Firefall First Impressions
By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG Journalist
Firefall is a very unusual beast. I'm not entirely sure what I was expecting when I loaded up the MMOFPS for the first time, but it probably wasn't the game I wound up playing. While the game is undoubtedly an MMO, it breaks many conventions of the genre, and instead strikes out on its own, bold path.
Firefall's first unusual trait is that unlike other MMOFPS titles, the game is highly focused on PvE content rather than competitive PvP. If you were expecting a similar game to Planetside from Firefall, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed.
Firefall starts around the Copacabana beach in Brazil, over two hundred years into the future. A near-apocalyptic calamity has engulfed much of the known world in a deadly purple haze called The Melding, forcing the survivors to scrounge up whatever resources they can in the few habitable spots on the planet. Players will be able to slowly drive back The Melding and reclaim earth inch by inch in the full game, but in the current beta that functionality is not yet available.
What's left of the world is incredibly open. Firefall is not a directed experience in the same way as most MMOs, and this allows its environments to have a far less constructed feel to them. You can begin the game by hurling yourself into the air with your very own jetpack, and head straight off into the distance with nothing to hold you back. There's no load times, no box canyons, and no level restrictions on areas. Go wherever you like and check out what you want to, when you want to. You can even go out into The Melding for a limited period, though it's going to kill your character sooner rather than later.
There is, however, a short section where you're given a series of missions by some talking heads in your ear piece. These tasks serve as the game's tutorial, and while interesting, don't last very long. The best thing about these missions is that they're no ‘go to man, do thing, go back to man, do another thing' structure. Instead you are simply told the next thing to do the moment you finish your previous task, giving the narrative a constant flow, rather than being a stop start affair. While I expect there will be more of these chains added in the final release, currently there's only one of these to go on, so there's little indication of how important these might be at launch.
The core method of advancement in the beta is thumper harvesting. You wander the world, bashing it repeatedly with a dirty great hammer, and look for resources to extract from the earth. Yes, this is as ridiculously over the top as it sounds, making you feel like a huge badass when all you're doing is essentially looking for a mining node. This gets even more insane though, because you don't mine with a mundane pick, but instead with a massive missile/drill called a Thumper. Firefall doesn't do subtlety.
Once you've called in your thumper, waves of giant bugs spawn near you, attracted by the noise it makes. Your job is to protect your thumper at all costs, as waves of these starship trooper wannabes try to blow up your missile drill, and deny you the vital resources it can harvest. If you can get your thumper to complete its extraction you'll be rewarded with a load of minerals that can be used for creating equipment or upgrades. If you fail to protect your thumper, it gets blown to bits, and you lose it permanently. While crafting a new new one is possible, they don't come cheap, so these losses can prove to be a fairly large setback.
The number of enemies that a thumper throws at you increases with the size of the thumper you're using, as do the rewards. While your starting thumper won't send too many enemies your way, when you start upgrading your thumper you're going to be facing down far, far more enemies than a single player is going to be able to handle. If you want to make your life easier, then gathering into groups (or Squads, as the game calls them) is really in your best interests, both for a more reliable defense, and to assist with searching for more resources. This has been the first MMO in some time where I've actually wanted to group with others, but not felt forced to do so. You can play the game solo, but progress will be far slower than finding a few people and pooling your resources to take on the more advanced thumpers. The downtime while searching for more resources, or waiting as a thumper comes down also gives time for socialization, again something rarely seen in more modern titles.
When enemies start pouring in at you though, Firefall is no featherweight. The gunplay is a slick, arcady affair with an emphasis on run and gun play. There's no camping behind cover, and looking down an iron sight is a luxury afforded to some guns, not the norm. Firefall rewards circle strafing, bunny hopping and hoping that you can kill the other guy before he and his friends turn you into swiss cheese.
Each role in the game, referred to as a battleframe, gets a set of unique abilities and weapons they can choose from, in addition to a range of secondary weapons that can be used by all of them. The Assault is high burst damage role, packing a grenade launcher, a devastating floor stomp and the ability to blast enemies with a conical wave attack. They're pretty dominant in PvP. The Engineers is exactly what you'd expect, someone equipped with a repair gun, turret and healing dispensers. Given they're one of the few classes that can self heal, and get to bring a second gun onto the field, they're extremely popular amongst PvE players. The Medic is a standard healing class, with a healing ray guy straight from Team Fortress 2, and abilities that heal and resuscitate their allies. The Recon is a lightweight sniper, with high maneuverability, mines, special ammo and, of course, a sniper rifle. The Dreadnought is the tank, with a very large health pool, low speed, a minigun and abilities that allow them to take a massive beating.
Nothing that sounds wholly new, but the way you can make use of them certainly is. These roles can be switched out any time you go to a frame changing device, allowing you to have one character with multiple classes leveled up. This stops situations where you can be in a PvP game or PvE group where you really need a class, but no-one has something to fulfill a certain role. You can simply switch to what you need by heading back to town. The only criticism I have on the system is that other roles don't get levels when you level up other classes, meaning if you want true versatility as you level, you're going to have invest a lot of time switching between roles. This undermines the idea of this system a bit, but at least you don't need to constantly mail yourself equipment between numerous alts, because all the equipment you need is just on the same character. While the game does allow for multiple characters, I don't see any point to it, given switching between classes on the fly is so effortless.
Currently, leveling is rather flat. There's not many levels, not many rewards for leveling and experience is gained fairly slowly. Leveling only grants you access to better equipment, rather than there being stats to upgrade, skills to pump up or talents to invest in. This is good for PvP balance, since it means your level 1 character actually stands a decent chance against that level 9 charging straight at you. It does remove some of the Skinner Box rewards usually found in an MMO, though. You can take that as a good or a bad thing, depending on your disposition.
One thing I really liked about the experience system though is how it rewards altruism, and in a manner still consistent with other shooters. If you shoot at a hostile creature making every effort to rip someone nearby to pieces, rather than getting nothing, or complaints about kill stealing, you'll instead get experience for assisting your fellow man. Even if you accidentally steal the kill, the game has ‘critical assists' that are given to the player who dealt the most damage, which can grant more experience than the one who dealt the killing blow. All of this means that people can actually be thankful for you lending a helping hand, rather than being angry at you for trying to steal their stuff. It's things like this that I think will really help Firefall's community, and I hope Red 5 have more ideas like this to help foster a friendly playerbase.
If you'd rather be directing your fire toward your fellow players though, the game does feature a bit of PvP. It's standard competitive shooter fare, unfortunately. Go to a console, and wait for a queue to load into an instanced arena. The current game types are team death match, point capture and a siege mode with attackers and defenders. The PvP is best described as ‘serviceable'. It's good, but doesn't do anything that countless other games don't already do. Perhaps as the beta opens out a bit more we'll see some open world PvP, but for now all you get is an experience not dissimilar to launch day Global Agenda.
The beta is currently lacking in content, and many of the game's features haven't been fully implemented yet. While there's a lot of land to explore, there's often not much to be found in these spaces, and there's nothing in existence beyond the single digit levels. This has been one of the few times I've found a game in beta to really feel unfinished, rather than a pre-release demo. The current client has a good share of bugs, wonky AI and visual glitches. Latency can be a massive issue during peak times, especially in the highly populated starting town. No friend or clan/guild functionality is in yet too, which was a pain when organizing some testing related to the thumper system. Still, this is all undoubtedly going to be sorted before launch, and Red 5 have been active in patching the game in the week since the testing switched to 24 hour access. Just don't expect the release of Firefall to be sometime next month.
Despite all the issues present in the beta, the core gameplay of the game shines through. Firefalls' unique approach to advancement and exploration make it a wholly new experience. I especially like that in spite of the lack of any form of community UI functionality the game still heavily encourages sociability and cooperation, making it one of the few games out there that seem to have considered the social implications of not just long term play but also the moment to moment play. I'm eagerly awaiting future patches, when we'll be seeing Red 5's vision for the game fulfilled. Firefall has the potential to really shake things up in the MMO genre, and I simply cannot wait for what the future has in store.
Bored of the current generation of WoW clones? Put Firefall on your radar, now. Also check back later this week as Spunkify gets us an interview with the dev team straight from PAX East!