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F.E.A.R. – Masterclass to Monotony

There are two specific types of shooters I love: classic arena shooters like DOOM and Quake, and atmospheric shooters like Half Life and Bioshock. Obviously both for different reasons; where one often has incredibly nuanced gameplay, weapon sets and level design, the other uses sound design, art direction, story and tone to create an epic adventure.

This month I played every F.E.A.R. game (not including online) and have some pretty strong feelings on the series as a whole. For a start, categorising F.E.A.R. 1 into one of these sub-genres is tricky because it melds the two so bloody well.

F.E.A.R. 1 and the expansions.

Like the name implies, F.E.A.R. is an attempt by Monolith Productions to mix horror with FPS. Going into it, I expected a Half Life: good story, nice atmosphere all built up by some sort of horror element the game decides to use. To my surprise, the weakest aspect of F.E.A.R. is the story by far. It’s a mess, but unlike later installments is not shoved down your throat. It’s a vessel to get from one point to the next and I largely ignored it after the first hour.

So the story sucks, but the atmosphere is golden. Lead designer Craig Hubbard says *”horror is extremely fragile … you can kill it by spelling things out too clearly and you can undermine it with too much ambiguity”* and F.E.A.R. walks the line between blatant spooks and absolute nothingness incredibly well. Alma is mysterious and terrifying in child form in the same way a doll is creepy. Instead of relying on jump scares, the horror of the game comes from several elements consisting of both gameplay mechanics and how the antagonists are presented. Rather than “boo I gotcha!”, Alma is largely distant. You may see her in a window across the room, or hear her in a vent you crawl through. The decision to have lack of lighting + a limited amount of usability with the flashlight creates moments of panic when you realise you could potentially be left in a room, suddenly in darkness as your flashlight runs out of power.

The reason I say F.E.A.R. is a mixture of both sub-categories is because the combat is just as incredible as the tone and atmosphere. If you haven’t played F.E.A.R, you have likely still heard about the AI. You might think people are enduring, but F.E.A.R’s AI is truly unmatched even today for a plethora of reasons:

  1. Communication – This is highlighted no better than playing any F.E.A.R. game other than the first. One way the AI excels is by “callouts”. Rather than being a lone wolf like the protagonist, the enemies work in squads and as a result communicate audibly in fights. Callouts can range from “flanking”, “he’s behind over”, “flush him out”, “retreating” and many more. They’re so significant for two reasons. 1. it shows the AI is responding to your actions and 2. you can respond to their response. It creates this loop of two sides that are both intelligent, using the enemy’s weakness to win.
  2. Response to player actions – The enemy isn’t simply calling out stuff for the fun of it. They are responding to what you as the player do. You are stuck in a firefight with two corridors, one in front, one behind. If you spend too long shooting from one side, the AI picks up on that and responds by flanking you. Movement and positioning isn’t the only thing though. The AI can hear you reloading, so emptying a clip with a shotgun and result in the aggressive AI charging your position whilst you’re vulnerable. Firefights are enhanced for this reason because you are almost trying to decide whether to bluff or not. Emptying a mag down one hallway and running down the other can force the AI to lose track of you, allowing you to instead be the aggressor. The likelihood of a fight playing out the same way twice is unlikely because of this reason alone.
  3. The “mirror match” – Mirror matches are possibly my favorite things ever in video games, with, without spoiling anything, Transistor’s approach to it making me cry from happiness. F.E.A.R. does this too, just every enemy is your reflection. This is mostly down to both sides having diverse loadouts. You might have a shotgun, SMG and rocket launcher, but the 5 guys you’re up against have that and more. In other shooters, enemies are defined by what weapon and tactics they use. Call of Duty for example uses generic grunts with assault rifles, far too underpowered to worry about. Halo on the other hand has a mixture of opponents that are at the same skill level as you. Throw a grenade at them and they’ll throw it back. Pop out of cover and they’ll punish you with their rocket launcher, just like you do to them. This is the exact same in F.E.A.R, with the use of grenades being the pinnacle of the mirror match. They use them not only to flush you out but to damage the environment, and the excellent use of particle effects can destroy your vision on them, buying them time to reposition and get the advantage.

Good AI is nothing if the level design is weak. Luckily F.E.A.R’s levels are absolutely made with the intention of showing off how impressive the AI is. Almost every level has winding, interconnected paths, allowing for flanking and confusion. The previously mentioned destruction you can inflict on the environment is key to enhancing how intense firefights can be. Shoot the wall and dust will hover for a while, obstructing clear vision. Shoot a stack of papers and they’ll fly everywhere. Explosives can be used to directly damage the enemy, but also destroy potential cover the AI could use against you.

The health and weapon system is quite brutal and like classic FPS encourages exploration, which not only affects gameplay in what weapons and supplies you pick up, but allow for some set pieces to set the tone. Ammo limits hit a perfect spot between scarce and usable, something F.E.A.R. 3 absolutely failed at. You can’t spam magazines down a corridor because you will quickly run out of ammo. Conservation and careful use of your ammo is not only realistic, but super satisfying when you clear a room with as few bullets as possible. It all links in with the slow yet suddenly frantic pace of combat.

Another key element in building this dense atmosphere is through sound. F.E.A.R. knocks it out of the park in this department, from the aforementioned AI speech to ambient noises simply by exploring, each sound asset was chosen either to augment gameplay or intensify the tone. Walking through a room, floors caked with blood has cringe inducing squirts, whilst creeping through vents the game suddenly cuts any score playing, leaving you with near silence except the sound of quiet boots tapping against steel. You prepare for the jumpscare, but it never comes. The cries of Alma echoing through the halls rings through your ears, even when it’s not playing. The sound design is distinct and above all impactful. With many shooters, you can turn the sound off and have the same experience, but with F.E.A.R, sound is integral to the tone and shouldn’t be overlooked.

My thoughts on the expansions are rather brief, especially Extraction Point, because for the most part they are more of the same. Developed by TimeGate Studios, the narrative is taken in a now non-canon direction and they put more emphasis on the story itself. Again, it’s not the game’s strong point and weakens the overall experience. Level design is more open in both, but much more in the second expansion Perseus Mandate. Whilst I appreciate the effort, the design was bland and didn’t suit the gameplay. If done well, I think the open areas could gave worked, but as they were implemented they clashed with the original intensity of close quarters combat.

I spoke about sound last because it’s something both expansions for some bizarre reason get wrong. Overall, Extraction Point is the better DLC because it’s more faithful to F.E.A.R’s design, however it does sound design pretty abysmally, to the point where I’m convinced my game didn’t download the sound files correctly. Areas are barren of noise and a song from the score is rare. Perseus Mandate fixes this somewhat, but they never achieve what the base game did.

Both expansions also ditch the creeping self described “Japanese style horror” of the base game in favour of more jump scares, or in many cases no horror at all. If you liked the horror element in F.E.A.R, be warned it’s pretty much gone in the expansions.

Overall F.E.A.R. is a must play for any fans of the FPS genre, if only to experience the sublime AI.

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin and F.E.A.R. 2: Reborn.

After playing the expansions, I couldn’t wait to jump into F.E.A.R. 2 and see Monolith show everyone how to do it again. Extraction Point was good mechanically, but it was step back in many ways, Perseus Mandate more so. I enjoyed them, but I was fully ready for another Monolith masterpiece…

Putting into words how disappointed I was with F.E.A.R. 2 is an impossible task. I have never been so let down by video game ever, not only because I loved the predecessor so much, but I’m also a fan of Monolith. They have proven to be stellar in numerous genres all the way from the 90’s, and this is without a doubt the worst game I have played by them.

Despite going in positive, I did have worries. For one, lead designer and creative director Craig Hubbard appeared to have been only a designer on the game. I was hoping his original vision of F.E.A.R. would be front and center, so to see him step back was concerning. Secondly, the game was released in 2009. At this point, Call of Duty had made their mark as the leaders of the market with Modern Warfare, World at War, and later that year Modern Warfare 2. Call of Duty campaigns are something I despise, from how health is managed to the AI. The formula influenced games for years to come and I feared the horror sequel would fall into it to. Lastly, I knew the reviews were nowhere near as good as F.E.A.R. 1. Still positive however, so I didn’t let it faze me that much.

From the offset this game makes a terrible impression to anyone that played the original. 2 minutes in and 3 poor design choices can be immediately identified:

  1. No leaning – Leaning in the original wasn’t a mechanic you used once and never again. It was pretty integral to firefights. It allowed you to negate damage whilst still dishing it out. It made you use every possible piece of cover. See a barrel? Get behind it. Truck? get behind it. Office desk of stacks of files on it? Get behind it and watch a thousand papers spray into the air whilst the enemy attempts to get a clear shot at the portion of your body visible. In F.E.A.R. 2, cover is just a way to stop bullets from hitting you. You can’t use it to remain hidden and scout the area. You can’t use it pick some people off whilst not dying instantly. It harkens back to the CoD “get behind cover and wait for your health to regen” system, except in this game it’s “get behind cover and wait for the braindead AI to walk towards you for an easy kill.
  1. Teammates – This is just one way Monolith axed any potential horror from the game. Simply put, shit’s scarier on your own rather than with people. Perseus Mandate fell into this trap HARD, having you accompanied by teammates for a good portion of the game. Not only did they weaken combat, they took away the feeling of isolation. The fear of being alone wasn’t present like it was in the base game and it’s not in F.E.A.R. 2 either. When you’re not with a team mate, they’re constantly talking on the radio. You never feel alone and it never feels scary.
  1. Infinite flashlight – Like I said with the original, the scarcity of how much power you had with your flashlight worked well with the limited lighting in the game. Not only is lighting much more prevalent in F.E.A.R. 2, but the fact you can have your flashlight on all the time kills any tension from the fear of the unknown, creeping in the darkness.

This all carries out throughout the game to form a stale and bland CoD clone without the memorability of Call of Duty’s missions. I can hate CoD all I want but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t name half the missions on MW or WaW. They were the hollywood blockbusters of video games. F.E.A.R. 2 tried to be that, just without the bang. It’s all sizzle.

The biggest offender is how bad the AI really is, made even more jarring when you play it straight after the first game. It’s typical hide behind cover nonsense. The levels don’t allow for any sort of tactics because they are all corridors to one exit. To try and make firefights more complex and dynamic, they added a halfarsed cover system, where you can occasionally push over furniture to use as cover. The problem lies in the fact that it’s both a pointless time waster and it hardly moves the object even if you wanted to use it as cover. The game’s combat doesn’t warrant needing cover and adding it only made it more obvious how good the lean system was in the first game.

The way the game handles health only encourages the “stick behind the wall and force them out” mentality anyway, or at least it would if this game wasn’t a cake walk. F.E.A.R. 2 uses the old health pack and armor system from the prior game, but in a mind numbingly dumb way. Now, instead of armour acting as armour, reducing the amount of damage you take, it acts as a second health bar. Once it’s depleted, you move onto your actual health bar. Armour is much more scarce than health packs and I found myself always out of armour but never dying because A. the games a fucking cake walk and B. health packs are everywhere. In F.E.A.R. 1, you could carry 10 health packs. That might seem overkill, but you could easily lose all of those if you aren’t careful. In this game, they reduce the limit to 3. I can only assume this was because they understood how easy the game was and was an attempt to cover for the difficulty. It didn’t work. It’s crappy and again, too easy.

F.E.A.R. 2 only beats its 2005 competition in 2 departments: visuals and weapons, both come with huge caveats. Firstly, with 4 years passed, the game looks better. Everything is clearer and generally more realistic looking. The caveat comes in to the fact that lighting and particle effects were axed in favour of cleaner and what I can only imagine was an easier to produce art style. Even at the darkest and grotesque of times, nothing beats the horrific scenes of a room filled with several bloody pulps of your enemy. 

Weapon wise the sequel uses many of the same weapons, with a few additions, and for them most part they have more punch to them. ADS is now a thing and help be more accurate which in reflex time can allow for some cool moments. Unfortunately a caveat applies here too, in that because the game’s difficulty it too easy, using anything but the most common weapon isn’t necessary. Ammo is *everywhere* for the Assault Rifle and SMG, and as a result you’ll find you’ll use them 100% of the time. In your other slot you’ll usually just use whatever is lying around because everything else is generally quite rare. In F.E.A.R. 1, you would find using the AR as effective, but because the AI and level design were so varied, swapping you loadout from close quarters to long range explosives was something you’d do constantly. None of that applies here because any weapon is viable at all time.

Like CoD, F.E.A.R. 2 decided to throw in one-off set pieces in both a mech and the blandest possible set piece, a turret. Both are dull, the mech especially so if you’ve played something like Titanfall. 

I beat the game though. And as painful as I found it was, I played the DLC, Reborn. And… it’s better? Don’t get me wrong, it’s still mediocre as hell and only lasts half an hour, but what they changed in that half an hour showed that they understood what they did wrong in the base game. There are at least 2 intervals where the level design excels, one being a maze like level where the heavy armoured enemies burst through the walls, forcing you to plan ahead and retreat a lot. The story is again nonsense, but with it only being 30 minutes it’s over before it started.

Overall F.E.A.R. 2 is possibly the most disappointing game I’ve ever personally played. It had a mountain to climb to get the originals quality, and all I hoped for was a semi decent modernised iteration of that, but they killed it. It was a stripped back CoD clone, doomed to monotonous mediocrity.

F.E.A.R. 3

I’ll say it right off the bat, F.E.A.R. 3 is the worst game in the franchise. However, unlike F.E.A.R. 2 which is mentally draining in explaining how disappointing it was, F.E.A.R. 3 just kinda exists. It wasn’t made by Monolith and I had no investment in the storyline, so in reality I had no reason to play it. As a result, when I did play it, I went in with apathy, no expectations, if anything hoping it would be over quickly.

Luckily it was. F.E.A.R. 3 clocks in at a measly 4 hours, slightly less than Perseus Mandate, an expansion… Regardless, its brevity works for me, because the game is a chore to play through. Released 2 years later in 2011 by Day 1 Studios, F.E.A.R. 3 delves further into modern military cliches, since this point the genre was fully saturated by them. To my surprise however, I don’t hate it more than the second game. 

Now the reasons are obvious. F.E.A.R. 2 was an embarrassing insult the original, more so because it was by the same developers. This time round it’s new devs, devs I’d never heard of, and devs that seemed to at least try something new.

To recap, F.E.A.R. 1 follows the journey of Point Man, the antagonists brother. F.E.A.R. 2 followed Michael Beckett, generic silent protagonists trials in defeating Alma. F.E.A.R. 3 sees a return to Point Man and the original antagonist “Fettel, his now deceased brother turned playable character”) fight to again destroy Alma.

F.E.A.R. 3 is a bizarre mixture of shitty gameplay and multiplayer coop elements. Firstly, there is a level system. In previous games, you could increase your reflex time and health through exploration. In this game, you level by completing challenges, which in turn increase max health, max reflex time, how much ammo you can carry etc. In theory this system could work, but because each element you level up is implemented so poorly, it falls on its arse. For example, they used the worst health system ever created, the regenerative “screen gets red” system. This system sucks so much because it encourages slow, monotonous gameplay. Low on health? Sit behind cover. Repeat. The level ups for more health are redundant because no matter what you’re going to be using that 1 tactic.

The level ups for clip size bring up the larger issue in the core gameplay. The rest of the franchise had a 3 weapon limit. It worked well in F.E.A.R. 1. It forces you to be strategic to what weapons you take without hindering gameplay through lack of variety. F.E.A.R. 3 uses the two weapon limit prevalent in bad military shooters. Not only does it have the effect of reduced variety, but the way the game dishes out ammo is so inconsistent. At times both weapons will be stacked, but 5 minutes later both will be empty. This is for two reasons:

  1. Weapon diversity – This game did weapon diversity the worse by far. If it ain’t an SMG or AR (or shotgun but it’s so useless most of the time you might as well ignore it), that shits running out of ammo. Almost everything you fight uses those weapons. Finding ammo for a sniper rifle is impossible on some levels, the same with the penetrator or dual uzis. The lack of weapon diversity forces you to use those core weapons, because if you don’t, you’ll have no ammo.
  1. Max ammo capacity – Directly linked to the poorly executed rank system, your max ammo capacity can only be increased by leveling up. By the end of the game I was rank 12 and I had achieved 2 increases to my max ammo capacity, which was still painfully low. Unlike F.E.A.R. 1 that perfectly balanced how much ammo you could carry, F.E.A.R. 3’s attempt led to constant situations where I was SOL because the ammo capacity in combination with the badly designed intervals drained me of all my bullets.

None of this would be an issue if they placed emphasis on exploration like the original game did (and like how many great classic shooters do). Instead, exploration is almost only used to find these “Psychic Links”, which give you XP to rank up. Again, poorly implemented. Ranking up is slow. Ammo capacity rewards are few. You will have no ammo a lot of the time. Bad.

The horror element is again jump scares. Atmosphere and pacing are ditched instead for some lazy “BOO”‘s by Alma or her demons. The tone in fact is incredibly out of touch with the series, opting more for a “I am Mr Soldier man, I need to get to Alpha Bravo” feel to it. Settings are far too clean and/or out of place for any sort of horror atmosphere, with one interval taking place in a slum, strikingly similar to MW2’s favella design (coincidence?).

The AI was again dumb, if not dumber as the likelihood of them charging you was even greater, letting you kill them easily. If they aren’t charging you, they’re likely sat behind cover with none of their body showing, leading to dull standoffs where you sit behind cover waiting for them to peek whilst they sit behind cover waiting for you to peek. Again, the level design doesn’t facilitate any strategy from either you or the enemy. They’re corridors to one exit. Sometimes you are chucked into boxed off arenas where enemies spawn until x objective is met, almost always they are all killed or time has elapsed. The main issue with this (ignoring the level design) is how the AI actually spawn. Every single time one of these came up there were moments of dead silence, for 20 or so seconds, and then they spawn. I’m not sure if the devs expected you to recoup for the next wave, because I didn’t, all it did was break the flow of combat, which wasn’t great to begin with.

On the subject of AI, enemies are now more diverse, but not for the better. For some banal reason, zombie-esque creatures are now in the game and boy-oh-boy are they boring to fight. Like zombies in any form of media, they have one directive: attack you. There are no tactics, they’re brain dead for a reason. They charge you and that’s all and it’s the same in this game. Not only is this poor design to begin with, but the game sets up the notion that they aren’t as senseless as a typical zombie. The spray the walls with crazed illusions, or strap explosives to themselves to deal more damage to you. Yet they can still only muster the intelligence to charge you, meaning every encounter is the same: back to the wall, shoot ahead. 

F.E.A.R. 3 (thankfully) never had any DLC. From my perspective, Warner Bros probably saw it as an easy way of making money from an already established formula and brand, the length of the game only highlighting how redundant the experience is. From my research it doesn’t look like the game sold that well though, and hopefully means the series will be left alone.

NOTE: This piece was originally written in September 2017, edited to fit website structure.

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