Sunday, April 10, 2011

Nothing to fear but F.E.A.R. itself.

I’m playing catch ups with my gaming, doing my best to work through a rather prodigioud Pile-Of-Shame. It's taken ages to get around playing ‘F.E.A.R.' and to say that it was worth the wait is an understatment.
   ‘F.E.A.R’ is downright awesome!
   This incredibly atmospheric, suspenseful and often downright frightening first person shooter, unravels a fairly detailed storyline that comes across like a Tom Clancy tale imbued with a heavy dose of a Japanese supernatural horror film. The plot involved the clandestine activities of Armacham Technology Corporation, and the efforts of a sinister figure called Paxton Fettel ( a very Cronenberg-esque name if there ever was one ) who has been at the centre of experiments known as Project Origin, part of which seems to have been an attempt to use psychic powers to control cloned soldiers. Playing the unnamed Point Man for the F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) team you are sent in to investigate Fettel’s escape, and contain his command of the clones. What starts off as a fairly routine stalk-and-shoot around a warren of warehouses in a harbour district soon develops into something more significant, and potent. Spectral figures appear, speaking in a susurrant hush only to dissolve into drifts of ash, the shadowy semblance of a young girl constantly appears and disappears, and as you progress further into the experience seriously scary hallucinations begin to strike.
   The story is unravelled slowly, subjectively, via lap-tops and exposition between characters you encounter, offering glimpses and insights, rather than a full swathe of narrative. This ‘novel’ storytelling maintains a constant sense of uncertainty, and mystery, through to a series of cut-scene revelations that assemble to a satisfying dénouement, rather than a tedious tell-all sequence at the end.
   The action follows a fairly linear corridor and spreads from the harbour district to the ATC office building, a hair-raising sequence throughout a number of abandoned buildings and the streets on the way to the ATC research facility for a worthy climax. It is only during the extended office set-piece that repetition threatens to set in, though traversing corridors, darkened lifts shafts and air-con shafts in pitch darkness really gets the pulse racing. While the colour palette is ostensibly muted, (grey concrete walls abound), the details to the locations and scenery are suitably impressive, with the extant tableaux evidence to support the story: signs of earlier violence, pools of blood, bodies, cluttered office desks and overturned furniture, abandoned trucks and on and on. The real triumph to the animation is the use of light and shadow, especially shadow. The device of only having limited torch light creates a brilliant sense of suspense. In one sequence as I progressed through a pitch black subterranean corridor, flicking my torch on and off to conserve power, my character’s laboured breathing was matching my own hammering heart. This is how ‘F.E.A.R’ lives up to its' name. One of the nightmare hallucinations in particular left me stone cold and prickled with goosebumps, while the sudden appearance of the ghostly Alma made me jump and cry out, as did a suddenly collapsing lift. Looking down the shaft at the sight of several dozen, mutilated bodies on the roof almost made wee come out.
   The game-play is simplistic and logical, the movement fluid and fast, fast, fast, while the atmosphere is on slow boil. Clumsy fingers led to a re-jig of the key controls, as F to open doors and G to throw grenades often resulted in dumb accidents. The weapons all have their own impact, escalating in power as is tradition, though each is effective in its own way. Getting close-up-and-personal with a pump-action shotgun was exhilarating; with particularly close encounters resulting in the foe literally losing an arm, head or, in some cases, literally blown apart. My favourite was the particle blaster discovered later in the game. Not only was the spectacle of the laser beam lancing out to reduce enemies to blackened skeletons sensational but the sound was bitchin’ as well. Having said that; there is something about the chatter of triple-shot machine gun volleys, and the clatter of discharged shell casings hitting the deck, that always stirred my inner John Milius. The slo-mo option was brilliant, too, and necessary with facing preponderate force; out-manned, out-gunned. I will admit to an outrageously perverse pleasure in the Peckinpah mayhem, and to being ever-so satisfied with how skilled I became at killing the opposition. Crouching and sneaking around corners to take head shots of the opposition's point guys, only to lob a grenade, and tap slo-mo before strafing the hell out of the amassed baddies became a matter of routine. The AI has to be commended as well, as replaying a scene (after being killed) would invariably result in the opponents reacting differently, sustaining the challenge. The conceit of hacking the enemy comms, and hearing the exchanges provided are sparkling details; shooting a baddie, then hearing one of his colleagues shout ‘Fuck!’ is priceless.
   Many significant set-pieces such as the conflict on the rooftop LZ of the ATC office, the journey through the underground car park, negotiating the unfinished floors, traversing the abandoned housing block, and the climax in the research facility offer unique challenges, and rushes of adrenalin. This attempt to vary the threat, and the scale of enemies numbers and types ( the camouflaged guys are buggers and the ED-209 types are tough sons of bitches! ), as well as the scenarios in which you engage them, keeps things compelling.
   ‘F.E.A.R’ is an absolute winner in every way. Sensational sound and aesthetics, engaging plot, game-play, and more than enough violence, bloodshed and spooky happenings to keep me up until all hours of the night; wide-eyed, shit-scared and loving every minute of it.