So it seems that I finally finished FEAR. That stands for “First Encounter Assault Recon” which I’ll be incorrectly reducing to ‘FEAR’ here, to save wear on my ‘.’ key. I don’t feel too bad about doing this, as the title is a bit of an oxymoron anyway.

I bought it in October 2005, but looking at my saved games, it got about an hour of play a month until mid-August when I decided I should sit down and finish it.

So why the wait for a game hailed by many reviewers as the best thing ever/so far? Well, I think we all know that game reviewers nowadays just talk rubbish, lauding whatever the new big game is, and get on the advertising bandwagon. Gamespot gave FEAR a 9.1/10: "F.E.A.R. works because it elevates first-person shooter combat to cinematic levels.". To be fair to them, game reviewers have put themselves into a corner in that big games have to get 9/10 at least nowadays no matter what they play like.

Having said that then, why do they go on to say this:“The environments can also feel a bit repetitive after a time.”, “Since you're dealing with an army of clones, you're essentially battling the same guy over and over...“. In essence I agree with these sentiments, but why then score it at 9.1? The gameplay deserves an 7 or 7.5 at best. To end this digression then, I hope reviewers separate graphics from gameplay a little more in their scores (ironically, Gamespot for example have separate sub categories to score from, but scores graphics and game play identically).

I think that’s why for me it didn’t work - too much cinema, not enough action. The review I think I most understood was over at The Firing Squad (83%). They acknowledged that behind a few boo! moments and nice hallucination scenes, you’re left with a pretty by the numbers First Person Shooter (FPS).

Enough of those professional reviews. Ordinarily I don’t ‘review’ games I’ve finished, but with FEAR, I felt there was just a gulf between what was supposed to be in there, and what actually was.

The graphics were OK; not amazing, but OK. I’d put them between Far Cry and Half Life 2. The lighting (or lack of) was good, and the physics and particle effects were very good, and gave you the idea that in gun battles the whole place was being shot to pieces. The downside? Virtually all levels looked the same - office and warehouse. Rectangular, meaning that anti-aliasing worked wonders if your rig could handle it. Only the ‘Urban Decay’ level later on looked good, but alas, it’s quite short. Also, as noted above, if you’re fighting replicas, then they look the same, which might work fine for a plot/film, but not for a shooter. The variations like the stealth units, and ‘heavy armour’ are few and far between. Towards the end you fight ‘ghosts’, but to be honest, how does shooting a ghost to kill it work? The realism also suffers when you can knock containers off shelves to create a surprising noise maybe, but you can’t shoot open a crate. Also, and this goes for most modern FPS, why do torch (flashlight) batteries not last longer?

One thing I feel never gets full credit in many game reviews is the sound. FEAR’s sound is excellent, and whilst the voice acting may be a bit dry (you’ll get bored of listening to phone voice mail very quickly), the background ‘music’ is very moody - chilling in fact. The sound effects are also excellent, and for once the sound actually fits the guns, which is vital, as anyone who has used the pistol in HL2 can tell you - that sounded like a party popper.

The AI might have been quite good, but in such narrow surrounds as the corridors etc., they don’t have much scope to do anything creative. Only in the larger room battles do you get the feeling they’re trying to flank you, but again, these account for only a small portion of the game. The game also has two extras to the standard gun battles: Slo-Mo and hand to hand combat. The former is basically ‘bullet time’, which may seem like a gimmick at first, but to be fair, in some battles you need it. Not because of the AI, just because things happen quickly. The down side, is that often you can just hide until your Slo-Mo is recharged and pick enemies off with each session. Graphically though, it does give you chance to check out some of the nice particle and damage effects. The hand to hand though is pointless. This is an FPS for a reason - whilst you can sometimes sneak up and kill some replicas, they’re usually in small groups and you usually get hit a few times whilst silently killing one unit.

The game is also poorly paced; there are some sections where enemies are few and far between, and the fading appearances of Alma’s victims are grouped in certain levels. The last two ‘levels’ though are more like walk throughs though, and the last is purely an in engine cinematique.

So in summary for the game, there’s an OK shooter in there, but too many of the development team wanted to make a film out of it, and the game suffered.

I think some of my frustration with FEAR comes from outside the game too. I bought the DVD Director’s Edition version - again, the obsession with a film monicker. In retrospect this was a mixed blessing - I paid more for it, and got some freebies like a ‘Making of...’ featurette, some machanime scenes (PANICS), a tiny ‘comic’, and a half decent ‘Prequel’ trailer. Of course, within a couple of months, you could get this all free online. Indeed, in August 2006, Vivendi Universal released ‘FEAR: Combat’ as a free multiplayer game, so all I really got was a DVD and the solo game.

However, that turned out to be a good thing. Basically, unknown to me, this game comes with SecurROM, and a security system to make sure you’re using a legal copy. No problem installing and using. However, most updates I tried after that (patches 1.03-1.07) rendered the game useless as it claimed I was using an unofficial disk. So, like many others, I headed to the VU Forums, where a lot of people were complaining (this was about 1.03 I think). SecurROM released a new FEAR.exe file which fixed it. Fine. Out comes 1.04, and I’m back to broken. This is where having the DVD as opposed to several CDs paid dividends: it was faster to re-install. Eventually, I played the game through on version 1.00, living with the note every time I started the game that a newer version was available.

As an aside, and conversation a few people were having on the VU forums, relating to who was responsible to fix the ‘CD not official’ issue (i.e. VU or Monolith or SecurROM), however, the forum moderator nuked our comments as "strutting". I guess he/she never paid for their copy. Also, I can’t see anything on the packaging, that says it has SecurROM, making it harder for me to avoid this in future.

Basically then, FEAR was an all over disappointment, a so-so game with a few nice effects, sound and cut scene, but a corporate patching policy on the back end which seemed a little bit out of control.