Don't tell the tabloids, but a big part of any first-person shooter's charm is seeing the impact of your shots. In contemporary blockbuster titles there even seems to be a sort of consensus around how to do headshots 'right' — a crunchy sound effect married to UI visual indicators, instantaneously followed by one of many purpose-built animations, or at the very least a ragdolling corpse. Shooting virtual things with this kind of feedback feels good. It's also an area where, thanks to the examples and experience accrued over decades, a lot of shooters seem to be trying to achieve the same effect.
They're shooters, after all. What else is there but a bullet to the head?
How about, for starters, a different kind of aesthetic: one that, perhaps, is not so bound to ideas of 'realistic' firearms. Walking around the aftermath of a 10mm HV Penetrator gunfight in 2005 FPS F.E.A.R. is like browsing a gory modern art gallery. Enemies are hung on the wall like paintings, strung up by their skulls or arms or torsos, framed by splatters of red. It makes admiring your work after the battle almost as fun as the action itself.
The Penetrator, also known as the 'tentpole gun', doesn’t fire normal bullets — it fires huge steel stakes that pierce armour, flesh and bone. Shooting an enemy knocks them backwards, pinning them to any wall, crate, elevator or cabinet that happens to be nearby. You can't get bored of it.
F.E.A.R — now just over 13 years old, so old enough to be playing Fortnite — has a huge menu of weapons, most of them deliciously brutal, but it feels like the entire game is built to make impaling enemies with monstrous stakes as satisfying as possible. The physics system is generous with its pins: even if an enemy is in the middle of a corridor, the force of the stake will snap their neck back, as if you’ve hit them with a steel clothesline, carrying them a seemingly impossible distance and slamming them into a wall (watch the second enemy below).
It’s brilliantly over-the-top to the point of being glitchy: sometimes, your target’s head will spin around like a top as they hang from the wall, and their legs will keep kicking. If you’re landing body shots, they’ll ragdoll, often flying in a random direction, arms flailing, and if you can catch them when they’re vaulting over cover they’ll fly straight up in the air.
When you pin an enemy to something thin like a railing, they’ll flop endlessly back and forth as the game tries, and fails, to work out where their bodies should rest. Enemies will also sometimes clip into one another in one writhing ball of flesh, and if you lean on the trigger you’ll stick their bodies to each other and to whatever surface is nearby. It’s not exactly polished, but it gets a grin every time — and, you could argue, the comic nature of the animations takes the edge off the gore.
The best thing about firefights in F.E.A.R. (apart from the impeccable AI) is how chaotic they get, with levels that feel like they’re built to have as many things going on as possible. The tentpole gun is right at the core of this.
Your first shot might lift an enemy into the air, but the next one will fly awry, obliterating a window, vase or gas valve, triggering a ball of flames. Your foes will bash down doors and overturn desks to make cover, sending up clouds of dust that obscure your vision. Often, when you kill an enemy, they’ll squeeze the trigger as they die, spraying bullets in all directions, ricocheting off metal surfaces in a shower of sparks as more fragile objects like cardboard boxes disintegrate. And, just as the action is wrapping up, an enemy will chuck a grenade in the mosh pit, creating a force field that pushes back everything in the area — including you — and sets lamp shades swinging.
It's the perfect marriage of hardware and theme.
All that chaos makes for one hell of a din, and the 10mm HV Penetrator's sound design underpins everything: when you’re firing in normal speed it’s a pneumatic clank-clank-clank, like a workman hammering endlessly on a steel plate. Headshots don't yield a crunch so much as an unmistakable ‘plink’, and these two sounds stitch-together the bullets screeching past your ears, smashing glass, and barked enemy instructions.
In slow motion, which you can trigger at will, the tentpole gun becomes even more guttural, almost primal, the stakes grunting inexorably towards their targets. As you leave slow motion the sound grows higher in pitch and more urgent, as if it’s excited to reach full speed again.
The tentpole gun is both a precision tool and your panic-mode bff. When you’re hip firing it’s wildly inaccurate, especially if moving. So naturally one of the most fun ways to use it is to sprint around, getting up close to enemies while mashing the trigger, spit out stakes at odd angles and watch a special forces unit's bodies spiral off in different directions.
But if you’re aiming down sights it’s pinpoint accurate, and slow motion lets you surgically pick out shots. My favourite thing to do is to burst into a room of enemies, trigger slow motion, and methodically pick them apart one by one, dinging headshots and impaling chests before they know what’s hit them.
The only issue the tentpole gun has is running out of ammo, and that says it all (you’ll likely have a maximum of fifty stakes at a time, which can be easily burned through in a couple of hectic firefights). In one of F.E.A.R.'s few missteps you rarely find stakes lying around, so the main source of ammo comes from the heavily armoured, bullet-sponge mini bosses, who also carry the weapon and are a right pain to fight.
It's not like you don't have other options: like a shotgun which can decapitate enemies with a headshot. But if you don’t mind breaking the rules, just cheat: hit ‘T’ and type ‘ammo’ to instantly refill all your weapons, giving you unlimited stakes from early game onwards.
The tentpole gun is not not the only stake gun in an FPS — 2004’s Painkiller also had one that impaled enemies (and had an underslung grenade launcher to boot). But F.E.A.R’s slower pace and more realistic visuals make these firefights feel more grounded, so it’s therefore even more outrageous when, in slow motion, you thwack stake after stake into an enemy’s helmet until they crumple and fly backwards into a stone pillar, blood spurting everywhere.
There's a lot to be said for the headshots of this year's blockbuster shooters: they feel great to execute and a lot of fun. But the homogeneity across ostensibly different games has the strange effect of making all their armouries blend into one. There's an element of surprise missing, an itch that they don't quite scratch. The only thing that can is a dozen steel stakes flying in slow motion, heading for swift and sudden impact on oblivious bodies.