The outline of last year's hit first-person-shooter (FPS) F.E.A.R. (short for First Encounter Assault Recon) reads like a poignant satire on the immature state of big budget videogame development. The player takes the part of a new member of said recon unit which specializes in encountering and assaulting varied paranormal phenomena. It's a fourteen-year-old boy's ultimate gaming fantasy come true: testosterone-drenched yet tactical shoot-outs plus creepy stuff his parents wouldn't want him exposed to. The Exorcist meets Counterstrike. A perfect marketing scheme launched with deadly precision at the dedicated target demographic. F.E.A.R. would be all too easy to mock if it weren't for one little problem: it's a very good game.
For one thing, F.E.A.R. is a feast for the eyes. On a high end machine, its engine is capable of rendering a world of unseen beauty and detail. The particle effects especially, like smoke and dust, are worth mentioning in this regard. Furthermore the sound, both score and effect wise, is on par with the high visual quality. The outcome is a very dense atmosphere. More than once I was astounded by the game's captivating sensations. But that can't be it, now can it? Good graphics don't automatically guarantee a good gaming experience. One doesn't have to look further than the latest installments in the Doom and Quake franchises to know that. So the question remains: what is it that separates F.E.A.R. from its myriads of competitors in the FPS section?
It most certainly can't be the story either, a lackluster mix of Akira and a generic haunted house movie. The same is true for the actual supernatural phenomena. They're a parade of horror-movie stereotypes. From the scary little black-haired girl to legless flying creatures which seem to emerge through portals of some kind, there is nothing new or original to be found. But, interestingly enough, it works. I guess mostly because Monolith understood one of the basic principles of how to scare an audience—a sense of timing and balance.
Every horror movie scholar knows that one needs a state of normality to make scares work. A constant flow of horrendous creatures and teeth-grinding thrills would start to get boring very quickly. Instead, a good horror narration gives its audience something to hold on to, a stable ground which contrasts the moments of fear and thus makes them even more scary. These states of normality where literally nothing is happening elevate F.E.A.R.
Roughly a third of the time I was just wandering through vast empty buildings, collecting an item here, getting a new plot clue there. But due to the tense atmosphere and the excellent timing of the encounters, I never felt safe and awaited a new threat around every corner. I immersed into this uncertainty to such a degree that one night I didn't dare to walk through a seemingly empty but also quite dark corridor. What is even more intriguing is that except until the very end of the game, all the eerie encounters pose no actual threat to the player. They are just embedded cut scenes, diminishing neither health nor ammo.
Nevertheless, there are still a lot of occasions where earthly enemies threaten the player. One third of the game consists of fighting SWAT teams which are believed to be under the control of a powerful telepath. Again F.E.A.R. is far from inventive but thanks to an astonishingly clever AI it manages to stand out. This may well be my first offline gaming experience where asking myself "What would I do, if I were him?" actually granted me an important advantage in some of the fights. While enemy soldiers communicate during combat and give the player important clues about their strategy, the game nevertheless demands a constant state of alert when bullets start flying. The range of enemy tactics is as wide as it is effective and what foes do depends heavily on the player's behavior. If I remained in cover too long they would try to "flush" me with a grenade or send one or two soldiers away in order to get into my back while putting me under heavy fire to keep me distracted. Therefore, tactical thinking is an absolute must, especially on higher difficulty settings. Running and gunning just won't do.
Due to the fact that both elements of F.E.A.R., the horror and the action, are crafted so thoughtfully they seamlessly merge together to create a, if not unique, then at least very polished experience. It is true that F.E.A.R. does not reinvent the FPS genre. But it lives up to its title and while it can be repetitive more than once and the premise still makes me chuckle, at the same time it is such a perfect display of how immersing even a rather simple setting can be and is such a skillful technological effort in about every regard, that for a few hours I put aside all my snobbish demands for more innovative games and gleefully immersed into the wondrous world of SWAT-based ghost busting.