2005 has provided slim pickings for the First-Person Shooter fan. Duke Nukem: Forever slipped another year, as has S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Indeed, think back to the last good FPS game you played and you might be surprised as to what it was, and when. Half-Life 2? A year old next month. Battlefield 2? That was June. The only other big release this year was Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and that was six months ago.
With Christmas approaching, decent FPS games are like buses: nothing for ages, then several come along at once. This year, that is quite literally true, with both Quake 4 and F.E.A.R. hitting stores on Tuesday of last week. The week before was Serious Sam 2, while the much anticipated Call of Duty 2 is out tomorrow in the US - UK readers are forced to wait until Friday 4th November.
It is a well known fact that First-Person Shooters frequently push back the boundaries for system performance. If your PC is two years old, you probably played Half-Life 2 quite happily last year. Thanks to the relative kindness of the Source engine, many continue to play Counter-Strike: Source on quite modest hardware by 2005 standards.
On the other hand, we have known for a while now
that the advanced graphics of F.E.A.R. requires some serious grunt. That is why we have spent several days putting it through its paces to find out how it runs on a variety of systems, so you can decide if you might need to budget for some upgrades before you shell out £30 on the game itself.
In our familiar format, we will first discuss the gameplay elements before deconstructing some of the fancy new eye candy and finally some performance benchmarks on a raft of ATI and NVIDIA hardware.
Do you know the true meaning of F.E.A.R.?
The name of the game comes from the Special Forces group dubbed First Encounter Assault Recon, of which you play a member of. Your mission is to track down and eliminate Paxton Fettel, the telepathic commander of an army of elite super soldiers controlled by his thoughts alone.
The game, inspired by the likes of Resident Evil and the Japanese cult horror film The Ring
, uses some clever techniques to instil a strong feeling of fear in the player - some subtle, some less so. For example, there are several hallucination cutscenes a la Max Payne, except these make that game's look like an episode of the TellyTubbies - really messed up stuff. They really get the adrenalin pumping and add to the atmosphere of the game immensely.
"It's not about up-in-your-face monsters. It's about really messing with the player's mind," Chris Hewett, the game's Producer, reveals in the Making Of F.E.A.R. video included in the Director's Edition DVD. "Other games have done monsters that jump out of the closet at you," adds Craig Hubbard, Lead Game Designer, in a clear poke at Doom 3. "What we've really tried to do is get under your skin." It's fair to say that they have succeeded, however, as with all the best horror / suspense stories, the less that is known about the plot before you play, the better the virgin experience.
It is tempting to talk about "the part when this happened" or "remember when I opened that door, and then that happened" but the usual defence of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "la la la - I can't hear you" wouldn't stop you learning crucial plot twists. Instead, just know that while the story is a little far fetched (show me an FPS game that isn't!), the delivery of it is so slick and the atmosphere so rich that F.E.A.R. is a Must Play.
We need re-enforcements
Instead, let's discuss the parts that won't spoil your enjoyment of the game. Those of you that have played the demo or read any previews of the game will know that F.E.A.R.'s party trick is what developer's Monolith have dubbed SloMo. This is a similar Matrix-esque BulletTime effect that we first saw in Max Payne, and its presence is justified by the fact your character features special abilities that include lightning-fast reactions.
In normal play, unlike many games, it is easy to die quite quickly in gun battles. The various fully automatic weapons spray bullets at a ferocious rate, and you stand little chance of taking on a room full of enemy soldiers without a little Keanu Reeves-style magic. When the brown stuff hits the blades, just tap the SloMo button and the whole world slows: you see bullets whizzing through the air, yet there is time to side-step them. Enemies are taken down with less ammo because you are able to reposition and headshot them before they can even blink.
I must admit, when I first played the demo, I thought the SloMo feature was little more than a gimmick. However, after days of playing the full game, it is not only a necessary feature, but something you can have real fun with. As you turn a corner into a room full of soldiers, you naturally headshot the first guy you see. The cry comes "We need re-enforcements" as the squad takes cover and the little Lawrence Fishburne in my head says, with trademark deadpan delivery, "Yes. Yes, you do," before I engage SloMo and dutifully take down half a dozen baddies in my own version of The Matrix's Lobby Scene.
He's trying to flank us
The other trump card that Monolith have hiding up their sleeves is super-advanced A.I. In direct contrast to Serious Sam's old-school swarming enemies, the Replica soldiers are much more than cannon fodder. While many games use scripting to create confrontations, it ruins the replayability because the exact same events play out time after time.
With F.E.A.R., Monolith have given each soldier a brain and just let them get on with it. They will work together, with some providing suppressing fire while others advance their position. They take evasive action better than any A.I. we've ever seen, using pillars and other objects to find cover, even pulling a sofa away from a wall to hide behind. If your attack is particularly ferocious, they won't just cower behind a filling cabinet and wait to be picked off - they will actually retreat an entire room or more until they find a situation that tips the balance back in their favour.
Many of the set piece battles take place in areas which have multiple entry and exit points. Every fight is different not just because the A.I. is unscripted, but because they react to your movements - whether you run through the double doors or slip in through an air vent tucked away in a corner affects the ensuing fire fight. This has the effect of making the whole experience much more believable. If you die and have to replay a scene, there is nothing worse than being able to pick off the enemies one by one because each guy is scripted to run to a specific spot before shooting. In F.E.A.R. this never happens.
There is nothing to fear but F.E.A.R. itself
Depending on how proficient you are at FPS games and what difficulty level you play it on, F.E.A.R. will take you between 10-20 hours to complete. We would recommend anybody who fancies themselves at this type of game to start off one notch higher than the default difficulty, or otherwise risk breezing through the game a little too easily. You can change the Difficulty at any time and you have ten Save Game slots that can be used at any time, so it shouldn't be hard to find the right balance of fun versus challenge.
We found the Multiplayer to be slightly disappointing. There are eight maps, divided into four pairs according to the number of players they are designed for. To get the most out of your online experience, familiarise yourself with these suggested limits and choose your servers carefully. We played several frustrating games of straight Deathmatch on the Campus level, which is designed for 8-16 players. Naturally, the server was full at 16 players, but it was difficult to remain alive for more than about 10 seconds - most weapons have a high rate of fire, and with no armour and no SloMo, death comes swiftly and far too often.
The familiar Capture The Flag, Deathmatch, and Elimination modes are there, as well as Team variants of the latter two. The other options are SloMo versions of these same modes, where the person (or team) holding the SloMo power-up can periodically enter Bullet Time as an advantage over the other players. It's horses for courses, but we expect most people will enjoy F.E.A.R. as a compelling single player experience, but continue to play CounterStrike: Source, Day of Defeat: Source et al to get their multiplayer fix.
In single player mode, F.E.A.R. is unashamedly cinematic, so it comes as no surprise that the level of enjoyment one derives from playing it is the same as that of a good film. If you approach it with pessimism and pull at the loose threads in the story, you might as well save your money. However, if you allow yourself to be immersed in the rich game universe and approach the combat in the mindset of a Special Forces operative, you will find mowing down the enemy much more satisfying.
In short, F.E.A.R. provides a top quality gaming experience within one of the most impressive graphics engines around. It may lack the full degree of Half-Life 2's world physics, but there is plenty of breakable glass and the ragdoll animation is still there, providing all manner of contortions of your fallen foes. We highly recommended it to all FPS fans and horror film nuts alike, assuming their PC has the grunt to run the game. Let's look at some of the advanced in-game graphics before running some benchmarks.