The early 2000s were a magnificent time for gaming. No matter a gamers console of choice or genre, there was a plethora of solid offerings to appease them. A favorite of mine being Monolith Studios 2005 horror first person shooter F.E.A.R, an acronym adequately serving as a description of how the player would feel throughout it. F.E.A.R stands for First Encounter Assault Recon, an elite team of operatives who specialize in dealing with paranormal military situations. You play as the point man, a soldier with superhuman reflexes tasked with eliminating a rogue operative named Paxton Fettel who has taken control of experimental telepathic soldiers. The story and writing were never all that memorable, yet it adequately laid the foundation of the engrossing atmospheric horror elements and timeless gun play.
F.E.A.R. is still memorable after all these years, thanks in part to its psychological scares and smartly utilizing light and sound design. Even after several replays, F.E.A.R. still manages to make the hairs on my neck stand up, that initial sense of unease and fear never really leaving me. It smartly approaches horror through utilizing environmental lighting, sound, and psychological dream-like sequences that insured player are never allowed a moment’s rest. And of course, plenty of jump scares. Generating palpable tension is a commendable feat for any horror game, let alone one that is as action oriented as F.E.A.R. The frequency with which chaotic firefights erupt actually helped to make the scares more impactful, as the player is caught off guard by them, typically right after a shootout when a player feels at ease now that the present danger has been dealt with does a jump scare or psychological event occur.
While the horror elements helped F.E.A.R. to have a unique identity that differentiated itself from other first person shooters of the time, it was the physics and enemy AI that have made F.E.A.R. timeless. By 2005’s standards, F.E.A.R. had the best enemy AI I had ever encountered in a video game. Enemies would react to spotting the player’s flashlight, use makeshift parts of the environment as cover, as well as flanking and calling out commands to their allies. The first time I carelessly turned a corner with my flashlight illuminated and an enemy shouted, “flashlight spotted!” I was so taken aback that it resulted in my characters death. Whether enemies always employed strategies through communicating with one another or not, the illusion that enemies are using squad tactics to engage you made firefights more intense. While enemy AI’s utilization of cover is now standard fair, back then enemies taking cover, retreating, and regrouping added a level of frenzy to shootouts that made the player feel as if they were living out scenes from their favorite action movie.
What would a shooter be without exceptional firearms to live out these action movie fantasies? While the player’s arsenal ran a fairly standard gambit of pistols, assault rifles, SMGs, and rocket launchers, their handling was more memorable than the actual guns themselves. Weapons made the player feel powerful. Turning enemies into a red mist with the shotgun, or nailing an enemy to the wall with the Hammerhead rifle ensured that shootouts would result in obliterating everything in the room. Chunks of the wall breaking away, dust fills the air, and enemies screaming over their com system, are all variables of firefights that on their own are fairly unremarkable but when in unison create an orchestra of chaotic first-person shooter goodness.
To momentarily alleviate the chaos unfolding on screen, The Point Man has the superhuman ability to slow down time, affectionately known as bullet time. This allows the player a supernatural tactical advantage to slow time for a finite amount of time, to either help plan their course of attack or, as it is more frequently used for, pulling off ridiculously satisfying headshots. Bullet time was the cherry on top of the proverbial cake that is F.E.A.R. as it further displayed the games stellar physics, as bodies careened through the air, chunks of walls and dust flew through the air as missed shots ripped apart environments. The first time you have bullet time deplete in the middle of a firefight, the gameplay speed returning t o normal and having to anticipate enemies movement patterns and incoming fire is exhilarating. Considering F.E.A.R. is more than a decade old it still holds up remarkably well, in terms of not only how it looks and runs, but in terms of the gameplay mechanics that while being the norm now, for the time were revolutionary.
“A good game takes 60 seconds of fun and then repeats that 60 seconds for the entirety of the game,” Bungie designer Jaime Griesemer once said in an interview, a philosophy that Monolith Studios executed flawlessly with F. E. A. R. Shootouts don’t last long, and there’s just enough time in between to allow the dust to settle, reload your gun, and allow for a jump scare or two before throwing you right back into a John Wu styled shootout. Unfortunately, F.E.A.R. was the peak of the franchise, as it spawned two uninspired expansion packs and two average at best sequels. While I’m sure we haven’t seen the last F.E.A.R. game from Monolith, I hope we don’t see one anytime soon. F.E.A.R. is a game that must be approached with a “Keep it simple, stupid” mentality, by capitalizing on what made the original so groundbreaking, while ensuring a franchise reboot doesn’t feel antiquated. While we don’t know the future of the F.E.A.R. franchise, the original still remains a quintessential first person shooter.