With FEAR, Monolith has cooked up another technically proficient shooter that just can’t maintain the pace it sets for itself in its early levels. What starts out as an intensely creepy, J-horror romp through an abandoned industrial wasteland populated by the smartest enemies we’ve ever fought finishes exactly the same way. This might seem like a good thing, but realize there’s virtually no variation through the entire game.
Some would probably argue that the enemy AI is so good, you don’t really need variation. That the mere joy of fighting clever enemies who behave more like real-life humans than the idiotic drones common to first-person shooters, is reward enough.
We’d probably agree if there were more than six basic types of enemies in the game. Sure, fighting soldiers that try to flank you, provide cover to their buddies, and make decent tactical decisions is refreshing, but after eight hours of battling the exact same opponents, in a perfectly linear environment, it’s tough to remain enthusiastic.
Unfortunately, the actual firefights are few and far between. A typical sequence goes something like this: You travel through industrial-looking tunnels for five to 10 minutes, absorbing the mostly repetitive architecture. Enjoy a brief respite while the game autosaves—the game freezes for two or three seconds every time you save—and brace yourself for the inevitable intense firefight that awaits you just around the corner.
We love the suspense that builds as you run through the tunnels, waiting for the next fight. We love the autosaves, which keep us from wasting hours traversing the same empty corridors over and over. But we absolutely hate that the autosave pause telegraphs an upcoming firefight with 100 percent accuracy, utterly destroying the suspense built during the 10 minutes since the last fight. It’s amazing how something so small as a two-second hitch can affect the game in such a big (and bad) way.
Weapons are good, but are difficult to use if you don’t enable the game’s bullet-time slow-mo effect. On the other hand, if you use bullet-time frequently, the game is very easy, even at the higher difficulty settings. It quickly becomes more about managing bullet-time rather than killing baddies.
Monolith did a great job with both the in-game sounds and the soundtrack. The spooky audio makes exploring deserted ruins creepy, and the positional sound works to great effect; sinister noises like breaking bottles and creaking metal come from your rear channels with just the right frequency to freak you out.
From a technological standpoint, FEAR uses the most advanced version of the Lithtech engine we’ve seen. With support for volumetric fog, soft shadows, normal maps, and real-time lighting, the game looks spectacular. Hell, you can even see your feet! All the usual physics gimmicks are present, and the enemy deaths, courtesy of the rag-doll physics system, are always entertaining. FEAR runs moderately well on last-gen hardware, but to really see this game at its best, you’re going to need a high-end CPU, a gig or more of memory, and a current-gen videocard (or two), so you can crank up the detail.
The team deathmatch mode with bullet-time enabled is a must for multiplayer aficionados. When bullet-time activates, everyone on your team gets the bonus, not just a single player. This creates frequent, exciting shifts in an already high-speed, almost frantic multiplayer scenario.
Month Reviewed: January 2006
+ J-POP: Unbelievable AI, fun firefights, great graphics, and immersive sound.
-J-HORROR: Lame autosave pauses, repetitive and linear level design, uninspired enemy design.
ESRB Rating: M