Firefall review in progress, part one: arriving in New Eden
Firefall, the free-to-play MMO shooter, is now available. As per PC Gamer's reviews policy, MMOs aren't scored until our reviewer has spent time with the public release. Here, then, is a review-in-progress, charting Phil's initial impressions with the game.
Things get off to a bad start when, upon loading into the game, I recoil in horror at what my eyeballs are seeing. I'll cover Firefall's graphics later, but the tutorial map is perhaps the worst possible introduction to its aesthetic. The textures are blurry, the environments murky, and the characters flat and cartoonish. Compared to this year's other MMO releases, there's none of the vibrancy or charm of Wildstar, and none of the relatively higher-res textures of the otherwise visually bland (and oppressively foggy) TESO.
I head into the video settings. Everything is already set to "Ultra High". Oh dear.
During an introductory meander, I'm shown the game's range of battleframes. These are the jetpack-sporting mech suits that function as the player's class. There's a standard selection of types: medic, tank, DPS, sniper and engineer, and, at the basic level, each does what you'd expect. Initially, I pick the Assault, a mid-range DPS with a plasma cannon. To its credit, Firefall openly allows for class experimentation. It's not your character that levels up, but their individual battleframes. Trying out a new class is as easy as finding a Battleframe Station and switching the loadout—starting back at level one for each new frame, but retaining any progression on those previously used.
With my class picked, I walk up some stairs to find a couple of dropships. Nothing happens. At the other end of the launch pad is what looks like a new area, but an invisible wall stops me from reaching it. Eventually, two more players arrive and appear to be equally confused. We shoot ineffectually at some scenery, but it doesn't help. The next section has failed to load. I quit out, and, on reloading, get kicked back to the start of the tutorial. This time, upon completion, I'm successfully queued into the mission instance.
Much of my time in Firefall so far has been about trying to recover from these initial disappointments. And from a more persistent issue: I'm not wild about the game's combat. It's a direct attack system that doesn't use auto-targeting, but it still feels awkwardly placed between MMO and shooter. The biggest problem is the feel of the weapons. They lack punch—something I attribute to the way the enemies react when hit (or rather, don't). When killed, the bugs I've been fighting will gib in a satisfyingly squishy way. But, other than for that final blow, they have no response to being tagged by the mini-explosions of my plasma bursts. Sure, they lose a chunk of health, but in a shooter I want firefights to offer more than a mathematical impact.
The most egregious example of this comes much later in my initial session. I'm fighting a mission boss who has a couple of levels over my assault frame. As such, it's a long fight—my attacks only taking off a fraction of his health bar. It should be a tense battle for survival, but really, I'm just strafing his slow rocket attacks while spamming plasma fire in his direction. With every hit, his health goes down, and a number indicates how much damage I do. Other than that, though, he's entirely unconcerned by the incoming damage.
None of which is to say there aren't things about Firefall I like. Rather, these issues sour its better moments. From what I've played so far, it seems like a problematic game that, in the right circumstances, can offer moments of frantic gunplay. At times, the sheer variety and number of enemies—and the mobility offered by each battleframe's jetpack—distract from the weaknesses of combat. It's at its best during hoard mode style defence missions, which, perhaps fortuitously, is what many of its activities involve.
After the tutorial, the first major zone is New Eden. It's here I become familiar with the structure of Firefall. It's also here I get to re-evaluate its look. Up close, Firefall is not a pretty game—a problematic fact given that it's played primarily in first-person view. But there is a strong setting. The opening area of Copacabana is bright, vibrant, and filled with weird and colourful coral reefs. At night, it looks bland and uninspired, but during the day, it's actually quite fetching.
As I travel through New Eden, I'm introduced to the various activities the game has to offer. Campaign missions unlock at specific levels, and focus on the war against the Chosen—the mysterious humanoids that mysteriously emerge from the mysterious "Melding", a purple death-cloud that (mysteriously) covers huge swathes of the planet. Back in the open world, you can accept missions from the job board, find dynamic events, or try your hand at "Thumping".
This latter option is tied to resource collection, and offers some of the game's most entertaining battles. At any point in the world, you can use a "Scan Hammer" to check nearby resources. Find a good vein, and you call down your Thumper, which crashes to the ground and starts pounding at the earth. You job—along with that of any player in the vicinity—is to defend the Thumper from waves of enemies until it finishes its collection, at which point anyone who takes part is rewarded with the resources it collects. It's an enjoyable mission type that does a good job at attracting nearby players.
The other activities are less consistently engaging. Job board missions are mostly tasks undertaken for the local populace—usually involving clearing out an area or rescuing a person. They're fine, and occasionally inventive, but do require you to listen to the constant chatter of flat, disinterested voice actors. There's padding, too. At one point, I'm asked to make my way out north to meet up with the mission giver. Once I arrive, she asks me to go back to the town I was already in.
Finally, there are dynamic events, which aren't as grand as they sound. They're mini-missions that appear on your map, usually involving rescuing data of a crashed vehicle or Thumper. Again, it's primarily a defence mission, but here the small scale means less reward. They're fine as a stopgap on the way to the next mission proper, but rarely worth the effort of tracking down.
As I approach level ten in my main battleframe, I'm being reasonably engaged by the world and what it offers. Right now, I'm mostly mainlining job board missions—interspersed with the odd Thump as and when the resources make it worthwhile. At the same time, I'm desperately hoping there's more variety down the line.