Eleven years after its release, the first-person shooter F.E.A.R. still feels ahead of its time. It is one of the smartest shooters ever made, a game that won’t wow you with a screenshot but should impress you if you play it.
In F.E.A.R., you play the Point Man, a rookie in a crack squad of soldiers who fight the paranormal. A psychic cannibal named Paxton Fettel has taken control of an army of cloned super soldiers called the Replicas, and he’s attacking the headquarters of the sinister Armacham Technology Corporation. The premise sounds silly, but what follows is a uniquely compelling blend of Hong Kong movie action, Japanese horror, and American first-person shooting.
Rather than colorful video game level names like “The Silent Cartographer” or “Effect and Cause,” F.E.A.R.’s levels are simply numbered Intervals, usually with a one-word description. For example, there’s “Interval 04 - Infiltration.”
F.E.A.R. has bullet time, the system in which you press a button to make time slow to a crawl, allowing you to react to attacks that might otherwise have killed you. It wasn’t the first game to use the system. The first two Max Paynes did so already. But F.E.A.R. used this system notably well. Most games that utilize this mechanic leave it at that, which ends up being boring. F.E.A.R. takes this mechanic and blends it with a fascinating, unique style of level design that enables enemies to attack from unexpected angles.
Modern linear shooter level design was popularized by Valve with the release of Half-Life in 1998, seven years before F.E.A.R.’s release. Essentially, players travel down a hallway and into an arena, fight enemies in the arena, and move on to the next hallway and arena. It’s rudimentary, but it’s great for pacing. It gives players breathing room between fights. Great shooters, like this year’s Doom and 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, use this formula to great effect.
F.E.A.R. has the same kind of hallway and arena design, but with a twist: the arenas all have multiple entrances and exits, which almost always lead to hallways that somehow find their way back to the arena. For players, this is great, because it provides us with a wider variety of tactical options than other shooters. However, it’s also a liability, because the Replica soldiers can use them too. This flank-heavy level design pushes players to use the bullet time mechanic. It’s a means of allowing you to respond to threats coming from multiple directions simultaneously.
F.E.A.R.’s biggest weakness is its unmemorable setting. The color palette isn’t very broad. The game takes place largely at night, its locations dominated by concrete and steel. The geography of those bland-looking levels is fascinating. F.E.A.R. consistently shows players places they can go, but it doesn’t immediately provide a way to get there; players climbing a ladder at the start of one level can peer through the rungs and watch a Replica soldier setting up mines near the end. A particularly intense fight has the player shooting enemies on the balcony above, but players won’t be able to get up to the balcony until much later in the level. When they do, the dynamics of the fight are reversed—now the enemies are below, and the player has better cover.
F.E.A.R. does this kind of thing a lot. It’s reminiscent of John Romero’s level design from Doom, but it’s more linear than that. You’re still going from hallway to arena. It’s just that sometimes the hallways have windows showing future arenas, or arenas are recycled and re-contextualized as you play.
Even on a moment-to-moment basis, F.E.A.R.’s levels are fascinating. Enemies can interact with the level by flipping over tables for cover, blowing through doors in an attempt to ambush you, or attempting to distract and flank you. I’ve watched soldiers crash through windows in attempts to dive away from grenades, try to set up ambushes, and call their friends from other sections of the level when they need backup.
Eventually, you’ll be attacked by ninjas.
No, seriously. Throughout the game, just out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see something move, but thanks to their cloaking ability and incredible speed, it’s hard to get a lock on them until this encounter. These units are called “Replica Assassins,” and they’re one of my favorite enemies in any shooter, because they’re so fast they practically require players to use the bullet time mechanic, and they also have a habit of trying to hide in weird places to surprise the player. These melee-centric enemies demand a thoughtfulness that most enemies don’t possess. One of the assassins in the first encounter cloaks and hides near the ceiling, only leaping when he knows he has you. Activate the bullet time, though, and you can blast him with your shotgun before he even gets close.
F.E.A.R.’s VK-12 is, indisputably, the best shotgun that has ever existed in a video game.
Most shotguns have one strength, high damage output, and a wide variety of weaknesses, like a slow rate of fire, low reload speed, small magazine size, and a range so short you might as well use a melee attack instead. The VK-12 is much more intelligently designed. Instead of a small four- or six-round magazine like most video game shotguns, the VK-12 features 12 rounds. It’s slow to load, but that’s fine, because you can stop reloading at any time and fire whatever shells you have loaded in. The range is excellent, the damage falloff makes sense, and the damage itself is devastating. The VK-12 is an absolute joy to use, especially against the sneaky assassins.
Have you ever played a shooter that felt bad to play? Nine times out of ten, that’s because it’s suffering from poor feedback. What’s feedback? Think of it as a game’s response to your actions. If you throw a rock into a pond, you expect a splash. If you shoot a mind-controlled super soldier, you expect him to go flying. For every action in a video game, there should be an awesome and immediate reaction.
In a bad shooter, enemies shrug off your rounds like you’ve been blowing kisses. Some developers have attempted to counter this by showing a floating health bar above the enemy’s head, or making damage numbers appear next to the enemy when they’re hit, but this rarely feels satisfying. The oft-invoked writing rule of “show, don’t tell” applies to feedback as well. It’s one thing to shoot a monster and watch a meter drain, but it’s another thing entirely to shoot it and watch as the force of a shotgun sends him flying backwards into a pile of boxes that scatter when he lands. Other times the game’s enemies explode into a cloud of blood, but no matter what, F.E.A.R. always makes their deaths abundantly clear.
F.E.A.R.’s character design looks naturalistic, except for one thing: player limbs are all exaggerated. Everyone’s tall and lean, so when you hit them with a shotgun and their arms go flailing as they careen through the air, there’s this over-exaggerated windmill motion that sells their death so much better than people with normally-proportioned limbs. It’s subtle, it’s weird, and it’s awesome.
Of course, there’s a lot more involved in feedback than how the enemy dies. F.E.A.R. is generous with its particle effects and dynamic lighting. Toss a grenade into a room and glass shatters, dust clouds the air, and light fixtures go flying, causing light to bounce around the room in crazy ways. Where Half-Life 2 only used its physics objects for a few seesaw puzzles and shooting sawblades at enemies, F.E.A.R. utilizes physics objects as things that can react to weapons fire. Grenades feel powerful, blasting enemies into blood clouds, sending books and chairs careening around rooms, and warping the air itself with a thundering shockwave.
Enemy chatter is also meaningful. As you’re fighting your way through samey office corridor after samey office corridor, F.E.A.R. enemies are constantly talking, telling you exactly what they are doing and how. It’s tactically dumb, but in the heat of the moment, it feels more fair than silent enemies would. The Replica soldiers have specific, clear callouts for everything. They’ll talk about how they’re looking for you when they can’t see you.
If a guard spots your flashlight, he’ll call it out and start to investigate. If the Replicas want to try to flank you, someone will declare, clear as day, that he’s going to do just that. Since the arenas are built with plenty of avenues for flanking, callouts enhance player awareness and, combined with bullet time, help to prevent the game from ever feeling unfair.
More importantly, their callouts reflect their numbers. As you eliminate members of the squad, the survivors become increasingly frightened, until they demand backup. Sometimes, backup actually arrives, pulled in from other areas of the level, which changes the game’s ebb and flow. You’ll often find soldiers in unpredictable locations, thanks to your performance and their ability to communicate. Sometimes they call in backup, other times, the backup stays in the hallways ahead, and you run into them eventually. This keeps F.E.A.R. from feeling as predictable as a game like, say, Half-Life 2, where a set number of enemies is always going to show up every time. F.E.A.R. is always changing.
One of gaming’s big storytelling weaknesses is its over-reliance on audio logs as a means for exposition. It didn’t make much sense for the player to just start hearing voices in Gone Home, and it certainly didn’t make sense for people to just leave their deepest, secret thoughts on easily accessible recording devices in Bioshock, but that’s how games have been telling story for years. F.E.A.R. solved this problem before either of those games even released.
First, most of the audio logs are found on answering machines. If you’re going to leave a pre-recorded message for people to listen to, an answering machine makes the most sense, especially in a game like F.E.A.R., which is predominantly set in an office building. Radios pick up the rest of the slack; you’ll find them around the office building, often with the Replica’s victims nearby.
F.E.A.R. feels old in some ways. There’s no sprinting or aiming down sights, for instance, but it’s never a problem; most of the combat encounters take place at shorter, shotgun-friendly ranges, so there’s rarely a need to close gaps or stay back and pick enemies off one by one. By keeping you up close, the combat feels so much tighter and intimate. You’re more likely to notice things exploding and people going flying right next to you than at a distance.
The game features upgrades without resorting to the all too common XP system in today’s games. Instead, when you find boosters for health and bullet time, they simply provide an incremental increase. You find them by exploring the game’s levels. You might look through a fence and spot a booster on the other side, but you’ll have to figure out how to get there yourself. By placing upgrades throughout the level, making them visible to players but not always easy to get to, F.E.A.R. encourages players to be mindful of its uniquely winding level design.
I think F.E.A.R. has been forgotten by so many because it’s set in some of the most boring locales in a video game, and the characters are a bit too easy to forget. It’s unfortunate, because F.E.A.R., even now, is one of the best shooters ever made.
F.E.A.R.’s secret is that everything in the game is designed to encourage player thought. The hallways mean you need to think about flanking and being flanked. The enemy reactivity is a mentally stimulating reward for success. Enemy callouts enhance your awareness. Intelligent use of your bullet time meter is crucial to survival. The game pushes for thoughtfulness at every level. It’s not a game you can simply play with your brain turned off.
Even now, as I write this, I want to jump back on my gaming computer and blast through more of F.E.A.R.’s visually unspectacular levels, because they’re just so remarkably fun to fight through.
GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.