A Blast from the Past review

FBT's not scared of Alma. Honest. Leave the lights on.

The past

In 2005, society almost collapsed because an idiot released a hack that unlocked a 'hidden' sex game in the already contentious GTA San Andreas. Hidden! Secretly adding sex into games for little children to find? The outrage. It was the end times. GTA SA was rated Mature so kids shouldn’t be playing it anyway and the unfinished sex element was removed before release, the hack just reactivated it but Politicians and the Papers ignored that; they had Moral Outrage to peddle. F.E.A.R, released at the height of the Hot Coffee spill, is a perfect example of a game not for kids. Not just because of the gameplay intensity but the tone, the story was pure grown-up’s time - A deep, unsettling physiological mindfuck about a solider being harassed by a Carrie-like little girl while fighting telepathically-linked super-soldiers under the charge of a cannibal trying to find the girl. Not exactly a Teletubbies episode.

The Hot Coffee whohah did one good thing; games were recognised as entertainment like movies or music and should be considered accordingly. The morally outraged moved on to being horrified by the internets. Meanwhile, FEAR scared the hot coffee out of me.

FEAR was like being armed and in a horror film. But you’re not fighting Freddy. This was pure Japanese horror; Ringu, Dark Water, The Grudge. The increasingly horrible story just freaked you out – learning who she was and worse, what had happened to her. The scares often aren’t threatening and that was somehow worse; you’d be terrified, but she … She was just curious. The ‘Unknown Origin’ noise, a little like the sound of Saddako approaching, first seemed a bit of spoiler but became psychological torture; she’s here. Somewhere. You just cowered and hoped she went away. I still remember swinging around on a ladder and she was right there. FEAR’s over ten years ago and I still get jumpy using a ladder in a game. That time I saw her bloody footprints walking towards me but not her. That time I saw her on the monitor – a monitor that was showing what’s behind me. Waa! And the screaming banshee, all spindly and screaming, matted hair, rushing at you, trying to - *Shivers*

I haven’t played FEAR in a long time, but I haven’t played anything that got to me like FEAR. Lots of games made me jump, but FEAR kept me jumpy. It is my favourite shooter from the Half-life to Bioshock period but I’ve not played it since then. I think I’m actually nervous. Time to face … Alma. Even typing her name is triggering.

Shoulda Stayed There?

Oh god, even the loading screen has that screeching sound. Just gonna go pop the lights on.

I’d forgotten FEAR actually stood for something; First Encounter Assault Recon, a spec-ops team investigating paranormal activities. It’s a shame the series didn’t make more of this, the sequels confined themselves to the fallout from the first game so FEAR as an idea was largely ignored. A series about a bunch of Spec Ops investigating the paranormal could have been awesome, The X-Files with a shotgun.

I am The Pointman, a hero so silent Gordon would be proud. I don’t even have a name, just a squad position. I’m all for silent heroes, but given what Pointy goes through you think at least the occasional ‘WTF!’ would be uttered. Pointy is the new kid to the team, and after some friendly joshing from a teammate and some promising interest from Jin, the team’s Agent Scully, we’re off to investigate some mysterious goings on.

What’s been going on is Fettel, a man who’s escaped from a lab at the ATC Corporation, a tech company with government defence contracts. Fettel didn’t escape alone though; he is telepathically linked to an entire legion of ‘Replica’ soldiers and they are tearing through ATC offices looking for something – or someone. He’s also capable of projecting himself wherever he likes. So not just a disgruntled employee with a gun then.

Pointy, who has the odd ability to move faster than bullets, is sent in to scope the place out. Besides Jin, the team we’re Pointing for includes our CO who directs things from a safe distance and another Operator who mysteriously disappears, only to reappear as a ghostly image warning she’s interested in me. Could you stop that mate? Not helping. There’s some nice moments early on, overheard conversations about how weird The Pointman is and the legitimacy of FEAR’s work. It’s a slow burn game, unlike most shooters where you’re dropped into a firefight and head to the opposite side, FEAR unfolds like a novel or film, drawing you into the story not just the bullets.

As we progress, more story elements come to light. We discover the little girl we keep glimpsing – and by glimpsing, I mean witnessing her murdering entire squads with her mind - is ‘Alma’, the daughter of a ATC scientist who discovered she has psionic abilities. Turned into a lab rat, Alma is subjected to various experiments and tests, but quickly grows bored and instead fills her time making the scientists kill or mutilate themselves. Sounds like she’s played the Hot Coffee mod. Fettel is interested in helping her escape, and also starts to take an interest in you. He’s not your battlefield nemesis, goading or chatting on the mic. He just appears right in front of you, says something cryptic then disappears. Usually with blood around his face. Because he’s also a goddamn cannibal who eats ATC employees as a novel way to get info. This game …

It’s not just Alma that drives the game; for much of the time, that’s just background. It’s great how we’re just in the middle of several greater stories - as well as Fettel, there’s ATC’s attempts to cover up the incident and Alma’s father; so much going on conspiracy-wise, Mulder would have a field day. Phone messages, conversations, laptops reveal the depth of ATC’s experiments - it’s so involving that finding power-ups like injectors that extend Pointy’s health and bullettime makes you wonder what else ATC has been experimenting with - and why does Pointy already has the ability? Stick around for the last phone call during the credits. It’s a zinger that would make the Smoking Man proud.

While tangling with Fettel’s Replica soldiers, we also contend with ATC security and later their black ops team; melee fighters with invisibility cloaks. Anything else? Yeah, there’s also manifestations of Alma’s, disembodied demons that come out of the blackness ready to rip you to pieces. Think that’s it. Oh, and the harpy that screams and scampers towards you. Don’t let her touch you, that’s if you can keep your tremblingly finger on the fire button.

As a shooter, FEAR is way, way up there. We’re more than a decade after its release and the firefights easily match anything the latest CoD clone’s managed. The Replicas in particular – you do get a sense they’re linked, and you know they’re just clones but they’re real. They get scared, yell at each other (‘get to cover!’/’where?!’) and act so lifelike it’s unnerving. They stumble and trip if you clip them in the leg, scramble to get away from fire, run for it, act aggressively and it doesn’t feel scripted or manipulated. Obviously walking into areas triggers their appearances, and events are scripted but they don’t seem to be; It’s like playing Online – and you’re the Newbie. They’ll work around you, sometimes taking such long routes to reach you, you’ve forgotten and you just run into them randomly – which seems to make them jump too. They react to teammate’s positions and actions, duck under obstacles, vault over things, change their minds, get intimidated by your tactics - they’re incredible just to watch let alone try to hit. It’s also unnerving how they’re completely compliant but have free will.

Pointy is no slouch with the bullets either. The bullettime he possesses is one of the best I’ve played. Similar to The Matrix, we can see bullets flying about and the detail is amazing as they ricochet off walls and bodies. We’re running through clouds of blood and sparks, real John Woo stuff. The firefights are always frantic, you get constantly battered and bloody, dust and debris fly everywhere ruining your shots, everyone’s hurling grenades about, it’s practically a schoolyard scrap. Pointy can carry health packs and pick up vests; neither last long.

The best/worst thing in FEAR of course is Alma. When she’s not shocking or observing you, she’s making you experience her life at the hands of ATC. It’s terrifying, but you develop pity for her. Then you see her kills littered about, bodies melted to the bone and get nervous again. You never quite know if she’s on your side or not. Some of her actions seem hostile, others helpful. Hearing that Unknown Origin noise hasn’t lost its power, and while the game does occasionally lapse into quickie shocks they’re more than made up by Alma’s other appearances and behaviours. That scene where she’s on the other side of the glass just staring at you and all you need to do is open the door is just terrifying. She’s a ghost, she could just walk through but she doesn’t. She just wants to see what you’d do. You have to walk towards her and that’s just insanely scary. But there’s so much more than scares going on. Alma does draw heavily from J-Horror – Alma is the daughter of Saddako and Ikuko with possibly a bit of Don’t Look Now thrown in, but the abuses she suffers and the story behind it are all hers and as a character, Alma is practically without peers; this isn’t just some entity stalking you - you start to wish you weren’t uncovering her story because you understand why she’s so angry. Just, leave me out of it yeah? No such luck.

The only let down in FEAR, and it is a sizeable one, is the never changing environment. You’re always, with very few and very brief exceptions, fighting through offices and industrial areas. It makes sense for the story, Fettel is storming ATC’s properties looking for Alma and this kind of story works best in places you can’t just turn tail and run out of. But while the intensity of the story can get fatiguing and the Replica’s onslaught tiring, it’s the locations that makes you reach for the Main Menu button. Perhaps had it had more going on within those locations it might have felt fresher, but while the level designs are good, with multiple approaches, interesting obstacles and multi-level areas perfect for smart-arse soldiers and scary children to creep up on you, the environments all merge. I recollected shoot-outs and Alma-scares, but never the locations and as I replayed, I realised without the loading-screen updates I’d have little idea about where I was, where I was going or why.

As we reach the final destination (and really feel nervous doing it, I remember now what’s coming; I think I blocked it from my mind) it’s amazing that even now, ten years after the release, FEAR can still pack such a punch – it’s novel-quality story, terrifying experiences and insane gameplay marks FEAR as one of the greats, either to replay or discover for the first time. Maybe the original Bioshock came close two years later, but FEAR makes you despair at the state of modern shooters.

Alma and her revenge are The Exorcist of gaming - you just want it to stop, catch your breath, remind yourself it’s only a bloody game. Add in the Replica’s AI and the conspiracy that weaves through the plot and FEAR is a masterclass in gaming. It taps into that feeling you get when you’re alone in the house and hear a noise ... It’s a good job the moral crusaders got distracted by the internets, I’d hate to think what they’d make of a psychotic little girl melting people with her mind. Turn on the lights and fear Alma.

After FEAR, there were two add-ons. Those were the days. Not money-grubbing DLCs but actual mini-games. The first, Extraction Point continues the story as the FEAR team attempt to escape the repercussions of the main game. It starts off well enough, but quickly descends into more typical horror-survival territory and FEAR elements feel crowbarred in, while Perseus Mandate tries something different. Set alongside the first FEAR, we play a Sergeant who inexplicably has the same bullettime powers as Pointy. This FEAR team is tasked with investigating the ATC coverup and the events of the main game spill over into this one. You’re largely fighting against a splinter group within ATC who use the event to grab the data the original project was based on. Alma makes a few cameos, but otherwise this is largely a straight shooter. It’s fast and fun, the black ops team are a lot more gobby than the Replicas (calling me a pussy for backing off for example) and there’s a great standout where you’re chased by an ED-209 through the office, but otherwise it’s typical shooter stuff. Both were created by TimeGate Studios and aren’t considered ‘cannon’ to the main series – shame, they’re both better than the FEAR sequels and Extraction Point ends things in a more satisfying way than they do; it would have freed FEAR to go investigate other scares. Pointy would have made a great Mulder.

And that fricking ladder scene is even scarier than I remember.

2005 | Developer Monolith | Publisher Sierra

Platforms; Win, PS3, X360