F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon
Someone, Somewhere slams his slo-mo key and everything slides into Matrix territory. Out of habit and reverence for my Spaced DVD box-set, I mouth the word 'tits' in bass, lethargic tones as an enemy slowly lobs a grenade in my direction. Back-pedalling through treacle (and I swear this is true), I let off one burst of fire from my shotgun and it connects with the slowly arcing grenade - blasting all and sundry into bloody chunks. It becomes the sort of multiplayer moment you want to frame, put in your living room and use as a lively conversation piece in years to come.
F.E.A.R.'s slo-mo team deathmatch contingent works like this: both teams have a marker showing the location of the hyper-sensitivity power-up, which charges itself up before being unleashed by whoever possesses it (you if you're lucky). Everyone can see the location of the time commander too, so he can either be avoided or hunted down for flailing slo-mo shits and giggles. Just as the mode retains a steady rate of fire for whoever triggers it, it also makes for increased Max Payne-style accuracy for his prey - so in all honesty, it's hard to work out who benefits from the bullettime the best. But with frags like this and the odd stylised decapitation or limb removal, it's hard to care.
Life on the F.E.A.R. multiplayer beta isn't all smiles though. The insta-death nature of the weaponry can become infuriating, while it's clear that many of the bumpmaps and flashy particle effects we've played in the forthcoming single-player game have been sacrificed to the god of lag and the pursuit of smooth-running. A full server means that the exchange of life and death is overwhelmingly frequent. Spawning is well handled, always doing its best to have you appear close to the action and with friends (although occasionally in the presence of three burly enemy soldiers instead).
Hit Me Baby One More Time
In tone, we're talking the turnaround of Quake III mixed in with the strafing, leaning and ultra-violence of Soldier Of Fortune2-a somewhat heady mix that leaves the battleground absolutely strewn with the dead. The three maps available (an office block, some dockland warehouses and a building site) are all tight affairs designed with enough convenient windows, ledges and lines of sight to leave you permanently exposed in several directions to enemy fire. As chunks of masonry are blasted out of the walls around you, a lot of the challenge lies in working out where your assailant is situated before he caps you with the inevitable headshot.
Another F.E.A.R. calling card, meanwhile, is the flashy nature of the unarmed kill. Kung-fu slides designed to steal an opponent's feet from underneath him and gravity-defying scissor kicks are both easily launched through the right mouse button. It's fair to say, however, that in noob hands these stylish flicks aren't of huge use in the face of nailguns, rocket-launchers and (the fundamentally awesome) battle cannon. What they are is an excellent way to freeboat and show off your skills. There's nothing more satisfying (perhaps in the history of human existence) than sailing through the air and connecting boot with the back of skull in slow-motion, apart from taunting your victim with a vicious hahal' message afterwards. Unless, of course, it's nailing some guy's head to a wall who's just perpetrated the exact same crime on you.
Of course, there's oodles of work to be done in terms of balancing, and there's an obvious conflict between those attempting to play seriously and those quite content to use the slow-motion to watch the pretty patterns formed when you shoot out a pane of glass. If anything, the weapons (admirably weighty and a far cry from their somewhat floatier forebears in Half-Life 2) are pretty much all-powerful and it seems odd that firepower like the Plasma gun can be selected as a meaty starting weapon.
Don't come here expecting the physical glory we've seen in Sourcecode infused multiplayer either-pirouetting scenery here is kept to a minimum in favour of bullet-holes, ragdolls and the neat wave effects that surround bullets and grenade blasts.
The right word to use is kinetic', and the right glib phrase to use is 'it certainly packs a punch'. It won't change the world in the manner of Counter-Strike or UT, but it does enable you to decapitate a soldier in slow-motion -and sometimes, you can't ask for anything more than that.
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At This Year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, we managed to get another gander at the intro to Monolith's terrifying FPS F.E.A.R., as well as some hands-on time with a previously unseen level called Docks.
Rather than focus on the hollow-eyed child made famous by previous demonstrations, this level was centred on a sinister-looking man who we watched scythe his way through a squad of Special Forces soldiers during the intro, then feast on his victims' innards. A strange paranormal man surrounded by heavily armed evil soldiers? Clearly this was a job for the First Encounter Assault Recon team.
Playing through Docks proved every bit as unsettling. Unlike previous playtests where the action was very much confined to claustrophobic confines, this level mixed things up with a collection of large open-air locations and small indoor areas. We started off in a maze of dimly lit rooms. For a moment, the world slowed and something odd shambled towards us - but dissipated into a myriad of ash-like pieces before we could shoot. Things were getting a bit dicey.
Being outdoors proved every bit as intimidating as being inside, its expansiveness and eerie understated lighting making us feel utterly exposed. Three white mask-wearing soldiers patrolled the area, unaware of our presence. After picking off one with a neat shot to the head and a bout of machinegun strafing, sparks flying off armour, we left the grisly scene behind.
The mission was a brutal assault on the senses and the psyche, its slow/fast, claustrophobic/exposed pacing proving a real winner. Monolith reckons the game should be ready in August. After this experience, it could just feel like the longest wait of our lives.
If You Were lucky enough to nab a copy of last month's before they sold out (in approximately 23 minutes), you'll know everything you need to know about the shooter that combines Asian horror, close-quarters combat and Monolith know-how to create a game that's going to knock seven shades of shit out of you.
A trifle premature to be making such declarations? For any other magazine, possibly, but we're the only journalists who've been allowed in to play the game and we can say that it rocks such big bells we had to wear huge earmuffs to get through it unscathed.
The plot is still under wraps (and don't expect to get much more on it until the game ships - it's the big hook), but all you really need to know is that you play as a member of F.E.A.R., a paranormal Special Forces outfit sent to investigate the aftermath of a grisly massacre.
Cinematic pacing and narrative are Monolith's buzzwords and the game is set to juxtapose huge action sequences, where it's you against supremely intelligent squad-based Al, with frights aplenty. Not forgetting the small scary girl in a scary red dress. From the team that's already hit with AvP 2, NOLF 2 and Tron 2.0, expect big, big things.
F.E.A.R. Is Often criticised for its minimalist, monochrome environments, but in the face of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin's release, I decided to slide-kick my way through those old grey corridors once again.
While the graphics have aged somewhat, the visual style remains as effective as it ever was. The corridors don't confuse or disorientate, and the act of dashing around a corner to shoot one soldier and scissor-kick another is far simpler than physics might dictate. There's a clarity to the proceedings and a flow to the gameplay that I can't help but feel Monolith have lost in the sequel.
As for the creepy Alma bits, as I have confessed before, I never considered F.E.A.R to be scary. A creepy game to be sure, but never truly scary. To be told that you are a bullet-dodging face-kicking badass, and then to be expected to shit yourself at the sight of a little girl, always seemed a bit odd to me.
That being said, the game is still very disturbing, with its seamless integration of reality-warping nightmare sequences keeping you slightly off balance. Unfortunately, Norton Mapes is still a twat.
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.
This game made me seriously question the nature of game narrative. Many developers, Monolith included, tend to take what I think of as a moving film stance, playing out the game story through a series of in engine cutscenes. Your character is the camera, and you watch all of the game action. FEAR plays out the same way, and while it does present a really good and satisfying horror story (with a few missteps near the end, granted), it reminded me of how most games fail to present good dramatic pacing. I loved FEAR's terrifying story, but a moment of pause, to build the tension, might made it even scarier. Pay attention to the beginning of the game, it has the meat of the truly frightening moments, including one classic moment on a ladder.
Gameplay, consider FEAR to be Max Payne's bigger, meaner brother. You'll get 'reflexes' that let you slow down time, and they give you a tremendous advantage in battle just like Max's bullet time. Once you get over how cool you are, however, you'll be daunted by a series of increasingly difficult enemy soldiers. They don't get that much tougher as you go through the game, they tend to be better armed and incredibly intelligent. It ends up being really fun to fight an opponent who is good at outthinking you.
My one complaint, unfortunately, was the weaponry. I'm a big fan of games that feature really aggressively visceral weapons, and I just didn't get that from FEAR. The weapons were effective, but all too often they felt similar, and perhaps too realistic in their effects. However, that is not to say that they didn't have character. My favorite weapon was the Penetrator, which could staple an enemy to a wall with a killing blow, an impressive feat.
Graphically, this game looks pretty good. It has really nice lighting effects, and the refraction through glass-like-surfaces looks really, really nice if you can get the game to run well with those effects. Plus, great graphics and supernatural psychic horror ends up being pretty freaky looking.
FEAR is an unqualified success in my opinion, as it creates a good, stressful, horrific environment that doesn't quite jump you out of your seat as creep you out. With only a few drawbacks, this is a great title.