Review – F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon)


I was making my way slowly though the basement of the building, trying to find a way up to the main floor, when I found the first bodies. I’ve been in enough combat that bodies shouldn’t bother me anymore, but these did. Not because they were bodies, but because it looked like they had been partially eaten. And not by rats like the one I had shot earlier. These bites looked human.

F.E.A.R. came out several years ago when I had an older machine that couldn’t handle it. Later I got a machine that could and looked for the game but by that point it was gone off the shelves. As a fan of survival horror games I was still interested in playing it and so was pleasantly surprised last month when Steam suddenly put the original F.E.A.R. and its expansions on sale. So I finally got the chance to play it. Even though the game has been out for five years now I still wanted to give my Paleogamer impressions of it.

I finally got up to the main floor. The doors have been locked from the inside, so either things happened too fast for anyone here to escape or for some reason they didn’t want to. I’m going to…

What was that?

Strange… I could have sworn I just saw a child run down the corridor. Why would a child be here in the midst of this carnage? If she is here, I need to find her and get her to safety.

F.E.A.R. – First Encounter Assault Recon is a “survival horror” game in which you are the “Point Man” for a squad from the eponymous organization. Your team has been called into action to assess and neutralize a situation at the Armacham Technology building.

It seems that Armacham was developing a platoon of clone soldiers who were to be controlled telepathically by a commander named Paxton Fettel. (Why does no one ever think this is a bad idea?) Now, Fettel has gone insane, taken control of the platoon and gone on a killing spree. Your job is to stop him. Of course, things are never that easy or that simple.

For the most part the game is pretty much a standard FPS. You start with a pistol and along the way you find an assortment of weaponry, from analogues of current weapons (sub-machine guns, assault rifles and the like) to futuristic weapons like particle beam rifles. You can also pick up grenades and medikits. You can also find body armor (which you don automatically upon finding). You are limited to how many weapons and how much ammo you can carry so you need to consider your combat style and only carry the weapons you are planning to use and for which you expect to find ammo. For example, there is a sniper rifle that works extremely well but ammo for it is limited. Same with the particle beam rifles that can kill (almost) anything with one shot. Should you carry them around in your inventory or swap them out for a lesser weapon which you are likely to get more use from.

One change from most FPSs is that you have a couple of melee attacks available to you. A melee attack will (almost) always kill your target but of course you have to get close to them first; not necessarily the safest move when they are shooting at you. Still, it encourages you to sneak up on your enemies and attempt to take one or two of them out before the gunplay starts.

You also have the ability to enter “bulletreflex time”. The game explains this by saying that you have phenomenal reflexes but the way it works is that everything seems to slow down when you activate it, giving you plenty of time to pick your targets and line up your shots before ducking back behind cover. You can’t use it all the time but it recharges fast enough that you can almost always use it whenever you find yourself in a tight encounter.

I couldn’t find the girl but I did find a room full of bodies. Apparently the clone soldiers we are after have been throwing them down the elevator shafts. Why, I do not know.

There is also something happening to me. I keep feeling dizzy and hearing things. Hopefully whatever happened to the workers in this building isn’t happening to me too.

Your enemies are almost exclusively the clone soldiers mentioned above. They come in several varieties but those only differ by the amount of armor they are carrying and what weapons they are equipped with. There are a couple of “stealth” soldiers that appear that are cloaked and almost invisible, a couple of suits of power armor and a handful of turrets and that’s about it. The enemies do seem to be somewhat intelligent; they know enough to get behind cover and will attempt to flank you (if possible). Still, even with my Paleogamer reflexes I didn’t have too much trouble unless I did something stupid like run into the middle of a room full of enemies or forget that I had reflex time available.

It is actually almost disappointing that these are almost your only enemies. For something that bills itself as a horror game there isn’t a lot of horror to be found. Sure, there are dead bodies all over the place and some rooms are literally painted in blood, but your enemies are almost exclusively flesh and blood. In fact, you could probably play through the entire game and miss most of the “horror” parts.

Something strange is definitely happening. I keep hearing voices that aren’t there and… seeing things. I think Fettel is showing them to me somehow.

Plus, somehow, this place looks familiar, like I have been here before. And the girl I keep seeing, I know her. Her name is Alma. How do I know that?

At various points during the game you will hit a “fear” sequence. In these the colors shift, the screen goes blurry and you hear and see things that aren’t there. The rooms become covered in blood and a shadowy figure leads you deeper into the complex. Also, you sometimes see Alma, the little girl who is apparently at the center of all these happenings.

It is unclear while these things are happening if they are real or hallucinations. Most of them aren’t real but one or two are.

Every now and then you will be confronted by Alma during these sequences, usually at the end of a “chapter”. When this happens you must avoid her. If you don’t you die.

Except at the very end. At the end of the game (and I’m not going to worry about spoiling a 5 year old game) Alma comes after you. For no particularly good reason you have lost all your weapons at this point except for a pistol. The moment this sequence starts, you must turn around (she is behind you, of course) and start shooting. If you stop to look around, reload or even try to run, you die. If you do nothing to shoot, she drops just as she reaches you. This sequence is completely different than every other sequence in which Alma has appeared (and in fact is different than anything else in the game) and feels just like something that was tagged on to make the final confrontation more difficult.

And speaking of things I don’t like, I really disliked the level design in the game. You are moving through the typical array of office buildings, abandoned apartments and industrial complexes, but all of them feel like they had M.C. Escher as their lead architect. The “office buildings” are nothing but maze-like collections of hallways, cubicles and offices. This works acceptably for a game but you cannot imagine that anyone would ever be able to actually work in a building like this.

Despite that, the whole game is incredibly linear. Yes, your path winds back and forth, up and down, but there is seldom more than one way to go. The rare side trips that you do come across are almost exclusively there to either hide syringes that will boost your maximum health and reflex time or which have the rare bits of plot.

I have finally found and killed Fettel. Odd, he seemed to almost welcome my killing him.

I should return now, go back to the rest of my team. But I must go forward. I must face Alma herself. For I have killed my brother, and I must make amends.

At the start of this review I called F.E.A.R. a “survival horror” game. The reason for the quotes is that, as I said before, the horror parts of the game do a good job of hiding themselves.

Almost all of your enemies are human. Cloned humans, to be sure, but still human. Towards the end you run into a number of smoke-like “ghosts” or something like that but they are scarcely a threat; they are hard to see but a single shot from a pistol will destroy them. The only real supernatural threat is Alma, and that is only because the situation in which you encounter her is so contrived.

There are other scary or disturbing moments in the game but it is almost as if the game wants to hide them from you. Occasionally you will see Alma watching you or a ghostly presence will be in the room with you. However, unless you are looking in the right direction at the right time you will miss them. A change in the soundtrack will tell you that something has happened but that is about it.

The plot to the game is almost as well hidden. You get some bits of information delivered to you by radio but for the most part you can only find out what is going on by looking for and listening to various voicemails and audio recordings that you come across while making your way through the complex. These recordings are not automatic, you have to seek them out and listen to them, so it is easily possible to go through the game and never know what it was all about. One final piece of information is even only given to you if you sit all the way through the closing credits. And some parts of the story are quite disturbing.

Again, I’m not going to worry about spoiling a 5 year old game; surely we’re past the statute of limitations on spoilers here. Basically Harlan Wade, working for Armacham, had been experimenting with psychic abilities using his own daughter Alma as a test subject. He decides that Alma is not a powerful enough psychic and needs her to have a child. Since he thinks that her psychic abilities are genetically based, he has the child with her himself. Yes, Harlan Wade essentially rapes his own daughter.

Did I mention that she was apparently around 8 years old at the time?

Alma’s first child shows promise but does not live up to Wade’s and Aristide’s (the president of Armacham) expectations. So, a second child is born. This second child is Fettel. The first child is, of course, the player character. (Surprise.)

Alma eventually uses her abilities to attempt to rebel and escape from Armacham. This is the historical “incident” that gets mentioned several times in the game. Alma is placed in some sort of stasis where she remains until the events of the game when she manages to mentally contact Fettel who then takes control of the clone soldiers in an attempt to free Alma and get her revenge on Wade, Aristide and Armacham.

Knowing the story leads to the somewhat interesting realization that Alma has a very good reason and justification for what she did. Hell, when I learned what happened I would have shot Wade myself if I could. So it seems odd that the game seems to try to hide the story from you.

Instead, what it puts front and center are some “wacky” content and scattered pop-culture references. For example, one of your teammates from F.E.A.R. is a woman named Jin Sun-Kwon. Jin and Sun Kwon are two characters from the TV show Lost. Later, you come across a desk with a red stapler sitting next to a stack of TPS Reports straight out of the movie Office Space.

Then there is an NPC you encounter named Norton Mapes. Norton is every negative stereotype of a computer programmer you can think of; cowardly, whiny, overweight and constantly snacking on soft drinks and cheese puffs. It is mentioned that several female Armacham employees have filed sexual harassment charges against him. He constantly works against the player but you are unable to do anything to him. He is apparently there for comic relief and nothing else.

Overall, I’m not sure what to think about F.E.A.R. While I am glad I finally got the chance to play it I’m not sure that the game holds up; if that is because it hasn’t aged well or if it was never that good in the first place I don’t know. There is an interesting story in there but the game seems to go out of its way to hide that from you and the game itself, while being a competent shooter with some interesting ideas (reflex time), doesn’t seem to be that outstanding. I’ll give this one an almost, but not quite.

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