It has officially been over a decade since F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault Recon was released, and those ten-plus years, very few other games have been quite as intense or terrifying. Developed by Monolith Productions and published by Sierra Entertainment, F.E.A.R. was an innovator of the First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre, and many of it’s benchmarks still hold up surprisingly well. Taking the role of the Point Man of the First Encounter Assault/Recon team (which, side note, is surely just asking for supernatural horrors with a name like that?) the player must track down and apprehend Paxton Fettel, a cannibalistic, psychic commander of a clone army – it’s a pretty ‘out-there’ plot, but that only adds to the horror.
Firefights with the enemy troops were always hectic and violent, and the simple-but-effective AI programming used ensured that no two battles were ever the same. Enemy soldiers would use simple decision making to decide what to do based on the player location, their own wellbeing and the desire to always cover their allies, which made for situations where the enemy would attempt to flank you, or draw you out. Adversaries could also use the environment as cover, by knocking over couches or crouching behind desks. In an attempt to channel the John Woo style (maybe we’ll call it John Wick style, now?) the game made use of a ‘reflex mode’, not unlike the ‘bullet time’ made famous in The Matrix. Every shot from a weapon, whether it be the various automatic rifles or the unparalleled shotgun, creates various sparks and smoke clouds, which makes the moments of silence after a fierce gun battle that much more eerie.
The various weapons available were each useful, though the ability to only carry three at any point was one source of tough decision making; however, it soon became clear that the three should always be the assault rifle, the shotgun and then something else, usually the long range nail gun (yes, you read that correctly). The shotgun in particular is perhaps my favourite version of the classic weapon in any FPS game – a well placed shot would turn the enemy into paint. There was also a melee attack which could be modified by jumping, jumping forward, or sliding which often turned gun fights into an almost Matrix like encounters. But to think that having weapons and a brutal roundhouse at your disposal would make the game any less terrifying would be an huge disservice to the horror side of the game.
Because make no mistake, F.E.A.R. is a horror game. Apparitions of long-dead squad mates, gruesome post-firefight scenes and a little girl in red dress, wandering around wherever you go are but a few of the frights. The game used volumetric lighting to create a horrifying atmosphere, as it was often only the headlamp on the player character which allowed any real vision. Ambient noises would ensure that even well lit areas were creepy, and the voice chatter of enemy troops would often let you know something was coming. I don’t think I have ever jumped more from a simple jump scare than the ladder double-shocker – it was a cheap jump scare, of course, but it was the second one that got me the hardest.
The levels were mostly linear, with a handful of routes to take after each combat segment. There were vents to crawl through, pipes to crouch-walk along and water channels to traverse, but these also provided ways for enemies to find you (or somewhere for a creepy little girl to come crawling out of…). The game was, more or less, presented in three distinct areas – the water treatment plant, an office building, and then a science laboratory – which kept things fresh, and gave each third of the game new ways for enemies to attempt to murder you horribly.
There have been many horror games as of late, and the rise of Call of Duty and Battlefield have all but monopolised the modern FPS. F.E.A.R. was lucky to come out before this new wave of military shooters (and the bleeding effect of these other shooters into the F.E.A.R. series is evident in the sequels) and this has helped it to remain one of the best shooters of all time. The game is an action-horror-shooter hybrid, and it is full of action, horror and shooting, which makes it both a personal favourite, and one of the greatest of all time.