The environments in F.E.A.R. range from concrete-walled water works, to rundown uninhabited dwellings, with a wide spectrum of colours from grey to brown and all the unpleasant tones in-between. There's really very little to get excited about. Thankfully, F.E.A.R. isn't about its uninspired locations or drab colour scheme, and you realise this the moment you pull the trigger of a gun. The quiet unassuming chap violently transforms into an explosive, attention hogging action movie star, stealing every scene with the most debris-filled shoot-outs ever seen in a video game.
Much has been made of the supernatural element to F.E.A.R. but this plays a far smaller part than expected. You play a rookie elite soldier who has recently joined the First Encounter Assault Recon team. Your first job is to investigate a paranormal force (most visible as the scary little girl in red) which has the ability to tear people apart (physically, not emotionally). As far as supernatural entities go this is a rather unpleasant one, and despite the fact that you're part of a team, you'll fight alone for the entirety of the game as your comrades are either ripped apart on entering a new area or are conveniently incapacitated.
So, with a loose plot and paranormal activity in place it's time to get down and dirty in those wonderful environments I mentioned above; they're normal, real-world, urban locations, and being such, they're not the most thrilling to look at. They serve their purpose though, being the perfect areas for some stunning fire-fights. I know the 'Lobby' scene from the original Matrix movie is mentioned whenever a game features some environment destruction, but F.E.A.R. is the only game to really do that comparison justice. To say F.E.A.R. is explosive is an understatement.
You could say F.E.A.R. is a corridor shooter, but it would be doing the game a disservice. Yes, there are plenty of corridors, but you rarely have to take on enemies while moving through narrow hallways. Enemy encounters usually pit you against a number of enemies working as a squad, all of whom take up strategic positions in the environment. It's rare that you'll have the upper hand, with cover definitely on their side. Whether you're entering a heavily occupied reception area, emerging from a tunnel to face an attack from enemies that have a height advantage on you, or getting a little too close for comfort in an old apartment block, you have a few tricks up your sleeve.
Taking on a room full of enemies with the same mindset you'd have in any other FPS will get you killed. The enemy AI isn't going to be outwitted by simply running and gunning, but throw some slow motion, melee combat and the odd grenade into the mix, and you suddenly have them running scared. How it's possible isn't clear, but you can slow down time, making your task a hell of a lot easier. The time you can spend in slow motion increases as you progress through the game (Reflex injections increase your slow-mo time and Health injections increase your maximum health), and by the end you'll be able to take out a whole room before they know what's hit them. Close quarters combat (with weapon butts, kicks and slides all possible) can also take out enemies in one hit. Alternatively, throw a grenade into the middle of a room and take out the majority of the opposition in one, extremely bloody, fell swoop - slowing down time, throwing a remote mine into the air and detonating it before it hits the ground is a particular favourite of mine.
Now imagine all this going on while dust flies across the room, blood splatters, glass shatters and bodies explode. When it's all going off F.E.A.R. is an astonishing game to play. While there's no Red Faction-style fully destructible environment action, the sense of realism in F.E.A.R. is greater than any game that has gone before it. Walking through a blood-stained, smoke-filled, bullet-ridden room, picking up ammo from the dismembered bodies that litter the floor isn't an experience for everyone, but if violent action is your thing, it's a sight to behold.
It's clear that Monolith focussed on the engine's ability to render particles flying through the air, and they have done an amazing job, but the overall visual package is rather a mixed bag. Firstly, this game is a huge resource hog. If you have hardware that is over a year old you're going to struggle to run the game at anything like what the developers intended. Even with most visual settings turned down to medium my moderately powerful system struggled to achieve a smooth framerate, and during intense moments of action the game chugged to the point of being unplayable. A couple of enemy types that appear in the latter half of the game don't help either, with their entrance guaranteeing a slideshow.
To be fair, the lighting is exquisite and enemy models are great, but it's still hard to see how the game should run worse than other heavy hitters in the genre. Texture work is good, but not spectacular and most of the environments are pretty boxy and don't exactly push the boundaries of geometry. Still, all of these complaints - bar the slowdown - fade into insignificance once you start firing a weapon, as the combat is the most satisfying I've ever played. Firing a gun at another carbon copy soldier never feels repetitive in F.E.A.R. and the difficulty can be set to match your skill level. Health packs (of which you can store ten) and Armour are scattered quite freely around the environment, and they are usually in plentiful supply in the sections leading up to big confrontations, so you won't enter a fight thinking you've got no chance of a good outcome. It can get tricky, but it's always fair. Regular use of the quick save eases your nerves, but the health packs usually mean you can take quite a battering before dying.
Given the game's heavy emphasis on guns, the selection could be better and the three gun limit is a little annoying. It's not realistic to carry seven weapons at once, but it's not that plausible to be able to carry three, and having to continuously drop weapons to change to something else becomes pretty tiresome. It didn't happen often, but I was left ammo-less for short periods, which ruined those short sections of the game; I had to run from enemies, rather than take them on, which isn't what the game is about. In the end it balances out well, but some of the better weapons (a rail-gun alike weapon in particular) are left rather underused as it's safer to enter a combat zone with fully loaded machine guns, than a couple of semi-depleted devastating weapons.
Another complaint could be levelled at the range of enemies. For the most part you'll take on soldiers (occasionally accompanied by a 'Heavy') or generic armed forces. This is fine as they display some great AI, but some more variety wouldn't have gone amiss. A few bit-part enemies come into play now and again (with one in particular causing a reaction no other videogame has been able to. To say I was freaked out is an understatement), but the supernatural menace isn't actually a threat for most of the game, simply being used to scare you at various points.
An area where the game never stumbles is its audio. It's simply superb, with a creepy atmosphere, great soundtrack and awesome sound effects. From the sounds of your weapons to the groans from enemies as they die (particularly while you're in slow motion), everything is top notch. The story is mainly told through short in-engine cutscenes, recorded messages left on phones around the office area and abandoned laptops containing info on what's gone on, and while the voice work can't be faulted, the story is rather underdeveloped and certainly could have been fleshed out a little more.
Multiplayer is also supported for sixteen players, but it's got little to suggest it'll become as popular as other online first-person shooters. The use of slow-mo in multiplayer (by giving one person the ability to use it at a time) is nice, but after a while you'll be longing for more of the action that made the single-player campaign so enjoyable. It's that 'give me more' quality that shines through, with the game open to be played through numerous times. Fights will play out differently each time you play, and higher difficulty settings make enemies smarter and harder to kill.
F.E.A.R. isn't without its faults, most notably in the form of the game engine, which does its best to ruin your enjoyment, but some unwanted tweaking will result in an extraordinarily entertaining experience. While not as obviously pretty as games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, the combat more than makes up for it, and the action is relentless from start to finish. Bar an ending that will leave you with more questions than answers and some ridiculously steep hardware requirements, there's little not to enjoy. I can't wait for the inevitable sequel.