Developer: Red 5
Publisher: Red 5
As time goes on, it appears developers are determined to do away with the stigma that the term “Free To Play” has had put upon it in recent years. What used to be the realm of former subscription-only titles looking for a second lease in life and products that didn’t have the shine of their bigger budget counterparts are now being joined by the likes of PlanetSide 2 and DOTA 2, proving that “free” doesn’t necessarily equal a cheap experience. So after a fair few years in development, the folks at Red 5 (started up by veterans from Blizzard Entertainment) have recently started to peel back the shroud of secrecy from its upcoming Free To Play MMO, Firefall. Best described as an open world shooter, Firefall aims to stand up to the other titles in its genre by providing an action packed experience with a dynamic environment. Before I give my thoughts on whether Red 5 are currently on the right track, let’s quickly discuss the backstory.
After an asteroid breaks up and hits Earth, sending the planet into a new dark age, a new element called Crystite is discovered that provides power potential. This launches humanity into a new golden age, and in the search for more of the new element they begin traveling to the Alpha Centauri system. Unfortunately, the trip to and from Earth takes 8 years, so using a type of wormhole technology called arcfolding, the Arclight spaceship is built. The hope is to cut the trip down to 8 days, but of course, the maiden voyage goes horribly wrong, causing the Arclight to crash off the coast of Brazil, and the failed arcfolding attempt instead unleashes the Melding: an energy wave that terraforms Earth and makes the majority of the planet uninhabitable. With hostile wildlife at every turn and the emergence of a mysterious faction called The Chosen, it’s up to players to secure what land is left, gather up any Crystite, and build more elaborate and effective equipment in the process.
At first glance, MMO enthusiasts would be forgiven for drawing comparison to another online title that fell victim to its own poor execution: Tabula Rasa. Both are Sci-fi in setting, both had a strong PvE element where capturing territory is key, and both were designed to be action titles. However, unlike Richard Garriott’s failed MMO, Firefall actually manages to feel like an action game, and a mechanically satisfying one at that. There were times where I could sense a huge inspiration from the Tribes and Unreal Tournament series in terms of the playable character design and the power-ups that are scattered at various points around the game world, but with an MMO twist.
Players can choose between 5 classes, known as Battleframes, which each have their own armour style and weaponry: the fast-attacking Assault, the sniper-wielding Recon, the turret-deploying Engineer, the heal-dispensing Biotech, and the walking damage-sponge Dreadnaught. Initial visual customisation options are severely limited, although I later found out this was due to the microtransaction store hosting a variety of options. The lack of freebies may be jarring to some, but the short of it is that if you want to look a little more unique, you’ll have to pay money. I do have to say though, the female armour designs are a little laughable in their need to show off flesh. It's a little unnecessary and I felt it was out of place with the action that was on-going.
Once in-game though, the colourful surroundings of Copacabana highlight the cell shaded nature of the visuals, a stylised approach that made the open vistas look impressive with the Brazilian terrain littered with alien fauna. The control scheme is the standard affair for PC shooters, with weapon swapping between the primary and secondary weapon at the press of a button. Players can also flick between first and third person perspectives on the fly, something I found incredibly useful during different points whilst fighting. Choosing the Assault Battleframe, I was given an assault rifle for my secondary weapon, and some short of plasma firing cannon as my primary. The visuals of the splash damage were a joy as I rained fire upon the nearby hostiles, although I learned too late that fire could also damage yourself with the main gun, and so my avatar went into a downed state. Essentially a bleed-out timer, players will have just over 10 seconds to have any other player revive them, otherwise the defeated are respawned at the nearest friendly base.
Now this all could have been a standard run-and-gun affair, but Firefall has another ace up its sleave: Jetpacks. By holding down the jump button, all players can be blasted up into the air until their power runs out. Going up too high can be costly though, as fall damage is a very real threat when in the air, but it provides players not only with a way to take the battle vertically in times of trouble, but it also provides a unique way of scaling buildings and mountains. When you throw in the fast paced action with this ability to head into the sky, it provides for some high-octane battles against enemies that will constantly fire back at you every chance they get. I will say though, that the Chosen Juggernauts’ cannon fire was not only relentless, but ridiculously well aimed (even over hills and large structures), something I would hope Red 5 consider fine tuning at some point.
One aspect that has been touted by Red 5 is the lack of levels in Firefall, however this is only in a traditional sense. Players will accumulate XP as normal by completing objectives and killing enemies, but they must then go into a skill tree to spend said XP on upgraded class abilities and new weapons. It’s a clever way to try and disguise that inevitable grind that MMOs all have at their core, but ultimately instead of players being told when they have levelled, they will be buying abilities at their own discretion. That said, there are a number of different upgrades for each class so players will have a few options to choose from when deciding how to specialise their Battleframe. For example, in the case of the Assault BF I could have an ability called crater, which allowed me to smash down to the ground to cause damage, or I could have an ability to dash quickly along the ground for extra mobility.
Although a mission chain is currently in the game, its current implementation is somewhat hit and miss (one early missions created a bottleneck with players trying to complete an objective to the point a queue was formed), and in some places it the mission mechanics are actually broken. So, it’s a good thing that a large focus of Firefall’s PvE designs come in the form of dynamic content. This is done in two ways: server generated, and player generated. The server generated content mainly revolves around the Chosen faction, with drop pods filled with troops appearing randomly around the map and requiring the player to take them out before they occupy an area. Another example of this is how Chosen troops can capture control towers, removing a much needed spawn point for players and removes the ability for players to “thump” (which we’ll get onto in a moment.) It’s for this reason that it is in the best interest of the community to ensure these control towers remain under player control, a mechanic which ensures there is almost certainly something to protect or reclaim on the map.
The second form of dynamic content is through mining, also known as “thumping.” Players can call down mining drills to extract minerals, which in turn can be used to construct useful items such as power-ups or refined into Crystite, which acts as the main currency of the game. It’s not a straight forward process though, as the drill pounds the ground to collects materials, and this “thumping” manages to attract wave after wave of hostile creatures who don’t take too kindly to being disturbed by your lust for precious minerals. It was in these thumping sessions that I found I was having the most fun, reminding me of basic version of the horde mode that has gain popularity in recent years. One particular mining excursion when I was in a group of four went on for nearly 10 minutes, and as wave upon wave of enemies came rushing towards us, the natural daylight in-game began to fade, and brought a whole new element into play: utter darkness.
The lighting mechanics in Firefall are yet another example of using darkness to heighten tension in moments that would normally not be so bad. The Secret World and PlanetSide 2 are two recent examples of MMOs proving it can be done effectively, but Firefall actually made me feel even more aware of how dark it was during the night time cycles. Thankfully, players are equipped with a torch that can be turned on and off, but that narrow beam of light only offers so much vision through the darkness, even with four players by your side. For creating that extra sense of tension, Red 5 should be commended.
Of course, PvE options are not the only ways to play, as PvP matches are also available to earn experience and extra Crystite. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to try any out, but I did manage to see that previous matches are recorded and can be played back at any time (which I’m guessing is Red 5’s attempt to put Firefall into the eSports arena.) This allowed me to see one of the matches in action by following the various players, and if the main PvE content doesn’t remind you slightly of Unreal Tournament, the PvP matches certainly will.
All in all, the early impressions suggest that the base game that Red 5 have created is a solid one, with satisfying control mechanics to back up the visually pleasing action. The dynamic events provide a world that tends to have something for the player to battle against, but I do hope that a bit more variety in the content is implemented in the future, as right now I find it feels like a game to be enjoyed in short bursts (which, for a Free To Play game is fine in a way, but surely the ultimate aim is to retain the player’s interest for the long haul. There is plenty of competition emerging in the F2P space at the moment, after all.) However, with no release date given as of yet, Red 5 certainly have the time to flesh out the world they have built for Firefall, and I for one am looking forward to seeing how the game progresses in the coming months.