By Jason Harper (Hhean), OnRPG Journalist
I haven’t played Firefall since writing my first impressions a year ago. So as I booted up the game again to see what has changed, I couldn’t help feel nostalgic for the good times I’d spent with the game back then.
Unfortunately, I think the market has changed more in that year than Firefall has. The game is nearly unchanged after these twelve months, yet my enthusiasm for the game has diminished greatly in the wake of some of the great titles that have come out between my two playthroughs of the game. The good parts of the game are still as good as they were before, so I highly recommend taking a look at that above linked article for a positive opinion on the game, because I’m afraid the rest of this article is going to be anything but. I’ve been avoiding writing this piece simply because while I’m really, really trying to like the game I’m finding it frightfully dull in spite of my own positive bias.
The biggest problem that the game has is that while the running and gunning is intuitive, the way that you progress a character is an esoteric mess of menus with no guidance on what you actually need to progress. The game’s tutorial will fill you in on the usual “Use WASD to move” stuff, but it doesn’t it tell you that you need Xenographs to advance some abilities, and that Xenographs themselves are part of sub group called Organics, one of three main sub groups that each compose of several other resources types that.....
Get the things, then turn those things into other things to build parts to make stuff that could be useful. There’s so many resources, currencies and other obfuscating nonsense that gets between the simple act of making a character’s gun go from pew pew to BANG BANG that progression in the game feels more like stumbling into a minefield than a reward. It doesn’t help that all of this legwork and research don’t really add up to much, as progression in the game is not only slow, but also lacking any real sense of impact.
You start the game without any of your frame’s secondary weapon and abilities. While you get to briefly play with these toys in the tutorial, they’re promptly snatched from you when you get into the game proper. It takes hours of play to get your first frame to a state where you’re about more than just left click on enemies, a tiresome grind that makes all the fights feel the same because your character lacks the tools to employ different tactics. it gets better once you’re able to use your full spectrum of abilities, but once you have them all, all progression in the game feels very limited. outside of unlocking the more advanced frames, there’s little sense of accomplishment, as any upgrades you get are barely noticeable.
To make the grind worse, the firefights can be surprisingly difficult to get into. Most of your time in Firefall will be spent walking from one place to another, as the open world has large swathes of land with absolutely nothing in them. While MMOs get a lot of flack for their large fields filled with respawning critters, those killing fields at least provide something to interact with. Even when making breaking up travel with the odd smash of the mighty sonic hammer (which is still just as satisfying to use), the resources in these places are now so sparse that you’re going to need to do a hell of a lot of whacking before you get to the part where you start shooting everything in sight. This problem gets mitigated later on when you get access to the game’s mount, a motorcycle, but it also feels less awesome to be driving about on a bike rather than taking to the skies on a jetpack.
The game has at least added more variety into what you’re pointing your gun at though. A year ago there was only bugs, flying bugs and guys with guns. Now there’s bandits, wolves, flying tentacle monsters, crustaceans and zombies. These new additions unfortunately fight exactly like the old enemies, and highlight just how poor the enemy AI is. Just about everything uses the same strategy of ‘charge forwards until the enemy player dies’, which is fine when you’re dealing with a swarm of bugs or zombies, but feels like a waste when you’re dealing with squads of armed men. Every time you get into a gunfight against overwhelming numbers you can simply walk backwards, hide behind a corner for a moment as the enemies all pile into one spot, then fire something explosive into the middle of them all. The fact that this works without fail, against every ranged enemy in the game makes firefights that should be intense ultimately feel formulaic.
There’s now a variety of open world missions that function like a watered down version of Guild Wars 2’s dynamic events. With no story offered behind these missions, you’re left only with the raw mechanics of your actions, rather than having a narrative recontextualize the same actions as something new. These missions boil down to shooting enemies in corridors, usually in a cave, though there’s some metal corridors to shoot at them in too. When you’re done, you either interact with a few nodes, or you take an object to another place while shooting other enemies. When not being forced through confined complexes, point defense missions become the norm, which are simply a variation on the thumper defenses that were in place a year ago. None of this is really bad per say, but with these tasks appearing frequently in the same positions over and over again, with no context for why they’re happening, the grind sets in quickly.
City defenses, blowing up evil tornados and ultimately grinding your way to the game’s first (and currently only) instance are the closest thing Firefall has to an endgame. These can be suitably grandiose affairs, offering a wonderful spectacle as the skies light up with with the sights and sounds of all out war. The city defenses can drag on a bit though if you don’t have enough people around, as you can get stuck very slowly whittling down the teeming masses of enemies. The instance is alright, but it’s simply another corridor shoot with one or two new enemies that act as the closest thing the game has to boss fights. Again, because the game’s AI is stupider than a goldfish that’s been bumped on the head too many times, these encounters are hard more due to the sheer number of enemies rather than them pulling out anything clever or surprising.
Lore is something the game seems inclined to hold to ransom, much like the information on its own progression systems. You can pick up snippets of information from various audio logs scattered about, or from trying to infer things from what the game’s various talking heads tell you as you go about your missions, but what you get is fragmented and incomplete without being mysterious or compelling. While I can expect a game to hold on to some secrets in order to make uncovering them a reward for the invested player, the game doesn’t bother with even the briefest of explanations on who or what you’re shooting, and why they deserve to get blown to giblets. While there’s plenty of information about the world on the game’s website, very little of it feels like it’s relevant within the game itself.
At the time of writing the game has been having some annoying technical issues, though nothing as severe as you’d expect from the opening days of an open beta. While it has been difficult to log in at times, and certain things seems to be running unreliably (most notably the store and level up screens) the game’s server haven’t just completely died as a result of the influx of players.
As I wrote at the start of this article, everything that Firefall did well before, it still does. It still looks good, it still plays smoothly, it still gives the players a great deal of freedom and hitting stuff with a hammer is still satisfying. The game simply hasn’t done much to deal with its faults in a year, and the new things added have only made its problems worse. There’s worse ways to spend your time than giving Firefall a look, but I’m not so sure it’s a better choice than its competition.