Updated Wed, Mar 16, 2011 by Sardu
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 game’s 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, it’s because Scott was the design lead on Tribes 1 and 2 – titles that PC gaming enthusiasts should remember well.
Before digging deeper into some of the details that make Firefall unique in the vast seas of competitive multiplayer shooters, it’s 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 you’re 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 it’s 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 everyone’s 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 you’re 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 you’d 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 team’s 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 they’ve just taken a dirt nap and are waiting to respawn back in your base.
At any point in the match you’re able to go back to your team’s base and swap out which battle frame you have active. In other words, you’ll never be locked into a specific role just because it’s 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 that’s rarely seen in this style of gameplay.