The few times a mission does try something different, it can go badly wrong. In one job, I was required to disguise as a bandit. This happened without warning after completing a combat objective, leaving me close to death and without my abilities, jetpack or health regeneration. Even after I'd inevitably died, I respawned at the quest hub with the disguise still intact—forced to sprint back to the objective without access to my deployable vehicle. A potentially interesting mission became memorable only for its failings.
When you're not on a job, you'll be stopping at one of the dynamic events that appear across the map. These range from small, solo missions, to more difficult group activities. There's little to distinguish these from the regular quests—you're still travelling to an area of the map to fend off bugs, bandits or Chosen. But many require you to hold out against waves of enemies, and it's this structure that provides the best showcase for Firefall's combat.
At the start, each player has access to five basic battleframes. These lightweight mech suits act as your class, and can be swapped at any Battleframe Station without changing character. Earned XP goes towards levelling your currently equipped frame, so while experimentation is possible, it's more effective to stick with a single type. The battleframe you equip defines your weapons and abilities, and—while all are useful in combat—some have the edge in terms of how enjoyable they are to play.
In particular, the minigun of the Dreadnaught and the scoped automatic rifle of the Recon are unexciting to wield. In typical MMO style, enemies can have a big chunk of health. Holding the mouse button over one as their HP slowly drains is an uninteresting interaction. I grew more attached to the plasma grenades of Assault class's cannon, which required me to be consistently accurate while on the move. It doesn't match the satisfying skill level required by Tribes: Ascend's Thumper DX or Spinfusor, but at least offered a challenge that dragged me through the game's repetition.
Each frame can equip abilities to the first four slots of the hotbar, and it's these that gel so well with the defensive mission architype. Engineers can place turrets, Biotech's can deploy healing area-of-effect spells, and Assaults can slam to the ground, doing huge damage to the collected enemies below. The best example of this is squad "Thumps". These are resource collection events, and can be called down by players to any location. Personal thumpers offer a challenge, but it's the craftable squad versions that provide some of the game's most tense and engrossing battles.
If this is starting to sound like unqualified praise, know that the event system is completely unsupported by the way players travel across the map. Melding Tornadoes are one of the other most interesting activities the game offers—a group battle against a swirling, purple, Chosen-spawning twister. It's a call to arms for the playerbase, with the coordinates shared over zone chat whenever one appears. Except, even knowing where it is, it can difficult to reach. You can teleport to mission hubs, but doing so costs Credits—a valuable currency that I was never comfortable wasting. At which point, you're forced to either walk or drive, the latter only an option if you've bought a vehicle with real money or crafted one following a level 25 mission. Most of the tornadoes had disappeared by the time I'd arrived. That or they were empty, leaving me with no hope of finishing the encounter.
This is Firefall's other major failing: it doesn't respect your time. Yes, it's a nice looking game—the alien vibrancy and variety making up for some inconsistent texture quality and off-puttingly cartoonish NPCs—but these scenic views don't justify the how long you'll spend sprinting from location to location. In one early mission, I was asked to trek north to meet with a character. When I arrived, they asked me to turn around and head back. It's an almost comically egregious example, but it highlights a persistent flaw.
The real money store is largely stocked with cosmetics and XP boosts. It's not "pay to win"—a meaningless designation in a predominantly PvE game—but it is skewed so that the non-paying options take more time than they're worth. Crystite, the basic in-game currency, is earned slowly, and is largely swallowed up by researching new crafting options. This in itself is a slow process—all crafting actions are performed on a timer that can take anything from seconds to days. That timer, of course, can be bypassed by paying real money.
These are all small inconveniences, but they add up. Yes, free-to-play games must strike a balance between time and money, but here that balance feels off. Not because of the contents of the store, or the value of each currency, but because Firefall is rarely engaging enough to make the commitment worthwhile.