The Remarkable Achievements Of A Game Called F.E.A.R.

The Remarkable Achievements Of A Game Called F.E.A.R.

Eleven years after its release, the first-person shooter F.E.A.R. still feels ahead of its time. It is one of the smartest shooters ever made, a game that won’t wow you with a screenshot but should impress you if you play it.

Rather than colourful video game level names like “The Silent Cartographer” or “Effect and Cause,” F.E.A.R.’s levels are simply numbered Intervals, usually with a one-word description. For example, there’s “Interval 04 – Infiltration.”

Great Use Of Bullet Time To Combat Unpredictable Enemies

F.E.A.R. has bullet time, the system in which you press a button to make time slow to a crawl, allowing you to react to attacks that might otherwise have killed you. It wasn’t the first game to use the system. The first two Max Paynes did so already. But F.E.A.R. used this system notably well. Most games that utilise this mechanic leave it at that, which ends up being boring. F.E.A.R. takes this mechanic and blends it with a fascinating, unique style of level design that enables enemies to attack from unexpected angles.

Modern linear shooter level design was popularised by Valve with the release of Half-Life in 1998, seven years before F.E.A.R.’s release. Essentially, players travel down a hallway and into an arena, fight enemies in the arena, and move on to the next hallway and arena. It’s rudimentary, but it’s great for pacing. It gives players breathing room between fights. Great shooters, like this year’s Doom and 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order, use this formula to great effect.

F.E.A.R. has the same kind of hallway and arena design, but with a twist: the arenas all have multiple entrances and exits, which almost always lead to hallways that somehow find their way back to the arena. For players, this is great, because it provides us with a wider variety of tactical options than other shooters. However, it’s also a liability, because the Replica soldiers can use them too. This flank-heavy level design pushes players to use the bullet time mechanic. It’s a means of allowing you to respond to threats coming from multiple directions simultaneously.

Levels That Let You Peek Ahead — And Force You To Watch Your Flank

F.E.A.R.’s biggest weakness is its unmemorable setting. The colour palette isn’t very broad. The game takes place largely at night, its locations dominated by concrete and steel. The geography of those bland-looking levels is fascinating. F.E.A.R. consistently shows players places they can go, but it doesn’t immediately provide a way to get there; players climbing a ladder at the start of one level can peer through the rungs and watch a Replica soldier setting up mines near the end. A particularly intense fight has the player shooting enemies on the balcony above, but players won’t be able to get up to the balcony until much later in the level. When they do, the dynamics of the fight are reversed — now the enemies are below, and the player has better cover.

F.E.A.R. does this kind of thing a lot. It’s reminiscent of John Romero’s level design from Doom, but it’s more linear than that. You’re still going from hallway to arena. It’s just that sometimes the hallways have windows showing future arenas, or arenas are recycled and re-contextualized as you play.

Even on a moment-to-moment basis, F.E.A.R.’s levels are fascinating. Enemies can interact with the level by flipping over tables for cover, blowing through doors in an attempt to ambush you, or attempting to distract and flank you. I’ve watched soldiers crash through windows in attempts to dive away from grenades, try to set up ambushes, and call their friends from other sections of the level when they need backup.

Eventually, you’ll be attacked by ninjas.

No, seriously. Throughout the game, just out of the corner of your eye, you’ll see something move, but thanks to their cloaking ability and incredible speed, it’s hard to get a lock on them until this encounter. These units are called “Replica Assassins,” and they’re one of my favourite enemies in any shooter, because they’re so fast they practically require players to use the bullet time mechanic, and they also have a habit of trying to hide in weird places to surprise the player. These melee-centric enemies demand a thoughtfulness that most enemies don’t possess. One of the assassins in the first encounter cloaks and hides near the ceiling, only leaping when he knows he has you. Activate the bullet time, though, and you can blast him with your shotgun before he even gets close.

A Great Shotgun And Good Feedback

F.E.A.R.’s VK-12 is, indisputably, the best shotgun that has ever existed in a video game. Most shotguns have one strength, high damage output, and a wide variety of weaknesses, like a slow rate of fire, low reload speed, small magazine size, and a range so short you might as well use a melee attack instead. The VK-12 is much more intelligently designed. Instead of a small four- or six-round magazine like most video game shotguns, the VK-12 features 12 rounds. It’s slow to load, but that’s fine, because you can stop reloading at any time and fire whatever shells you have loaded in. The range is excellent, the damage falloff makes sense, and the damage itself is devastating. The VK-12 is an absolute joy to use, especially against the sneaky assassins.

Have you ever played a shooter that felt bad to play? Nine times out of ten, that’s because it’s suffering from poor feedback. What’s feedback? Think of it as a game’s response to your actions. If you throw a rock into a pond, you expect a splash. If you shoot a mind-controlled super soldier, you expect him to go flying. For every action in a video game, there should be an awesome and immediate reaction.

In a bad shooter, enemies shrug off your rounds like you’ve been blowing kisses. Some developers have attempted to counter this by showing a floating health bar above the enemy’s head, or making damage numbers appear next to the enemy when they’re hit, but this rarely feels satisfying. The oft-invoked writing rule of “show, don’t tell” applies to feedback as well. It’s one thing to shoot a monster and watch a meter drain, but it’s another thing entirely to shoot it and watch as the force of a shotgun sends him flying backwards into a pile of boxes that scatter when he lands. Other times the game’s enemies explode into a cloud of blood, but no matter what, F.E.A.R. always makes their deaths abundantly clear.

F.E.A.R.’s character design looks naturalistic, except for one thing: player limbs are all exaggerated. Everyone’s tall and lean, so when you hit them with a shotgun and their arms go flailing as they careen through the air, there’s this over-exaggerated windmill motion that sells their death so much better than people with normally-proportioned limbs. It’s subtle, it’s weird, and it’s awesome.

Of course, there’s a lot more involved in feedback than how the enemy dies. F.E.A.R. is generous with its particle effects and dynamic lighting. Toss a grenade into a room and glass shatters, dust clouds the air, and light fixtures go flying, causing light to bounce around the room in crazy ways. Where Half-Life 2 only used its physics objects for a few seesaw puzzles and shooting sawblades at enemies, F.E.A.R. utilises physics objects as things that can react to weapons fire. Grenades feel powerful, blasting enemies into blood clouds, sending books and chairs careening around rooms, and warping the air itself with a thundering shockwave.

Enemy chatter is also meaningful. As you’re fighting your way through samey office corridor after samey office corridor, F.E.A.R. enemies are constantly talking, telling you exactly what they are doing and how. It’s tactically dumb, but in the heat of the moment, it feels more fair than silent enemies would. The Replica soldiers have specific, clear callouts for everything. They will talk about how they’re looking for you when they can’t see you.

If a guard spots your flashlight, he’ll call it out and start to investigate. If the Replicas want to try to flank you, someone will declare, clear as day, that he’s going to do just that. Since the arenas are built with plenty of avenues for flanking, callouts enhance player awareness and, combined with bullet time, help to prevent the game from ever feeling unfair.

More importantly, their callouts reflect their numbers. As you eliminate members of the squad, the survivors become increasingly frightened, until they demand backup. Sometimes, backup actually arrives, pulled in from other areas of the level, which changes the game’s ebb and flow. You’ll often find soldiers in unpredictable locations, thanks to your performance and their ability to communicate. Sometimes they call in backup, other times, the backup stays in the hallways ahead, and you run into them eventually. This keeps F.E.A.R. from feeling as predictable as a game like, say, Half-Life 2, where a set number of enemies is always going to show up every time. F.E.A.R. is always changing.

A Better Approach To Audio Logs

One of gaming’s big storytelling weaknesses is its over-reliance on audio logs as a means for exposition. It didn’t make much sense for the player to just start hearing voices in Gone Home, and it certainly didn’t make sense for people to just leave their deepest, secret thoughts on easily accessible recording devices in Bioshock, but that’s how games have been telling story for years. F.E.A.R. solved this problem before either of those games even released.

First, most of the audio logs are found on answering machines. If you’re going to leave a pre-recorded message for people to listen to, an answering machine makes the most sense, especially in a game like F.E.A.R., which is predominantly set in an office building. Radios pick up the rest of the slack; you’ll find them around the office building, often with the Replica’s victims nearby.

Some Old-School Touches

F.E.A.R. feels old in some ways. There’s no sprinting or aiming down sights, for instance, but it’s never a problem; most of the combat encounters take place at shorter, shotgun-friendly ranges, so there’s rarely a need to close gaps or stay back and pick enemies off one by one. By keeping you up close, the combat feels so much tighter and intimate. You’re more likely to notice things exploding and people going flying right next to you than at a distance.

The game features upgrades without resorting to the all too common XP system in today’s games. Instead, when you find boosters for health and bullet time, they simply provide an incremental increase. You find them by exploring the game’s levels. You might look through a fence and spot a booster on the other side, but you’ll have to figure out how to get there yourself. By placing upgrades throughout the level, making them visible to players but not always easy to get to, F.E.A.R. encourages players to be mindful of its uniquely winding level design.

I think F.E.A.R. has been forgotten by so many because it’s set in some of the most boring locales in a video game, and the characters are a bit too easy to forget. It’s unfortunate, because F.E.A.R., even now, is one of the best shooters ever made.

F.E.A.R.’s secret is that everything in the game is designed to encourage player thought. The hallways mean you need to think about flanking and being flanked. The enemy reactivity is a mentally stimulating reward for success. Enemy callouts enhance your awareness. Intelligent use of your bullet time meter is crucial to survival. The game pushes for thoughtfulness at every level. It’s not a game you can simply play with your brain turned off.

Even now, as I write this, I want to jump back on my gaming computer and blast through more of F.E.A.R.’s visually unspectacular levels, because they’re just so remarkably fun to fight through.


  • To the day I die I’ll remember climbing down a ladder and popping my head up just long enough to see a little raven haired girl staring at me.

    It’s a moment of pure fear that I can only recall having twice in a video game. That and in Alien Vs Predator 2 as a marine moving through an area so dark that you can’t see the ground in front of you. All around you hear the suttle growl of the Predator, occasional screams in the distance. Then a flash of lightning just brief enough to see a silhouette of the Predator on the cliff in front of you. Another flash and he’s gone. Another distinctive Predator purr coming from behind you but before you can turn around you hear *Womp*. A jeep in front of you explodes. You don’t know where the shot came from, you can’t see anything but the burning jeep. Fire starts raining from the sky and all you can do is fire blindly while running for your life.

    • That ladder scene was the best! It used the climbing animation against the player to spectacular effect.

      Condemned came out at almost the same time and was just as good. The surround audio was amazing, the viciousness of the enemy screams, the visceral brutality of the combat.

      • I thought Condemned was a way more interesting game and had far better level design throughout, but maybe I’m just biased toward the focus on the horror of the game, where F.E.A.R. was definitely balancing between action and horror. The sound design was pretty good in it too. I still remember some of the sequences from the school.

  • Brilliant, even by todays standards F.E.A.R. checks lots more of the boxes that todays games just cant.
    Instant Hall of famer

  • All excellent points above and such a great read for a Monday morning, I have so many fond memories of F.E.A.R., the first having direct relation to the article title. For such a long time I’d avoided playing F.E.A.R., afraid of the high difficulty and grinding nature of its achievements on X360. Much like other launch titles, the game demanded multiple playthroughs with different objectives as well as the usual 10,000 online kills rubbish that so many early titles came with. It wasn’t until much, much later. I remember feeling pretty ashamed with myself for not playing such a great game simply because it would ruin my 100%, so I did and am so glad I did. The AI in the game is flawless on Extreme, so much so that it really feels like they threw in the audible AI communication to make it less impossible for the player.

    The only other thing you’ve not mentioned is the story…
    I distinctly remember going through the game, on edge every time the young Alma showed up. I knew soon enough people would die in the most horrific way, was only a matter of time before I was next. Then there was that moment when you discover what happened to poor Alma and you (or I did anyway) straight away sympathise with her and what she’s doing. The poor girl. Still feels for what they did to her, those scientists that got torn apart got off easy.

  • If you shoot a mind-controlled super soldier, you expect him to go flying.
    That’s not how guns and physics work. If the shot had enough energy to make him go flying, you’d go flying as well.

    • But according to video game physics, if I’m playing as the games protagonist, my increased narrative-gravitas will lead to me requiring greater force to move, therefore if the force is applied equally to both objects, and his role as the disposable goon gives him the weight equivalent of a cockroach, then I do expect him to go flying!

    • True, but it looks (and more importantly) feels better for it to happen in games.

      Enemies flopping to the ground like a wet tag is boring; going completely overboard can be too silly though.

  • This on Steam?

    Great read and everything, but I’m wary of reading something I’d like to get involved with and see organically.

    • Yep, it’s US$10 on Steam. Play it – the story goes a little off the rails after the first game, and the third is borderline nonsense, but mechanically and thematically, the first game is still amazing.

      • They are available together but please don’t. FEAR by itself is all you need. FEAR 2 strays a bit but isn’t too off the rails. But FEAR 3 is an absolute mess that ruins the emerging story and jumps the shark, just like at the end of 2 (spoiler: undead Alma mindfucks and rapes you). 3 was not developed by the original team and feels far more like a very poor game-to-movie where the director didn’t even bother playing the first two games.

        If you want to maintain the quality of FEAR in continued games, get hold of the original follow-ups, Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate.

    • It’s on Steam, it’s cheap, it has several single player expansions, it’s great, and it has a fully automatic gun that fires 5 inch steel rods at enemies. It’s called the Penetrator and it’s amazing.

      Seriously, F.E.A.R. is so very good. Even today.

  • I remember downloading the demo for this when it was available, and then buying it pretty much day 1.

    it felt like such a dramatic breathe of fresh air – involving solid gunplay, science fiction and horror all into an interesting narrative. Top stuff. It felt near revolutionary at the time, and still holds up today.

  • I still remember playing the original F.E.A.R on my PC, I was 20 at the time and the damn game scared the crap outta me more then any Resident Evil or Silent Hill ever did.

    I still have a boxed copy of it at home.. and worse still I have it sitting on my desk at the moment as I’ve been rearranging my office and a few weeks ago I went into the office and as I turned the light on and it began flickering (bulb was about to blow) and I turned to look up at the light and knocked the game off the table onto the floor infront of me.. the light flickering and Alma looking up at me from the box art was enough to bring back chilling memories.

  • The other thing I remembered about the game was just how good the AI was. It’s depressing that FEAR is sooooo far ahead of the majority of today’s shooters – I believe that the ever-increasing emphasis on graphical fidelity has been at the expense of better AI and level design.

    Which is ironic because I bought FEAR all those years ago because it looked awesome :/

      • Hmm, I’d say F.E.A.R. 2 was the best looking game of the lot. I clearly remember the Apartment Building at the start of the game. The school you visit later too was quite ominous.

        F.3.A.R. (the 3rd) was great game play too, with you choosing to playing Point Man or Paxton Fettel. Gave the maps different feeling, and great in co-op too. The graphics I felt were no where near as nice as two though.

        I revisited F.E.A.R. after playing both two & three, and noticed how dated in comparison it looked.

        In terms of Graphics: F.E.A.R. 2 > F.3.A.R. > F.E.A.R.
        In terms of Gameplay: F.3.A.R. > F.E.A.R. 2 > F.E.A.R.
        In terms of Story: F.E.A.R. > F.E.A.R. 2 > F.3.A.R.

  • I really wish that I could see what everyone else did. I tried getting into this, and despite it having a pretty strong first hour or two, but nothing memorable after that.

    It was the sewer level that did me in, they were just so gosh darn boring to look at, and I felt like I was doing the same thing over again. Can anyone confirm that the game picks up from there, or is just not a game for me?

    *Edit for spelling

  • not sure why but i didn’t like this game much. Its odd cause i love first person shooters and creepyness but i found this didn’t stand out to me so much so i didnt bother finishing it or the sequel.

  • I remember F.E.A.R. for a very specific reason. It came out the same week as Quake 4 which was also the same week I had procrastinated and had 3 uni assignments due in. That was a good week. Finished both F.E.A.R. and Quake 4 as well as blitzing out 3 assignments from scratch and working on the weekend. I don’t know the specifics of the week so I can’t be sure how much I slept either.

    • One of my favourite weapons ever. Slow mo launching the rods into people and them hanging off the walls? Bliss.

  • The AI. I don’t know how they did it, but you felt like you were working against a true squad of something that was thinking rather than scripted.

    Oh, and the rest of the pants wettingly scary game was pretty good as well.

    (There’s even a fix for the legendary logitech bug now too!)

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