The lights are on
During the desperate combat, battling tides of aliens in your jetpack power armor, Firefall seems to offer everything a hybrid MMO/shooter possibly could. After the dust settles, it’s a different story. When much of your cash has been eaten by repair costs and you’ve shaved off a bare sliver from your next XP milestone, it seems like developer Red 5 studios hasn’t learned any lessons from the evolution of MMO design since the masochistic early days of EverQuest.
[Editor's Note: Game Informer does not assign traditional review scores to MMOs given their constantly updating and changing nature. This column examines the game with a critical eye, and takes the place of a standard review.]
Playing Firefall is a constant oscillation between these poles of elation and ennui. The combat itself is wonderful. The game’s aliens threaten humanity with unearthly powers and hellishly altered fauna, but even newly created characters have the power to fight back by raining incandescent sci-fi death from above like the avenging gods.
Any player, from a seasoned vet to a less twitch-oriented MMO fan looking to support their allies, should find something to love in the five classes. I was originally drawn to the Bastion engineer suit and its wide array of turrets and deployables, and had a great time supporting my allies by turning any patch of ground into an instant fortress. Some hours of experimentation later, though, I fell permanently in love with the Firecat assault’s all-out offense that turns me into an explosive wrecking ball as I bounce in and out of the hairiest parts of every battle.
Even though every class is a fully capable battle platform in its own right – even the medics’ guns pack a hell of a punch – the feats a well-organized and diverse group is capable of are surprising. Firefall’s gameplay is pure shooter, and no battle could be characterized as the “tank-and-spank” combat many MMO combat systems are limited to. The action also has a tactical depth not often found in fast-paced shooters. Sturdy juggernauts draw fire while offensive assault players launch heavy area-damage effects at the clustered enemies. Recon snipers assassinate threats to the biotech medics who are standing in the thick of it all, spreading clouds of nanobots that heal allies and poison foes. Every role captures one or more of the pure thrills of shooter combat, and finding the fun is never difficult.
As entertaining as Firefall is when the plasma bolts are flying, the joy drains in the aftermath of battle. Everything becomes depressingly similar after pushing back invasions, defending resource-mining thumpers, and assaulting dangerous Melding tornadoes for a few dozen hours. I love the concept of spawning constant bits of dynamic content, but the breadth of activities is severely lacking. Retake one watchtower from an alien strike team, and you’ve seen how that same battle will play out every time. Every tornado battle follows the same pattern. Even the one-off missions that appear in the wilderness fall into a bare few categories that become rote after not much time with the game. The major invasions that sweep across broad swathes of the landscape are still exciting after dozens of hours spent in Firefall, but I’ve gone days of extensive playtime without seeing one happen.
Progression comes in two forms, both of which are awful. Experience gained from completing objectives is spent on upgrading the mass, power, and CPU of your suit, but the geometric growth of the XP requirements quickly moves from earning an upgrade every hour of playtime to every day, then every week. Crafting is a tedious process that involves gathering huge piles of different resources, and then navigating the terrible interface for making sub-components with marginally different stats. After dealing with this sadistic interface and waiting the 10 to 120 minutes it takes for the final item to actually complete, you might come out the other side with a clip one round larger and ten percent more damage on your primary weapon.
You put up with the painful crafting because that extra round and bonus damage make a noticeable difference in battle – especially in aggregate across a dozen pieces of equipment. Besides, what else are you fighting for? The invasions never stop, and the story doesn’t progress. The higher-end content you’re theoretically working toward currently consists of a single series of group encounters that, while cool, are limited in scope.
As it is with so many shooters, player-versus-player combat could be the saving grace of Firefall, but I can’t recommend it over many better-executed offerings in the genre. There is no open-world PvP; all competitive players are shunted off into small-scale instances with even teams. Red 5 has made a significant investment in e-sports with a good spectator mode and prize pools for tournament play, but the weak foundation of questionably balanced classes and often-shaky netcode that results in lagging and rubber-banding unacceptable for any PvP game have kept a healthy PvP community from forming so far. These are solvable problems, but Firefall has not started off on the right foot if it is intended to be a top-shelf PvP shooter.
Firefall’s free-to-play model sits in the middle of the pack in terms of respect for players and the integrity of the game. The 10 advanced armors (which are better than the basic versions by virtue of having access to the basic abilities as well as a set of advanced powers) can be purchased for roughly $8 apiece, or unlocked with about eight hours of XP grinding each. Convenience items – notably rechargable glider pads and motorcycles – are hardly necessary, but I would recommend anyone who plans on spending more than a handful of hours with the game shell out the few bucks they cost. Cosmetic stuff is, as always, for vanity purposes only. There is no box price or subscription fee involved, and no energy mechanic or item degradation to enforce constant reinvestment in the game.
The co-op side of Firefall has great gameplay but not enough content. The game’s PvP side has interesting maps and a high-quality observer mode, but too much lag and unconvincing balancing. Both halves of the game benefit from the gorgeous presentation and suffer from the terrible progression systems. While playing Firefall, my enjoyment outweighed my frustration, but its current incarnation lacks the staying power of the best MMOs.
[Addendum: Since this article was originally printed, Red 5 has patched some improvements into Firefall as well as announced some of its future plans for the game. While the beginnings of the global war against the Chosen in particular is a worthy addition, the company still has a lot of work ahead of it to address the substance of the criticisms above.]
This article originally appeared in Game Informer #246.