Is Firefall, The9’s Free-to-Play FPS Gamble, Any Good?

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I’ve been excited about Firefall for a while now. The game, developed by The9-owned Red Five studios, is a free-to-play shooter the company has big plans for globally, including throughout East and Southeast Asia. Firefall could be The9’s first big international multiplayer hit, and the stakes are pretty high given the company’s dire financial situation.

But is the game itself any good? This past weekend I got the opportunity to participate in a closed beta for the game, which hasn’t officially been released yet. For new players, the game starts with choosing a class and designing a character. I chose the generic assault class and made a few tweaks to my character’s appearance, although there weren’t an awful lot of options. After an oddly long loading time — I’ll write that off as a quirk of the beta — I found myself in what appeared to be some kind of transport spaceship, drifting over an alien planet. Before long, the ship had touched down, and the real game had begun.

Firefall is a massively-multiplayer first-person-shooter (FPS), although it can also be played from a third-person perspective. Players move about an open world competing quests, and although I saw lots of other players in my time with Firefall, I didn’t really interact with any of them. Sometimes we were shooting the same enemies at the same time, but it often felt almost like a single-player game, though I didn’t progress very far and things may change later on.

The best thing that I can say about Firefall is that it feels great. The controls are natural, and the addition of rocket boots that give players — well, at least the assault class — a temporary upward boost really helps make the game feel unique. There are also temporary glider wings that can be picked up and used at specific spots, and gliding around through the game world is smooth and fun. In fact, I enjoyed the gliding enough that I wish it had been made into more of a core mechanic of the game. Think about how the “skis” in Tribes give that game its own totally unique feel; I think there might have been an opportunity to do something similar with the gliders here. As it is, they’re fun, but they’re only available when you happen to run into them.

Visually, the world of Firefall didn’t impress me. That’s not to say that it looks bad; it’s no Crysis but for a free-to-play game the visuals are top notch. The art design is less impressive, and the sci-fi jungle environments I explored didn’t feel particularly special or unique. (That said, I was only able to check out a small area of the map during my time with the game, and it’s possible there are more interesting areas out there). The world also feels pretty chaotic, and with tons of NPCs and other players running around. Everything felt very dense, and not in a good way.

But Firefall’s real failure was in its missions. After an early one required me to blast some enemies, I was given a new mission that entailed mining something or other out of the ground using grenades. I understand that grinding is a part of MMO games, but this is also an FPS, and throwing grenades at the ground isn’t all that fun or compelling. In fact, it’s pretty boring. My boredom was compounded by the fact that the directions for this mission were terrible. I was directed to use “the call-down menu on my nav wheel” to select the grenades, but I never found any such menu and my mouse’s nav wheel did switch between weapons but didn’t seem to allow me to select anything. Ultimately, I figured out how to throw the grenades by accident, but I wasted my first few throws tossing grenades at an objective marker before realizing that the marker wasn’t actually marking the location I needed to mine, it was just placed in the general vicinity of my objectives.

Having finally figured out what I needed to do and how to do it, I mined the ores I needed and took them back to someone, who promptly directed me to use a nearby console to build…something. I didn’t quite catch what he (or maybe she, the characters are very forgettable) said, and when I opened up the console menu I was presented with a staggering array of dozens of options of things to build, and no indication of which one I needed. I messed around with it for a minute or two, but I still couldn’t figure out how to make what I wanted, and I realized I didn’t care. I didn’t feel any connection to any of the NPCs I was talking to, I wasn’t doing any shooting in what was ostensibly supposed to be an FPS game, and I decided I didn’t need to bother with the missions anymore.

Wandering around the game world at random was more enjoyable, and I was able to jump into a few firefights, and even got myself killed once or twice. I also rescued another player who had been knocked down. It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had in an FPS, but it was way more interesting that throwing grenades at dirt, and I couldn’t help but wonder why the game didn’t have me doing fun missions like that to learn the ropes instead of wandering around searching for ore markers to throw grenades at.

I’m sure there are plenty of far more interesting missions later in the game, but Firefall‘s failure to captivate at the beginning could be a death sentence if it isn’t rectified before the final launch. The game is free, so many players aren’t going to feel obligated to push on and “beat” it the way they might a title they have already spent money on. Instead, they’re just going to do what I did: shut it down, and fire up some other more interesting game (my post-Firefall game of choice was X-COM: Enemy Unknown, which is incredible).

Firefall is also going to face some tough competition in the free-to-play FPS market when it is released. It already has to compete with the excellent Tribes: Ascend, and the free-to-play mech FPS Hawken opens this Wednesday. Firefall is likely to be better marketed and better localized in Asia than either of those games given that The9 is a Chinese company with offices across Asia, but even the best marketing can only get users in the door, and it’s never going to be enough to keep people playing a boring game.

The tragedy here is that I don’t think Firefall necessarily is a boring game. But for me, it made a pretty boring first impression, and for a free-to-play shooter with plenty of excellent competition, that may be all it takes.

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