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Free for All: The confused state of Firefall's first few hours


As part of my research for an upcoming article about MMO shooters, I have been playing a lot of Firefall. There are definitely worse assignments in the world. I really, really enjoy the game; I love the fact that I can do almost anything I want even within a short play session and feel as if I accomplished something. Of course, the current enlightened state I am in does not reflect the game's non-newbie-friendly designs. As a matter of fact, the only place I was able to turn for reliable explanations and non-stop answers was a reader of Massively who recognized my name in the chat.

This reader and I have played together several times, and he went out of his way to answer all of the newbie questions that should have been answered by the game. I know that the developers have said (through Tweets to me and in other places) that a better newbie experience is on its way. There are also friendly little helper robots sprinkled throughout the game and a handful of helpful videos that can be found as well.

So why are so many new players still confused about Firefall?

Firefall screenshot
If you want to see the confusion I am referring to, just log into the game on a busy night. Keep an eye on that chat log because you're about to see a whole ton of new players asking, "So what am I supposed to do?" while other players answer, "Whatever you want!" I've seen the same behavior from players and designers in sandbox titles, offering vague advice that -- I guess -- is meant to elicit a feeling of being lost in an epic, open-world. The opposite usually happens: Players feel lost in a game that has no direction. That wide open world begins to feel claustrophobic and just not fun.

It's been a while since I started, and the game allows only one character per account. I'm not sure whether this lack of multiple character support comes from an earlier game design that emphasized factional PvP, but to get around it I had to start a new account to check out the tutorial again.

The tutorial starts off by throwing you directly into a noisy battle. I have for a few years now been plagued by tutorials that do the same thing. RIFT and other titles seem to think that all players want to get right into battle without taking a moment to understand who they are in the game or why they are there. Sure, much of the time it is explained later, but what's wrong with letting players build up to war, with giving them time to feel immersed? This seemed more common in years past in games like Ryzom or even World of Warcraft.

Firefall's tutorial is loud, and the voices explaining things are cranked way down. It's possible that a player could adjust these settings immediately, but should a brand-new player be required to do such a thing from the get-go? A new player is led through a Chosen attack (who are the Chosen? Chosen to do what?) and eventually makes her way to a SIN uplink. The SIN is sort of a binding spot that unlocks the local map of activity, and it is one of the few things explained pretty well. Once again, though, the voices are covered by a noisy game. Also, why am I referred to as "pilot"? Is that a reference to my suit of mechanized armor or to something else?

Firefall screenshot
Soon enough I was sent into a mission that pitted me against waves of Chosen enemies. While I did OK, I can only imagine that a new player might feel a bit overwhelmed simply because of unfamiliarity with the controls. At the same time, I had a hotbar with abilities in it. Luckily, my previous experience with the game meant that I basically knew what they were, but was the game ever going to explain that to me during these important newbie levels?

At one point I was overwhelmed in this newbie mission and was rezzed by a helpful NPC (I guess it was meant to help me go about the tutorial), but the timing was off. I was rezzed right in the middle of the same bunch of baddies who killed me, and they promptly started to kill me again. I broke away and came across a glider, the ever-impressive mode of transportation that is unique to this game.

There, I would have expected a simple video or text walkthrough on how to operate the glider. When I played before, it took me a long time -- and a question to the chatbox -- to figure out that I needed to keep the glider constantly tilted at a certain angle or I would plummet to my death. A new player might think that hitting the jetpack button (space) would help the glider rise. Instead, you step onto the glider pad, are launched into the air, and are told to keep it just right... whatever that means. Later in the tutorial, I was sent to a waypoint to borrow an LGV, a space-agey motorcycle that handles so poorly that I would rather run. Then I was sent to another waypoint to grab more broken-down LGVs, but the waypoints disappeared before I got there (did another player get them before I did?). Then the female helper's voice broke in with yet another mission, located nearby. Did I need to do that mission instead? Was I done with the tutorial? Which helper is more important? Which voice do I follow?

Once a player is out into the world, the real confusion begins. I have witnessed newbie after newbie after newbie beg for more information in the chatbox. To the credit of the community (and to my new friend who helped me), most questions were answered, but many just left a void of more confusion.

"Is there PvP" asked one. That player later found out that there are only duels.

"What am I supposed to do?" asked another. "Try thumping," he was told, without further explanation.

I will always argue that it is the job of the MMO -- sandbox or not -- to explain the basics of play. There is nothing noble or hardcore or clever about hiding information. Making the initial stages of a game a whirlwind of competing "helpful" NPC voiceovers ("Go over here, boss." "Hey boss, here's another." "Hey, there are some people thumping over there!") as well as making a game that has public quest-like goals that often disappear before the new player arrives just creates a bad experience.

Firefall screenshot
I am sure that the developers of Firefall will introduce a better tutorial eventually. To be fair, the game does provide some helpful videos in-game to explain battleframes and other systems. The issue is that these helpful bits do not go nearly far enough. The game has already had a long, confused development cycle and enough drama for a dozen games. Was it supposed to be a PvP game at first? Was it going to introduce larger world events? What the heck was that ex-CEO guy saying? Who knows?

All I can say at this point is that it is a fantastic game, once you find someone who can explain it to you. Make an account, log in, work through the almost useless tutorial, and quickly befriend someone who is willing to jump on Skype to answer your questions. If you do this, you'll find a game that is unique in so many ways. Really, it's a fun game. Really.

Firefall is a very three-dimensional game of combat, crafting, teamwork and RIFT-like "random" events. It looks absolutely wonderful (it's probably my favorite game as far as graphics), and while it features a small landmass, there are plans to open it up a lot more. Here's hoping that the recent drama subsides and the game gets on with it. If it can survive the loss of newbies to less confusing shooters, than I can see it becoming a really unique, worthwhile MMO by the time it officially launches. I have a ton of fun in it, but it's sad that my fun came only when I found someone able to fill in for the game's lack of explanation.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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