With only a handful of days before Firefall finally moves into its official early-access launch date, I headed down to Laguna Hills to see what kind of game this was ultimately going to be. With a long and bumpy development road, it's only fair that players are concerned. Despite everything that's happened in the past, I was determined to go into Red5 Studios unbiased and give the game a fair look. After an all day preview including the entire afternoon of hands on, I have to say, I was impressed.
It was polished, crisp and the quality was beyond what I expected from a newer, smaller studio. It was clear to me that these guys aren't just making another niche MMO - they want to compete with the big boys. Based on everything I saw, they definitely can - so long as the game garners enough attention. Their odds are even better if jaded players are willing to come back and give the game another chance.
I made it a point of emphasis to engage as many developers as possible and talk not just Firefall, but game design in general. I wanted to see if they were mindful of the state of the genre and also where it seems to be trending. I wanted to see if they were thinking, not just like gamers, but like MMO gamers in need of something truly different. Well it turns out they are; and Firefall is exactly that. It's not trying to be anything other than itself - which was extremely refreshing to finally see. This game has an identity and a feel to it that should separate it from the crowd.
In the morning, James Macauley (CEO of Red5 Studios) gave us an overview and demo of the game. The tutorial on the new client dropped him into the thick of battle immediately. Deposited as part of a crash landed transport, we got to see the five Battleframe arch-types as he made his way to an Accord garage to equip the first Battleframe of his own. Right away he was battling the Chosen to try and start reclaiming an invaded Copacabana. Once he'd completed all the tutorial objectives (which overviewed the basics of combat, SIN towers, and other important mechanics unique to the game), he was pulled out of the tutorial only for us onlookers to realize that it was just a simulator. It was the final test to indoctrinate a player's character into becoming an official ARES Battleframe pilot, since technically they're all actually mercenaries for hire.
James continued to demo other features of the game from a fully-kitted level 40 frame to include vehicles, jobs, and thumping. A particular note of emphasis was the brand new Player vs. Environment content delivery system as well as the massive amount of new content that system will generate. The game features a dynamic system that utilizes on-demand player activated content, procedurally generated open-world content, and developer initiated special event content. Those (and a few other types of content I'll go over in detail later) come together and actually quadruple the amount of playable world-space that was previously available in beta, as well as adding about 15 times the amount of playable content.
The biggest take-away I got from the demo and all the different type of content creation going on, was just how organic it all felt. Creatures all spawned out of your line-of-sight and missions appeared nearby as if they might have always been there. Everything felt smooth and well-paced and consistently gave the player tons of decision making power. At the same time nothing ever felt forced. The incredible amount of movement in the game makes the player constantly feel in control, as if they can disengage at any time. That doesn't mean the world isn't dangerous or the content isn't challenging, because it is. Red5 just does a great job of making sure that the rewards are always tied to the risk. You don't have to pursue everything that comes your way, but nothing is given for free either. The biggest rewards were aptly tied to the most risky situations.
After a long lunch talking game design with the developers, we returned to the studio to finally get our hands on the new client. Right away we were thrown into the fire as we and a handful of developers jumped into live combat scenarios for a 20 man raid. With only 12 of us total, we eventually got overwhelmed and pushed back by the waves and strategies of the enemy AI. Initially we were holding a 360 degree perimeter around an objective but we got knocked off our holding point and forced down into a valley where we were struggling to push back the front lines and reestablish a foothold.
A lot of our losses were attributed to the phenomenal amount of depth in the different Battleframe abilities. All of them are very skill based and the way the different abilities can combine together (not just of your own frame, but between different frames of you and your allies) felt very similar to the synergetic combat of the MOBA genre. Your loadout, customization, and array of Battleframes open the door to a world of possibilities. Anyone familiar with League of Legends or DotA2 might understand the type of dynamic interplay I'm describing here. Teamwork is crucial, and the sheer amount of customization means that there are a multitude of different ways to attack a situation. Without a solid understanding of you and your allies individual and collective capabilities - defeating high end content is impossible (as it should be).
After getting wiped a few times there, the developers decided to put us into some content we at least had the numbers for in the brand new "Mission" system. I also took this opportunity here to change Battleframes and get into a recon unit so I could test the pin-point accuracy of the game's firing and collision system. There was also a part of me wondering if my Counterstrike-forged twitch reaction sniping skills still existed after several years on the shelf.
We embarked on our first Mission through an arctic landscape in a very linear fashion as we moved from one checkpoint to the next. Keep in mind I say "linear" but that by no-means describes the actual movement in the game. With landscape collapsing around us we frequently had to use our jump-jets to navigate some wicked terrain. Despite the horizontal progression there was tons of verticality to the world and field of combat.
All in all the mission system felt very good and emulated a true story-based console shooter similar to the Gears of War or Halo franchises. It felt like we were part of the narrative and yet the combat was very engaging the whole time. It was hard to imagine that I was still in an MMO. To make it even more convincing, playing as a sniper felt extremely rewarding and natural. Being a former Marine in real life (and avid Counterstike player years ago) the combat was convincing, and the verticality added by jump-jets really kept the world from ever feeling like a developer-designed arena. If I saw a good perch, I could get there - and I felt useful to my team as a supporting spotter and high-damage shooter taking out important targets. I felt like my skills and experience made a huge difference to the team's success, and it's been a very long time since I've played an MMO where I could say that.
This game honestly exceeded my expectations - by a lot. Not just because of how polished the game is, or because of how fun and engaging the skill-based combat is. It was mostly because of the longevity I see in it. The reality is that Firefall isn't trying to model itself after other any other MMOs. It's not trying to be anything other than Firefall. The experience doesn't feel like other games. It's an MMO shooter but it doesn't feel anything like Planetside 2, nor does it feel like World of Warcraft, or Halo, or any of the other games that parts of it might feel similar to. It's just Firefall - and it's a lot of fun.
The amount of dynamic player-initiated and procedurally-generated content give this game tons of playability that doesn't hinge on developer creation. There's so much content creation hard-boiled into the game providing constant gameplay that you really shouldn't ever run out of things to do. Especially since I haven't even mentioned the Player vs. Player combat! It's actually already in the new client, we just didn't get a chance to see it, not even in the demo.
PvP Combat Preview
The developers did tell us several things about the PvP combat coming at launch, and it sounds very exciting. Essentially it's an open-world continent as big as the open-world of the Accord-ruled PvE continent where you begin the game. The difference on the PvP continent is that the Accord isn't the dominant, law-providing force there. It's the wild-west of future earth where the quickest gun or the largest posse can rule the day. It's a land of high-risk and high-reward where the extraction of very rare resources has corporations (and their mercenaries) competing fiercely for them.
We were informed details on PvP combat will be released very soon to the public (likely with or shortly after early-access launch) on Firefall's home site. Additionally there are some very cool 20 man raid battles the development team has designed that will be in the game at launch. They'll be releasing that information very soon as well. I can't say much about those, other than the fact that we got our hands on one at the studio and took part in a 20 man team with the developers to try it. We got wiped in both attempts. The first time we only got the boss down to 58% health. The second time we got him down to 8% health (and again, more than half the 20-man team was the developers themselves). So the fights get really interesting up there.
Firefall is coming fully-loaded with content that has tons of replay value, depth, and challenge. It's also got several different avenues for players to take to progress through the game via quest-like jobs, linear FPS-style missions, dynamic open-world content generation, unique open-world PvP combat, and some intense cooperative raids.
I also don't want to leave crafting untouched. With the unique concept of thumping, even creative crafting crowd can totally progress their frames to the highest levels just by increasing and perfecting their own inventory of player made assets. Not only that, but a couple interesting features make crafting feel even more valuable with a game-wide market system and the ability to place custom orders (rather than just browse an auction house for what you want).
This game has a little something for everyone - if you're into shooters of any kind, it is a definite must try. Later this week I'll be posting a complete overview that breaks down the components of the game in better detail than the official site, so be sure to check back for that. Until then, see you in game; because I'm definitely playing this one!