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Firefall Review: Ashes To Ashes
When Firefall was first unveiled four years ago, the games industry was in a very different place to where it’s at now. World of Warcraft was at the peak of its popularity and every year saw countless new MMOs try and fail to steal the lightning-in-a-bottle success that WoW had found. While there are lots of reasons why games like Warhammer Online, Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online failed to take Blizzard’s cash-machine down, the biggest one is that in a lot of ways they ended up being too similar to World of Warcraft for their own good. It’s a very similar situation to the one that the MOBA genre finds itself in nowadays and it’s out of this situation that a team of former-Blizzard developers (known as Red 5 Studios) announced Firefall.
While Firefall’s compelling setting, gorgeous stylized-look and more involved and dynamic gameplay certainly made a strong case for what MMO’s could become when it debuted, it has been a long four years since then. Now that the game is finally poised to launch on Steam, it’s hard to not wonder if the game still has the same spark behind it or whether its prolonged development has let the fire die out. The more time I spent with Firefall, the more I realized it isn’t just about whether or not Firefall is any good but also whether it’s even relevant given how the spotlight has shifted from MMOs to MOBAs.
A lot of successful MMOs tend to leverage popular franchises and while Firefall’s status as a new IP could be seen as a disadvantage by some, I felt like the narrative window-dressings of the game was actually reasonably compelling. Firefall envision a future-Earth where an attempt to achieve faster-than-light space travel goes awry and bathes the Earth in cosmic radiation that rapidly reshapes and mutates both the geography and inhabitants of the planet. From there, players take on the role of Mercenaries hired by the government to help rebuild civilization and help maintain in order in this new post-’Melding’ world.
Rather than classes, players select their avatars role and abilities by choosing between different powersuits, called Battleframes. Each Battleframe can be leveled up and specialized as you level up and they each fill out the Firefall’s pretty standard roster of MMO-group roles. Assault specializes in dealing damage, Dreadnaught in taking it. Recon players favor stealth and long-ranged sniper rifles and Engineers and Biotech players support the team with deployables. There’s a reasonable variety and while I spent most of my Firefall time solo, it’s easy to see how these different Battleframes could compliment each other. While you can switch between Battleframes at a moments notice, it’s a feature undercut by each one maintaining their own experience levels.
The first-person shooting of Firefall could be pitched as Borderlands meets Tribes but the final result is a little bit less exciting than all that. Gunplay in Firefall is certainly more engaging than it is in a lot of MMOs but it has a slew of problems weighing it down. Guns lack impact, enemies are brain dead and there’s no depth to combat. Lack of variety in your foes is problem that plagues Firefall. In my six hours with the game the only enemies I encountered were bandits, Chosen (people who have gone crazy as a result of the Melding) and a couple of giant bugs.
Give or take a few stat changes, most of the guns in Firefall feel too similar – and this problem is one not improved by the by-the-numbers MMO quest design. I really liked Firefall’s massive open world but mission design rarely strays from going to X to kill Y amount of Z. That said, Red 5 Studios has brought some character to most of these missions through some pretty expansive voice acting. The way that running into and teaming up with other players dynamically scales up the difficulty of missions is one another highlight.
Firefall’s cel-shaded look echoes Borderlands but the low quality of a lot of the textures works to betray how dated its engine is. The game’s visual look might have been fresh back in 2010 but by now cel-shaded games are old hat and Firefall can’t hold its own visually against a lot of them. I will say that on a macro-level, I really liked the world design in the game. Each region felt distinct and exotic in this really cool way and I was always keen to see where the game would take me next.
The large open environments in Firefall worked well with the game’s movement and traversal mechanics. Your Battleframe comes equipped with jump-jets and the world is littered with special ‘Glider’ points that shoot you into the air and temporarily gift upon you a set of wings.
Firefall caps out at level 40 for each battleframe and while I (being only level 15 or so) haven’t sunk much time into the Player Versus Player side of the game, Red 5 are promising some interesting things. Players will be able to enter special PVP zones and compete in missions that will push the game’s overall narrative along and earn them cool rewards and items.
Speaking of cool items, my early impressions of Firefall aren’t that it’s pay-to-win. That said, I wouldn’t exactly give it top marks for the way that microtransactions are integrated.There are plenty of XP bonuses and cosmetic items on offer and, while none of it is necessary, I was haunted by the feeling that my progress was being artificially held back during my time with the game.
In spite of flashy new features like built-in Twitch streaming, Firefall feels fundamentally dated. I think it’s a good MMO but it has spent too much time learning from the mistakes the genre was plagued with back in 2010 and, as a result, fails to feel like a compelling experience of its own merit. Back when it was debuted, there was clearly a lot of passion fueling the team behind Firefall but since then it feels like they’ve lost their way. The end result being an online world that, unfortunately, falls flat in its attempts to make itself a place players want to spend time in.