Thursday, May 04, 2006

F.E.A.R. Forget Entertainment Acronyms Rule!

I know I tend to go heavy on the gaming posts, but sometimes, you just have to write something.

I just finished F.E.A.R. : First Encounter Assault Recon.

Why do I need to write about it here? Because when I turn up at a Games Studio to point out the things they did wrong, the police tend to get called.

FEAR bugged the crap out of me. Why? Was it a bad game? Nope. It was actually very entertaining, but it’s one of those games where the developers weren’t quite sure what they wanted to do, and it just missed greatness because of it. It’s a bi-polar game, or at the least a game with an identity crisis.

It feels like there where actually two development teams creating it. One they told to make a kick ass shooter, and the other they told to make a ‘survival horror, scary Doom 3 like thing…but with a scary little girl, like in The Grudge.

First, let me point out the few things that would be bad in any game, not just an identity crisis game like FEAR.

The characters are very well animated, use rag-doll physics etc…but they look, well ‘polished’, and I don’t mean polished in a very well done way…I mean they look like very articulate GI-Joes and Barbie Dolls. They guys in the futuristic armor look great, but anyone who shows their face or any skin…they look plastic.

They also tried to make the in-game lighting ‘moody’. This has been done to great effect in games like Splinter Cell, but in this game, it just gets annoying. You’re not sneaking, and although it doesn’t have the incredibly stupid ‘Flashlight or Weapon…but not both’ mechanic that spoiled Doom 3, it’s well…Yeah, the lighting looks good, but it gets in the way.

Also, when you’ve just shelled out a few hundred bucks for a kick-ass graphics card, I’d like to actually be able to see the graphics, not shadowy silhouettes in the gloom.

No, the absolute worst thing about this game is the story. The first few minutes lead you to believe that you’re going to be playing a very spooky, atmospheric shooter. What you end up with is a straight shooter, with the occasional spooky bit that looks like it was put in as an afterthought.

For example, the spooky little Asian girl. Think the girl out of The Ring and you’ve got it. You’ll be walking down a corridor, when a shadow of the girl will be cast against the wall. If you get there quick enough, you’ll see her walking, until she disintegrates like, well, a ghost.

Then you’ll come to a ladder, you start to climb down, and as you turn to grab the ladder, she’ll be standing there in front of you.

These are the parts that lead you to believe the game is going to be an enjoyable spookfest. Unfortunately, the spooky bits make up about half of one percent of the game.

Also, the entire story is told only through computers or answering machines you find with voice-mail messages on them. The problem is it makes you sit through 25 seconds of ‘Beeeeep, you have two new messages. First message from Character 1. Beeep. Hello, this is character one, overly vague and pointless reference that makes no sense until the last five minutes of the game. Beeep Message two from…”

Basically, if you want any clue to what’s going on, you have to run into the room, wait for the messages, that can sometimes take five minutes or more. It pulls you right out of the action. Not to mention a good few times I got jumped while listening, with the rest of the message being drowned out by automatic gunfire as I dove for cover.

Anyway, the story isn’t all that inspired or good…and the ending is one of the most visually impressive, but narratively crappy things I’ve ever come across.

Here’s the synopsis:

Some psychic vampire dude escapes from some sort of prison, and is using cloned soldiers to do something that isn’t made clear until the end. Oh, he’s psychic, and the soldiers he controls using his powers…I mean, so what? That isn’t spooky. It’s just dudes that shoot at you all the time. Who cares if they’re being controlled by a psychic.

Anyway, it turns out that the spooky little girl is his mother who was kept locked up in a suspended animation type thingy, after she was artificially inseminated with psychic sperm. That’s right, psychic sperm.

You play the part of a rookie FEAR operative (Forced acronym anyone?), a specially set up special forces team trained to deal with supernatural threats to national security. You have to track the vampire dude down and kill him.

In the end, it turns out that the little girl was the wife of the head guy who did the psychic sperm thing. Ooooh! The evilness!

Oh, and you turn out to be the psychic vampire dudes brother…although you only find that out in the last 15 minutes, it’s not explained, nor is the relevancy pointed out.

Who wrote this? A chimp chained to a typewriter?

The ending is you go into the facility where you where born along with psychic dude, kill him, and blow the place up. You get stocked up with first aid kits and ammo, and I was expecting a great big boss fight.

What actually happened is I pressed a switch, shot the reactor pylons and the place started blowing up.

Then, when I escaped, the game would occasionally change to slow motion, black hole thingies would open, and I’d get rushed by a swarm of demons who can be killed with a single shot.

Oh, then you’d change into a Max Payne style dream sequence, where the little girl would walk slowly towards you. If she reaches you, you die. You shoot her a few times, and she disappears for a bit.

(That’s another thing. The little girl was actually a grown woman. Why they chose to portray her ghost as a little girl, I have no idea…oh wait, yes I do, because someone in a suit saw the ring and decided little Asian girls are spooky.)

That’s it.

Now, I mentioned a visually spectacle for the ending. That was fairly impressive. You get out of the facility, through the abandoned warehouse, and outside. Suddenly the screen whites out, and in the distance, you see a mushroom cloud from the facility being destroyed.

The shockwave is heading towards you, dirt, cars and buildings are being thrown into the air. As it gets closer, it starts to push you back, until you get pinned against a fence, cars miss you by inches. Eventually the fence behind you gives way, you smash into a wall and pass out.

In short, it’s exactly what I’d imagine standing at ground zero of a nuclear blast would look like.

Then we get the epilogue, where the screen changes from a blur to a helicopter landing near you, you hear another FEAR operative say “we’ve found him!”

Then blur, unblur, you’re on the helicopter, and they’re saying how they’ve not had contact with anyone since the explosion. There’s also a very good view of the mushroom cloud. Then, there’s a metallic crump, the female FEAR operative says “What was that noise?” and the spooky girl pops her head up from the side of the helicopter.

I was like, That’s it? WTF? What about me being the dude’s brother? Where was the boss fight? Why was the last level about as challenging as removing my pants?

The weird thing is that playability wise, this wasn’t a bad game. In fact, it was a good game. The game play mechanics are great, some of the weapons imaginative, and it had lots of whoa…coooool! Moments.

Every wall in the game is partly destructible. You blast at someone, your bullets knock bloody great holes and chunks out of the wall. It also scatters a lot of volumetric dust and debris.

For example, at one point, I had a couple of baddies pinned down in an office. I pointed my assault rifle at them and rattled away, chunks flew from the wall, office supplies flew through the air, blood spattered, windows shattered in the most realistic way I’ve ever seen in a video game. After I stopped shooting, the dust started to settle, and pieces of destroyed paper fluttered and floated to the ground. The rag doll physics meant one guy was slumped against a wall, another was slumped across the desk.

The other side of the coin is impressive. You get shot at, until you’re completely blinded because the air is filled with drywall dust. You’re shooting blindly at the muzzle flashes.

Also every hit gives you a satisfying thud, and will throw your enemy back a little.

The other great thing is that your character is supposed to have amazing reflexes, done in game by you being able to switch to slow motion for a few seconds.

This doesn’t sound to impressive, but here’s a situation that had me laughing out loud.

I spotted a bad guy through a window, and he spotted me at exactly the same time. I switched to slow-mo, and lobbed a grenade. It hit the window, which shattered spectacularly in slow-mo, as the guy dove for cover. Thanks the physics, the grenade bounces and rolls realistically. The grenade goes off, showing a stylized shockwave, and the guy simply dissolved into a gigantic slow-mo pink mist.

What I hadn’t seen was he’d lobbed a grenade at me a few seconds after I’d chucked mine, so still in slow-mo, I see the grenade arc towards me, hit the floor with a slow mo ca-chunk, then bounce heading right for my head. I tried to run, but it detonated about four inches from my face.

Also, which looks spectacular in slow-mo was the ‘Particle weapon’. With one good hit, the bad guy just looses everything but his skeleton, which falls slowly towards the floor.

FEAR, forgetting the terrible, overly forced acronym title is actually an extremely good game. I liked the actual shooting and gameplay mechanics better than both Doom 3 and Half-Life 2.

The bad thing, which is unforgivable today, is that the story absolutely ruined an otherwise great game. It just didn’t know what it wanted to be.  They should have either gone a lot heavier on the scary, spooky stuff, or cut it out completely and had a straight up shooter.

No comments: