So here we are then, 2007. The official (according to Sony anyway) year of the “next-generation”. Multiple CPUs, HDTV resolutions, more technological advancements than you know what to do with or can necessarily afford; it’s all there and enriching the lives of millions of gamers the world over. The reason I have to remind myself of this rather obvious state of affairs is because unfortunately playing First Encounter Assault Recon (F.E.A.R) on the PS3 feels like stepping back in a timewarp. Specifically a timewarp to 2005, and to mid-level PC land to be precise. This is definitely not the most auspicious way to begin a franchise with a bang on brand-new hardware.
The subsequent Xbox 360 version did little to alter this fact, and delivered largely the same experience with decent controls and a good level of graphical quality, if a little shy of the best that a high-end PC can offer. By this standard, the PS3 version should be in the same ballpark, but unfortunately something has gone awry in translation, and the resulting product is at times maddeningly short of the technological achievement that the on-screen action depends heavily upon.
“The essence of F.E.A.R has always been one of pure, unadulterated, run-and-gun fun, with the minimum of complications.”But let’s backtrack a little. For those that have had no exposure to the title previously, F.E.A.R is essentially an extremely linear corridor-shooter with a heavy emphasis on supernatural and horror elements. Whilst not up to the standards of a Silent Hill or Resident Evil, the game qualifies it’s atmosphere with some decent cutscenes and generally disorientating flashback sequences, along with a ‘Shining’ style focus on a creepy little girl character that shows up every so often to cause havoc.
The rather clichéd plot revolves around a new recruit to the F.E.A.R unit. A super-soldier with the usual array of ‘off the scale’ characteristics and unnerving similarities to the genetically-altered beings controlled by the madman enemy leader ‘Paxton Fettell’. Yes… it is that trite. With the help of a few comrades and the Delta Force themselves, your duty is to vanquish Paxton’s army of followers and bring down the kingpin himself, before embarking back to base for a nice cup of tea and a game of chess.
The plot takes place in a succession of office and industrial locations, devoid of personality but brought to life by intense action sequences. Gunplay hinges on a slow-motion rechargeable bullet-time effect, needed to get through most of the tough encounters. Many comments have been made about Halo series’ “30 seconds of gameplay repeated”, but F.E.A.R truly takes that mantra and makes it its own. Seemingly every corridor funnels the player into another firefight, and each one plays out differently with some excellent AI-controlled opposition. You’ll be flanked, held down under covering fire, and out-manoeuvred time and time again. The game can become incredibly punishing on higher difficulty levels, without ever feeling unfair.
It’s an FPS fan’s dream, completely distilled to the core of what makes the genre so special. Of course the problem with this approach is that the window-dressing becomes all important. Without any decent characterisation, plot, or diversification of gameplay structure, focus inevitably turns to the more overtly visceral elements of play, and past versions have made no apologies for the fact that a large amount of the appeal is purely visual. Soulless it may be, but it’s a hell of a ride.
Which is where the problems kick in for the PS3. Simply put, graphically this particular version is the equivalent of a mid-level PC from a few years ago at very best. Texturing is muddy, lighting is uniformly flat, and the framerate dips alarmingly into the sub-30 range whenever the action heats up. It’s an absolutely embarrassing state of affairs for a title that would be perfectly suited to the high-resolution power of the PS3, and unfortunately without any depth to fall back on, it’s a setback from which F.E.A.R fails to recover.
Post-processing blur and environmental damage is all still intact, as are the debris and particle effects so prominent and so very pretty in the PC and 360 versions, but it’s all to no avail. Adding in the more frivolous elements of the graphical engine on top of such a poor underlay simply highlights the attempt to paper over the cracks of a severely under-developed port.
“It’s an FPS fan’s dream, completely distilled to the core of what makes the genre so special.”That’s not to say it’s all bad news of course. The core gameplay is largely unaffected, and even with the shoddy framerate and mud-vision there is fun to be had blasting your way through the campaign mode. Controls are surprisingly tight on the SixAxis pad and all of the crucial elements from the PC version are translated well, which bodes well for the future state of shooters on the PS3 if nothing else. The audio design is largely unaffected, which is to say it’s pretty decent without ever standing out. The sound of shells dropping on the floor and the ominous creep of the enemy soldiers’ boots around a dark corner does just enough to heighten the atmosphere and draw you partially into the experience at the expense of other sensory triggers.
If you get bored of the single-player campaign, the included multiplayer options are pretty much a carbon-copy of the PC and 360 options, with all the usual deathmatch and team-based variants available along with the use of the original bullet-time power-up. However, as the game is relatively new and the PS3 install base is pretty low, it can be a chore to find a decently sized game at the moment. Although the fact that this mode has even made inclusion into a PS3 game at all is cause for celebration I guess.
Where F.E.A.R shines the most is actually within the mini ‘instant action’ mode. Simply dropping you into any given level with an arsenal of weaponry and infinitely spawning enemies is fantastic fun, and shows off the core mechanics aptly. Considering that’s the biggest draw for a full-price title however, it’s safe to assume that more effort will need to be made with the inevitable follow-up.
And that, as they say, is that. If your a PS3 owner looking for another shooter following on from the big two launch titles, F.E.A.R may well be worth picking up; just don’t expect the technical marvel that PC owners have been waxing on about for years, you’ll be sorely disappointed. If your expectations are reasonable and you don’t mind playing an essentially last-generation game under a new badge, you may well find an experience here that can make the expenditure worthwhile. Here’s hoping they get the next one right.