This preview originally appeared in issue 240 of PCG UK.
Night has fallen on 22nd century Copacabana. Darkness doesn't cloak life here: it exposes it. From my position near the top of a waterfall I can read what's going on by the pulses of light below.
I watch the flickering beams of player weapons crisscrossing, bursting the buglike aliens that are Firefall's NPC threat. On my HUD, the glowing icon of the Thumper the players are protecting is a beacon, directing me to the action should I feel the need to drop in. I can see the bloom of jetpacks and the light trails left by gliders as players cross the lumpy, bowl-like terrain below.
Everywhere there is light there are humans, and everywhere there are humans there is action. I feel miles away from the rest of the server, but I could be down there in seconds if the urge struck. You're never too far away with a jetpack.
I'm up here because I could get up here. Firefall's world is made to be explored: there are few limits to where you can go. It's an MMO built for those who see distant waterfalls, shadowy peaks and crashed ships and want to know if anything's over there. Right now, in the early beta, there isn't, much, but there's enough to get an impression.
Firefall is a third- or first-person shooter, and an MMO or team-based shooter, depending on your mood (the queues are so long for the PvP that I've been unable to get into a game). You're dropped into the resort town of Copacabana to help humanity grow again. All around is a terrifying energy wall, bounding the game area and keeping the humans from expanding: this is the Melding, a physical barrier stopping players from progressing too far during the beta, and something to be pushed back when the full game arrives. The beta only has content as far as the eye can see (which is pretty far): there are areas to unlock and explore, but no missions beyond the initial opening area.
The smaller, more immediate future lies in developing a character, gathering resources and enabling the SIN Network, Earth's communication system, to grow. When you create your character, all you're really doing is naming and creating an image. There are no factions other than human, and you're not bound to a class, or 'Battleframe' as they're called: you can switch at any point. The first character you create will always spawn as Assault, and it's good introduction to the game. I flicked through the other choices: Recon (sniper), Dreadnaught (heavy), Medic, and settled on Engineer: with the action twitchy, I fancied having a turret to cause trouble, and healing powers to support others.
Engineer, it turned out, was not the best choice for a newbie. The tutorial missions, which in the beta are all you have, sent me out to the nests of nasty little Antlion-ish things called Aranhas. They leap out of the ground and swarm. I barely had time to consider where to put the turret before they were quadrapegging it my way. It did prove a valuable lesson in panicky jetpacking, though: I leapt back and switched from my repair gun to the generic rifle everyone has as a secondary weapon, and started firing. What I expected was an off-screen dice roll to tell me if I'd hit anything; what actually happened was the gun barked into life and the little bugs splattered. Firefall really is a shooter: the guns do what you tell them to, rather than function as abstract point-dispensing tubes of metal.
I floated backwards some more and considered my options: the newbie zone is a lumpy area, and the attacks were mostly ground based. I jetpacked to the top of a rock and placed my turret. It's an aggro magnet: below, the bugs were scrabbling away, trying to claw their way up. I couldn't tell you the DPS it produces, just that the aliens were slowly thinned out. I dropped to ground level and hunted for the minerals requested for the mission.
Gathering resources is a huge part of Firefall. Resources are everything: you gather them to buy blueprints, addons, weapons, and you need them as ingredients to make those things, too. Nothing is bought whole: you have to craft it. You can get the most generic mineral, Crystite, from enemies as well as the ground but the rest must be mined. That's when things get cool.
Minerals can be pretty much anywhere, so you're not bound to mine in certain points. To find them you need a 'scan hammer'. It's exactly what it sounds like: a hammer you thump the ground with. It sends out a shockwave that rolls over the ground, reading the mineral content and telling you where to aim your Thumper. Thumpers are mining drones that make noise, and noise brings enemies, everything from ground-burrowing Aranhas to giant mosquitoes and dinosaurs. They're portable flashpoints.
They also give you some measure of control over when you'll get into a big fight. Thumpers take time to suck up the sweet minerals, and fights clump around them as the aggroed animals try to rip them to pieces. You know there's going to be a pile-on, so Copacabana's public chat channel is full of people asking for groups to head out on a mineral scavenge.
My first attempt was a massive failure: I dropped a Thumper and set up a turret, but the number of enemies wiped me out in 20 seconds. Engi is not the best solo class. I swapped to Assault for a bit: his primary weapon is a nicely weighted plasma launcher, firing looping balls of energy with lots of splash damage. I didn't ask for help, instead I looked out over the land and spotted another Thumper group. I hopped over to them, joining the battle to keep their Thumper protected. They had chosen an elevated area that kept the monsters at bay: from the top we stood together, two Assaults and an Engi powering away at the rancid mob. There's no enemy crowd control: the AI is barely functional, and the spawns seem to spit out random enemies. My favourite of these is the burning Aranhas – a scuttling bomb you can use to blast a hole in any assault if you time the shot just right.
When the Thumper was full I asked for assistance with my own, and everyone stuck around to help. It's probably because the friends system isn't implemented that ad hoc battles were the mainstay of the combat I experienced. People just gather and head off to fight, or spot battles raging across the map and jetpack over to lend a hand. I've helped and been helped way more times than I've been part of an organised Thump.
The rest of the combat forms around The Chosen: a mysterious group of humanoid enemies that spawn in concentrated clumps. They're invaders, more organised than the monsters and tougher to fight. Their incursions spawn dynamic missions, battles for the territory they've arrived in. They pop up on the map and warnings are broadcast if you're near. Again, their AI is simpleminded, and that's currently Firefall's major flaw: the weapons are fun to use, a fight is likely to draw helpful attention, but your enemies have no sense of self-preservation, running to meet your bullets as if to save them the trouble of a long journey. If the Chosen are left unchecked, they'll push harder: one incursion can become a whole mess of patrols dotted around the map. If there is a fight worth getting organised for in Firefall, it's against them. They only have problems with other humans, too: they'll sometimes join the animal kingdom in Thumper assaults.
No matter what you fight, you'll earn Crystite to spend. There are a few upgrade routes: each Battleframe upgrades as you level, so my engi's route to level 5 started with the turret and standard-issue gear (a rifle), and then added a repair gun upgrade at level 2, battleframe upgrade level 3, repair station two-slot backpack upgrade at level 4, and a repair gun upgrade that added a module slot.
Customisation comes with the backpack, so while a battleframe has standard configurations at each level, you can modify the backpack to augment it with such things as cooldown buffs, or jet boosts. Weapons are modified in the same way, slots opening up as you level, for example enabling the alternate fire on the Assault's main weapon to be swapped from shotgun-style blast to a tracking rocket. Items are purchased as Nanoprints (blueprints) from vendors and then plugged into a crafting machine. If you have all the right elements in your inventory, it'll build it for you. To stop people spamming items, it's a timed process. Some gear takes minutes to build.
Everything is crafted like this, although some items are also dropped as loot or found in supply crates. It gives you a reason to get out there and fight and thump. But I also found the world itself, and the freedom of movement, a good reason to explore. It's a world with a lot of jet-pack-friendly, multi-level terrain, and the view distance shows off tantalising peaks. At least 50% of my time has been spent wandering around the map, heading up and over things just because I can. There are hidden pools and waterfalls to discover, sunsets and star-flecked skies.
Firefall is more than just World of Warcraft with guns: the integration of action and adventure is tight, and well thought out. Beta struggles aside (missing clans, lack of friends system, broken AI) there's clearly a lot here that rails against traditional MMO practices, including free-to-play pricing. If Firefall sticks to its customised guns and never charges anyone for an advantage, it could be a landmark in MMO design