Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Byte: Foxy Engine Allows Resell

I tried out the FEAR single player demo last night and guess what? I don't like it.

The 3D engine is great and will probably be resold on by Monolith for several small fortunes, but unfortunately, as the game itself goes, it's Max Payne, the FPS. I'm undoubtably going to annoy Craig Pearson from PCG, but here's a short quote from his review in this month's magazine, where he concludes what to do when being hunted down by a couple of teams of soldiers, which succinctly articulates my problem with it:

So here I am, trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea: what do I do? The answer is simple: quicksave.

That set the alarm bells ringing when I read it last week, and when I played the SP demo last night, my fears (no pun intended) were realised. The game is built around the quicksave. Instead of keeping the action flowing, it's broken up into discrete, scripted chunks of 20 or 30 seconds with encounters of just a couple of people at a time, and between each section, like Max Payne, you're encouraged to quicksave because the AI's ruthlessly good. The AI (even on Moderate difficulty) can nail you from 50 yards in complete blackout conditions. I know they're meant to be cloned super-soldiers, but that's a bit much. What is the developer's answer? You guessed it, your "heightened reflexes", which is bullet-time under another name. Personally, I was sick of bullet-time by the time I'd finished playing the Max Payne demo. Four years on, it's still NOT COOL. Fancy that. The game just feels stop-start-stop-start. It doesn't build up any rhythm at all, and because of the AI, it's practically impossible to play from end to end without using the quicksave.

On Medium difficulty, I played Half-Life 2 through without touching the quicksave once. With FEAR, if you try that you'll go mad within hours, because one of the half-dozen or so engagements between checkpoints is cast-iron guaranteed to fuck you over, and you'll be replaying sections again and AGAIN and *AGAIN*. This isn't like Halo where you have a rechargeable shield and can make it through a level with just a single block of health left. Once you start losing armour, you're painfully vulnerable and can be finished off with a single well-placed shot. Given that the AI is so accurate, the likehood of that shot eventually coming your way is 100%. So, your only solution is quicksave: replay each encounter losing as little health and armour as possible. The modern FPS - papering over gameplay cracks using technology!

Another problem is the weapons set. Oh look, the MP5. AGAIN. Oh look, the SPAS-12 shotgun. AGAIN. Oh look, duel-wielded improbably powerful pistols. AGAIN. 10mm Penetrator? What's that? Oh, it's a railgun. AGAIN. Is anyone else ready to start sobbing?

Credit where credit's due, the game engine is outstanding. It gave my Athlon 64 rig trouble at 1024x768, though that might just be because the demo isn't completely performance optimised. The lighting and dynamic shadow effects must rate amongst the best I've seen, and, as I've already alluded to, the AI is excellent: not a Half-Life revolutionary leap, but a step onwards and upwards.

This may be an unfair criticism, based solely on a demo, but again to use Craig P's words in his PCG review:

FEAR never upped the ante. It stayed almost exactly the same from start to finish.

If the demo is representative of the full game, and (by rights) it should be, then I agree with him. Unfortunately, the game's been designed as a sure bet and it doesn't take risks; and it doesn't push any boundaries beyond the running temperature of your GPU. Despite playing the demo for a couple of hours solid last night, I only had *one* standout moment. That's right, just one. A soldier had knocked over a metal rack, and was using it as cover as he crawled forward underneath it. I saw him and lobbed a grenade as he was trapped under the rack: direct hit. The grenade explodes and he's just a red smear on the floor. A smile inducing moment, to be sure, but that was it. The rest simply wasn't enough fun.

I'm filing this one with Doom 3 under "Great engine, shame about the game." I'm sure it'll sell by the warehouseful, but I won't be spending any of my gaming budget on it...
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