Welcome to the year of the MMOFPS. We’ve already heard about Planetside 2, but that’s only half the story of this burgeoning new genre. Firefall was at PAX East in a big way, with a gargantuan booth lit up with montage screens of gameplay. The line to try one of the rows of demo stands – PCs tapped into the existing beta populated with actual players – became so long that security was forced to cut people off from queuing up.
There’s a MMO formula, a recognizable framework that’s hard to escape no matter how you change the paint. Quests, hotkeys, game queues, loot. But, there are a few development teams that are searching for a way to knock down walls and create something new. As with any beta, I can’t say with certainty that Red 5 Studios has pulled this off quite yet, but I can say that the demo stand personnel had to pry me from that keyboard.
Firefall takes place on a ruined Earth, but it’s not necessarily the post-apocalyptic environment you commonly envision. Instead, towns and players look high-tech, with powerful equipment to put use towards survival. They’ll need to, as the world populated with mutated creatures following a failed attempt to send humanity into light-speed, causing a highly volatile experimental ship to crash into the Earth’s atmosphere. To make matters worse, a strange race known as the The Chosen has used the opportunity to make a play for the planet.
To survive, resources are the name of the game. But, there’s none of that laborious hitting stones with a pickaxe. Things are much more exciting in the future and it involves players using a specialized surveying hammer to strike the ground and reveal resources in their immediate area. When found, they can call down a Hammer Strike – an orbitally launched drilling device that will work to dig out the precious commodity – to enter the map and begin operations. Of course, nothing is easy, and players will need to defend these devices with force.
Combat is dependent on your battleframe, the game’s science fiction term for class, which can be easily swapped during playtime and are leveled individually. Think Tribes meets Team Fortress 2 meets Borderlands. There are plenty of correlating elements between these roles, like the ability to use jet-boots and fire weapons, of course. Still, each battleframe gets its own specific style – slow, heavy-firing guns are for the Dreadnaught, full-auto for the Assault, Heal guns for the Medic. You get the idea.
In a lot of ways that matter, Firefall is simple. Even on the chaotic show floor with no tutorial, I quickly understood where to go, how to shoot, and what I liked. That simplicity doesn’t mean boring gameplay, however. Unlike the conventional MMO formula, there are no bloated rows of class powers to hotkey and press in tedious order. During shoot-outs, it’s possible to quickly switch the view from first person to third depending your preference. Some weapons allow you to look down the barrel for accuracy’s sake while still in third person, which means you’ll be able to get whatever shooter experience you prefer.
You won’t being standing still either, as running and gunning is a constant necessity. Likewise, I witnessed no powers that prevent you from moving. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. Once again, think Tribes: jet boots and constant motion, not standing still and guiding in precise shots.
There are plenty of missions that veteran MMO questers will recognize, but when you’re not trapped with a rigidly defined class system, powers that insist upon immobility, and you’re given big guns, even “Kill 10 Bad Guys” objectives become more enjoyable. While I can’t speak to later missions, there is a dynamic quest system which triggers quests unpredictably across the battlefield. You may be on your way to gather some crystals, but a sudden distress call from a downed ship can send you into an explosive detour. Especially if you navigate there in jet-boots.
If you grow tired of shooting mutant bugs or heavily armored aliens, there’s an easily accessible PVP matchmaking system that can be queued from anywhere. Once you’ve found a match, you’re dropped in with other players and dispatched into a match that would be right at home in any popular shooter. You’ve got weapon sets designated by class, a big map, and teams ready for deathmatch. Community Manager Matt DeWald described other gametypes too, including base-defense, capture point oriented assault, and a linear, progressive sabotage mode. The whole thing is wrapped in an e-sports package, allowing clan support, customizable paint mods, a tournament system, and even quickly-accessible spectator mode for potential recording and commentary.
I only had one session of deathmatch multiplayer, but I failed to find a class that gave me an unfair advantage. Usually the heavy-gun characters can mow down fields of enemies in some titles, but the verticality of Firefall prevents that role from dominating. I engaged a light sniper class with confidence, only to have him employ some impressive boost maneuvers to escape, tactically retreat, and take me out from a distance. A minute later, I took out three players trying to close in on foot against my massive plasma weapon. Without prolonged sessions, I can’t firmly declare it balanced, but the experience felt in line with popular competitive shooters.
Too often, persistent online MMOs can’t decide if they are more RPG or FPS. Firefall doesn’t have that problem. It’s a competent shooter with an addictive potency of any worthy class-based shooter. The online component is cautiously merged with the experience, letting you fight alongside other players or compete with them without being restricted by the usual constraints of social gaming.
This combination means that Firefall isn’t just treading new ground: it’s rocket-boot-leaping into something entirely new.