When Red 5 Studios built their first game, they wanted to create an MMO for a wider audience. Instead of focusing on those elements that we would normally associate with an MMO, they created Firefall, a game that feels more like a persistent shooter. Does this succeed in today's online gaming market, or is it too new, too soon, and not enough substance? I spent fifteen minutes with the game to find out.
After logging in the first couple of minutes spent in Firefall took me through character creation. Here is where I found the first deviation from the MMO tropes: You are given the most basic of visual options -- male or female, three or four face shapes, a couple hairstyles and voice options. Once you choose your options you're thrown into the game, because as you see, Firefall has no classes. Instead your character wears bioframes, huge metal exoskeletons that provide your "class" skills and stats. During a brief tutorial I was given the chance to try all the bioframes out by completing frame-specific challenges, and then I got the opportunity to choose which I wanted to start with. First I tried out the Engineer, a bioframe that uses a nifty set of gadgets in combat. The engineer drops turrets for player use, motorized sentries to do some work for you, and then supply stations that provide ammo and health.
I next tried out the Biotech, which turned out to be the healer of the group. The Biotechs main weapon is the Bioneedler, a gun that does a small amount of damage -- but honestly I spent more time using the healing and poison abilities of this particular bioframe. I ended up sticking with the Biotech because I love healing and I wanted to see how balanced the game was for those that weren't playing pure dps specs. Once I'd selected my particular bioframe I was given an introduction to the New You, a terminal that allows you to switch around your appearance. Here is where you're provided with a much greater selection of options, but most of them require you to pay for them. This is definitely when you see the microtransaction system poke its head out from behind the curtain.
Heading out into the world you're airlifted into the heart of Brazil (the last human stronghold on earth) and led through the crafting system. In Firefall all items and upgrades for your bioframes are made using components that drop from mobs. That's right, when you kill a monster you won't receive gear, you'll only get components which you then use to make your gear. Once I created a health pack and an ammo pack it was time to head out into the world proper and try out the resource gathering in the game.
At early levels (as far as I can tell from my short playthrough) the game is pretty much a resource gathering grind fest. Heading out in the wild you use a Scan Hammer to search for an area rich in minerals. Then you drop a Thumper, a huge mining drone that pounds the ground into submission until is relinquishes its payload. The trouble is, thumping irritates the nasty aliens in the area, and they all rush your Thumper in an effort to stop the vibration. Here is where things get interesting. Firefall's primary gameplay seems to focus around protecting these Thumpers, and they reward players for helping you defend your mining node. Anyone who helps defend a Thumper gets a small share in its haul. Whenever one is dropped a small purple icon appears on nearby players' maps, letting them know that there is an opportunity to help out another player. This breads a great system of group assistance, since players know that they will be rewarded for helping someone out. At the end of my fifteen minutes I had just gotten into my first taste of Thumping and then it was time to call it quits.
Firefall reminds me a lot of the first MMO I played, Anarchy Online. In AO there didn't seem to be much in the way of questing, you just ran around and killed guys and got your loot. Firefall, from what I can tell in the first fifteen minutes, is much like this. You grind away on your mining nodes until you have enough material to make some upgrades for your bioframe and which would then (theoretically) enable you to head into more difficult areas to mine for more rare minerals. Rinse and repeat.
Then there is the fact that you have absolutely no connection to the role your character carves out in the world. You have the opportunity to level any bioframe, because you can switch them whenever you are in town. In addition you can switch around how your character looks, so they might not even be the same person you started out which once you pile money into their appearance. While this makes for very flexible gameplay it also makes for a very shallow player experience. I play an MMO to be invested in a character, to watch them grown and learn and adapt to the challenges set before them. In Firefall, I am leveling not a person, but a set of exoskeletons. And because I am leveling all of them at will, there is absolutely zero motivation to roll alts.
As it stands I'm not sure I would play Firefall based on the first fifteen minutes. It's a beautiful game but seems to lack almost all of the hallmark traits that make MMOs so meaningful -- and for me that waters down the beauty. I might consider jumping in to play for 30 minutes or so every once in a while, but that's not really what the developers want from a player, and that's definitely not what I want from an online gaming experience.