The Firing Line: Hands-on with Firefall's beta

The Firing Line - Hands on with Firefall's beta
I'm dying on the beautiful beach outside Firefall's starter town. As I lay bleeding from a hundred holes and generally making a mess of my shiny new bumble bee-colored battleframe, my avatar collapses to the sand and says the funniest thing I've heard in a while.

"Grandpa!"

This is delivered in his best rural Georgia twang, and it lessens the sting of my latest newbie move. The whole scene is Firefall in a nutshell: It's fun, frustrating, and funny all at once.

Firefall - Assault battleframe
Firefall - Visuals
The first thing you'll notice about Red 5's shooter is how it looks. I know, graphics aren't everything, right? Let's be honest. Graphics do matter a helluva lot. Graphics are the primary reason modern MMOs have fewer gameplay features than their predecessors (because almost everyone wants expensive graphics regardless of whether he admits it or not).

Firefall has good graphics. Spectacular, really, though whether or not you agree with me rests on your affinity for cel-shading.

This quality even extends into avatar creation, which is necessarily limited by virtue of this being a shooter. There are a dozen or so faces, hair styles, eye color presets and so on. Swappable battleframes (the hulking armor suits that are analogous to classes in a more traditional MMO) boast outrageous color choices like the aforementioned bumble bee or Blood Falcon red. It's almost like a gang of import-tuning street racers was hired to oversee the game's color palette, and the result is a loud, cartoony departure from traditional sci-fi.

Firefall is Borderlands minus the Mad Max vibe plus a whole lot of Starship Troopers.

Firefall - Spicy Al's Tuna
Firefall - Intangibles
As I mentioned, the voice options are hi-larious. In addition to seeing gramps every time he dies, my redneck alter-ego is also prone to spouting gems like "mama woulda liked that one!" whenever I manage a kill. The Red 5 voice-cast is pleasantly multicultural, as the opening 10 minutes of the game features the requisite British sci-fi girl, a thickly accented Aussie (or is that a Kiwi?), and a deep basso male who says "wok" instead of "work" every time you jack into the Sin Network.

After your character creation duties are done, you're given some text backstory about an alien race called the Chosen. It seems that you're part of a small mercenary team sent by what remains of Earth's military forces to hold off the hordes of beasties, and that's about the extent of the attention I paid to Firefall's stock story setup.

Gameplay proper opens with an in-engine cinematic featuring your dropship arriving at Fortaleza, Brazil. Your remote handler, a sweet thang named Aero whose picture appears in the upper right of your screen, directs you to interface with the aforementioned uplink gizmo called Sin, so there's your first mission objective.

The aesthetics here in the newbie area are simply awesome. At the risk of repeating part of what I said earlier, I was struck by how much the game literally looks like a live-action comic book. It gets even more beautiful at the tail-end of the day-night cycle, as all the billboards and brightly colored neon signs that make up Red 5's Brazil become even more prominent. Night also plays a role in combat, since it actually gets dark.

The initial level design is similarly spectacular; it consists of a huge array of steps carved into rock faces, shallow streams, towering cliffs, and lots of tropical window dressing, all of which you could explore for hours if you were so inclined. If you'd rather get on with the shooting, your jetpack means you can navigate around or over most of this with ease to reach your next objective.

Sound design is a high point too, from the weighty clanks of your battleframe as you rumble along the ground to the whirring whoop of your glider wings deploying and the rat-a-tat-tat of the game's high-tech weaponry. Oh yes, I said glider wings. Just in case jetpacks don't kick enough ass, Red 5 has thrown in the ability to glide (at breakneck speed) quite a long ways across its expansive open world zones.

Firefall - Jetpack, er, boots
Firefall - Gameplay
Anyway, gameplay. Keybindings are standard shooter fare, with WASD handling movement duties and Q and E swapping weapons and interacting with objects, respectively. The F key paints all the target names in your area (both players and NPCs) on your HUD, and interestingly, it works through solid objects.

There's crouching, sprinting, jumping, and of course, the jetpack. If you've played Global Agenda, it'll probably feel quite familiar when it comes to managing your boost energy. The action is primarily third-person, but you can switch to a traditional FPS view by clicking your mouse-wheel.

I played an Assault over the weekend, and if you like aggressive no-holds-barred shooter action, this is the class for you. Assaults dish out AOE damage like nobody's business, primarily via their plasma cannons and four class-specific abilities (crater, overcharge, afterburner, and shockwave). These abilities work like hotbar specials in your average MMO, and crater in particular is great fun. Nothing says hi-how're-you-doing-see-you-at-the-spawn-point like rocketing into the air over a group of baddies and dropping your battleframe right on top of them, dealing massive damage (which varies with the height of the fall) in the process.

The plasmacannon also has pretty good range. After an hour or so of gameplay (both open-world PvE and PvP match queues), I had the hang of swapping between the cannon for mid- and long-range engagements and my secondaries for short range clean-ups.

So is Firefall an MMO, an MMOFPS, an MMOTPS, or whatever other acronym you'd care to come up with? That question can't really be answered by anyone other than you. Red 5 has itself declined to definitively answer it on several occasions, though the devs have said that they don't personally feel the game is an MMO. This is partly a marketing ploy, as it builds a certain amount of mystique when you have rabid consumers constantly trying to categorize your product (and making it look all the more original when they can't).

It goes a bit deeper than the usual hype, though, because Firefall gleefully mucks around with various genre conventions. Yes, it's primarily a shooter based on player-skill, but it also has progression elements, instanced PvP, gear, and loot drops, so attempting to put a particular label on it is ultimately pointless.

Firefall - gliding
Firefall - final thoughts
At the end of the day, the only concern I really have about Firefall is how the hell I'm going to fit it into my gaming schedule. This is shaping up to be the year of the online shooter because in addition to Tribes: Ascend (which has already launched and is doing quite well for itself), we also have the release of DUST 514 and the PlanetSide 2 beta coming up, probably before the end of the year.

And those are just the AAA titles.

There are dozens more in the offing, and I pity the teams that don't bring something unique to the table. Red 5 certainly has, and whether we're talking about Firefall's aesthetics, its free-to-play price point, or its curious genre-blending design, it's definitely a title to make time for. For more on Firefall, check out our impressions from early beta and PAX.

The Firing Line's Jef Reahard has a twitchy trigger finger, a love of online shooters, and an uncanny resemblance to Malcolm Reynolds. OK, maybe not, but at least if he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and you'll be armed.
This article was originally published on Massively.