(Originally my look at sectional game design was to be posted after this entry, but somehow I completely forgot about this until now.)
First off I want to apologize for the title of this entry -- I will work on creating better pun titles in the future. Once again thanks to Steam I got to increase my backlog a little more and play a game I missed the first time around. The original game in the F.E.A.R. franchise comes from Monolith (at least the main game), the developers behind Condemned, No One Lives Forever and more.
FEAR is described as a playable action movie and the description is apt. Enemies get flung through the air from explosions, you have a "slow mo" power allowing to see bullet trails and rag doll physics at work.
The gun play in FEAR is excellent in my opinion; you can just feel the weight of the guns when you are firing them. A few months ago when I took a 2nd look at Bioshock I commented on how soulless the weapons felt, FEAR is an example done right. When you fire a shotgun, you see the gun recoil back, bullets fly out knocking apart the environment and the enemy reeling from the blast.
The other side of FEAR is the horror element, taking a cue from The Ring you are constantly followed by the specter Alma. The game attempts to freak you out with all manner of effects which I won't spoil. The problem is that the pacing of the game prevents the game from being terrifying. The game play in FEAR can be divided into two sections:
Action: Shooting your way through clones and everything else.
Tension: The game's attempt to scare you.
The issue is that these segments are mutually exclusive 99% of the time. If I'm fighting enemies there is nothing scary and when the game is trying to scare there is no combat or threat at all. The levels are so clear cut that you can just feel as if someone is pulling two levers "horror" and "action" and it makes the game feel padded out.
Even the combat sections start to feel worn out the later you get in due to the enemy group composition never changes. When you are dealing with mech suits you will not fight any clones or vice versa. This kind of sectional level design reminds of Half Life 2 and having gone back and finished HL2, FEAR in this regard is like a poor man's Half Life.
I'm going to save my discussion on this type of level design for another entry but I want to touch briefly on why it worked so well in HL2. First is that there are more sections in HL2 compared to FEAR. I'm not just shooting or listening to exposition which helps with the pacing.
Second, sections in HL2 are constantly changing, one minute I'm fighting; next I'm solving a puzzle, and then back to fighting and so on. This keeps the game from feeling fractured and also keeps the player guessing as to what will happen next. The level design in HL2 just feels more refined compared to FEAR and in this way it is what makes HL2 an A title and what keeps FEAR in the C+, B- range in my opinion.
I know that from what I've written here it sounds like I'm coming down hard on FEAR but for what's it worth I enjoyed FEAR. The feel of the guns and the fire fights were great and if I were compared both HL2 and FEAR to this alone I would rank FEAR higher.
However looking at the entirely of FEAR is where my complaints are and where I'm disappointed. Condemned 1 and 2 showed that Monolith knows how to create creepy environments and keep the player on edge. I would absolutely love to see a game from Monolith featuring the shooter aspects from FEAR with the environments and tension of Condemned.