I have an odd relationship with horror games. I love them because they evoke an extra layer emotion missing from other genres, adding significant depth to the gaming experience. On the other hand, they scare me. I have a difficult time making the decision to fully commit to playing one. I can’t say how many times I’ve almost started Amnesia: The Dark Descent or thought about picking up Outlast or Dying Light. However, when I do, the emotional investment is usually worth it. Great horror games leave me feeling drained after just a few hours, but in a good way. I frequently find myself constantly clawing at the quick save button, trying to psych myself into moving forward over what I’m sure has to be a trap. This kind of emotional investment is games at their best in my opinion, because they leverage the medium’s greatest advantage – requiring player input.
10 years ago F.E.A.R. was released. It’s my favorite game from the genre and one of my overall favorites. I had played a few scary games before, and a few since, but F.E.A.R. sticks out in my memory as my favorite. At the time, it felt like a huge leap forward for games. Graphics in games had made significant strides over the previous five years, making for a more realistic setting in which to unnerve the player. And with the recent rise of Japanese style horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge, the creepy girl Alma was right at home in the nightmares of many, myself included.
But 10 years is a long time in the video game world. Under the lens of history, the greatest of graphics won’t save a game without a solid foundation of story, atmosphere, and real player engagement. I’ve played through plenty of pretty games once and then forgotten about them, and I’ve played my share of ugly games that have stuck with me for good. Now, a decade later, I played F.E.A.R. again. How does my favorite horror game hold up?
The first thing I noticed when I launched the game was just how much it had aged. F.E.A.R. was built using Monolith’s Lithtech engine, which was impressive at the time, but compared to today comes off looking flat. Rooms appear strikingly empty with little texture. Aside from that, the suspension of disbelief holds up as characters and area hold a level of realism that still works. In its day, F.E.A.R. was highly praised for character animations and a rock-solid A.I. that allowed the replica soldiers you fight against to strategize against you, communicating between each other and working with the environment to gain the upper hand. F.E.A.R.’s level design still feels unique, as you will frequently be presented with diverging paths that reach the same goal, which requires you to constantly look over your shoulder to make sure you aren’t being flanked. It was a bit too much because like most gamers I want to make sure cover everything, and I frequently found myself doubling back to go down the other path.
F.E.A.R. was one of the pioneers of slow motion in games before it turned into a late 2000s gaming cliché, and it is easily one of the best to use it. “Reflex Time,” caused by the player character’s heightened reflexes, slowed down time around you while your speed in looking and aiming stayed the same. When in reflex time, bullet paths show up in air disturbances, shockwaves from explosions are clearly seen, and enemy movements are still sharp and fluid. The reflex meter drains quickly and refills slowly, so it has to be used judiciously through sustained firefights. But for a quick four-man squad, it is a powerful feeling to take out the first two before the others know anything is happening, reposition, and flank the remaining two as they struggle to react. The replica soldiers you fight throughout the game feel tough and threatening, constantly strategizing their attack, making use of the environment, throwing grenades, and making efficient use of heavy armor to control an area. To me, the replica soldiers acted much more tough, lifelike, and genuine in action and dialog than Halo and Halo 2’s marines (games I played concurrently with F.E.A.R. back in 2005), who came off as whiny and juvenile to me in comparison.
The division between combat and horror elements during gameplay is apparent without feeling unnaturally separate. The development team strove to maintain an atmosphere throughout to constantly get under the player’s skin without resorting to cheap jump scares, and the effort is just as rewarding today as it was then. The crackle of static as transmissions labeled “Unknown origin” signal the start of something supernatural occurring, with figments of characters appearing briefly then evaporating to ash, shadows moving, the sound of the player character’s heartbeat pounding and heavy breathing, time slowing down, sounds and dialog coming from nowhere, and outright hallucinations in blood-flooded hospital hallways. Wherever time has degraded F.E.A.R. over the past 10 years, the horror element has remained untarnished. It is still truly, genuinely scary and unnerving from beginning to end.
F.E.A.R. was not without its flaws when it was released, and they are still present and worth mentioning. Because throughout the game you are fighting a battalion of replica soldiers, there is little variety between those you encounter at the beginning and those at any other point in the game. There are few dozen heavy soldiers thrown in the mix throughout, some functionally identical private security personel, and a handful of heavy mechs that show up, but other than that combat grows stagnant and drags. The middle set of levels is set throughout office buildings and that gets tiresome as well. The objectives and motivations are never spelled out very clearly, resulting in constantly pursuing people that you don’t care about very much. Still, none of these come close to being a dealbreaker, and the game is enjoyable from start to finish.
F.E.A.R. and its two original non-canon expansion packs Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate are available on Steam for $9.99, and have been known to go on sale for around 75% off, so at the right time, you can get an incredible game, an exceptional expansion, and one more lackluster but still worthwhile expansion for less than the cost of a fast food value meal. At the time of its release 10 years ago, it took an impressive rig to run F.E.A.R., and it will still test mid-class systems today. Physical copies of Xbox 360 and PS3 versions run for $25 or more on Amazon currently, and it is not yet on the Xbox One backward compatibility list. However you want to play it, even after 10 years, F.E.A.R. will entertain you while scaring you half to death.