F.E.A.R.: Extraction Point
I Turn a corner, slap on the heightened senses and blast a surprised leather-clad drone in the kneecap. Thrown off his feet, he cartwheels through 360-degrees as the slow-motion prolongs his untimely demise - while, with either his last energies or unconscious twitch, he sgueezes the trigger on his machine gun while soulfully twirling through the air. Massive chunks of masonry are ripped out of the ceiling with every bullet, and he becomes some sort of unholy Catherine wheel tumbling through space.
There are a multitude of moments like this in F.E.A.R. Moments that go beyond the threshold of the 'very good' and swerve dangerously towards some of the most visceral and satisfying enjoyment that you can physically and emotionally have with the haunted box that is the modern PC. But, to answer your questions before the ritual waffling and prevaricating commences: a) yes the little girl shits you up good, b) yes this is an amazing game, and unfortunately c) no, the path to F.E.A.R. being awarded a Classic award lias not been as crystal clear and carefree as I would have liked. Why so? Well, we don't do that bit yet - tradition dictates that we tackle the good stuff first. And thankfully there's rather a lot of it.
Satisfaction through combat is where F.E.A.R. excels - presenting you with many, many bloody and brutal skirmishes that are imbued with a sense of real weight, grit and reality. Although clearly don't mean real reality, since by and large you're fighting in slow-motion against an army of leather-clad drones, psychically commanded by a disturbed gentleman called Paxton Fettel who regularly dines on the flesh of the innocent. It's hardly something you'd watch on Panorama.
So why is the combat so special? Monolith has followed up a trick once played in 1997 and barely touched since. Y'see, F.E.A.R.'s enemy Al is a much belated next step from Half-Life's marines -and a very welcome one at that. Do you remember that bit in Surface Tension when you were scurrying about in pipes below an area packed with marines and gullies, with multiple ways up into the action? The way you'd listen to the sound of footsteps, and the way that you never knew who was where, or where the next grenade was coming from? That's what F.E.A.R. does too, although if it was a level out of F.E.A.R. then they'd probably come down into the pipes and get you as well.
Of course, it's smoke and mirrors designed to give an illusion of sentience; the Al goes hand-in-glove with level design to give opportunities for the drones to sneak behind you or topple conveniently placed furniture. But my oh my, they're some cracking smoke and mirrors. Take, for example, the time that I was hiding behind a pillar ("He's behind the pillar! they cried). I charged out into the lobby of an officeblock, nailed one bad man to a wall, slo-mo karate-kicked another in the head and severely wounded another who cried "Two down! Two down! as he raced for the exit With him gone I had a poke around for a while, inspecting the carnage and taking screenshots of limp bodies, before heading on after him. Unfortunately for me he hadn't gone that far, and had simply ducked down to the right having gone out of the exit There he was, crouching with his shotgun at groin level, waiting for me to saunter past. Clever boys.
Essentially, whenever enemies move they have a purpose, or at least you can read a purpose, be they flanking, retreating or diving through a window towards you. Sometimes they run away from you and keep their gun aimed in your direction despite having turned tail; sometimes they cower behind a desk, hold their gun above their heads and fire bullets in what they assume is your vicinity. It's in the 'sometimes' you see: every battle ebbs and flows slightly differently, and it's in this that the F.E.A.R. cup doth overfloweth. The bastard hardness of the game, meanwhile, coupled with neat touches like shouts of "There's a flashlight!" or squad commanders ordering their Al drones around the map, make the cup overflowed! even more.
All this and we've barely touched on the satisfaction afforded by cutting a slo-mo soldier in half with a well-placed shotgun blast. Decapitations and amputations of that ilk, incidentally, are few and far between, making them all the more special when they do turn up. Best slow-motion ever? Throw a grenade towards a group of soldiers in slo-mo, watch it arc gracefully through the air, listening to your intended victims distortedly scream "Orgh... Shiiit!" before blasting the grenade with your shotgun and watching the world explode around you. Add to the mix F.E.A.R.'s trademark hyper-kinetic puffs of smoke, flying sparks and air of absolute chaos, and you've got something approaching combat nirvana.
As for the melee moves, well, they're quite well implemented into the controls, but hardly necessary when it all goes balls to the walls. They're fun and work nicely, but only really come into play when you're trying to pull something off with a touch of finesse and want to look cool - specifically in F.E A.R.'s neatly designed slo-mo multiplayer bouts. But it's a better player than I who will automatically slip into a well-timed sliding tackle when turning a comer and coming eye to glowing-greeneye with an enemy - frantically jabbing at the mouse is far more my style.
But is it scary? Does it take your very soul and slowly twist? Well, no. Not really. Does it make you jump out of your seat and involuntary shout obscenities? Yes, it certainly does. There are some pixel-perfect jump-points in F.E.A.R. and the little girl, she who shall not be named within this review, is an extremely neat device for its implementation - although a full cast of hurled bodies, plunging lifts and smashing windows are also called in at various points. It's all very professionally done and, although one of the best jumps comes in the demo (which isn't actually a level from the game, but instead a coagulation of several set-pieces from the full game), it works really well.
All the music in F.E.A.R. is absolutely top-notch too - but the spooky, jangly chords from the 'and now you're scared' sections is the most tension-baiting that I've ever known in a game. It's fair to say that there's a tangible gear change whenever action switches to scares, but they're by no means tacked on and genuinely put you on the edge of your seat -if not slightly off it.
The little girl, her story and (rarity of rarities) a satisfying denouement make for a good plot And it is a good plot. Then again, I have a feeling that people are still going to criticise it Why? Because of the characters, mainly. Half-Life 2, to give an obvious example, might not have had a lot of plot unravelling beyond its environments and situations, but it managed to bring in an unsurpassed human element through brilliant animation, wonderful scripting and characters that you could 'get' as soon as you saw them smile.
FEAR, has none of that - your team are rarely with you, and do little when they are Ijeyond saying "Him? Send him on ahead on his own? Are you crazy?" There's barely a full character to share between them -they're just your boss, two blokes who are pretty much interchangeable and a woman only memorable for fancying you at the start Strung out over a ditch-water cast the nuts and bolts of the excellent tale of Paxton Fettel and his little friend in the red coat become somewhat dimmed, although mercifully not in the 'scary' sections.
However, we haven't even got to the prime offender yet The prosecution calls Norton Mapes to the stand. Mapes is a Jurassic Park Dennis Nedry character - the morbidly obese guy who makes everything go wrong. He's the comedy interlude. Which is a shame since a) we don't want or need a comedy interlude, and b) he's not very funny. Instead you get this annoying 'rump-ti-pump-di-bomp-di-bump'circus music whenever he appears, and an urge to shove his pack of Cheetos down his stupid fat neck. Obviously lie's supposed to be irritating, but lie's irritating in a remarkably irritating way, and may well end up becoming the Jar Jar Biliks or DJ Ruby Rliod of the FPS.
Despite the fundamental goodness of the game, there is another nagging issue. F.E.A.R. is a corridor shooter, that much is obvious and no real crime in itself, but here corridors never really change - environments, settings and textures are recycled like aluminium cans in the dustbins of particularly keen cub scouts. Some of the best set-pieces of the game take place in the skyscraper HQ of a malicious hi-tech corporation, but once your chopper touches down on its roof you're there for hours. Brilliant as the combat may be, and scared as you often are, you're left praying - begging - for a change. This is compounded by the game giving you no real indication of how long you're going to be there, and the fact that you're continually (well, at least twice) getting to the roof to be airlifted out before either accidentally falling all the way back in again or having your ride exploderised by hoodlums.
More than any other game, F.E.A.R. is compiled of vents, offices, corridors, more vents, elevator shafts and more vents - or slums and secret scientific places that certainly feel a lot like them. Now, if the action had been punctuated by a few visits to F.E.A.R. HQ, decent character interaction, or simply smaller independent levels, then none of this would matter. As it is, the gargantuan sprawl of its docks and skyscrapers can numb you to what is otherwise gaming brilliance. From what we've seen in promo videos we know that there was cool, different stuff in development - like cars being chased by motorbikes and spinning through the air upside down - but time constraints or other developmental pressure means that none of this goodness made the final cut. A real shame, seeing as this is the sort of thing that would have propelled FEAR, far further into the realms of classic-dom.
End Of The Line
So where do we go from here? Which stereotypical review ending shall we select? The 'F.E.A.R. is good, but the sequel will be amazing!' approach? Well, that's certainly more than true - but doesn't do justice to a game that is often sexier than the sexiest of sex. How about the 'great, but has issues' ending that I seem to be irrevocably careering towards? Well, that's a bit of a cop-out when it's a game that all PC gamers should play. 'Try the demo and, if you meet its pretty spicy technical demands, imagine an entire game comprised of similar action scenes one after the other (only with more robots) and make up your own mind?' No, that won't do at all. So how about this for an answer to the 'Why does F.E.A.R. deserve a Classic' tie-breaker question?
Today I found myself rebooting a computer network inside a windowed server room in the IT department of an evil multinational conglomerate. Suddenly five men burst in: two went to cut in behind me through a nearby corridor, two chose to eap through the glass windows next to me and another stood at the door, levelling his nailgun at me and letting rip. Glass and sparks are raining down on me as I turn on the slow-motion. I blow one's head off with my shotgun, and the second gets a chestshot that leaves the walls covered in more red than can be found in a Dulux catalogue. I've been badly wounded, but I remember the pair I saw tearing off to get behind me two seconds ago, so I bounce a grenade round the corner that I'm guessing they'll appear from. I'm rewarded when a spiralling right leg slowly and artfully flies across my line of sight. As my slow-motion bar runs out, I stand up and the final soldier gets a clear shot and nails me to a nearby hard disc drive. In the same way that Jennifer Aniston once fell in love with a shampoo (which could perhaps explain why Brad's flounced off with Angelina by the way), I am in love with a game.
And despite the fact that I've been walking past the same level furniture for hours and hours, and despite Norton 'twat' Mapes - nothing will stop me recommending it to friends, family, passers-by in the street and, indeed, readers of PC. Grumpier gamers will find fodder to gnaw upon, but the fact remains that it's a prima donna of a game that more than succeeds in its attempts to scare and scintillate. Despite everything, I adore it - and strongly suspect you will too.
Download F.E.A.R.: Extraction Point
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
Never Can There have been so much fear surrounding an expansion pack and I haven't even seen it running yet. Ushered into a darkened San Francisco hotel room with a PC set up in one corner, I'm ordered to turn over all recording instruments (I don't have my guitar with me so I have to hand over my dictaphone instead), lest I gather too much information during this early demonstration of F.E.A.R.'s first expansion pack, Extraction Point. Armed with just a pen, a pad, my eyeballs and my wits, I sit down by the PC breathless with anticipation, hoping to see more of the searing action that made the original such a phenomenal experience. This time, thankfully. I'm not to be denied.
The Next Level
Extraction Point is set in the immediate aftermath of F.E.A.R.'s shocking climax. Your chopper crashes to the ground. Your eyelids flick open. You're completely alone. So begins the next chapter of one of the most terrifying shooters ever made. This time, however, it's not those masters of the macabre Monolith who are heading up the project, but rather a little-known, yet highly proficient development team called TimeGate Studios - developers of Axis & Allies and the Kohan games. And from the looks of it, they've picked up right where Monolith left off.
Extraction Point's premise is simple. In F.E.A.R. you were the hunter. This time, the roles are reversed. And while no-one will confirm my suspicions, it doesn't take a genius to work out that getting to an extraction point before your brains are slurped out of your skull will play some kind of role in the proceedings. After all, it's a tried and tested formula and, if executed properly, practically guarantees hours of tense, adrenalin-sapping gameplay.
Rather than simply replicating the fear factor of the original, it seems that TimeGate have set themselves a far loftier goal in expanding this already rich franchise. As well as shifting the balance of power even further to the dark side, the team is also embarking on a mission to make your surroundings far more interactive. Tie key component here is physics, and during a brief demonstration of a firefight in a typically low-lit office, I'm more than a little impressed with what I see.
Armed with a mammoth chain-gun -an all-new weapon - I watch as my guide battles it out with a giant mechanical walker that spits out rockets. If you thought the level of destruction you could wreak in the original was impressive, then you're in for a treat here. Glass, concrete, wood, paint and office equipment are pulverised by missiles and barrages from the chain-gun, while hanging signs and lights are shot off the roof and come tumbling down on the mechanised walker, causing it to stagger under the weight of the makeshift projectiles.
Although it's far too early to make direct comparisons to Half-Life 2's physics-filled levels, there's just about enough on show here to make me believe that Extraction Point could be a contender if it maintains this level of detail throughout.
The Scent Of Blood
Next, my guide takes me into a room caked in blood and strewn with office equipment Suddenly, two red eyes pierce the gloom, signifying the arrival of a brand new enemy called a Shadow Creature, a foe that's practically invisible to the naked eye. However, in a cunning twist (and, I suspect the reason behind its moniker), this new foe can only be tracked by its shadow, which dances around the walls, betraying its true self's whereabouts. After a brutal firefight and with further proof of the game's enhanced physics system - said strewn office equipment quickly becomes pieces of strewn office equipment - the Shadow Creature is no more and the demonstration comes to a close.
Brief though it was and with the majority of my questions rebuffed, it's still difficult to not be impressed with Extraction Point. With most FPS expansion packs usually a weaker, watered-down version of the original, it's encouraging to see that TimeGate are really trying to do something new here, and so far, it's looking like it could be on course. And if the rest of it is as impressive as this, then it's little wonder there was so much concern about giving away too much, too soon (though admittedly, the opposite could also be true). Which reminds me, can I have my dictaphone back now please?
One thing that hasn't changed since the original is the way that the storyline is presented. Just like F.E.A.R., all is not as it seems, with the plot unfolding through a collection of sudden horrific visions and momentary sightings of hideous creatures. And yes, you've guessed it, Alma (everyone's favourite ghoul) reprises her childlike manifestation after having shocked us all with her true persona at the end of the original game. Again, it's hard to tell from such a brief demonstration whether Extraction Point will be as worrisome as F.E.A.R., but if these early indications are anything to go by. we could be in for another fright-fest with plenty of plot twists, along the way.
You Have To laugh when the expansion pack of the game we criticised for having repetitive environments finally lets you leave the subway level youve been running around in for an hour, only to have it explode and launch you onto the roof of a parking garage. Come on, a parking garage? Why not get blown off a bridge and land in a zoo? Or an arboretum? Extraction Point takes F.E.A.R. nowhere other than down the same corridors you've no doubt tired of.
In fact, for almost the entire first half of this expansion pack, I found myself playing monotonous filler levels. Odd new additions such as Max Payne-style gas canisters were annoying, unpredictable things. Fights were badly paced and tedious, and characters were characterless. In fact. Extraction Point does nothing to progress F.EA.R.'s story at all, besides arbitrarily reintroducing dead characters and killing off others (and yes, that fat Cheesy Poofs-loving bastard makes a short and bafflingly pointless appearance). Even the game's trademark terror comes on far too strong to begin with, rendering the player tickled rather than terrified. It's a mixture of us becoming desensitised to little girls walking in puddles of blood, and new developer TimeGate's inability to nail the timing required to make us piss ourselves.
Put The Fettel On
It's not all mediocrity and gloom though, as later levels are a true return to form for the F.E.A.R. name. It does nothing particularly original, but the new mini-gun serves up insane amounts of hilarious carnage, and the red laser beam gun (excuse my ignorance) offers some fun moments as it sears through wall and flesh alike. There's a solid few hours of gaming excellence in here, surrounded by hours of disappointing F.E.A.R.lite action.
Although this isn't really F.E.A.R. is it? This is the husk that was left on publishers VU Games' doorstep after the original developers Monolith left. While Extraction Point certainly does pick up towards the end, providing some absolutely sublime moments of action, ultimately it feels far too much like the worst bits of F.E.A.R. all over again, masquerading as something we love. Like lifting up your new wife's veil on your wedding night only to find out its actually Murdock from the A-Team.