Firefall Beta Impressions: Soaring Above Expectations
Open-world games of all stripes, from Grand Theft Auto to World of Warcraft, are plagued with one constant issue: restricting the player’s progression. You are forced into specific areas based on your level or progress through the story, and it feels artificial. This is an open world, after all; why can’t I open every door or cross every bridge I see?
Firefall, an upcoming MMO shooter from Red 5 Studios, does the right thing and completely ignores that. It is a game in the best open-world traditions (Crackdown, Just Cause 2) and is an absolute delight to play.
Firefall’s setting revolves around the “Melding”, a dimensional anomaly that is gradually converting Earth into a parallel world while populating it with awful alien monsters. You play a freelance operative working for ARES tasked with performing odd jobs, gathering resources, and fighting off invasions by the mutated humans known as the Chosen. There is an overall narrative here, but it’s more of a world narrative than a character one; don’t expect to see dramatic sacrifices or heartfelt stories. The only story that really matters in Firefall is your own.
The backdrop for this story, I might add, is stunning. The environment design is incredibly well-done, with terrain ranging from gently rolling hills to barren mountains to cluttered coastlines. Each biome is populated with colorful foliage and creeping monsters, and sometimes it’s great to sit and soak in all the work the developers did on making the area design just right. However, if you find yourself disliking or bored of your current location, you can always go to another for a drastic change of pace.
Cool zones can offset some issues with core mechanics, but if combat isn’t fun and engaging, then players won’t stick around long enough to experience your set pieces. So does Firefall avoid the pitfalls of the modern MMO shooter, or does it fall into the same mediocre trappings we’ve seen before?
Firefall’s combat is, in short, excellent. It’s not perfect, as concessions are made to the traditional MMO power progression, but it’s damned close.
All battleframes (classes) have access to two weapons – a primary class weapon with special abilities, and a generic secondary weapon that can be switched to a different type – and jumpjets for combat. Almost all combat revolves around flying around and blasting at enemies with your primary, with the occasional switch to your secondary as ammo or range limits dictate. It’s a simple, but gratifying, system. Each primary feels unique and effective, from the Sticky Launcher of the Engineer to the Plasma Cannon of the Assault, and most enemies fall in only a few hits. A sense of power pervades Firefall’s combat, and that’s what every player wants out of a twitch-based shooter. The chance to feel powerful.
In addition, Battleframes have six abilities at their disposal: five normal abilities (of which only three can be used in a loadout) and one “ultimate” that charges as the battleframe deals damage. Abilities can be quite handy in a pinch, but I’ve found that a majority of abilities are extremely situational. Only a few – such as the Assault’s Afterburners or the Dreadnaught’s Shield – are useful in every situation. Greater ability utility would be greatly appreciated, though, and a rework of existing abilities that aren’t that good would do wonders to help battleframe balance.
Thankfully, you aren’t restricted to a single battleframe, so any balance issues can simply be avoided by switching to a new frame. Rather than making classes a static trait determined at character creation, Red 5 opted to allow players to switch between classes at will, with advanced classes requiring unlocks. These advanced classes aren’t strictly better, though, so you can do just fine playing on the default five classes. If you want to skip all the hullabaloo of grinding for those advanced classes, you are welcome to pay money to unlock them early as well. Money only opens up the class to you, though; improving it is on you.