While it’s possible to make a quality game out of derivative elements, the challenge is improving on them in a way that keeps them from being a pure rehash. Most games that attempt to follow trends can’t manage to do it, while a scant few forge ahead in new and exciting ways. F.E.A.R. did this by combining the hot new bullet-time mechanic from classic noir shooter Max Payne with the hot new horror sensation of small disheveled children from The Ring. That might sound dumb as hell, but you won’t be worrying about that when you’re slide-kicking enemies through plate glass and shotgunning their limbs through skylights.
You play… actually they never refer to him by any sort of name or identifier in this game, come to think of it. He’s the strong, silent type who loves long walks in darkened offices and bullets that hit their marks. Mister Protagonist has been employed by the First Encounter Assault Recon team, a paranormal special forces team with a name that’s like if SWAT was named KILL. His first assignment is to chase down corpse-eating psychopath Paxton Fettel, an experimental soldier with psychic control over clone troops who’s decided recently to switch to an all-human diet. Your job is to find him and shoot him, and shoot all of his dudes, and maybe figure out why you need to shoot so many dudes all of a sudden.
This is complicated by the spooky little girl flitting about like an ADHD extra from The Ring. F.E.A.R. attempts to be a horror action shooter in an unusual way, by breaking up the intense gun battles with the aforementioned long walks down dark hallways, scootching through tight tunnels, and watching ghost people walk past windows. The overall atmosphere of the game is effective to this end, with your adventure taking you through abandoned offices, shadowy warehouses, and other mundane locales made sinister merely through moody lighting and an acute sense of isolation. However, punctuating the game with conspicuous NOW IS SCARYTIME segments drains a lot of tension from them. I won’t deny a few are quite effective (beware the air vents) but many rely on cheap jumpscares or atmosphere broken by the obvious telegraphing.
I’m front-loading my annoyance at the horror structure because I’m going to spend the rest of the review talking about the gunplay, and why it’s still some of the best the genre has ever produced. F.E.A.R. is first and foremost a first-person shooter, as is apparent from the moment you start trading shots with the paramilitary mooks in your path. Whenever the game isn’t trying to spook you, it’s throwing squads of trained soldiers at you to tear apart with akimbo pistols, shotguns, railguns, grenades, or a good old-fashioned slide kick.
F.E.A.R. comes to us from a strange in-between place before iron sights but after dynamic accuracy, during the height of bullet-time fever and right before regenerating health really took off. Your shootman is more accurate when standing still and can toggle “aim” that just zooms in a little, but this isn’t terribly important in light of his little slow-mo trick. You can trigger bullet-time using a bar of super-slow regenerating adrenaline to slow the game to a crawl, goofy low voices and Matrix effects and all. This is the key to taking on squads of swift, intelligent replica soldiers because they simply can’t react fast enough to you rounding a corner with a shotgun and disassembling them all in a moment.
I can’t overstate how incredible F.E.A.R.’s application of bullet-time is, thanks to a combination of vicious weapons and dynamic movement. Your melee attack turns into a jump kick in midair and a slide kick when crouching, with all impacts being instantly fatal. Pairing that with bullet-time, you can club one soldier to death, spin-kick his buddy next to him through a window, and slide kick the third guy across the room before he can get his safety off. Add to that grenades that gib on contact, a railgun that will ragdoll enemies through level geometry, and the greatest shotgun in video game history, and it is entirely possible to kill a roomful of troops and watch them all hit the floor in unison when your bullet-time wears off.
Twelve years out from release, this is still one of the best games around to load up and spar with enemies just for the hell of it. You won’t encounter more than a half-dozen types of military dudes but they come equipped with some of the best artificial intelligence ever gifted to game foes. I’m not making this up, entire articles have been written about the complex algorithms used to make these guys flank, fall back, fake you out, and fortify their positions. They make for significant challenges at higher difficulty levels, and delightful cannon fodder at the lower ones. And they even add to the horror factor on their own, especially when you run afoul of the more stealthy ones.
I’m not going to pretend the graphics are still amazing. They were at the time, of course, but they’re the kind of clean shapes and surfaces that lose a lot of impact in light of modern design. The particle effects and bullet impacts and chaos physics still do plenty of work, and the sound design will remind you constantly that your opponents are trained supersoldiers, that your weapons strike with the fury of the apocalypse, and that when combined they fill rooms with juicy viscera. Even the horror bits come into their own by the finale, and despite my earlier protests I think the game would be lessened without their inclusion. F.E.A.R. works best in that duality, in trying to make you fear and in putting the fear of God into your foes.