Firefall preview: taking to the skies in Red 5's ambitious open world MMO

Firefall preview

I pop out three of my turrets – the Engineer battleframe's first special ability – and duck behind cover. Firefall can be played solo, but the acolyte is one of the enemies designed to be fought with friends at your back. Earlier in the day I'd made impromptu pals. We'd congregated around one of my 'thumpers' – resource-collecting boring machines that you call down from the sky – protecting it together for experience boosts and the joy of shooting bugs with guns. Here I'm alone.

Or I was. Behind the acolyte, a gnarly spike falls from the sky, driving into the ground. A gang of grey-skinned humanoids spawns next to it, bottom-heavy in similar armoured boots to my own. They are the Chosen, called to Earth in a dynamic drop pod, the likes of which rain down on Firefall's world of their own accord. “I swear I didn't know that was going to happen!” James says, as the Chosen unload their powerful rifles in my direction and the screen washes red with death.

Traditional MMO questing asks you to imagine a person has decided to stand in one spot for the rest of their lives, gluing an exclamation mark to their forehead. James is not a fan. “We are not keen on that model for a couple of reasons. A new expansion comes out for WoW, how long does it take someone to reach maximum level... two days? We think we can improve on that. We're trying to step off the quest content treadmill.”

Firefall preview

The replacement is dynamic questing. One of the most visible examples of which are the 'melding tornadoes': swirling expanses of purple and grey that wreak havoc on the game's habitable territory. They can happen almost anywhere, spawn weird creatures, and can only be calmed by direct, shooty action.

Thumpers provide another dynamic quest. These portable drills mine for minerals that can be used to craft parts for items and weapons, but in doing so attract the game's more lethal fauna, as James explains. “We're trying to build our encounters to be truly dynamic: if we're calling down a thumper... we're actually using the local region's creatures: enemies are different when you're in the melding, or different when you're down on the beach.”

But it's Red 5's future plan for those Chosen drop pods that provide the most exciting example of Firefall's dynamic events. They can be destroyed by organised bands of players, but leave them unchecked and they'll multiply. They'll build bases and outposts that can be spotted by the game's future-internet, the Shared Intelligence Network. Fail to push the invaders back with a serious force, and it's time for trouble. James again: “The Chosen will actually invade Copacabana [the game's first major city]. It plays out much like a shared open world raid: you want to have dozens of players helping defend the town. If you don't, you can actually lose it: the Chosen can take it over. And if the Chosen take over Copacabana, a couple of things happen. One, you lose access to all the amenities in town. Vendors, resource refining, battleframes. But – just as importantly – if, even at that point, players don't unite to push back the invaders, eventually the Chosen can and will actually win. They can take over the world. Mankind loses. You lose... you're kicked off the server. It's something I've never seen done in an MMO.”

Firefall preview

Firefall is doing a lot of things not done in other MMOs. That's what makes it so hard to pitch in a single elevator ride. It's vast, it's dynamic, it's strategic and it's rapid-fire. It's already in a competent beta, but won't be released for ages. James says it's his dream game, and I'm inclined to believe him. Everyone else I speak to at Red 5 says the same thing, and I'm inclined to believe them too.

It is a dream game. It's an amalgamation of shooter and MMO and RPG. It takes moments and mechanics from a lifetime's worth of gaming experience – resource collection, social interaction, dynamic events, jetpacks – and lets them blend together in the wandering minds of its creators. Like a dream, it's lit by bright lights and colour. Like a dream, you can fly.

But dreams are intangible, ethereal, and difficult to remember the next day. Even harder to justify to others. Trying to explain their dream has caused Red 5 trouble, as James explains. “I always thought: 'what are the bullet points on the back of the box?' We really struggled with it because there were so many. Everything we added to the game made it...” He pauses, trying to measure the game in outstretched hands, before dropping them back to the table, momentarily defeated by the scope of the task.

“It's a big game, right?”