Choose My Adventure: The distraught wives of Firefall

"There is no problem in this world a gun can't solve." These words, to my knowledge, are never explicitly stated in Firefall. There's no wise-in-his-grizzledness war veteran to rub his stubbled chin, frown into the distance, and impart such wisdom upon the player. But make no mistake, Firefall's world is one in which most tough situations are resolved with the thunderclap of gunfire. In Firefall's New Eden, violence really is the answer.

In last week's Choose My Adventure column, I asked you to help guide my path through this dangerous world, to give my character an identity, a role to play, and a purpose to fulfill. Votes were cast; suggestions were made. I've since created a new character and blasted my way through the re-re-re-re-designed tutorial/opening experience. And while I am, as always, having a wonderful time, I still can't get over my one recurring Fireball criticism: I'm shooting a lots of stuff but I don't care or know why.

Learning the ropes

I have started a new character in Firefall three or four times since 2013, and each time it has been a completely different experience. The current iteration offers what I would consider to be the best opening so far. There's a brief, chaotic tutorial that introduces you to combat and the battleframes, and then you're immediately tossed into the world to chase your fortune and glory. All gas, no brakes. Aero, Firefall's longtime voice on the radio, gives you some basic missions to complete that further strengthen your grasp of the controls and the three-dimensional elements of Firefall's movement and combat; after that, you're ready to set off on your own.

Adventuring has come a long way in Firefall. There was a time when thumping (defending a resource gathering machine from enemies) was the only thing to do. After that, dynamic events became the main way to pass the time. But now the game has an actual campaign that presumably moves Firefall's Important Story forward, propped up by side quests and all the other stuff that used to take center focus. It's a huge step for the title and one that founders and beta players have long awaited.

More than ever, actions in Firefall feel connected. It's much less a collection of random unrelated events and much more a cohesive world. But the problem is that your actions in that world, at least at first, don't feel impactful. And a big part of that problem is the overall shallowness of the design and the inherent limitations of questing through gunfire.

A wife in need

There's a small gap between Firefall's new player experience and its freshly added campaign. Because the campaign is locked behind a level gate (a weird concept for Firefall) and completing the initial intro missions won't get you high enough to go through it, you'll have to gain some experience doing other things. There's the wandering content of old -- thumping, invasions, ARES missions -- but there are also new dynamically generated ARES jobs that are effectively the same types of quests you'd see in any other MMO. Someone needs help, you help that someone, you get experience and loot, repeat until leet. ARES jobs add a layer of direction and progression that Firefall lacked in previous versions and give you something to do in your story/PvP downtime.

I have completed three of these missions as of writing this week's CMA entry. They weren't bad, but they were uninspired, uninteresting, and unengaging. They were also identical; each quest was titled "A _____ in Need," where the blank was filled with either "Wife," "Father," or "Mother." The mission? Talk to a woman with the incredibly compelling character name of "Distraught Wife" and help her find her husband. Or talk to a character named "Distraught Father" and help him find his daughter. I'm not expecting Shakespeare in my quest design, especially in a game with hundreds of quests, but adding just a little bit of personality to characters can go a long way toward making me care about their plight, especially in a world where quests are mechanically confined to ending in a shootout. The TL;DR version of every Firefall quest I've experienced in my history with the game is "Go here, shoot things," and it's on Red 5 to make shooting those things seem necessary and important.

There's a reason people remember Mankrik from World of Warcraft's Barrens. It's because Mankrik was a character (his wife admittedly less so) with emotions and motivations. If Blizzard had named him "Distraught Orc" instead of Mankrik, the quest would have been forgettable, an afterthought. And oddly enough, Red 5 has taken the time to name some characters in these little quests. "A Mother in Need" features Sarah (the mom) and Derkas (the son). There's no rhyme or reason to who does and doesn't have a name; some NPCs might as well be named "Quest Giver #37" or "Guy Who Needs Help." The stories are interesting for what they are (person trying to help family ends up in danger), but the laziness of the writing really saps a lot of their potential impact. Single-player shooting is not compelling enough to keep people playing unless the story is powerful enough to carry it, regardless of the game.

This is where we hit the meat of what bugs me about Firefall. The game entered beta in 2012. Red 5 has been accepting money from players for two years. And now, in August 2014, Firefall is supposedly a full retail product. So are we to judge it as a polished final draft? Is "Distraught Wife" the best we can expect from the Firefall team? Or is it a remnant of the former chaos of the studio, a last reminder of Mark Kern's efforts to torpedo a game people desperately wanted to love? At what point does the slack tighten?

I'm hopeful it's a tiny little issue in a sea of positive change. Firefall is a better game today that it has ever been, and the core joy of shooting, flying, running, and exploring is still intact. That's nothing but impressive from a team that's been through a development process that sounds a lot like a dash through Sen's Fortress. I'm genuinely expecting that the campaign will show what Red 5 can really do when it sets its full attention on storytelling.

And now, the tough part. Because we know what we're doing this week (playing the campaign!), there aren't too many choices to be had. But I've cooked up a few little options.

First and most important, tell me what color my battleframe should be:
%Poll-89110%
Second, tell me what you want to see in next week's final Firefall stream:
%Poll-89117%
And finally, talk to me about the type of game you'd like to see featured when September rolls around:
%Poll-89122%
That's that. Get your votes in by Saturday, August 23rd at 11:59 p.m. EDT and be sure to tune in to my Firefall streams Thursday, August 21st, and Friday, August 22nd, at 7:00 p.m. EDT. In next week's column I'll talk more about life as a Firefall engineer and offer some closing thoughts on the game's campaign. If you want to play along, my character's name is GiantButt (which I swear on Dota was a name given to me by the random name generator).

I'll see you in New Eden.

Mike Foster is putting you in the driving seat of Choose My Adventure, the Massively column in which you make the rules, call the shots, and take the blame when things go horribly awry. Stop by every Wednesday to help Mike as he explores the ins and outs of games big and small and to see what happens when one man tries to take on a world of online games armed only with a solar keyboard and the power of spellcheck.
This article was originally published on Massively.