Firefall Multiplayer Impressions from PAX East 2011
Boston may have been fairly cold this past weekend, but the presence of online game developers certainly cranked the heat up for the second annual PAX East. One of the true gems of the show, Firefall made its second PAX appearance, this time offering attendees the chance to get up close and personal with the games competitive multiplayer mode.
Arriving at the expo center early on Saturday morning, I managed to snag some extra hands-on time with Firefall by running through the Sunken Harbor team deathmatch map. This gave me a chance to tinker a bit with the controls, different battleframe abilities, and get a general feel for combat prior to my appointment with none other than Lead Designer, Scott Youngblood. If that name sounds familiar, its because Scott was the design lead on Tribes 1 and 2 titles that PC gaming enthusiasts should remember well.
Hands-On in the Sunken Harbor
Before digging deeper into some of the details that make Firefall unique in the vast seas of competitive multiplayer shooters, its worth looking at how the core gameplay stacks up.
While the Sunken Harbor team deathmatch map is only one of many that will be available to players once Firefall ships, it gave me a good feel for overall level design which can be as important in a shooter as the ammo in your guns. Too basic and youre left with maps where snipers control the pace of combat. Too busy and it can be hard to even spot enemies amongst all the ground clutter let alone get a clean shot off from more than a few meters away.
The Sunken Harbor seemed to nail the middle ground between those two extremes perfectly, even though its not an overly massive map. There was a good balance of high vantage points and trenches as well as plenty of well-placed objects that added not only a nice visual touch to the environment, but had a direct impact on map pacing as well.
Another thing that immediately stood out for me is that character and combat animations are incredibly fluid which can up the immersion factor for many gamers. This becomes even more important once you consider that Firefall allows you to play in either first or third person, over the shoulder view.
The stylized graphics may not be to everyones liking, but this approach also means that framerates will remain high even on lower-spec systems. In fact, Scott even mentioned that the systems being used for the demo were far from top of the line, so players with extreme gaming rigs can expect an even richer graphical experience than what was seen on the show floor. Even better, Firefall takes full advantage of current 3D technology, so if youre looking for a great persistent shooter to use your 3DVision capable rig, Firefall should be right up your alley.
Beyond the basics of level design, animation, and graphical prowess, Firefall also hits the mark in terms of the sorts of bells and whistles youd come to expect from a modern shooter. Various power-ups are peppered throughout the map, and the game also boasts a fairly robust leaderboard tracking system.
Pulling up the leaderboard at any point during a competitive match can give you quick feedback about most things players do to contribute to their teams victory. In other words, healing and team assists are just as important in determining who contributes the most during a match.
Likewise, the leaderboard can give you a quick reference point for which battelframes your team members are currently using, or even if theyve just taken a dirt nap and are waiting to respawn back in your base.
Swapping Battleframes Mid-Match
At any point in the match youre able to go back to your teams base and swap out which battle frame you have active. In other words, youll never be locked into a specific role just because its what you were using when the match began. While there is currently no limit in place to how many times you can switch roles during a match, this may change at some point in the future based on player feedback.
In the currently unlimited role swapping setup, this allows teams to adapt their strategy on the fly in ways that most online shooters only partially account for through standard weapon swaps. So say the enemy team has you pinned down with a few Recon snipers but most of your team is currently using their Assault frame. You can quickly switch to Recon, take out the snipers with a few of your own, and give your Assault players a chance to close the gap.
Likewise, if your team is taking maybe too much of a beating, you can fairly quickly refit to gain additional healing support as needed. This adds a layer of depth to the competitive metagame thats rarely seen in this style of gameplay.
Cooperative Ability Chaining
Players will also be able to slot abilities that can be chained together for more potent results. To help illustrate this, two of my Assault battleframe abilities could be chained together to pack a pretty mean punch:
Crater Launches you up in the air, slamming you back down to cause AoE damage, or even direct damage if you manage to land on another player when you descend. The amount of damage it does is in direct proportion to how high you were when you triggered the ability.
Afterburner Takes all of your energy and launches you in a direction based on where your reticle is currently pointed. As Scott pointed out, If you happen to do that while pointed up, and then at the top of your apex hit your Crater, you can do a hell of a lot more damage with your Crater.
These chained abilities can also extend to the other members of your team. For example, the third Assault ability, Overcharge, increases your rate of fire, but by doing so it also very quickly empties the ammo in your clip. But as Scott explained, The Medic has a Supercharge ability which basically negates the clip, so you have an unlimited clip. So the Medic does a Supercharge, the Assault does an Overcharge and now theyre pumping out way more damage than either could have done by themselves.
Also shown for the first time anywhere, the Recon battleframe essentially fulfills the role of being Firefalls sniper class. While youll be able to play Recon exactly as you might expect a sniper class to function on a core level in other words finding a good vantage point to lodge projectiles in the other teams heads Recon also has a few other unique abilities up their metal sleeves.
For example, the Resonating Bullets skill will stick to your target and explode after a short period. However, you can hit the same target multiple times so that when the explosion occurs it causes much more damage.
Perhaps my favorite Recon ability in the demo was the Cryo Bullet. According to Scott, The Cyro Bullet is the Medics worst nightmare. If you shoot a Medic with it, it takes all of their energy and then puts an ice-based snare on them so they cant move very fast. As you can imagine, this is a very powerful means of isolating single targets or taking enemy medics out of the equation.
The third Recon ability allowed me take advantage of the slowing effect of Cryo Bullets by launching a mine which, when triggered, caused a fair amount of AoE damage.
The net result is that the classic sniper role has been turned on its head to make Recon fulfill a much more interesting support role. While we were only shown three of the available Recon abilities during the demo, it will be interesting to see what else youll be able to slot to change the way Recon is played.
Even though we were only shown a single cooperative PvP match type during the demo, it was enough to get me hooked on Firefalls unique approach to the genre. The battleframe system offers enough diversity to allow you to fulfill multiple roles even within a single match. This also helps the metagame from ever becoming too stagnant, a fate that far too many shooters suffer and can lead to a rapid decline in popularity. Best of all that also means the game wont punish you just because you made a handful of uninformed decisions during character creation which is another recurring design flaw in online gaming.
Once you factor in Firefalls persistent world and deep character advancement systems first shown last year at PAX Prime, I think its safe to say the game will easily cater to both the extremely hardcore shooter crowd, as well as those of you who might normally shy away from that style of gameplay.