F.E.A.R. stands for First Recon Assault Encounter - a covert branch of the United States Army to defend various national security interests against threats of a paranormal or supernatural nature.
Ignoring the fact that F.E.A.R. seems an inappropriate name for an assault team designated to take on ghosts and zombies, the game sees you in the shoes of an unnamed member of the eponymous recon team. You're tasked with taking down a mysterious man by the name of Paxton Fettel who's taken control of a batallion of telepathically controlled clone supersoldiers, seized control of the Armachem Weapons Technology Corporation building, and killed all its occupants in the process. Oh, and the authorities have recovered footage of Fettel apparently eating some of the victims. This is most definitely a job for F.E.A.R.
The first thing that really strikes you about F.E.A.R. is that it looks gorgeous. The developer has clearly taken cinematic production to the limits, with an involving script, top-notch voice acting and an opening that immediately sucks you into proceedings. Animations are excellent, and enemy soldiers are built around a ragdoll model that means they react perfectly to gunfire and environmental effects such as explosions. Light streams through skylights, grass and trees sway in the gentle breeze and reflections dance across the surface of puddles and bodies of water; it's almost pastoral if you ignore the apocalyptic gun battles and full-scale horror show going on all around. The main point of reference here is psychological horror, particularly the type popularised by Japanese horror films like The Ring, Dark Water and The Grudge. As you make your way around the levels you are besieged by some seriously creepy goings on. Unseen crying babies, mysterious lights and clouds, momentary flashes of mutilated corpses and eerie, faceless figures crossing doorways ahead of you, they're all here in abundance. At the heart of this is a ghostly little girl in a red dress called Alma, who appears at various points during the game, usually with fiery, death-related consequences. F.E.A.R. uses every trick in the horror movie book to keep you on edge but most elaborate of all are specific hallucinatory horror sequences that manage to be genuinely unsettling and reveal more about the game's backstory at the same time.
You won't be going into things unarmed, however. The weapons are all nicely balanced, ranging from sub-machine guns and heavier assault weapons, up to combat shotguns that literally cut enemies in half, the Penetrator which fires metal stakes that pin enemies to walls and a massive collection of grenades and mines. You can also pick up a second pistol, allowing you to dual-wield, which is especially cool in F.E.A.R.'s brilliant Slo-Mo mode.
Life in slow motion
The Slo-Mo technique allows you to throw everything into bullet-time, meaning you can take out multiple enemies in the blink of an eye. A bar rapidly depletes while you are in Slo-Mo so you can't constantly run around in bullet-time, but you can pick up reflex boosters that permanently increase the length of your bar. It's a feature that serves the dual purpose of giving you an edge in battle and making you feel like the star of your own personal action movie, and fits in well with the overall cinematic feel of the game. Enemy Artificial Intelligence is extremely good, as rival soldiers will work in teams, flank you, throw grenades to flush you out of cover and generally use every dirty trick in the book to try and take you down. As you progress through the game, clone soldiers give way to ghostly manifestations, each with their own attack patterns, behaviours and weak points, meaning you're going to have to be very good to stay alive. The most important aspect of F.E.A.R. though is the atmosphere it creates. You will find yourself constantly on edge as you explore the levels, unsure of whether you just saw something out of the corner of your eye or not. A lot of this is down to the excellent sound design and an astonishingly effective use of silence and music. For a game to create a real sense of fear in the player is no small achievement, an achievement that F.E.A.R. manages every five minutes. Just be sure to leave the lights on if you ever want to be able to sleep again. Keep your sights trained on www.playstation.co.nz for lots more F.E.A.R. content, coming soon.