Back in 2001, everyone’s favourite eccentric video game designer, Richard Garrott AKA Lord British, started putting together the title that would ultimately be known as Tabula Rasa. Over the next 6 years, truckloads of hype, delays, code overhauls and direction changes generated the perfect storm for what would ultimately release as a buggy, disappointing and unfinished mess. Although it was one of the first RPGs to blend real time shooter aspects with traditional MMO combat, Garrott’s hope to break the chain of fixed combat systems was spoiled by sticky targeting and an unwieldy ”dice roll” system that removed much of the skill generally attributed to shooter mechanics. The market eventually agreed with this consensus and NCSoft shut down the servers after a 2 year love affair, leaving Tabula Rasa‘s place in history as yet another failed experiment in a genre with a very low success rate.
But what Tabula Rasa did manage to do was light a spark and, at the very least, presented a base model for a hybrid system that combined the numerical damage, PVP and questing systems that have become the staple inclusions within MMORPGs, with active shooting mechanics and a (somewhat) step back from hotkeys and sedimentary combat.
Firefall is the latest in a long line of titles, from Star Trek Online to DC Universe, that have attempted what I consider to be the holy grail of online gaming; a successful fusion of RPG and FPS that highlights the great aspects of both genres into one beautiful bundle. I decided to dive head first into their closed beta to find out if they had managed to overcome many of the problems that have plagued its predecessors.
What I noticed straight away is that Red 5, the debut developers of Firefall with a CEO who previously worked on WoW, have taken an unusual amount of risk with this title. First off, it’s free to play, which isn’t particularly unusual anymore but creates significantly more danger for smaller studios since they aren’t able to quickly recover initial investment from a mandatory retail price. Instead, players are currently offered lucrative “founder” packs, complete with transport vehicles, game currency cosmetic improvements and XP boosts and bonuses, for a nominal once off fee. Secondly, it relies almost entirely on dynamic events, utilizing a unique “AI General” that targets areas of strategic value to players and focuses mob attacks in those areas. While a story driven campaign is planned for release within the next few months, its clear that the developers are more keen on players working together to push back a threat than creating a playground of static quests.
This particular stage of beta is the first in which PVE content has been added, which presents itself in the form of dynamic world events that crop up based on player activity and demand. If there aren’t many players in an area, the game director (known as Aero) may create challenges in order to lure players, only to then spawn an even larger challenge in form of a base invasion or elite boss. It’s an interesting change of pace, becoming the logical next step to Guild Wars 2‘s dynamic questing by allowing all areas, including major cities, to be targeted. I found that there wasn’t a lot of variety yet, nor were the events consistent in difficulty — on one occasion, I turned up at an event I had cleared quite easily moments before, only to find a standing army of about 8 elite mobs that literally chased me for miles before reigning fire down upon me. I did not make that mistake again.
Firefall‘s other change is to take a leaf out of The Secret World by replacing levels with “Tiers”, which relates to a class system of exo-skeletons known as “Battleframes” that can be upgraded and swapped depending on what the mission requires. The game is designed around each player owning multiple ‘frames, which include Assault, Engineer and Recon versions. Each one has its own set of tech trees that are unlocked using experience points gained from battle, and are the primary manner in order to unlock standard weapons, armour and special abilities. For example, the Engineer (easily my favourite Battleframe) utilizes a set of small deployable turrets and a Tesla Rifle as standard. The first set of upgrades offer an option between a deployable shield (which leads to a more powerful long range offensive weapon), improved jump jets (which leads to a shotgun) or a mine (which leads to better turrets or stronger jump jets).
What intrigues me about this system, particularly over The Secret World‘s, is that its significantly easier to change class with very little time investment. Sure, if you’ve been building an Assault character for three months it might be hard to get an Engineer up to that point easily, but if you find that you’re not enjoying a frame early on, you can simply buy a new one and drop a bunch of experience points to bring it up to scratch. Not only that, but the ease in which you can swap frames (via kiosks littered around the world) makes it simple to re-evaluate a failed attack on a contested area, or perhaps a new strategy in PVP. Additionally, you can also craft your own items and upgrades to your frames, which are added and removed via the “Garage” — which, to be frank, is a bit of a convoluted mess that relies too heavily on visual cues rather than simple drag and drop menus.
But it’s the resource and crafting system that has really surprised me. I’m not traditionally a person who enjoys crafting, nor am I an admirer of the original system of fetching ore and items — skinning dead mobs and mindlessly tapping at veins is excruciatingly boring and repetitive. Finding rare ore is more a matter of grind than skill and its traditionally an activity (a word I use very loosely when talking about crafting) that is very lonely, which is why the success of gold and resource miners to remove much of the time investment. Firefall flips the process on its head by introducing a new way of resource collecting called “Thumping”. Firstly, a player equips a “Scan Hammer” that they use to pound the ground in an area to see if any resources are nearby. The UI will quickly respond with the results and, if you’re lucky, pop up a Borderlands style overlay with the location and quantity of a mineral.
This is where the fun starts.
The next step is to call for a “Thumper”: an automated mining machine that literally drops out of the sky, drills into the soil and noticeably thumps under the ground to release and suck up those precious mats. Unfortunately for you, this process tends to piss off the natives, to the point where they will progressively swarm you (and your group) while it operates. Protect it and you’ll get the whole precious bounty. Lose it, and you’ll not only lose the mats that were collected but also the Thumper itself, that needs to be crafted. More powerful thumpers and hammers can be researched and crafted, but in many cases these require whole groups of players for protection against some of the nastier creatures that inhabit the planet. Once you’ve got a nice cache of mats, you can utilize the “Molecular Printer” in town to create almost anything, from ammo and health packs to upgrades for your frame.
Firefall is easily one of the most ambitious attempts to break the status quo since, well, Tabula Rasa, and this article barely brushes the surface. Almost all the conventions are attempting to be broken; every frame has a jetpack, and the world is designed around them. Feel like taking on the enemy from above? Go for it. PVP is almost a separate game in itself, with three map modes and a host of spectating and shoutcasting features baked in. But being a beta, much of the potential is still slowly and surely being added and refined. Quests are extraordinarily buggy and broken. Mob difficulty ranges from the insane to the impossible. World PvP doesn’t exist and many of the dynamic events are thin on the ground, leading most players to simply wander around or queuing for the seemingly limited slots in PVP. Red 5 talked a lot of talk on the lead up to beta, and it looks like they have build a solid base to deliver.
Stay tuned for our review shortly after the retail launch later this year.
FireFall is having an open beta weekend this weekend. Head over to the official site for more details.