Player progression was also addressed at a fundamental level. Early on, players earned experience points and levelled up one of five specific classes (see Get in the Picture, over the page). Those classes remain, but each now has an array of 'battleframes' under its umbrella, James explains.
“There's not just one assault any more. I liken it to cars: you want to customise it. You want to get better tyres, you want to have better suspension, you want a spoiler. You unlock a battleframe chassis, and then you customise it so you can change how your character plays to match your playstyle. We want you to collect all these different models, or battleframes. This gives us a platform where we can release new battleframes on a regular basis.”
New battleframes and upgrades for them are unlocked via a convoluted tech tree. Plug XP into these trees, earned for killing enemies and completing missions, and you'll eventually have access to the next tier of battleframe, and advanced specialisations that let you use class abilities. The assault frame, for example, branches into Firecat and Tigerclaw at Tier 2: one specialising in mobility, the other in damage.
James uses the assault battleframe again as an example. “It has Cannonball, which spins you forward 30 yards, doing damage as you go, or Afterburner, which jets you out of danger. Or Crater, which is a smashdown attack: you jump up, slam down to the ground doing lots of damage to enemies in the area.” There are further layers of customisation: “I love jetpacks. I like being in the air a lot, so I always upgrade my jumpjets so I have the longest burn time. The way I play, I don't care as much about jump height, so I don't need to upgrade my servos.”
These upgrades can only be earned through in-game experience. Firefall is free-to-play, but Red 5 swear the cash shop will only sell items of cosmetic or convenience value: examples so far include glowing tiki masks and XP boosts.
Player skill is Firefall's central tenet, and the thing that sets it furthest away from other MMOs. During my time at the studio, pro-gaming team Complexity flew in to duel a crack team of developers at their own game, in five-on-five scuffles over objectives and kills. Red 5's local heroes trounced the professional players 5-0, but bringing the team in wasn't a simple gloating exercise: Red 5 are pushing Firefall as a coherent, competent e-sport, a PvP game where shooter synapse reactions and mouse muscle memory matter.
The game has already been altered to make it a twitchier, more shooty shooter. James gives an example: “Our healing beam locked on, which completely discarded most skill components. If I was playing medic and I was doing my job, it meant that the entire match I'm holding down right-click right behind you. It wasn't skill-based at all. So we made the call to get rid of all homing weapons. Those were designed intentionally to make the game approachable, but we made it so approachable that it made it lose some of the high skill ceiling.”
Raising that skill ceiling is vital for Firefall's success, but James doesn't want to drag the skill floor up with it. “That's where PvE was a really big opportunity for us. You don't have to be a cutthroat PvPer to enjoy PvE.” For that, you need to venture away from Firefall's codified, queued-for PvP matches, and into its open world.
Future-Earth is already big, but the developers plan to expand it as the game grows – James mentions that the team have “five years of content features planned out.” It's also easy to get around. The jetpacks glued to every battleframe make traversal simple and – crucially – fun.
Much of my time playing the closed beta in Red 5's offices is spent trying to puzzle my way up the side of a canyon using my Engineer battleframe's jetpack. There's a clearly visible road I could use, but the freedom of movement is novel in an MMO, and I want to exploit it.
Finally reaching the top of the canyon, I happen upon a Chosen acolyte. The Chosen are the game's main foes: a new, angry race seemingly born from 'the Melding', the swirling purple and grey cloud that forms the perimeter of Firefall's currently playable area. The acolyte is a human warped into thinking the would-be murderers of his species are his best pals. He immediately opens fire as I get within range.