Tuesday, December 3, 2013

F.E.A.R. Is Not Quite a Man's Best Friend

While we all just sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the new episode of Chrontendo I thought it best to put some content on this blog. This is, in theory, a videogame based blog, so I figured, what the hell? Maybe I'll write about an actual goddamned videogame.

The ultimate inspiration behind this post was those online game sales. You know the ones. The Steam sales. The Humble Bundles. Those "here's more games than you have time to play, but for a limited time the price is ridiculously low, so you better buy it just in case" sales.  The end result is that I'm a few dollars poorer and have a bunch more unplayed games. But at least these games aren't taking up any physical space. Nope. Even better, they aren't even clogging up my hard drive. They exist only in the realm of the potential. I have a bunch of games I could download and install on my computer if I see fit. At least this way I won't feel as guilty as I do when I see those shrink-wrapped games were piling up in my house. At least my wife will never even know about these games.

So the other week I spent $25 on a Warner Bros Humble Bundle. The main draw was Arkham City (which I haven't downloaded yet), but it also came with a Mortal Kombat pack, some Lord of the Rings game and.... the three F.E.A.R. games. I own F.E.A.R. for the XBox 360 but have never played the two sequels. Truth be told, I barely remember F.E.A.R. beyond it being a first person shooter which borrowed elements from the movie The Ring (and J-Horror in general, I guess.) So I thought, "What the hell, I'll give F.E.A.R. a spin for old time's sake." Then I realized, "My God, this game is almost 10 years old.  When Chrontendo started in 2007, Final Fantasy VII was 10 years old." I suddenly realized that F.E.A.R. was now a retro game. Since Chrontendo is all about retro gaming, we can talk about F.E.A.R. Unfortunately, another game reviewer, perhaps also inspired by the Humble Bundle sale, already wrote about F.E.A.R here. Ray Hardgrit is a more thorough writer than me, so I'm not sure what I can add to his analysis. But I think he might be British, so at least my post does not contain superfluous references to Oasis and Tesco's.

F.E.A.R. was created by Monolith, a developer based in Kirkland, Washington, located not that far from Microsoft's headquarters. Aside from F.E.A.R., Monolith is known for the Condemned games and Gotham City: Imposters as well as the aforementioned Lord of the Rings title. They seem quite fond of acronyms in their game titles, and other examples include Contract J.A.C.K. and No One Lives Forever: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way. F.E.A.R. was released in October 2005, several months after Valve's pioneering Half Life 2. But gameplay-wise, F.E.A.R. is mired in the era of the original Half Life. Unlike the HL games, F.E.A.R. separates the game into distinct "levels" with loading/debriefing screens breaking up the action. The game world is not a unified whole, as it was in Valve's games.  You are normally transported to a new area via a cut scene inside a helicopter; a level often ends when you reach the exit door, and then you are dropped off at the entrance of the next level. Most of  in-game action consists of exploring halls, tunnels, air ducts, climbing ladders, etc, punctuated by firefights with machine gun wielding enemy soldiers, who yell things like "Squad!" and "Fire in the Hole!" over their intercoms. So it resembles Half Life a great deal in that aspect.

F.E.A.R.'s exciting environments

Here's the  plot of F.E.A.R.: an experimental psychic super solider and his clone army go rogue, break into some industrial compound and kill everyone there and then go all Hannibal Lector on a dead guy's face.  The question is WHY?? That's where you come in. As an agent of "First Encounter Assault Recon," you, the nameless "Point Man" are tasked with tracking the dude down and asking him what the dealio is. Also, you are supposed to take him into custody or something. Obviously, this is easier said than done and the rest of the game is spent chasing the guy all over town.  A spooky ghost girl with long, straight, black hair occasionally shows up and makes the lights flicker on and off while your com device gets all staticky.  The nameless protagonist doesn't speak in the game, but he's probably pondering the strange coincidence that this is his first day at his new job with an outfit called F.E.A.R., and he finds himself running around in what resembles a horror movie.

Switch pressin' time! Let's open that gate!

For most of its length, F.E.A.R. has you running around featureless warehouses, storage rooms, elevator shafts, and various industrial type building. You will encounter many concrete walls and metal shelves which have identical paint cans and plastic containers on them. In the middle of the game you enter an expensive looking office building, and late in the game, a secret science research facility.  Aside from shooting people, you will sometimes need to press a button or switch to open a gate or deactivate a security system or something. This all sounds pretty standard, but F.E.A.R. switches it up by tossing in some horror movie tactics from time to time.  Aside from the flickering lights/spooky voices, you'll see things get knocked over for no reason, dead bodies dropping out of air vents unexpectedly, pools of blood, and... these weird hallucination sequences.  It soon becomes obvious that you, the Point Man, have some connection to the ghost girl and experimental super solider dude (whom the developers named Paxton Fettel, unfortunately.)

Mysterious blood leaking everywhere

Thus F.E.A.R. attempts to create an odd sort of FPS/Horror hybrid. The idea is intriguing, but the developers never fully integrate these two genre into a cohesive whole.  For one, the spooky stuff and the shooty stuff never happen at the same time. The ghosty girl, Alma, only pulls out the scares when you're walking around the empty parts of a level. Likewise, the shooting-guns-at-enemy-soldiers portions never bear any traces of the supernatural.  In fact, knowing Alma is about to appear actually lessens the tension of the game, since you know that as long as the lights are flickering, you aren't going to run into armed bad guys around the next corner. The horror sections are the "safe" part of the game.

Spooky vision/flashbacks of a mysterious hospital room.

This disconnect carries over into the game's plot. Despite the fact that this ghost chick keeps popping up and killing people in gruesome ways, (and despite that Paxton Fettel is communicating with you using his psychic powers and dropping hints about the connection between you, Alma and him,) as far as the F.E.A.R team is concerned, all they have on their hands is a rogue super solider. At no point does the silent Point Man open his trap and say "By the way, there's this psychic ghost girl running around and Fettel has some kind of connection to her." Meanwhile, your teammates stand around scratching their heads wondering how the Delta Team got turned into a bloody pile of charred skeletons. The result of this weird disconnect is that F.E.A.R. often feels like you are playing two different games simultaneously.

Aside from the plot being kind of goofy, the action sequences are repetitive. You encounter identical groups of enemy soldiers over and over again, with an occasional heavily armored, extra-tough dude thrown in. At one point there are a bunch of snipers. An mech resembling ED-209 pops up a couple times. But it often feels like you're fighting the same fight over and over. At least Half Life had headcrabs, zombies, and aliens to liven things up. Despite all these issues, F.E.A.R. was very well received when it was released. Metacritic currently lists it at 88. It was considered to be a top-tier game at the time.  Even the nerdier gaming sites loved it. Why? Well, part of the reason has to do with gamers being graphic whores. You see, PC gaming enthusiasts get very excited when new, more powerful graphics cards come out and want games that push those cards to the limits.  This was perhaps even more true in the early 2000s when developers were busy creating all these fancy new graphics and physics engines. Everything was all about ragdoll physics and realistic lighting effects back then. A story that made sense always took a back seat to how innovative the graphics were.

The lighting effects are quite nice looking

F.E.A.R. earned its reputation as a game requiring top of the line hardware to play. In 2005, this game looked AMAZING. It still looks halfway decent today. It had crazy realtime lighting that casts shadows everywhere. The main gameplay gimmick is a Max Payne "bullet time" style slow-mo effect. The slow-mo is a bit more than a mere piece of window dressing; it's pretty vital to not getting killed. It allows you to turn a corner, activate the slow-mo, then draw a bead on enemies and pop off a few shots before they can react.  F.E.A.R. puts a cool blur effect on everything while this is happening. This allows the impressive-for-the-time particle effects to shine. When guns are fired, you can see individual bullets flying through the air. Showers of sparks. Windows break and pieces of glass fill the air. Dust obscures your vision. Bullets leave persistent holes in walls. All these fancy particle effects were considered a huge deal at the time, but they weren't supposed to be mere graphical frippery. This was about creating an environment. About making the game world more interactive, more solid, and real. All these GPU-straining effects were intended to create immersion. The graphic effects, in some sense, were the gameplay.

The blurry slow-mo battles look cool.

It also benefited from having remarkable solid enemy AI for the time. F.E.A.R. was quite a challenging game. A single, well placed shotgun blast could kill you, so you couldn't just run into a room shooting blindly. Even today, F.E.A.R. is still reasonably fun to play, though it can be a bit tiring.

Dust and debris goes flying everywhere.

One thing that struck me about the game is the oddly anti-climatic final act.  F.E.A.R. is not very effective about resolving its various plot threads. For much of the second half of the game you are tasked with finding Alice Wade, the daughter of Harlan Wade, one of the creators behind the Origin Project, the top-secret experiment which started the whole mess. About halfway through F.E.A.R. you are told to rescue Alice and escort to her to safety. She manages to slip away and head off to find her father. From this point on, your official mission is to find and rescue Alice and Harlan, as well as capture Fettel. This eventually takes you to the Project Origin site, an underground facility called The Vault, where Alma is kept in a kind of cryogenic coma. Turns out she has super duper psychic powers and is so dangerous she must be kept on ice. And, yes, this is exactly the plot of Akira.

Alma, when she does appear, is pretty creepy.

You encounter stiff resistance as you attempt to enter the Vault; once inside you mostly face more hallucinations and spectral appearances from Alma. Despite having been chasing after Alice Wade for half the game, she's dispatched rather casually: you just happen to walk by her dead body in one room. Harlan Wade gets killed in by Alma as you watch passively from the other side of a window. Paxton Fettel gets shot by you in a hallucination/flashback cutscene thing.  Quite frankly, I forgot what happened to Fettel until I read a plot synopsis online while writing this article.  It's hard to think of another game of this era that kills off its cast and wraps any loose plot threads in such a dismissive fashion. The last two sections of the game barely contain any enemies, other than these phantoms which rush you and can easily be blown away with a single shot. Compared to the pitched firefights throughout the rest of the game, these enemy encounters are quite lame. If you were expecting a boss fight or some kind of big showdown... well, it just never happens. You leave the vault, wander through an abandoned building, find the exit, which leads an alley outside, and... the game ends. There's a brief cutscene.  When the screen then displays "epilogue," it's almost startling. You almost want to jump up and shout "What!? That was it?"

This is Fettel doing something important. I think. I actually can't remember.

Looking back now, I almost admire the unexpected ending and the sudden jolt at the very end. It's dumb and clichéd, but it stands in stark contrast to the drawn out cutscenes we get today. For your pleasure, I've recorded and uploaded it. (Spoiler alert, obviously.)

When the rumbling starts and the dust cloud starts rolling down the street, you assume some serious shit is going to happen. An epic boss battle or something. But nope, nada. Sitting through the entire credits will get you a brief voiceover which was intended to set up the sequel.  Still, it's a bizarre and action-free final act for an action-packed game.

I'll admit, one of my favorite parts of F.E.A.R. is this guy, an obese, junk food munching sysadmin guy.  He's the only lighthearted thing in an otherwise entirely grim game. He appears at various points in the game to annoy you (he even tries to kill you at some point) and his appearances are always marked by his rather goofy musical leitmotif forcing its way into the soundtrack. In his review, Ray Hardgrit expresses his dislike for the character and feels he clashes with the rest of F.E.A.R.'s tone. In my opinion, I like that the developers had some confidence in their ability to modulate F.E.A.R.'s mood by inserting a bit of comic relief into their horror game. You need something a bit silly to make the horrible parts seem even more horrible. (Check out that Shakespeare guy for some examples.)

He eventually gets what's coming to him.

As an action game, F.E.A.R. mostly delivers. As a psychological horror game, it kinda delivers, but ultimately fails. You can't experience any kind of emotional attachment to the game's cardboard characters. And the game almost completely falls apart in the final act. It's an impressive achievement in many ways, I just wish it was a little bit better. With a few tweaks, it could have been great.


Phronemophobia said...

Bought the same bundle. Not likely to get around to playing it all, but I was curious about the F.E.A.R. games. Guess I'll need to find a good time to play at least the first one for myself. If nothing else, its gotta be better than RE Revelations for the 3DS that a friend forced on me not long ago.

Thanks for the update. Been so long, I was starting to get worried.

Unknown said...

I never got around to playing this. Which is surprising because at one time I was a really big fan of the early 2000 period Japanese horror movies. Maybe because they they were so fucking bleak (Rarely did they have a good ending where the protagonist prevailed, usually the ghost/evil spirit fucking kills everyone). Or maybe because they were so damn strange and disturbing. I even bought the box set of the all the Japanese Ju On movies. (Remade as the Grudge in the US.) (which also reminds me,they released two new movies in 2011 for the tenth anniversary in the series that I didn't know about and will have to watch now.) Hell I even made a Halloween decoration for my yard with LED lighting and a maniquin and a long hair wig of a girl resembling the one from the Ring.

But I never played this game, because well I always though how the hell do you have a modern FPS shooter with Japanese horror elements? It's like eating a quarter pounder with raw tuna and wasabi on it. I just didn't think it would work for me. Although I've had friends tell me he sequels were pretty decent. I guess if the story telling held up it could be interesting, but stuff thematically like this is better done outside the FPS genre if you ask me. Games slender man etc. or hat new one they made where you go through an Asylum seem like a better way to do these kind of games.

Doctor Sparkle said...

Yeah, FEAR is definitely an awkward combination of genres.

Funny story about J-Horror related stuff. We saw the American version of The Ring in the theaters late at night. A pretty creepy movie and leaves you in a weird mood. On the way home we notice all these cop cars a few blocks from our house. I remarked that I hoped there wasn't an escaped lunatic in the area.

When we pulled into our garage & walked into the house we saw.... our back door was wide open!! My first reaction was "Oh god, someone got into the house. Maybe they're still in the house!!" It was a moment of unbridled terror. A quick inspection revealed the dogs were hanging around chillaxin' so we figured we must not have closed the back door all the way and they were letting themselves in and out.

Still, I can't think of The Ring or similar movies without remembering that moment of pure panic.

Unknown said...

Ah, the ultimate rotten combination of two things that age most ungracefully in the videogame world. PC games with their post DOOM focus on technical prowess over gameplay innovations and first person shooters with their being the foremost purveyors of said decadent platform raison d'être.

Like a dogshit sandwich left out in the scorching sun for too long there is not much of the old shine left in those buns to trick the old appetite to be wet and hasten one to bite in, blinded and distracted by frivolous, easily spoiled, details.

I remember that game. It was one of a handful of titles that I tried in my attempt to give PC gaming another chance after a decade long break caused by a mix of shooter fatigue and disgust over the post DOOM direction taken by the platform powers that be.

My first impression of nothing having improved back in the mid 2000's were spot on. Alas, little did I know that a few short years later that same stench would take over and smother all life, colour and joy out of home consoles as well.

Thank god there were so many 8/16 bit games I hadn't played or the developments would surely have sent my sanity head first for a few spins round the old bend by now.