The first major update to Firefall, Elemental Dustruction, has been released bringing with it damage types, some additional weapons, a number of small class improvements, and several new dynamic encounters. Since Red 5 Studios has now had a chance to tweak things in a live environment, it’s time for us to take another look at Firefall.
Perspective disclosure: I was not familiar with Firefall prior to the 1.1 update. Several people warned me I would find it disappointing, and others told me to shut up and shoot things. What follows is based on a totally new vantage at the game, even if my conclusions wind up sounding overall familiar.
Story and Lore
On every boot of the software I have the option of watching an opening cinematic that tries to overcomplicate the simple game concept for the sake of drama: A female narrator tells me that an asteroid nearly destroyed the world, crystals in the asteroid saved the world, a spaceship was built to get more of those crystals to further save the world but instead crashed and even more nearly destroyed the world, and then interdimensional invaders arrived as a result of all this and now I have to jetpack my way around Brazil shooting things to prevent this woman’s nightmares from coming true…
Short version: it’s the future, put on a robot suit and fight aliens.
It may seem weird to be talking to so much about the opening cinematic, but it plays every time you load the game (unless you go through a lengthy removal process that shouldn’t be necessary). It only takes a click or two to skip it (and you will, the amount of time you save will be spent walking an extremely long distance between quests) but it feels like it says something about the thinking process here. Red 5’s setting is very important to them, and they really want you to know that they think it should be important to you too.
I would never imply that there is anything wrong with their desire to create a compelling atmosphere and storyline. A good MMO needs a good setting, which fades into the background during intense play but creeps back up into your attention at other times with details and charm, it should be familiar and new.
On both counts, Firefall… what’s a word for succeeding very slightly? It ekes. It’s a sci-fi universe that is a very tiny bit original. Technically when your game is playing a soldier in powered armor, blasting either at monsters or other people in powered armor, you don’t need much.
But with little story revelations like “Hey, I think this missing soldier has the same last name as that other NPC… that’s weird…” or “Alright, the rescue mission succeeded. Hey what were you doing out here in the middle of nowhere anyway?” “Oh, no reason… wink!” you start to wonder if the writers were trying very hard to look like they were trying very hard.
There is only one character, Ares 35. At first I thought that meant you only had one character to play that could keep switching classes (which is also true) but apparently it also means that there is only one character in the world, and everyone is playing him/her.
Early on in the story, you even learn of an NPC Ares 35, a corrupt pilot who went missing whose identity you’ve been assigned.
If we’re all the same person, it may be that Red 5 Studios is trying to make an existential statement. If we’re different people with one name and number, then it’s possible that Firefall is a brilliant science-fiction homage to Casino Royale. (The good one, with David Niven.)
Or, it’s just a weird story choice.
Is it this a good MMO?
As the MMO gameplay goes, it’s rather typical. You have lots of repetitive questing (and you can only fulfill one quest at a time, and they rarely have any bearing on anything), an ambitious setting that doesn’t quite manage to succeed at the impression it wants to make, and a persistent environment in which to share the experience with others.
Mobility is really nice, once you have a vehicle to get around in (and get the hang of rocket boots). A lot of the crafting involves hitting the ground with a large hammer. There are no game mechanics or interactions that threaten to break the MMO mold here, but if standard is what you want then they have it.
Is it a good shooter?
If you are more fond of traditional shooters then no. The varying ease and difficulty of certain enemies with high re-spawn rates will definitely turn off FPS fans, and the range of weapons feels oddly constrained. The actual combat is very fun at certain times and very lacking at others.
PvP seems… mixed. Balance seems to come and go. Winning is skill-based, but strategy is complex. In both good and bad ways. Also it’s weird for Ares 35 to keep killing her/his other selves.
If you’ve liked MMO shooters in the past…maybe. In that narrow field, there’s not much the game really gets wrong. I will say that the third-person shooting mode and the first-person shooting mode are both equally adequate, so if you don’t need either one to be exceptional but have a compulsion to switch back and forth, there’s an advantage here.
Who is this for then?
This game has a narrow niche of players for whom the appeal will be high. You have to like near-future soft scifi military action, but not like big mechs or else you’d be playing Titanfall. If you find traditional shooters have too hot and traditional MMOs too cold, this porridge could be just right. And you have to not mind re-levelling in different classes to get all your battleframes maxed out.
I found the visuals to be above par overall. The designs aren’t particularly inspired, but the execution looks better than in many other free MMOs.
There is a lot to be desired with character models: you can modify your skin color, sex, and the look of your head, but nothing else about your body. That’s understandable given the nature of the mechanical frames that must be equipped onto the model, it would be difficult to design them to look right with a modifiable body. But maybe it wouldn’t seem to bother me if there weren’t something… off about the proportions. Almost like the lower half of the female model was stretched to meet the height of the male. But I guess kudos for not making the females as exaggerated as most games do in certain other ways.
The sound doesn’t fall far from the graphics. Effects are fine (mostly gunfire and screams, plus the chittering sounds that alien lobsters make). The music is as over-dramatic as the setting, perhaps a bit self-important but at least it’s well composed.
There’s an odd sensation when you walk towards or away from a quest contact, and their voice shifts from sounding in person to being a radio transmission in an earpeace. It’s clearly necessary, and better than losing the volume entirely, but still disorienting.
Also on the subject of speech, though I guess it’s technically more a story issue than sound one: NPCs are voice-acted but for the most part players are not (other than my dreadnaught yelling at me that she is “Completely mental!”). This obviously makes sense from a production standpoint, but conversations are necessary sometime. So you have a companion, an “operator” named Aero who’s voice is always in your ear who does your talking to people for you. They are supposed to be like a guide, but the resulting effect is that you, Ares 35, are a sidekick, an assistant that this disembodied spirit is riding around on, having her adventures while you mutely do the grunt work.
It’s definitely worth mentioning that the AI is pretty decent. Packs of enemies react fairly intelligently, converging realistically on you when one spots you but lacking some sort of psychic ability to always know exactly where you are once you’ve antagonized them (as happens in most games). Boss types target you quickly and unload their skills appropriately instead of seeming like they are using their abilities according to a crude menu. Not even counting the ones that actually are people.
Sometimes a separate group will sometimes accidentally spawn right next to your quest targets, adding a bit more difficulty than should necessarily be there, but overall the brains on these enemies make them fairly challenging in a satisfying way. If there were a better selection of weapons available to use they would be a pleasure to kill.
The only objection I have regarding the enemies is the dogs you have to fight. Yes, shooters are inherently violent, I just called killing a pleasure, but it’s the implementation. I will shoot aliens and people, but don’t make me kill the dog. Even the quest where you have to avoid shooting the dogs first requires you to fight other dog-like creatures, and it stands out.
Elemental Destruction, the first major update, is mostly a collection of minor tweaks and bug fixes, rebalancing the battleframes slightly and introducing a handful of world events that make passing through the same areas again a bit more fun and interesting. But most of these improvements are things you would expect from regular patches. The really big change is the introduction of new damage types: they have added essentially fire, poison, and electrical damage to all weapons and beam, splash, and cluster grenade options to secondary weapons.
This is actually key because as a shooter one of the games main weaknesses is the pool of available weapons, and the developers are demonstrating an intention to address it. More progress is necessary in this area, but this is a step in the right direction.
Plus, male avatars now get to wear earrings.
This is neither a bad game nor a great game. It has been enjoyable at times, but it still has a lot of room for improvement. It appears the developers are trying hard to do that.
If you get yourself a vehicle early, decide quickly on which battleframe you like, and find yourself a good army (guild) to join, then for a free game you are getting more than your money’s worth.
- Enemy AI
- The fact that it’s free
- Points for effort
- The slow, long, repetitive quest lines
- Limited customization options
Related: Firefall, Red 5 Studios, Review, Sci-Fi, Shooter, Update