F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon
|a game by||Monolith Productions, Inc.|
|User Rating:||8.0/10 - 1 vote|
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Back In The day I was a horror junkie, cooking up every grisly flick I could find in an ever more desperate bid to satisfy my craving for fear. As with all addictions it spiralled until I could sit through Blair Witch on my own, with a portable TV, in the middle of a graveyard, at midnight, with a full moon, and still not twitch. I thought I was finished. And then, at E3 last year, I sat through the first demo for F.E.A.R., the new shooter from Monolith. I might have been stuck in a sweaty booth in the middle of LA, surrounded by games journalists, in broad daylight, at eight in the morning, with a scorching sun beating down on the top of my head, but I was shit scared. And elated.
But they say the higher you go the further it is to come down, and since last May the Monolith team has retreated into its hideaway in Seattle, refusing to pick up the phone and turning visitors away. Until now. We sent in a desperate plea for information, expecting another knock-back, but then the call came. How would you like to fly over to Seattle to be the very first magazine in the whole world to actually play F.E.A.R.?" Oh, we like. And, as an experienced editor, I ignored everyone in the office - Me! "No, me!" Me! I'm a good boy really! - invoked Editor's Prerogative, and booked myself on the first plane out. It's all a question of staff morale...
And in the blink of an eye (forgetting the ten-hour flight of agony) I'm there, surrounded by Monolith's finest. I don't know whether it's the fact that it was our 150th issue, or the fact they'd mistakenly heard Will Porter was coming over, or just the fact that they're extremely loving people, but, as well as Chris Hewett (producer on F.E.A.R. and director of development), I was surrounded by Craig Hubbard (lead game designer), Kevin Stephens (director of technology) and Jeff Orkin (Al engineer). A team that could surely answer any question I threw at them. Can you tell us a bit about the paramilitary group you're fighting at the very start of the game? Hewett fielded this one: "That's one of the many revelations we're not going to discuss yet. Ah. OK, it was time to go back to the very beginning.
If you haven't seen the footage on this month's discs, switch all your lights out or draw your curtains before watching it. It's scary isn't it? Very scary. And hugely cinematic. Monolith has said it wants F.E.A.R. to be an action blockbuster with you at the centre, so what films have influenced the creative team? Craig Hubbard's eyes light up.
I'm a huge fan of Hong Kong cinema, so there's a lot of John Woo influences. I'm also a huge fan of Asian horror films, so. The Eye, Dark Water, The Ring, Juan, but then I think the vibe of the game is like Aliens, where there's a lot of suspense and moments of real fear, but also lots of action and a touch of humour.
It's this pacing that comes through in the footage, and if Monolith can keep this up for the course of the game then it's cracked the puzzle that's had developers weeping into their keyboards for over a decade. It's something Hubbard's aware of. We really want the pacing to feel deliberate, so you don't become numb to any particular situation. So, you go from exploration to some sort of suspenseful scene, to an action sequence, and then back to suspense, to keep it interesting.
And, in keeping with the times, Hubbard points out that F.E.A.R. is going to drive the narrative through in-game action, as opposed to cut-scenes. There are a couple of visions that you'll see, stuff you're not seeing through your own eyes, but we're not doing traditional narrative cut-scenes. He expands on how Monolith is making this possible. Any story is a series of epiphanies and reversals, so as you're exploring it's really important tor us to give you a sense of purpose - in storytelling terms, what the ramifications or the consequences of your actions are. Essentially, the player of a game is like the hero of a movie, constrained by the dramatic question and the environment you're in."
Man With No Name
Unlike previous Monolith games, particularly No One Lives Forever and No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in Harm's Way where Cate Archer was the very centre of the universe, your character in F.E.A.R. is almost completely anonymous. He's got no ethnicity, no name, and is only implied as male so that the other characters can address you directly. Basically your imagination dictates your identity - Monolith wants you to be the star. One thing you do know though, is that you're a member of F.E.A.R., a Special Forces team that specialises in dealing with the inexplicable. Again, Craig takes the reins. Whereas Delta Force specialises in hostage rescue, F.E.A.R. deals with situations where SWAT has gone in and run into things they can't explain and don't understand, or don't know how to deal with. Think of it as an X-Files Special Forces group."
F.E.A.R. is different as well in that its members have been recruited because they're gifted in some way. You might play through most of the game solo, but your team is there as support make use of their talents, such as Jin's extraordinary hearing. Or there's Holiday, the bloke you meet in the room of carnage in the first level, who gets impressions of objects or people he touches, giving him glimpses into what's gone on before. You? You get the best of the lot - incredible reflexes that put the rest of the world into slow motion.
If you've played Max Payne you'll know how satisfying this is as a gaming doviro It works in a prntty similar fashion in F.E.A.R. in that you can kick it in whenever you want, and use it for a limited time, after which it has to regenerate before you can use it again. But in Max Payne, bullet-time is what makes the game. In F.E.A.R. it's just another facet to an extraordinarily frenetic shooter. Something I'm about to find out for myself.
"You should find this kind of challenging, Hewett says with a smirk as he fires the code up. Now I'm not bad at first-person shooters. In fact I'm a legend in my own bedroom, but within a couple of minutes I'm dead. The moment you get dropped off in the helicopter, the action kicks in, and immediately the game feels different to any other shooter I've played. Frenetic. Confusing. Exhilarating. Three adjectives that best sum up the action sequences. As soon as the first shot is fired, the screen fills up with broken glass, flying bodies, smoke and debris, making it hard to see what's going on. It's imperative to hold back and take stock of things before charging in, something I spectacularly fail to do on my first run-through. In fact, the action is so intense that I completely forget about the slow-mo feature until gently reminded by Hewett. Erm, you could use the slow-mo if you want. It might make it kind of easier to get through. And it does. It also gives me the perfect opportunity to experiment with the context-driven melee combat, which works through the alt-fire button. Hit this and in addition to standard punches and kicks you can activate special moves like slide and jump kicks. It's a simplistic affair, though. F.E.A.R. is a shooter and these moves are there to enable you to make the most of the slow-mo feature, to take enemies down in a more cinematic fashion, or to take a guard out without alerting others. You never rely on it as your primary attack and you don't lock onto an opponent if you decide to kick into melee. Of course, the slow-mo feature also performs one other very important function - it enables you to see the DX9 native engine in full flow. Admittedly I was playing the game on a huge projector screen, but it looks absolutely stunning.
And, once you adjust to the pace of the game, F.E.A.R. really starts to impress. Even at this early stage the Al is fantastic, and depending on where you are you can hear the paramilitaries barking out orders to their team-mates -"He's behind the wall! - scattering when you throw a grenade, using formations to accurately stake out a room and use cover intelligently, something that lends it an uncanny realism. These aren't scripted moments, where someone bursts in and proceeds to roll behind a conveniently placed sofa, but context-driven and because of this, the combat is rock-hard. Something Jeff Orkin is extremely proud of. We've focused a lot on squad behaviours so you're not just fighting individual robotic enemies, they're working together like a Rainbow Six team. So, if an entire team gets taken out bar one person, he knows he's in trouble."
Navigation is another area that the team has concentrated on, so that anywhere you can go, the Al can go as well. "The idea is that when you're fighting if you were to like, run on a rooftop and jump down onto a fire escape, through a window and down a staircase, the Al can do the same thing. This means you can do whatever you want and the game will play out differently. If they lose track of you, they can form a search party where they move in formation through the level with one guy facing backwards and so on, and they can split up in pairs to search rooms where one guy guards the door, and another searches the room.
And with enemies like this you're going to need friends in the arsenal department. So far, Monolith has only disclosed details of three weapons, the shotgun and SMG from the E3 demo, and an assault rifle, but Hewett did reveal that you can expect a couple of surprises. We want an arsenal where every weapon feels special and unique and has its own use. There's a lot of conventional weaponry because it's set around now, but there are a couple more unconventional things that we haven't disclosed yet. We wanted more of a balanced feel, where every weapon has its own function. You've got a limited inventory, so you can only carry three weapons at a time, so you really pick based on the functionality you want.
Then there's the sound. It's so subtle and so effective, I didn't even notice it until I suddenly realised I was extremely tense and unwilling to move forward, despite the fact nothing much was happening on screen. There's an extremely effective low-level contextual sound, that blends with the soundtrack to create an ' environment, again something that's only normally found in the cinema.
But the biggest compliment I can pay to the game thus far is that I was more than happy to play through the level again. And again. And again, until I was in grave danger of missing my flight home. Each time I played it, I became more accustomed to the tactical nature of the play, despite the fact that it was a very different experience. Replaying sections of most shooters is a drudge, and, occasionally enough to ruin the experience entirely. F.E.A.R. is different and similar to Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, not because of the slow-mo but because of the replayability and the coolness of pulling off a cinematic kill.
All Good Things...
But what about the rest of the game? Blank stares all round. "Where's the game set, when's it set? Will it be predominantly indoors, or a combination of inside and outside? Please, help me out here? Chris Hewett takes pity. In terms of the setting we're saying relatively near future. We want it to feel really immediate so we're not going to label a definite time period. As far as location, it's a big city. We don't want to be mapped down to specific locations.
Don't expect grand, sweeping vistas either. The F.E.A.R. technology, similar to the Doom 3 engine, is fill-rate limited, which means you can't do huge environments with hundreds of objects and their shadows, as performance would slow to a crawl. But, while closequarters combat is the name of the game here, Hubbard is quick to point out that we're trying to provide a fair amount of contrast between indoor and outdoor, with tighter areas and larger, more open areas. It just won't be huge outdoor areas with hundreds of bad guys running at you.
With time ticking on, I had time to fire off a couple more questions. Do you spend most of the game fighting solo, or in a squad with team-mates? There are moments, but you're the pointman - you go in first and eliminate the threat. The rest of the team is there as support." Do you control any vehicles in the game? No."
And that was that. In closing I ask Hubbard what he thinks the game is doing to progress the genre. I don't really think that way. When you look at the games that stand out, it's about the experience, just like a movie. You go to see a movie that looks like it's going to give you an experience you haven't had before, and that's what we want to do. Our hope is that when you play it, you'll be thrilled and scared and exhilarated and you'll want to tell your friends about it. Thrilled, scared and exhilarated? Yep. Yep. And yep. It's fair to say that the game has surpassed my already weighty expectations. In fact, hell, I'll go out on a limb: F.E.A.R is going to be the singleplayer shooter of 2005. Be afraid.
Download F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP