There are few things more horrifying in life than dark-haired children. If you believed the hype about F.E.A.R. you'd expect to be excreting bricks like a diuretic Bionicle, as your character (a special agent with First Encounter Recon Assault - yes, it's the most forced acronym since SPECTRE) ploughs through the plot, chasing down psychic cannibal Paxton Fettel, his dedicated army of mind-controlled clones and a mysterious mass-murdering child.
So, it's a surprise to get hands-on with F.E.A.R. after the horror-heavy advertising, to find that the horror is secondary to the firefights and that it's not all that scary. Crank up the volume in a dark room, spatter some ketchup about the place - and you'll jump when something nasty happens or when the little girl appears. However, there's no real sense of terror, nor a feeling that you're in any danger, except when you come across the real, physical clone troopers.
That's because the enemies are hugely intelligent for a first-person shooter (FPS). Much of this is to do with them being able to take lots of damage and hit back hard, but it's also to do with their speed of movement, their use of cover and their effective work as teams.
Squad members keep you pinned down while others will flank you from both sides, shouting to each other and communicating their situation - audio clues that can be used to your advantage. They use grenades to flush you from cover, they're much quicker and more accurate at close-combat and have access to all your weapons. The only edge you'll have will rely on your FPS experience and the rapid-reaction mode.
This mode, which is essentially slo-mo, allows you to spend a few seconds moving and aiming much faster than your enemies - you can clear a room quickly or take out one of the slower enemies before they get a chance to shoot back. Again, it's closest to Max Payne's or The Matrix's Bullet Time, and is your only advantage in combat. It's accompanied by a blurring visual effect, as items and people move slowly. Grenades going off in it look awesome. The music and sound excel - producing drawn-out, slowed-down shots, yells and talk. Without this mode, this would be the toughest shooter we have ever played; with it, it's one of the most rewarding. While the enemies are cunning, they aren't particularly varied. We don't think there are ten different types in the whole game, and five of these are the ubiquitous clone troopers.
You'll swiftly realise that the real challenges are the heavily armoured troopers, with their Penetrator guns that fire foot-long metal spikes, the irritating automated turrets, and the rare rocket-wielding Mechs, who require lots of explosives and extensive use of slo-mo to take down.
The weaponry is a mix of the familiar and the seriously damn cool. There's an effort to introduce a John Woo element to your combat with dual-wielded pistols, but you won't find yourself using these much; you're likely to move on to the more damaging and accurate sub-machine guns and rifles.
Each weapon also weighs differently - it's most noticeable when wielding the enormous Repeating Cannon as carrying this means that you won't be as fast or nimble in combat. Combining grenades or the excellent autofiring mini-rockets with SlowMo will leave your jaw hanging.
Our favourite gun still has to be the Type 7 Energy Weapon - when it hits a lightly armoured enemy, their skeleton jumps out of their disintegrating corpse in a flash of blue lightning. Following a battle, there will be burnt skeletons, bodies nailed to walls and various body parts and heads rolling about. There are no cutscenes in F.E.A.R. Instead, the story is told through information you acquire from the environment.