ron, Jul-20 2008

Fear is where horror goes to die

I noticed that the PS3 version of Fear had dropped to an acceptable price point, and took the plunge. Ratings weren't so hot, but with Nolf and Nolf 2, also from Monolith, being two of my favourite fpses, I was fully expecting yet another experience irrationally decried while actually fully competent. Especially since exactly that had just happened to me with Timeshift, a game that reviewers just didn't want to like apparently – a game that does many familiar things, of course, but does them all with excellence, if I may say so without elaboration. That's a story for another day. Fear it shall be for now.

Supposedly a scary fps, the most obvious shortcoming of Fear is that it simply isn't and can't be scary, by design. It resembles scary games, because it incorporates their most obvious elements, a pattern that is seen frequently in failed attempts at art. Visions of death, decay, blood, fire, disintegration, loss of control, voices speaking obscurities, and that little girl character at the center of it, those sure-fire horror ingredients are all there and clearly supposed to make the player uneasy. So why doesn't it work?
The repetition of these small hallucinations that are shuffled into the regular gameplay would already blunt their effect, but then there is something else about their integration that already makes them feel harmless, even relaxing, to begin with: they can never hurt you.
When Doom 3 throws yet another closet-imp at you from a convenient spawn point right behind you, you might at that moment roll your eyes, but the scare is not the fight itself. The scare is the tension that is built up before that happens, and that only works because monsters are a threat. You want to be ready for the next ambush, and you start playing more slowly and more carefully. Threat is the core of a scary interactive experience. "Unsettling" ambient sounds and demonic symbolism are just the coat of paint it likes to hide behind.

Oh, hi again Alma. When I heard that noise, at first I thought there was something that would require my attention. Never mind then.

Fear tries very hard with the paint and sadly lacks the essence, rendering all that effort meaningless. What happens is that your basic awareness is by default somewhere above polar temperature, because the regular enemies you face are decently challenging, but the instant you identify your current situation as a staged "scare" moment, it drops to zero Kelvin immediately. You just know you're safe. The game teaches you very early on that you may proceed with a spiritually holstered weapon. "Ooohhh, it's just that guy again who disintegrates into ash flakes. Phew. Okay, back to exploring." When you fight actual enemies, and don't quite know how many are still nearby, there might be tension. Actually, this is another missed opportunity, as the enemies' frequent radio chatter will diligently pre-announce every single encounter you will have, but while fighting, there might be those few seconds of pause and mystery, with a little luck. In the scenes that were designed specifically for the purpose of making you tense though, you feel calm and safe.

This inconceivable fumbling of its entire horror facet is Fear's critical flaw. But who would have thought, there's so much more. The audio in (at least this version of) the game is so flawed, I don't even know where to start. How about grenade explosions that are the same volume as footsteps? One voice actor for all enemies in the first half of the game? Not so awesome.
I'm an old fart. Maybe I have seen something as bad, but I surely haven't seen a worse implementation of ladders in any fps, ever. I like how Timeshift does it: you just walk up to the ladder and you're on it and can immediately start moving up or down. In Fear on the other hand you have to catch a piece of the handrail in the center of your crosshairs, then hold the action button, before the game will let you ascend. Descending ladders is a whole new challenge, and you'll probably want to just jump off and take the damage from the fall instead of bothering with such nonsense.
The game is also aggravatingly precise with its weapon and armor pickups. You pick up items by touching them with your feet or belly button. When you're simply near some goodies that you probably want to pick up, near enough that well-designed fpses would just cram them into your inventory, Fear displays an onscreen message that you may now hold the action button to instruct it to do what it fails to do on its own. That makes sense for weapons you don't have, because you're limited to three and to collect another you have to swap out an old one. However, it really doesn't make sense for mere ammo replenishment for already collected weapons, and neither for everything else (armor, grenades, med-kits).

Also also also, the environments are terribly disorienting, a festival of variants of the grey wall. For the first three hours, the feature stripes are blaz blue, then they are light brown, and then it's just raw concrete without any features, and then it's just white, and it's always just walls.
The one neat aspect of it is that Fear is not a long corridor, but a chain, where the order between elements is strictly linear, but there are usually two paths around each section, which gives enemies more ways to flank and surround you.
It's a bit of a failed compromise between a realistic setting and a game-friendly setting, because all that office space and harbor storage architecture contains way too many (annoying, unnecessary and yet realistic) dead ends, while it still doesn't feel plausibly functional, and doesn't lend itself to guiding the player – of course you expect most offices in the same building to look similar, from furniture to paint, but that doesn't help the player one bit when he or she can't tell forwards from backwards. Oh and by the way, there's no radar and no compass that points to the next objective.

Sparks, swarms of bullets, explosions, all nicely lit and with accurate dynamic shadows, no problem. The Fear engine certainly does some impressive things. If it just had some good content and game design.

None of the above should be platform-specific issues. Those are design decisions that you make or, preferably, don't make. The controls on the other hand are certainly unique to the console versions, and they too are just terrible. Fear incorporates an auto-aim system that does nothing but irritate you. It can't be turned off, so everyone who wants to play the game must learn how to deal with this. The system doesn't just tug your crosshairs onto enemies, it actually rotates your entire view, and it tracks after moving enemies, which has just about the same effect as a dynamically randomized sensitivity setting while you're trying to line up shots. Expect extra fun when you're facing multiple enemies, and you want to shoot the one to the left while the game wants you to shoot the one on the right. Or when you're trying to needle the exposed arm and shoulder of an enemy behind cover, while the game insists that you should be aiming at the torso, which is of course located behind a couple feet of concrete. It just keeps on giving. The only thing that keeps it playable at all is the slow-down mechanic, for rather obvious reasons, but I'd rather have used that as a strategic element, besides making higher difficulty settings viable.

As if it weren't enough, the framerate is borderline acceptable. It's limited at 30fps, v-sync is on (so there's never any tearing), but it likes to go to 20fps quite often, and when it starts getting hectic, it even dips below. Again, the slow-motion mechanic helps mitigate the problem, but it wasn't supposed to mitigate fps problems. Its purpose should be to enhance the gameplay.

Overall, I just can't find anything worthwhile about Fear and will quite happily bail out of my intended playthrough (at interval 6, for those who would know what that means). The entire premise doesn't pan out, because the scares don't function. Stunted right there. Add busted controls, terrible content design, grating audio and severe framerate problems, and you have quite possibly the sorriest fps experience available for the PS3. Speaking of which, your aiming skills will lie in ruins when you try to go back to any other first-person shooter, so especially if you love the genre, playing Fear is going to be a net negative experience.

PS: Dear every fps developer who targets consoles,
Let me turn off your auto-aim implementation. Even if you actually believe it does something useful. Let me provide control input to the game I'm playing. Let my thumbs be free.
Best regards,
-ron

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