We've been banging on about this game pretty hard lately, so you could be forgiven for thinking we've already said everything there is to say about it. But bear with us, because we're convinced there's something a bit special going on here. All evidence points to F.E.A.R. being the best single-player shooter since Half-Life 2 and a contender for game of the year, not to mention the next small step on the road to graphical nirvana.
What exactly makes it so special is a little more difficult to discern. Many - including our former editor Dave Woods - are getting hung up on the name, emitting girlish squeals about F.E.A.R. being the 'scariest game ever'. You've got the barely perceptible flashes of eviscerated flesh.
The fleeting glimpses of the creepy little girl in the red dress. The scary geezer with the blood-caked mug appearing by your side and then disappearing in a puff of dust. But whether or not all this makes F.E.A.R. the scariest game ever is kind of beside the point. Rather, the horror elements simply add another dimension to an already potent mix of explosive, high-impact action, deep story elements and scintillating SFX. Hand in hand with some of the best AI on the planet, this is what makes F.E.A.R. so compelling.
VU Games recently invited us to play another chunk of the game - the first four levels no less, complete in everything but name and the occasional graphical hangnail - and we got a full-force blast of the formula in action. The game kicks off, as you may recall, with the escape of psychic bad guy and raving nutcase Paxton Fettle, a telepathically-enhanced military commander trained to lead an army of cloned supersoldiers. Each one of these chaps is a Universal Soldier-like automaton, with full battle awareness but not much in the way of conversational ability. In short, they're unfeeling killing machines, and Paxton has 1,000 of the buggers at his beck and call.
At the outset of the game, you - a new recruit to an elite paranormal strike team - are sent to infiltrate the complex held by Fettle, teaming up with a Delta team to creep in via the back door. The Deltas clearly don't take kindly to their new point man, and send you off to open a gate for them in a nearby switch room. While you're gone Something Bad happens and (minor spoiler warning), you return to find the entire Delta Team dead. And not just dead, but reduced to bloody, meat-flecked skeletons, as if a horde of peckish Texans has set upon the group in your absence.
The effect is so over-the-top it's almost comical. It recalls the kind of sick humour that made Monolith's debut shooter Blood such gory fun, and while not producing much genuine fear, is a nicely ominous way to set you on your path. Later, when the fleeting visions start to creep in and you're clearly being stalked by both Paxton Fettle and the little girl, the manifest sense of unease really starts to build.
Producer Rob Loftus explains: "The thing with horror is that you have to feed it slowly. In a game, you have to maintain things over a much longer period of time than a film, so we had to place these key spooky moments very carefully."
Moving further into the level, this intimate attention to pacing also extends to gunplay. Rather than facing a continuous barrage of foes as in most shooters, the action in F.E.A.R. is broken up into discrete firefights, with long, creepy sections of relative inactivity in between. In this respect it's more reminiscent of Rainbow Six-style tactical shooters than, say, Half-Life 2, a slant that lends the game a distinct edge of authenticity.