Nearly twelve years since its release, I am yet to play a first-person shooter that is as satisfying as F.E.A.R. from 2005. I am just going to put it out there: F.E.A.R. has the best first-person combat of all time.
Before people freak out, I am not saying it is the best game of its genre. F.E.A.R. has some issues! Let’s run down a few before I bow at this game’s feet for about 700 words.
The horror elements handled well, but are telegraphed from a mile away. F.E.A.R. has a pretty hard divide between the horror and combat sections and over time that eats into the suspension of disbelief necessary to be really scared. This isn’t helped by the fact that Alma, the main threat, can’t actually hurt you. The game’s high graphical fidelity doesn’t help the environments, which are almost all drab, grey office areas. Finally, it is inescapably a product of its time, a strange combo of Ring styled Japanese horror and the Matrix.
These are problems, and there are a few others I am leaving out in the interest of not being too long winded. I just feel really nitpicky pointing them out because this is as good as first-person combat gets.
There are other games that are contenders to the throne. Bulletstorm is a game that was simply released at the wrong time, but it’s approach to creative murder is unparalleled. Doom 2016 is the perfect example of How to Reboot a Game Series, and features fast, brutal combat to match. Halo: Combat Evolved is a masterclass in level design and how to subtly train players through audio-visual feedback.
F.E.A.R. does all of those things well, and stands out even further because it walks the perfect tightrope between player vulnerability and unflinching, raw power.
The reason you feel so vulnerable? F.E.A.R.’s astounding enemy A.I., which still impresses after more than a decade. The cloned soldiers who you spend the majority of the time fighting actively work to flank and surround you, flush you out from cover using grenades, and will flip over tables to take cover. They also communicate with each other, which sometimes leads to some much needed levity as they realize that a grenade has been dropped in their lap.
Sitting behind cover and waiting for enemies to pop their heads out is simply not viable. The game uses a health pack and armor system, which makes camping a death sentence. The office areas of the game may be boring visually, but it means that most fights are in terrifyingly close quarters. Enemies hit hard, and getting caught out in the open can send you to the game over screen in a hurry.
To be successful, players have to be decisive, have great spatial awareness, and know when to improvise. The A.I. picks up on your play style, so sometimes it pays to be stealthier and take out enemies with melee attacks. And if you already are stealthy, the last thing they will expect is for you to pop out guns blazing. That second of putting them back on their heels can be enough to win the fight.
Even with all of the advantages the A.I. has, I wouldn’t characterize F.E.A.R. as a hard game. Challenging, yes, but certainly not crushing. This is partially because the level design and audio cues allow you to counter their tactics with some of your own. And also, the developers understand that sometimes you just want to transform into a goddamn badass and wipe the floor with your enemies.
The main advantage you have is that you can go into bullet time with a press of a button to even the odds. The weapons at your disposal are all great, even though most of them are your standard handgun, shotgun, submachine gun fare.
Ok, that doesn’t do the shotgun any justice. It’s nearly impossible to talk about F.E.A.R. without talking about THAT shotgun. The Vollmer VK-12 shotgun is the best weapon of it’s type in gaming history. The gun feels like its spread is made out of boulders and hellfire, frequently sending your enemies ragdolling away from you missing a limb or two, if the damn thing doesn’t outright gib them. All of the other guns are fun and useful, but due to the close quarters and its incredible awesomeness, the shotgun will rarely, if ever, leave your inventory.
The game also features destructible environments, which was novel for the time, and has rarely been executed as well since. Every firefight feels like the famous lobby shootout from the Matrix. The walls are torn open from bullets, spent shells float through the air, and soldiers fly through the air and dive for cover. Often, all of this is happening in glorious slow motion. Shootouts leave the area littered with broken bodies, blood, chunks of concrete torn from the walls, and shattered glass.
The combined effect of the A.I., your unique abilities, and the game’s aesthetic choices means that no encounter feels exactly the same, no matter how many times you play it. There is a lot of F.E.A.R. that feels dated, but excellent gameplay is one of the few things impervious to the ravages of time.