Monday, May 19, 2014


While yammering away about three-dimensional and unconventional game environments last month, I realized I'd already encountered one good recent example of a more creative approach. Unfortunately, it's a good example of a bad game, showcasing some interesting features while slavishly adhering to industry standards in most respects.

Firefall's development is a bad joke by this point, lingering in "open beta" for a year with few improvements made in the meantime, after another year of closed beta beforehand. Not quite vaporware but still a soggy, flimsy mess. Instead of functionality and core content, much of the budget seems to have sunk into flash and glitz, into advertising, celebrity appearances, social media tie-ins and fancy scripted missions to impress new players. Unfortunately, actual objectives are very limited in scope and while there's some variety of objects to point a big honkin' machine-gun at, gameplay depth is a bit harder to come by.

Believe me, I'm cringing at the irony of criticizing a game for lack of (figurative) depth while praising it for (literal) depth, but the truth is that Firefall ain't all bad. It was marketed as an MMO and comes much closer to deserving that title than any WoW-clone or other theme-park game. Resource gathering is a group endeavor and the best items come from player crafters, not drops. Though there are no player structures and no territory claiming, some resources can be used to expand the playable area and cooperating in keeping enemy NPCs from claiming territory is a core activity. Battle-lines do shift minimally, despite this being a PvE game.
The main problem with Firefall is its target audience. The game's clearly marketed toward ten-year-olds, through everything from the upbeat, no-worries atmosphere to the twitch gameplay requiring no strategic planning. Quests randomly pop up everywhere around you and anyone can join in. Ammo and health packs drop constantly from enemies, negating supply logistics. Big friendly markers tug you this way and that, never stressing you out by asking you to plan. Anyone can resurrect each other. It is created for players with no attention span. Fast fingers, slow brains.

But if you can stomach a bit of that, it's worth seeing what they've done within those limitations.

Yes, that's yours truly gliding across a sunny South-American paradise. Gliding. In keeping with its ADD-brat focus, Firefall gives everyone short-range jump jets, and you're forced to jump, skip and hop constantly in battle to avoid damage. This turned the game's short-lived PvP system into a ridiculous, aimless, constant bouncing around to shoot at the first thing that moves.
But however annoying the endless bounciness gets, the dev team at least managed to make it slightly more than a simplistic twitchy gimmick. The game map makes full use of those jump jets, with many quests being set in vertical caves and objectives resting halfway up cliff-sides. During many events, players must seek higher ground to evade the constantly spawning mobs below, and focus the boss monster from atop hilltops and towers. What's more, if you make your way to high ground you can glide your way across various scenic vistas. Even the dropships shuttling players to and fro across New Eden allow you to bail out whenever you want and glide the rest of the way. In some spots you can circle around repeatedly making strafing runs at the monsters below using this same glider mechanic.

And Firefall is refreshing in other respects as well, like the scenery. Instead of temperate scrubland and warehouses, the game's main map is a subequatorial beach. Much of the action takes place in vertically-layered caves. Alternate locations include Antarctica and an island in the Sargasso Sea. Even the music is more reminiscent of dreamy adventure games than FPS twitch-fests. Clearly a good bit of effort was put into avoiding the usual shoot-em-up tropes... in terms of aesthetics at least. Though, it must be noted, you still machine-gun down plenty of zombies.

However, the list on the right in that image above also shows the game's greatest (and very predictable) weakness. You get told what your "current activities" are. You're pushed to do daily quests like killing fifteen of this and of that. Instead of being left to make your way in this new world, you get thrown into a chain of heavily scripted story missions. Firefall has a very solid foundation in terms of physics or resource flow and surprisingly coherent art direction, even if it's not my style. Unfortunately, its desperation to draw in the mindless leet-kiddies results in simplistic, shallow, constricting game mechanics. I have only so much interest in working on my hand-eye coordination by trying to shoot one constantly dodging giant mosquito after another, or repeating prefabricated scenarios. Pew-pew-pew with no possibility for grand works gets old fast, and though there are marginally stronger consequences for player actions than in WoW-clones, it's still a far cry from a true persistent world.

Despite its MMO aspirations, Firefall plays like an arcade shooter.

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