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Shooters Never Matched F.E.A.R.’s Legendary AI

For a lot of reasons, the 2005 PC shooter was the perfect place to play with guns—for humans and AI alike.

by Rob Zacny
Apr 7 2017, 9:00pm

Above: F.E.A.R. screenshot courtesy Warner Bros. Interactive

I have played the original F.E.A.R. more times than I can count. For me it is to the PC first-person shooter as The Raid is to action movies: nonsensical, but approaching perfection for just how distilled and unrelenting the combat is. There are times when you just want to be surrounded by deafening automatic-weapons fire in the most obscenely overwrought gun battle of your life, and F.E.A.R. delivers that in spades.

But it's not just that there are a lot of heavily-armed enemies. It's that those AI commandos felt like they were playing the same game as you. They didn't just run out into a combat arena and wait to get shot, but flanked, flushed with grenades, and kept up blazing suppressing fire. So a piece this week from Samuel Horti on Rock, Paper, Shotgun caught my eye as it celebrated the greatness of F.E.A.R.'s AI and lamented the fact that it doesn't seem to have any modern successors.

I've felt the same lack, else there is no reason why I'd keep going back to F.E.A.R.'s increasingly-silly-with-time J-horror pastiche. Why have so few games reached the bar that F.E.A.R. set for tactical combat in a shooter? What was Monolith doing in 2005 that countless shooters have failed to replicate?

I've always had a few theories. The first is that it's easy to forget how carefully-staged F.E.A.R. was. The place where you spend the majority of your time, the headquarters of evil defense contractor Armacham, is one of the most absurdly laid-out and unconvincing office buildings that has ever appeared in a video game.

Every section was filled with weird twists and turns that disrupted lines of sight, and packed with oddly placed rooms that existed solely to provide a position for flanking attacks. You can never imagine people actually working in this building, but you can absolutely believe they probably had tremendous Nerf wars. A setting that was constructed around tactical variety, it succeeded in showcasing the AI at its best. In fact, it left the AI no choice: your AI enemies were constantly put in positions where their every move would achieve some tactically-sound end.

F.E.A.R. was also one of the last pure PC shooters made before everything became multi-platform, multi-control scheme. It came out for other platforms, yes, but it's telling that those ports were outsourced. PC was the lead platform, enjoying a design primacy it has rarely had since.

The result was that an incredibly fast-paced shooter that fully expected players to be able to turn and aim on a dime. You'd be able to control your exposure around cover using lean commands that weren't dependent on any environment context. Enemies were designed around these expectations and were consequently more dynamic and aggressive as a result. While F.E.A.R. levels may not have been life-like, but they never felt like a chain of "rooms with waist high walls" where the player and a group would march in and take static positions between pre-defined cover points. You were expected to move and find cover on the fly, and your enemies did the same.

So it's not that F.E.A.R.'s AI tricks are a mystery. As Horti writes, F.E.A.R. AI designer Jeff Orkin was very clear about what he did and why it worked. But the things that F.E.A.R. combined—fast pace, bullet-time, squad tactics, melee combat, environmental destruction—all exist in modern games, but rarely together at once. The tactical shooters rarely overlaps with the action shooters anymore, and so enemy AI has never had the same kind of combat sandbox that existed in F.E.A.R.

Someone should get on that.

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pc gaming
monolith
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Jeff Orkin