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First Person Shooters (Games)

Video Game Preview: Firefall (video) 122

With three letters, you can get most gamers' attention: MMO. With three more, you can just as quickly inspire skepticism and doubt: FPS. Ever since the MMORPG craze got underway, players and developers have been looking for ways to meld it with the FPS craze that's been going on since the days of Doom. Unfortunately, it's proven much more difficult than expected. The spectrum ranges only from high profile failures, like Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa, to minor successes, like the Planetside games. That's why Red 5 Studios, a company built upon industry veterans from studios like Blizzard, has been hesitant to throw around the term 'MMOFPS' to describe its first game: Firefall. They say emphatically that it's 'a shooter first and foremost,' and that it also has MMORPG elements. It's more than an academic distinction; they feel that you can't simply cobble together two different genres. In order for the game to work, it has to do the shooter part well, with the relevant RPG parts (character advancement, a persistent world, crafting, etc.) added only in service to the shooter aspect. As Firefall takes shape in an open beta period, it's clear that this is the proper approach. Red 5's unfinished experiment is promising.

Before I get into the game, let me make one thing clear: Firefall is still in active development, and it is not near release. It's currently in open beta, and it's fully playable, but much of their content is still being implemented. Most beta tests these days are simply stress tests and glorified demos, but the creators of Firefall are testing in earnest. They're actively working on the game and continually asking for feedback from the playerbase.

If you've ever played a shooter before, you'll find Firefall's combat familiar. You can play in first-person mode or third-person mode, though why anyone would choose the latter is a mystery to me. You'll notice early that it does, in fact, feel like a shooter. So many of the failed MMOFPS games have tried to use the sloppy, latency-addled systems of MMORPGs, and it's always been a non-starter. But that's not the case with Firefall; if nothing else, they've successfully built the foundation of a good game. As such, there's not much to say about the basics of combat — movement, aiming, and shooting. The game doesn't trip over itself, and it doesn't get in your way. That's a good thing. I will hasten to point out, though, that if you don't enjoy the gameplay, you won't enjoy the game. If you can't learn to aim (or don't care to), you'll have a tough time. If you're an MMORPG veteran who struggles to deal damage and move at the same time, you'll have a very tough time. Put bluntly: enjoying the gameplay will be key to deriving lasting entertainment from Firefall.

So — how does the game integrate MMORPG elements? Well, let's start with the idea of Battleframes. Firefall is set on Earth, a couple hundred years into the future. Though technology has advanced, humanity's resources are very limited. Thus, you have one human character, and before going off to fight, you must equip a Battleframe. There are many different models, each with different capabilities. They're somewhat analogous to a typical class system. You can switch from one frame to another just by heading to a battleframe garage, and you go out and do fight enemies to gain experience points. Those experience points are effectively a currency — you spend them to upgrade your frame. There are three upgrade paths: Mass, which lets you improve your armor and your movement; Power, which helps you improve your weaponry, and Energy, which helps you boost your special abilities. Each has its own EXP scale, so leveling a frame is less like going from level 1 to 60 as it is going from 1 to 20 three different times. It's an interesting system because you can choose what you want to prioritize. Some frames rely entirely on their primary weapon, so leveling up Power to the exclusion of all else will make you very strong very quickly. Other frames don't care so much about their main gun, and just want their abilities to be strong; for example, the Dragonfly frame is focused on healing, so you'll probably want to increase your healing output before worrying about your damage. The Bastion is an Engineer-type that drops turrets. When you have the capability to throw down upwards of half a dozen auto-firing turrets, you don't care so much what your main gun does. On the third hand, when I'm leveling a new frame, I want to move as quickly as possible, so I spend a bunch of experience on Mass.

Of course, the frame upgrades lead into one of the biggest carryovers from an MMORPG: tiered equipment. For the PvE component of this game, you can work on acquiring better gear to improve your performance. However, there are some big differences between Firefall's system and a traditional gear advancement scheme. It's not uncommon in MMORPGs for a maxed-out character to be literally a thousand times as powerful as a brand new one. In Firefall, you gear tops out at around 2-4 times as strong as your starter gear. Red 5's stance is that most of your 'power level' should come from your skill as a player. In practice, this actually works out pretty well. A really skilled player can complete missions and contribute meaningfully to groups even with low level gear. Despite the relatively small spectrum for gear quality, upgrades still feel meaningful because Firefall doesn't constantly and trivially level up your enemies to match your gear. You can jump in and fight to toughest enemies immediately, if you can handle it. Likewise, even your gear is top of the line, you can't afford to ignore the weakest ones.

Now, gear will naturally drop for you from enemies you kill, but your primary source for upgrades will be from crafting. Red 5 has built (or, I should say, is building) a crafting system with actual complexity. It's reminiscent of the crafting from Star Wars Galaxies, which any former player will tell you was probably the best part of the game, and the standard by which MMORPG crafting systems have been judged since. Red 5 has an in-house economist to help design and manage their economy. Instead of inundating you with spider fangs, eyes of newt, and a million other items scattered about the monsters of the realm (seriously, World of Warcraft has about 10 different types of pearls) Firefall has just 16 basic resources.

The complexity arises from the quality of the resources, and in how they are used. Whenever you acquire resources, they come with a quality level, from 1 to 1000. Higher quality resources are more rare, naturally. When you craft an item, you can select which quality to level you want to use, and it directly affects that stats on the finished product. Now, that's not to say you always want to use the highest quality resources you can find; increasing an item's capabilities also increases its power drain on your battleframe. Some components demand specific characteristics as well: for example, the wiring of your new gun requires metal, but favors conductivity. Thus, while you can use Aluminum, it won't match the quality of wiring made with Copper.

It's a very interesting system, with more depth than players have come to expect. It's satisfying to be able to build a piece of equipment exactly the way you want it. That's a goal many MMORPGs have been picking away at from the other side, giving you an item that's moderately useful, then peppering it with enchantments, stat rerolls, sockets, and other modifications.

The crafting system's use of resources is built on another unusual and interesting gathering system. Unlike most games, which just have a vein of minerals or a random flower spawn on the ground for you to pick up, Firefall's resources are underground. Gathering them is a rather active process. It's called Thumping. When you want to gather resources, you find a spot and have your base send over a 'Thumper.' It's an upgradeable device that will pull minerals out of the ground. Doing so, however, is quite a noisy and disruptive process, and it draws the attention of the natural wildlife, who try to destroy it and you.

So: no more idly picking flowers. You have to fight for your raw materials. The Thumper fills up in 5 minutes, and your goal is to protect it for that time. Bigger thumpers draw biggest monsters, and the fights can get quite hectic. They pull minerals from a finite vein underground, and when you're exhausted the vein, it's gone. Red 5 has a complex and dynamic global pool of resources that determines where and when the veins appear. Mission rewards come out of this pool as well. All this makes resource acquisition a complex, unique blend of economics and combat. It's entirely reasonable for anybody to go out with the aim of building the best gear in the game, and accomplishing it by themselves, through cleverness and effort. That's pretty rare.

I mentioned missions; let's talk about those a bit more. Missions are what you'd call quests in other games, but there are several differences. First of all, there aren't really any quest givers, and you don't have to turn a quest in once you've completed. When there's a mission to be done, an icon will appear on your map. When you head over there and complete it, you get your rewards immediately. This is a welcome and much-needed departure from the status quo. It's not perfect; if another group is quicker than you, they might finish the mission before you get there. But it's also very generous in providing rewards for even the most minor contributions.

The placement and nature of the missions is somewhat random. There are dozens of caves and bases scattered throughout the map. You'll end up going to the same location multiple times, but you'll cycle through several different types of mission as well. The mission types are simple -- remember, enjoying Firefall is about enjoying the gameplay. There are only so many times you can defuse a bomb or retrieve a stolen datapad before it loses its novelty. It's certainly less tedious than collecting 20 bear pelts over and over, but you need to like the gameplay for the missions to retain entertainment value. Red 5 is implementing more mission types, so that will help.

Beyond the basic missions, there are interesting world events, too. The game's main enemy force is called the Chosen, and they continually attack humanity. They'll send strike teams to capture towers, which then go dark and need to be retaken. They even assault two of the major cities, and if you lose, that city is no longer available to you for several hours. The game even randomly tags players as high priority targets, then sends Chosen death squads to kill them. All this goes a long way toward keeping gameplay fresh, and from the plans Red 5 has laid out, this is just the beginning. A side effect of this is that the randomness and lack of direction makes you flounder at times for what you should be doing. I'll say this once more because it bears repeating: you will need to enjoy the gameplay to derive lasting entertainment from Firefall.

Every game needs a hook, and right now Firefall has a lot of little ones. It holds a lot of promise, and it can certainly provide a great deal of entertainment in its current state. But for Firefall to evolve into true success, Red 5 needs to deliver on all of the content plans they've outlined. I'll have another video soon talking about the PvP, the user interface, the story, and the business model, but for now I can say the Firefall is certainly worth trying out. It's free to play, and you should be able to tell very quickly if the combat suits you or not. Thanks for watching.

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Game Preview: Firefall (video)

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