listenable Appreciation Section every week in ourTalkRadar UK podcast.

July 14, 2011

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