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I played the original F.E.A.R. almost a decade and a half ago, but not any of its expansions, or sequels. Recently I obtained a copy of F.E.A.R. Platinum Collection, and decided to play the expansions (Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate). I forgot a lot of the details from the original plot, so I started by replaying the base game. Having enjoyed all three parts, I decided to write this review while hot on the trail of playing, before time blurs my memory.
[Note: there will be spoilers in the text]
The game was released in the Windows XP era, so I was very happy to discover that all 3 parts still run well on 64-bit Windows 10, on an 8th gen Intel Core PC. There are some reports of game-breaking FPS drop bugs, and some other glitches. I have not encountered any, but workarounds may be available on PCGamingWiki.
The original releases did not support widescreen resolutions out of the box. This was later patched in, with the exception of Extraction Point. Fortunately, as with many games of that time, it is possible to simply edit the resolution values directly into the configuration file, and it works correctly, for the most part. HUD elements and subtitles don’t scale, and they will be very small in higher resolutions. There are simple-to-use mods in the Steam community files to make it significantly better.
After setting the maximum resolution on my 4K monitor, I was almost surprised as to how amazing the game looked. Textures, models, particle effects, lighting and shadows – everything is so sharp that you simply can’t believe it’s a game from 2005. The realism of the environments down to the smallest details of office equipment, hospital gear, building facades, etc. makes it enjoyable to simply wander the rooms between battles. The metro sections in the expansions are some of my favorites. The interesting thing about the level design, is that almost everything is connected at 90-degree angles, but the level of realism and detail is otherwise high enough that you are unlikely to get fixated on that or even notice.
The soundtrack fits the atmosphere of the game well. Upbeat themes during combat alternate with ambient tunes during exploration segments, with some eerie stuff reserved for paranormal visions. The music during the last combat (after the boss) of Perseus Mandate is one I really enjoyed; maybe it was just because it was last, but, judging by the comments, many players found it memorable.
The majority of sound effects revolve around the sounds of weapons firing, explosions and stuff shattering, and are quite well done and help bring the action to life. Other environmental sounds (doors opening, things bouncing around) are nothing to write home about. Character speech is clear and intelligible, voice acting is good (subtitles are optionally available as well). The chatter and combat communication of the enemy soldiers is sufficiently varied to give a sense of realism, although it does eventually get repetitive. It was a bit strange that the Nightcrawlers in Perseus Mandate utter mostly the same phrases as the Replicas, only at a lower pitch. A few different lines to give them unique personalities would have been welcome.
Despite the suggestive name, F.E.A.R. is not a horror game, but a more-or-less classic shooter with horror elements. For someone like me, this works extremely well. I like a good scare, but not non-stop scare mode. An overload of creepy stuff causes either desensitization or rejection.
In F.E.A.R. there is a very clear distinction between combat and exploration. You explore the environment, trying to get from point A to point B. Eventually you encounter enemies, typically in groups, sometimes in waves. They may surprise you, but in most cases you either see them clearly from afar, or hear their radio chatter as you get close. Once the soldiers spot you, they will engage, while calling for backup. At this point, the music will switch to one of the combat themes until the end of the battle. Once the last one is down, the musical cues will let you know that the fight is over and it is time to do some more walking, crawling, jumping or climbing.
It is during these exploration sequences that the weird, unexpected and scary stuff happens. There is enough of it, so that you always expect something and do not get too comfortable wandering around in uncharted territory. Even though some levels (mostly in the expansions) have sections where you just travel from place to place, without much happening at all, the expectation that any moment something bad or scary can surprise you keeps you wary and prevents the experience from becoming boring.
[Spoilers intensify below]
There is a good mix of spooky parts: traditional “jump scares”, gory cutscenes, as well as disorienting (and sometimes long) hallucination sequences intermixed with normal progression. Phantoms of the main antagonists or of previously killed characters haunt you throughout the game – lurking on the edge of sight or surprising you around the corner, in some cases even speaking to you. Paxton Fettel does this a lot, and a lot of the story is revealed through his appearances.
For the most part, the horror in F.E.A.R. is not the gruesome kind designed to make you stomach curl (although a couple of very bloody scenes exist), but rather a feel of unexplained and sinister presence, very unnerving when wandering around in the dark. The interesting thing is that the overwhelming majority of the scary interactions are completely harmless to you – only in a handful of cases do apparitions actually attack, and these you learn to anticipate rather quickly. Mostly, you are free to simply enjoy the sensation of being scared (if that works on you).
Without a doubt, the combat sequences are the key element in F.E.A.R. The AI of the computer enemies is held in high esteem to this day. The soldiers talking to one another before and during the combat increases the sense of immersion and realism. Sometimes, I almost felt bad having to kill them, and had to remind myself that “they started it”.
Combat does eventually get repetitive. The vast majority of battles are against the same kind of Replica soldiers, and the variety in their weapons does not make all that much of a difference. There are a couple of “special” enemies, like the Assassin, the Heavy Armor soldier, and the Rev.6 Powered Armor robot, and sometimes there are automatic turrets or flying drones, but their use is limited.
Extraction Point introduces some variety, but it does not affect gameplay much. The Shades (in the few instances they attack you instead of serving as scenery) are almost exactly like Assassins. The Rev.8 Leviathan is just a bigger bullet sponge compared to Rev.6. Only the Heavy Riot Armor provides some unique challenge, both defensively and offensively. The Nightcrawler soldiers introduced in Perseus Mandate are, mostly just beefier versions of Replicas, with slightly better weapons. You will fight both groups interchangeably throughout the game. The Nightcrawler Elites are a different story – possessing the same slow-mo ability that the player has makes them more challenging (or at least annoying).
Overall, I felt that Perseus Mandate had better battle setup, not only because of the roster of enemies but because of how they were used. The encounters with the Rev.6 / Rev.8 mechs have more interesting layouts. There is an extremely challenging battle with 4 Nightcrawler Elites in the penultimate level, followed by the only “proper” boss fight in all 3 parts in the last level – against the Nightcrawler Commander and his squad. And if that was not enough – one final intense combat sequence after the boss, as you fight your way out of the compound across 2 arenas.
The design decision that lets you carry only 3 different primary weapons at a time is a bit annoying. It forces you to make tactical choices, and some will say adds extra depth , but I did not like it. It makes you properly appreciate the rare and powerful weapons, but you either have to limit yourself to carrying only one of them at a time, or give up one of the common weapons and risk running out of ammo. In practice, it is usually not a problem. The entire game can be beaten carrying nothing but the run-of-the-mill weapons (Shotgun, some sort of auto rifle, and HV Penetrator). For the few special fights where the powerful weapons are not luxury but necessity, you will get them before the combat. It can be very obvious, like always having the rocket launcher around Rev.6/Rev.8 mech battles, or more subtle, like the first soldier you encounter in the fight leading to the Nightcrawler Commander just happening to be armed with the Laser Carbine – a weapon that makes the boss battle much easier.
Most weapons are cool and there are always opportunities to use them well. My favorites would be the HV Penetrator in the base F.E.A.R. (the bread-n-butter gun), the Laser Carbine in Extraction Point (just plain cool) and the VES Advanced Rifle in Perseus Mandate (a common automatic weapon with a scope almost as good as the ASP Rifle). Grenades, proximity bombs, and the friendly turrets (expansion only) add to the fun and variety of combat, and make some encounters drastically easier.
Story and Progression
[Heavy spoilers below]
The base game has the highest impact as far as story goes. You unveil the mystery slowly, with major revelations coming towards very end. The expansions do not add much substance, and are frequently confusing. I thought it was weird that Fettel just lets you kill him at the end of F.E.A.R., and obviously it caused a major problem for the writing in the expansions. They needed urgently to bring him back to reactivate the Replicas and advance the plot, in what looks like a hack-ish “deus ex machina”.
Throughout Extraction Point, Alma seems to be on your side (even destroying Replicas), which makes some sense, given her realization that Point Man is her first child, and yet her apparitions frequently attack you and your team mates. You would think that the Alma’s spirit finding her peace at the end of the haunted hospital would put an end to the conflict, but shortly after that Fettel blows up your evac chopper and continues talking about revenge and retaliation.
Perseus Mandate is not a sequel, but a counter perspective, running in parallel with F.E.A.R. and Extraction Point. The player takes the role of a sergeant on a second F.E.A.R. team, at a different location. It introduces another shadow organization (the Nightcrawlers), in the service of a mysterious senator, who try to get their hands on the prized generic material of Alma and Fettel, both of which will haunt you throughout the game. Alma‘s apparitions are also around, causing havoc and occasional jump scares. You will visit some familiar locations, and eventually get to visit the clone production facilities. Both expansions end on cliff-hangers of sorts, which have not been developed further, as the “proper” sequels took the story in a different direction.
A few little things in the story are off here and there, but the thing I found totally not believable was Lt. Chen‘s death in Perseus Mandate: we see him single-handedly destroying a bunch of aggressive Shades, and in the next scene he succumbs to a rather pathetic Scarecrow, with the “tough as nails” Sergeant (player) standing right next to the struggle for long seconds, unable to help.
The difficulty affects only enemy accuracy and damage – not their number, hit points, or any items in the environment. I played through all three parts on Hard, which strikes a good balance: you have to actively work to stay alive, but if you do, you can reliably survive most battles. On Extreme many enemies can kill you too quickly (sometimes before you manage to react with the medkit use key), and I don’t feel like save-scumming or replaying fights over and over. The only part where I had to dial the difficulty down to Moderate was the second Bonus Mission of Perseus Mandate – fire from all directions in an open arena was just too overwhelming, and the margin of error is very small in that map.
Some fans of the franchise are fond of the “proper” sequels (F.E.A.R. 2 and F.E.A.R. 3), while others think they pale in comparison to the first game. I have not played them yet, so I don’t know which camp I would fall in. However, most fans agree that the balance of combat, exploration, horror, physics, controls and overall design, give F.E.A.R. a unique atmosphere, which the sequels do not reproduce. The expansions, however, are quite faithful to it, as they use the same engine and design principles.
You will know within a couple of levels of F.E.A.R. (or even just from playing the demo) whether the game is or isn’t your cup of tea. If it is, I recommend you give both Extraction Point and Perseus Mandate a try.