IGN Review of F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon
Monolith Productions developed a love it or leave it title for the launch of Xbox 360 last year by the name of Condemned: Criminal Origins. While some loved the eerie presentation, others couldn't get past the slow melee combat. At the same time, and using some of the same development tools and assets, Monolith was also putting together a game for the PC called F.E.A.R. This critically acclaimed game had all of the spooky atmosphere of Condemned with some phenomenal AI, intense action and excellent graphics and sound. A year later, F.E.A.R. has found its way to Xbox 360 courtesy of Day 1, maintaining the excellent atmosphere and fast-paced combat giving console shooter fans the opportunity to experience one outstanding game.
F.E.A.R. starts off with a simple enough story. As a First Encounter Assault Recon member, you're sent in to investigate a man named Paxton Fettel who has a taste akin to Hannibal Lector. Since you've got reflexes that are "off the charts" you can employ a SlowMo bullet time power to help you get the drop on enemies that will cause you great headaches. This thin premise for having superpowers also provides reason to send you in alone. As is the case in these games, things don't go smoothly once you're on your own. You quickly jump into a paranormal quest to learn what exactly led to this strange turn of events and how you can put a stop to it.
While the story is passable, the method of delivery leaves something to be desired. Aside from very brief in-engine cutscenes that happen at the beginning of some of the levels, the story comes to you mainly through searching through the various buildings and offices for blinking lights on phones or laptop computers. Accessing these will fill you in on some of the details, but it is entirely auditory and oftentimes you'll merely get fluff for your exploratory efforts.
The game isn't really about the story though. With a cheesy acronym staring you in the face from the get-go, you might expect as much. It really is more of an amalgamation of three methods of game delivery; puzzle, combat and scare sequences. The puzzles are there just to break up the action and allow you to keep your sanity. The scare and combat sections, though, can match up with the best of them.
One of the real strengths F.E.A.R. has is that it is genuinely scary, something you won't often find even in the so-called "survival horror" games. Whether the scare tactic is the classic startling image quickly popping up, grotesque dismembering of unfortunate souls, or lights being played with just to mess with you, you'll find your fight or flight response at full tilt. We've had numerous people in the office who have had to stop playing F.E.A.R. from the horror getting too intense and it has become somewhat of a running gag to sneak up on someone playing and scare them from behind.
The graphics and sound in F.E.A.R also work amazingly well together to draw the player into the world. Turn the lights off, crank up your surround sound and pop the game in on a cold and rainy night and you'll see just what we mean. The great use and absence of lighting along with constant eerie sounds will keep you wondering what might lie ahead. These intense sensory experiences do a fantastic job of drawing you into the game and making you forget that you're playing a game with some somewhat questionable premises. It all builds up to F.E.A.R having you so engrossed in the game that when the fright does come, it hits home.
The fantastic AI present in the PC version has made its way over to the console world intact. Enemies come in squads and react to their environment, your actions and each other. They'll advance when they have numbers, kicking over bookshelves to create their own cover along the way. Kill a couple of them and they'll pull back and call for backup. Try to hide in a corner while your SlowMo gauge refills and you'll find a grenade bouncing to your feet. On the other hand, rushing out into the open will cause the entire squad to stand up and start firing away with their automatic weaponry. It all boils down to the enemies feeling real as opposed to simply following scripted actions as we've see so often.
This AI provides for some seriously intense battles where you'll be relying on your SlowMo reflexes in a desperate hope for survival. To fight back, you're given a nice selection of weapons that each behave differently and enable you to approach battles with the right tools for your playing style. The shotgun is useful throughout the game and to back it up you've got weapons that range from the standard pistol, to repeating cannons, to the devastating sniper-like particle cannon. The effects of these weapons are nothing but extreme gore. Enemies shot in the right place will have arms, legs or even their heads blown off. That is, of course, if the impact doesn't make them explode into a cloud of blood and guts. Nothing beats firing a giant stake into an enemy's head and watching it impale them on the wall as their body dangles lifelessly below.
The only real drawback to the campaign mode is the somewhat repetitive scenery. While most of the game takes place in dimly lit rooms and halls, what you can see is almost exclusively office spaces and construction zones. It can get tiring and was a major turn-off for many people who played through the PC version. One of the other slight disappointments in the game, its length, actually mitigates the issue somewhat. The game can be finished in roughly 10 hours so you'll be done with the campaign before you really get tired of what you're seeing. Another note about length: There are four levels of difficulty in F.E.A.R. and Day 1 set most of the Achievements quite high. Playing through on the hardest difficulty level will gain you the most Achievement points, but it will be tough.
This review may seem like treading over old news if you've played through F.E.A.R. on the PC, so we'll get to what has been changed and added. The instantly recognizable additions are the new Instant Action mode and bonus mission. The Instant Action mode puts you into pure combat situations in environments drawn from various parts of the campaign mode and scores you on a variety of factors including enemies killed, health packs in your inventory and accuracy. At the end, you can post your score on the Xbox Live Leaderboards to see just how well you stack up against the world. Separate scoreboards exist for each difficulty level and can be sorted to see who has posted the best score in the past week as well as all time. This mode is pure fun and great for seeing how the AI will react differently depending upon how you approach a situation. This addition greatly extends the shelf life of a game that has an otherwise relatively short single player mode. The same can't be said about the bonus mission. While we're not complaining about more missions, this one is fairly short and just allows you to play out a short bit of side story and try your hand at some tough combat.
A new machine pistol is present, as well, but anybody who has played F.E.A.R. knows that the shotgun is the best way to go through the bulk of the campaign mode. Those who have played F.E.A.R. will notice a few more subtle tweaks that enhance the gameplay in a much better way than the simple addition of a new weapon, cool though it may be. Everything that was loose in F.E.A.R. on PC has been tightened up for the console release. While the rag-doll Havok-induced physics present some fantastic death animations, the engine was a little too loose on the PC and you often found downed enemies shaking on the ground after you killed them. On the PC, we found that a simple melee attack aimed at a dead enemy's head would cause it to spin in a most inhuman fashion. All of this has been tidied up for Xbox 360. While you still get some awe-inspiring death animations as bodies go tumbling through the air or simply explode, objects appear to have a slightly more realistic weight to them.
The controls are obviously different from the PC, but they map to the 360 controller quite well. The stick sensitivity has been turned down from the much faster default setting on the PC to one that is much tighter enabling you to aim with accuracy. The sensitivity can be changed through the menu if you find the defaults aren't to your liking. You can also adjust the button configurations between five different options, though there isn't any way to play with a southpaw or legacy setup.
F.E.A.R. on PC forced you to make full use of the quick save option since you never knew just when you were going to run into another fight. The save anywhere feature has been dropped for the console in lieu of a checkpoint system. The checkpoints work perfectly as they're positioned slightly prior to or just after major action sequences. Thus death doesn't mean replaying long stretches of the game.
The multiplayer side of F.E.A.R. plays in much the same way as it did on PC. There are a few new maps, but the game modes are the same. Those are your standard deathmatch, capture the flag, and elimination (along with team variants of each). The other mode unique to F.E.A.R. allows one person to control the SlowMo by maintaining possession of a booster with the penalty of becoming highlighted on everyone else's HUD.
The multiplayer game is set for up to 16 players, though you'll only be able to play one person per console. There is no co-operative mode and you can only take one person online at a time. There also isn't any system link option, so if you're without an Xbox Live account you're out of luck for multiplayer action.
Still, F.E.A.R. multiplayer on Xbox 360 maintains many of the customization options that PC gamers typically enjoy, such as the host's ability to adjust winning conditions, running speed, weapon restrictions and even point rewards and penalties for specific actions. Turning the running speed up to 1.5 makes the game move in a hectic Quake-like manner and brings the action to a level close to total insanity. We're fans, made even more so by the lack of lag during our online experience with the retail copy.
F.E.A.R.'s multiplayer is fun and has some excellent options for tweaking the game, but it has a serious hiccup in the lobby. That being the lack of a post-game lobby. As soon as you finish a game, you'll be kicked back out to the menu screen without so much as a chance to say goodbye. This happens even on unranked matches where you are presumably playing with friends making it more than a little frustrating to get into an extended online session with some buddies. When asked about any plans to update this, we were told that none were in the pipeline as of yet.
As we've stated before, the graphics are a sight to behold. Although the environments are repetitive, a great attention to detail is present that brings the world to life. Everything looks realistic with great models and textures, making the imagery that much more disturbing. The lighting keeps you in the dark, pun intended, as to what you'll come across next. It encourages you to explore nooks with your flashlight in hopes of finding just one more health pack. The lighting also adds enough to the atmosphere to keep you on the edge of your seat and isn't just there for looks. You'll find many of the lighting tricks help add to the sense of impending danger that comes so often throughout F.E.A.R.
If the graphics are good, the sound is exceptional. Put this game in a home theater that can handle 5.1 surround sound and you have one great auditory experience. Trickling water, droning bass, and giant explosions that come out of nowhere break the silence in ways that will suck you into the game and then quickly shake you out of your trance. Even the generic elevator music you'll hear periodically throughout the game hits you in a way that is oddly unsettling. F.E.A.R. was the runner-up to the IGN PC Channels award for "Best use of Sound" last year with good reason; and it all holds up on Xbox 360.
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