By Thomas McDonald
FEAR is a perfect example of diminishing returns. The latest shooter from Monolith begins like gangbusters, offering a heady fusion of Japanese-style horror and straight-up American run-n-gun gameplay. The opening is so strong, and the atmosphere so creepy, that it carries the game a fair distance before you notice its problems.
Unlike Doom 3, which reached the bottom of its hackneyed bag o’ tricks after about an hour of gameplay, FEAR holds you much longer. The designers play their cards effectively.
You’re hit with a barrage of twisted imagery, zapped into alternate visions, and given passing glimpses of nightmarish things, most notably the creepy-little-girl-with-long-dark-hair-in-her-face (a staple image in Japanese horror, most notably Ringu/The Ring).
Then they back off. The visions and glimpses spread out a little further, supplanted by remarkably effective and eerie sound design. By this point, the game has done its work on you, leaving you in a state of tense expectation as you wait to see what’s around the next corner. This is a tough thing to do in a movie. To sustain it in a game as long as Monolith does is quite a feat.
But as with so many Monolith games (such as Blood or Nobody Lives Forever), the whole thing eventually runs aground on the sandbar of bad level design. Although Monolith clearly takes a few pages from the Valve playbook in an attempt to create a vivid game world with an integral narrative, the developer failed to learn a similarly important lesson about creating believable environments. FEAR is remarkably linear for a shooter, funneling you through an endless sequence of convoluted, maze-like locations. It’s like being stuck in a rabbit warren. If an architect created plans for an office/factory/lab with layouts like these, he’d be locked up.
The awkward layout design might be intended to create plenty of blind corners and hiding spots for enemies, but it only succeeds in making the levels feel choppy and unappealing. Even with so many twists and turns, enemy encounters soon fall into a fairly rigid and predictable pattern of small squad encounters. Lumping the bad guys in one place and giving them a decent tactical AI works for a while, but eventually becomes predictable and then tedious. FEAR has plenty of atmosphere and eerie moments, but a shooter stands or falls on level design, something Monolith has never done consistently well.