From the gory outset, F.E.A.R. wastes no time drawing you into its dark, atmospheric environments and suspense-laden gameplay. Your character is a new recruit to the F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault and Recon) team, gifted with preternatural reflexes and a cloudy background. A battalion of experimental paramilitary clones controlled by psychic commander Paxton Fettel has run amok in the Armacham Technology Foundation, and you're charged with taking him out. From security footage you see that Fettel has acquired some unsavoury habits, and an early encounter suggests that his mind may not be entirely his own.
The game progresses with a mix of classic first-person shooter (FPS) gameplay and supernatural horror, particularly after a little girl called Alma (also cryptically described as The Origin) is introduced. Slowly building suspense and drawn-out tension is punctuated by frenetic set-piece firefights, and the back story is disclosed through disturbing interactive cinematic and grisly flashbacks. But it's the less overt horror elements that really raise your sense of anxiety - glimpsed figures that aren't there, shifting shadows, or unsettling whispers in dark corridors.
Graphically, F.E.A.R. is excellent, rendering its environments with unprecedented realism. From the cluttered desks and distorting glass bricks of its offices, to the peeling paint and detritus of its warehouses and docks, the attention to detail really helps to pull you in. Game physics are also exceptional, with objects and models possessing a real sense of weight and density. During combat, stray ordnance will tear chunks out of your surroundings, shattering glass and raising clouds of smoke and debris, leaving you squinting to find your targets inside the resulting fog.
Fortunately, your character's exceptional reflexes provide a brief slow-time function to even the odds a little (this also features heavily in the multi-player game). Your arsenal is varied, but you're limited to three weapons at any time, so choice, availability and weapon characteristics become vital.
However, the real star here is the game's unnervingly smart artificial intelligence. Replaying an encounter will often yield entirely different results, as your enemies take different paths to flank or flush you out, laying down suppressing fire or diving for better cover. It's as close to playing against a cohesive human team as you'll get from computer-controlled opponents. Add the fact that your character is relatively vulnerable to damage, and you'll quickly learn to approach combat with a degree of caution that the quick save button and frequent checkpoints won't alter.
Take games like Half Life 2, Doom 3, Silent Hill and Max Payne, then mix it with Japanese horror films like The Grudge or The Ring and you'll be halfway to understanding what F.E.A.R. is like. To get the other half, you'll just have to buy it.
VISUALS: This is what you got that new graphics card for. Detailed, beautifully-lit and realistic.
AUDIO: Effectively used to create a growing sense of unease. Looping background tracks can become a little intrusive.
GAMEPLAY: An innovative mix of horror, suspense and all-out action that blows Doom 3 and Half Life 2 out of the water.
DISTRIBUTOR: VU Games
PRICE: $89.95 ($99.95 for Director's Edition)