What do you get when you combine the scares of Condemned: Criminal Origins (see my review) with the fast-moving first-person shooter (FPS) goodness of Quake 4 (see my review)? The result is something very much like F.E.A.R., which features some legitimate creepy moments early on in the game, along with some credible FPS action. Unfortunately, anyone who's a fan of the FPS genre, as I am, has seen this all before. Indeed, F.E.A.R. even borrows heavily from such FPS classics as the original Half-Life.

That's not to say that F.E.A.R. doesn't have its charms. The action is often fast and furious, and the weapons selection is excellent. And while both the single player and multiplayer experiences should cause a severe case of D?j? vu, F.E.A.R. is a decent title, and a decent addition to any FPS fan's arsenal.

The single player version of F.E.A.R. (the full title is officially F.E.A.R. First Encounter Assault and Recon) debuted last year on the PC and quickly racked up great reviews and excellent word of mouth. Unfortunately for me, it arrived at roughly the same time Microsoft sent me my review Xbox 360 unit, and I immediately switched to console gaming despite a natural desire to check out F.E.A.R. on the PC. Since then, Sierra bolstered the original PC version of F.E.A.R. with F.E.A.R. Extraction Point, an expansion pack that furthers the story from the original title. On the Xbox 360, F.E.A.R. is essentially the same as the original F.E.A.R., and includes both single player and multiplayer modes. Hopefully, we'll get F.E.A.R. Extraction Point on the 360 eventually as well.

Plot

While the plot in these types of games is strictly optional, for F.E.A.R. it goes something like this: You're a paranormally sensitive Special Forces commando sent into a messy situation at an aerospace corporation that has been experimenting with the otherworld. An escaped convict named Paxton Fettel ... oh, forget it. The whole thing is pretty ridiculous. The point is, you'll simply follow along the rail-like path presented to you in each level, or Intervals, as they're called, and the plot pretty much doesn't matter.

The scares come largely in the form of ghostly dream sequences, which sometimes move automatically in slow motion, or something require you to actually move through them manually. If you're familiar at all with Japanese horror movie classics of the past decade, then you've seen everything F.E.A.R. has to offer: Mysterious young Japanese ghost girls, children eerily calling out from the darkness, blood dripping from the upper corner of a room. F.E.A.R. pulls out all the stops trying to get you to jump out of your seat. And early on in the game, and again right at the end, the scares really work. But over time, as the scares become both less frequent and more predictable, they lose both their charm and their scaring power. Indeed, you spend much of the game wandering around an office complex--and, in several locations, even crawling through ductwork just like Gordon Freeman in the original Half-Life--and let's face it, office complexes aren't particularly scary. Or interesting.

By the 8th Interval, however, you finally move into the game's first unique setting and things get interesting and even scary again. Before that, you'll bore yourself to death listening to answering machines and radio broadcasts (which is how the plot is advanced, seriously) and uploading data from Dell XPS-branded laptops (which is another way you learn about the underlying story). (And not to berate the game too much, but the Dell XPS in-game advertising is pathetic: There are Dell computers all over this game, and it quickly gets annoying.)

Sadly, the variety of the levels is quite lacking, and anyone who's worked through diverse and immersive games like Half-Life 2 will quickly grow bored by the surroundings. Fortunately, there's more to this game than the banal corporate backdrop that most of it takes place in.

Single player experience

The single player version of F.E.A.R. is called Campaign, and it lets you work your way through the storyline, uncovering more information about your mysterious past and the horrific nature of the enemies facing your group. Most of the bad guys in F.E.A.R. are your common variety commandos, but they work in teams and try to flank you when possible, which I found either amusing or irritating, depending on poorly I was doing at the time. They'll throw all kinds of weaponry at you as well, including the awesome Type 7 Particle Weapon, which can reduce you to a skeletal barbeque in one shot if you're not careful. (Fortunately, you can turn this and most other weapons on your enemies as well.)

The game consists of a series of Intervals (levels), which are sub-divided into sections, which are themselves further sub-divided into checkpoints. That is, you can't save the game at any point, but you have to instead wait for a checkpoint. This is generally an OK system, but F.E.A.R. has the bad habit of spacing out checkpoints mighty irregularly. In some cases, you find yourself going up against two particularly bad opponents--like the rocket-launching robots--back-to-back, with no checkpoint between them. In others, a checkpoint follows a previous checkpoint by only a few seconds; the only thing that happens between the two checkpoints is you pick up one health item. This kind of inconsistency quickly gets frustrating.

Anyway, you can hold up to three weapons at a time, and at least a few of them can hold massive amounts of ammo, so you should never find yourself without at least some firepower. There are also a few types of grenades, all of which are quite effective against the forces of evil. Any FPS fan should be immediately familiar with the weapon selection.

Like any number of FPS these days, F.E.A.R. features a slow-motion mode, appropriately called Slow-Mo., This lets you slow down the action a la "bullet time" in the Matrix movies, and move so quickly that the world seems to move in slow motion. It's particularly effective against certain enemies, including the various types of robots that require multiple direct hits to kill. However, this sort of effect is also getting a bit tired, and because of the use of the Left Button to trigger the mode, I found myself accidentally using Slow-Mo more often than I did purposefully.

Throughout the game (well, mostly at the beginning and end of the campaign), you'll occasionally move into a dream state in which you interact, briefly, with the horror movie-type aspects of the game: The ubiquitous Japanese horror movie girl with the hair in her face appears, as do various ghosts. (At the end of the game, the ghosts materialize in the real world as well). In these sequences, you often have to manually move through a half-remembered past, and you often sustain damage as ghosts hammer into you. These sequences are scary at first, and if that Japanese girl touches you, you die instantly. Fortunately, she's actually pretty easy to avoid.

Graphics and sound

While F.E.A.R.'s graphics are excellent, they don't hold up to true second generation Xbox 360 titles such as Call of Duty 3 and Gears of War, both of which I'll be reviewing soon. Overall, however, F.E.A.R. is graphically rich and provides a wonderful if occasionally repetitive world in which to play.

The audio, however, is a complete disaster. While the sound effects--guns, explosions, and so on--are quite good, and the music is occasionally excellent and dead-on with the expected creepy effects, the overall audio experience is disappointing. First, F.E.A.R. offers no closed captioning or subtitles at all, which makes the game utterly unplayable to anyone who is hard of hearing or deaf. But anyone would benefit from captioning in this game, since the in-game clues and plot devices, delivered via answering machines, radios, and laptop computers during the course of the campaign, are often completely unintelligible due to environmental noise and/or music, depending on the situation. I found myself placing my head next to the speakers every time I encountered one of these objects, and even then, I couldn't often tell what was being said. F.E.A.R.'s developers should be ashamed of themselves for this oversight, especially since the PC version has been on the market for over a year.

The music, too, sometimes falls flat. While the score often provides the creepy moaning and horror movie soundtrack you want in this kind of game, every once in a while an action or horror sequence will begin and a surprisingly upbeat ditty will start playing in the background. Those musical choices are so off-base they actually take you out of the action.

One audio bit is nicely done: In the Japanese horror movie-type sequences, the sounds of children crying out and moaning are appropriately creepy and often quite scary. A nice combination of lighting (or lack thereof), quick movements between the real world and a dream world, and these sound effects makes for some truly scary moments at the beginning and end of the campaign. (They're curious missing through a big chunk of the middle of the game.)

Instant action

In addition to the standard single player and multiplayer modes, F.E.A.R. offers a unique third style of play called Instant Action. In this special single player mode, you work your way through one of four mini-levels, all based on sections of the campaign. You've got 15 minutes to complete each of these levels, and you can choose between four difficulty levels, the top three of which, frankly, are quite daunting thanks to the excellent enemy AI. If you die once, the level is over and you have to start over again. Your score in Instant Action is based on the difficulty level and what in-game objects you decide to use: If you pick up health, additional weapons, and other objects, your score goes down.

Instant Action scores are tabulated and transmitted to Xbox Live, so you can compare how well you did compared to others. In my case, the results are humiliating. I find Instant Action to be incredibly difficult for some reason, even though I moved through the single player campaign fairly easily.

Multiplayer

Like any modern FPS game, F.E.A.R. offers a nice variety of multiplayer game types, including Deathmatch (every man for himself), Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, Elimination, and Team Elimination (in the latter two modes, once you're killed, you're out of the game until the other players are all eliminated as well). There's nothing new or innovative here, and F.E.A.R. does support 16 player matches via Xbox Live. Curiously, there's no System Link support at all, which is a horrific oversight. That means my Halo group will never be able to adopt F.E.A.R., which would have otherwise been a terrific addition.

Despite this limitation, F.E.A.R. comes alive online. The game moves quickly and looks great, and features a perfect blend of high quality graphics, fast action, weapon choice, and nicely-designed levels that I haven't seen since Quake III Arena. The only problem I had was finding the kinds of games I wanted: In too many cases, there weren't any games available, so I was invited to start my own or join a Quick Match, which could be any game type. Anyway, this will get better over time as more people get the game and get online.

Conclusions

A year ago, F.E.A.R. would have absolutely warranted four stars (or four "Pauls," as they're called here): The game is clearly superior to Quake 4 (which did earn a four star rating). However, in today's environment, I'm more inclined to push F.E.A.R. to the middle of the pack where it belongs and bestow on it a three-star rating. The problem is that F.E.A.R. is also superior to all of the three star titles I've reviewed, including Ghost Recon, Condemned, and Far Cry Instincts Predator. What to do, what to do?

Since I'm a fan of first person shooters, F.E.A.R. thus makes the grade and gets the four-star rating. Understand, however, that it was a squeaker, and F.E.A.R. is definitely not as good as either Call of Duty 3 or Gears of War, both of which will likely come in at four stars as well. In the end, F.E.A.R. is more of a "three-and-a-half-stars" title, though I don't award half stars. You get the idea.

So here's the drill. If you're a fan of horror-filled first person shooters, F.E.A.R. is your game: It's superior to both Condemned: Criminal Origins and the derivative Dead Rising. People who like their first person shooter multiplayer action fast, furious, and old-school will also enjoy F.E.A.R., and this I the first Xbox 360 title to successfully mimic the frenetic pace of Quake III Arena. On the flipside, F.E.A.R. is rated M for mature audiences only, and the frequent in-game swearing and gore is absolutely inappropriate for youngsters. Overall, it's a decidedly average title, but presented with all of the right single player and multiplayer touches. I do have a soft spot for this kind of game, I guess. But I suspect many others will be much less impressed, especially given the current competition.