Even though it's been available (albeit in a closed access state) since 2011, Firefall has recently come out of its beta phase and onto Steam for the low price of zero dollars. After such a long development period, a lot about the game has changed. It's still an MMOFPS, just as it was when the game was first revealed, but now things as dramatic as quest structure have been completely redone from the ground up. I've spent an interesting couple of weeks with Firefall, learning alone and with friends as I went. There's a lot of potential here, and the world is colorful yet dark. I just don't think it's entirely ready just yet.
Welcome to Copacabana
Firefall opens with a cinematic detailing an event called – Wait for it — the Firefall. This event has left Earth in a state of cataclysm, with humanity's last vestige being a small chunk of Brazil, while the rest of the planet is left to a cloud of radiation called "the Melding". It's a pretty unpleasant scenario humanity has gotten themselves stuck in, but thankfully this has been rectified by the green locales you'll find yourself exploring and blasting away at baddies in. There's a good world established here with a lot of potential, but in my first ten levels, I never really felt like humanity was in very much peril. We're supposed to be facing extinction in New Eden, but there's a resort town with restaurants, stores, beachside yurts, and really bad voice actors. "Wasted potential" seems too harsh to use to describe such an early point in a game of this scale, but I certainly was initially disappointed (although it's still very fun to explore, as it's very colorful and in some places downright impressive).
Much like another game involving suits of power armor that I am extremely fond of, Firefall makes use of "Battleframes" that provide you with different class roles, similarly to games like Team Fortress 2 (albeit on a massive scale). Tanking, burst DPS, medical, defensive, and stealth Battleframes are available for use, and each levels up independently. This means that if you wanted to, equipping your Recon Battleframe in place of your Engineer Battleframe would put your Engineer's progress on hold while you level and party up with your Recon. It's a very unique system that encourages simply using one character rather than many; there's no need to make a new toon to play with your friends if you can just use a low-level class instead.
While you can just stick with a crowd for a while and play events as they come to you, Firefall truly shows its potential as a team-based game when the right Battleframes pair up and start kicking ass together. A good damage dealer isn't going to last long without a good medic, and a good medic isn't worth its mettle without fortifications to back them up. This level of team play is rarely encouraged so early on in MMOs, so to see it being enforced almost as soon as the tutorial ends made an immediate impression on me as to what kind of game I was playing.
Quests are unlike any MMO. Instead of taking a half-dozen quests and doing them all at once, you do them one at a time, following fully-but-poorly voice-acted missions that have you travel from point A to point B, trying to solve the mystery of why every mission in the tutorial seems to be about how different families are bad at keeping track of their members. While the content within them is less than satisfying, they sometimes add some variables to make it a bit more challenging (and fun), from getting a faulty cloaking device to having to defend aggressive wildlife from poachers (the wildlife being even more dangerous than the poachers themselves). It's a mixed bag, but the one-at-a-time model does make keeping track of missions (and replaying favorites) a snap.
As for the more technical details, whoever loaded the options menu with so many configurable settings deserves a bunch of gold medals. Everything from your field of view (in both first and third person, separately!) to whether your flashlight turns on automatically at night can be changed. There's a breadth of options that can take a long time to completely, comfortably arrange to your liking, but there's no real limitations on your ability to make its user interface as accommodating as possible.
Here Be Monsters
It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that Firefall has lots of things to shoot. Crab bugs, lobster bugs, flying bugs, and bug bugs litter the landscape, with the occasional bandit thrown in for good measure. This limited enemy variety eventually expands into… Bigger and more aggressive bugs, and a lot more bandits. There's a Borderlands-y vibe going on with Firefall's enemy design, but unlike Borderlands 2's intelligent and dangerous foes, the enemies you face in Firefall fall victim to poor AI and bizarre pathfinding tendencies. One particularly notable encounter saw me swarmed with crab-like monsters, and my attempts to retreat to a near-completely vertical pillar of rock resulted in them all performing impeccably accurate leaps up to me. On another encounter with this same enemy type, my pillar evasion resulted in them leaving me alone. Other times, kiting enemies in a circle around objects was enough to keep them off my back. There's no consistency, and that leads to ultimately repetitious and frustrating combat.
Guns are another place where Firefall falters. Guns lack punch, and often times it feels less like shooting a gun in a game like Call of Duty or Unreal Tournament, and more like holding a laser pointer over enemies as they slowly die. In fact, some of the game's weapons let you do exactly that! There's no impact behind the firearms given to you; assault rifles chug out rounds that sound like BBs, SMGs pitter-patter and sound no more dangerous than my footsteps. The only guns that really have any audible oomph are the Dreadnought's minigun and the Bastion's sticky grenade launcher. Getting hit is no better — too many times I died without realizing I was close to death until I hit a very small threshold and my screen started to dramatically flash red.
Falling With Style
One thing you probably knew already: there's jetpacks. They burn fuel slowly and generally allow for a comfortable boost upwards, or a slowed downwards descent. While it's not the most thrilling addition, it does make a lot of the world's later geometry much less of a headache to climb over and around. Often times, you're expected to use your jetpack, as there's simply no other feasible way to travel — it's not so much a gripe as much as it is how the world was designed. It does make combat quite funny, though, as hovering above melee-restricted enemies as you rain hell on them from above is never not hilarious.
If you want, you can also hop onto Glider Pads, which launch you into the air and allow you to slowly fall on a pair of holographic wings (much like hang gliders in Far Cry 3). They're marked on your minimap and allow easy traversal of the world. Plus, they're really fun to glide on with friends over a massive canyon. Despite much of the game's faults, I legitimately enjoyed gliding. Sometimes I did it just so I could calmly zip around the world without any trouble; they're far enough out of the way that using them feels more like a special event than just something I could do willy-nilly.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Firefall is that you're encouraged to do silly or exciting things not because you should, but because you can. It's that sense of fun and whimsy that so many other MMOs lack; while World of Warcraft says "go here and get me ten sneezlefruits", Firefall says "here's a motorbike, wanna ride it for no reason?" There's nothing holding you back from simply goofing off, and the lack of any restrictions on what roles you can play is something other games could learn from. It's not going to blow any minds with its graphics or wow anyone with its mechanics, but what it offers is done well enough that I can shrug my shoulders and say, "go for it".
Rhys Egner is a writer for Front Towards Gamer from Seattle. He likes comics, hates crowds, and loves gaming of all kinds.