Over the past four weeks I’ve been chronicling my travels in Red 5 Studios’ freshman offering, Firefall. A futuristic and post-apocalyptic MMO shooter set in real world locations but scarred by alien technology, Firefall is quite probably one of the most ambitious multimedia projects we’ve ever seen coming from an independent studio. Years in the making, no mega-huge publisher behind it, Firefall is something of an experiment for co-founder Mark Kern and his team. Can they take the established mechanics of the MMORPG, turn them on their head, and put out a world-spanning product that sticks with consumers and breaks free from the established and tired trends of a crowded genre? Well, today in our final review, we’ll tell you our thoughts on that very question. But for the TL:DR? Yes, but not completely just yet.
Firefall has been in beta since 2011, and indeed Red 5 is still very adamant about the fact that the “release” version of their game is a ways off, preferring to call its current status open beta. But worry not: if you pick up the free to play MMO, you won’t face character wipes down the road. There’s also a live micro-transaction store (using a currency cutely referred to as Red Beans), and because of these two things we’re calling Firefall “as good as live” and sticking a score on the thing. Some may disagree with this decision, but as has been discussed many times before, once an MMO is taking money and not wiping progress we believe that it should be treated as a live service. There’s a very long and well-wrought lore to the world of Firefall, but rather than recap it all here I’ll just point you to the wiki. In short, you’re a mercenary helping to push back the mysterious melding and defend the world from the invading Chosen menace. Go forth, shoot things, and grow stronger. That’s the idea.
AESTHETICS – 8
Throughout Firefall’s many forms over the lengthy beta, one thing has remained the same: its art style. Some may appreciate more realistic looks, but there’s no denying that Firefall can be a very pretty game when all of its effects are turned up. Opting for a colorful cell-shaded look akin to Borderlands over the more realistic atmosphere of something like Planetside 2, Firefall’s vistas are gorgeously rendered and its world (while small) is a joy to explore. There’s a lot of detail to take in when it comes to Red 5’s recreation of a tropical Brazil. Firefall is also one of the first MMOs in recent memory to do nighttime darkness right. In short: night is dark and you’ll want to pack a lot of flares in your backpack and use the X key to shine your flashlight for some added ambiance.
Thumping in Diamondhead
The game’s audio is nicely done as well, but you won’t likely find any memorable tunes here. After the first few hours in game, you’ll likely just want to turn on some background music from your own library. The voice work is solid, if sparse. And though some community members seem to detest them, your storyline companions Aero and Oilspill add a nice touch of having a team working with you even if you’re not partied up. They don’t fight alongside you, but they inform you of events in the area, and keep you abridged as you progress the game’s fledgling story.
The UI for Firefall is hit or miss. I’m not a tech genius, but one of my chief complaints towards the game is that its menus are incredibly laggy and unintuitive. Red 5 has been working feverishly to patch in fixes and to stabilize the servers since the open beta began, but the UI still hangs when opening menus, and in general is a bit of a pill when it comes to navigation. There's a big latency fix for the inventory and UI coming soon we're told, but it can't come soon enough. Perhaps it’s the limitation of putting an MMO-sized UI with all its many features into a game where world navigation is steered entirely by the mouse, but games like TERA have done so successfully so we know it’s possible.
GAMEPLAY – 8
We’ve touched on it numerous times in earlier review in progress pieces, but here’s the lowdown: Firefall is not your normal MMO. You don’t log into the world and go about hunting down rats and looking for exclamations over NPC heads. You’re given a brief, but competent enough tutorial on movement, crafting, and world events and then that’s it. No more hand-holding. Some will loathe the idea that the game asks you to learn how to play it, while others will revel in this very detail. Some would call Firefall a sandbox, but I think it’s somewhat prematurely given that moniker. Red 5’s game is something of an anomaly, like the melding that’s encroaching on the game world itself. There’s no good label to put on it, and you’ll either love what there is to play, or you’ll walk away unimpressed or perhaps even lost. But if you stick around long enough to see the intricate form of character progression, the meaningful and very deep crafting, and peel back the layers of the slowly forming story, I think most people would find Firefall’s design rather ingenious and impressive.
Hot lava is BAD for Battleframes, mkay?
The problems with Firefall don’t lie in its gameplay, however. In fact the shooting, gliding, jumping, thumping (mining for resources), and crafting of Firefall are all very fun indeed. There are some issues with the broken nature of scaling content (hint – don’t try to do everything solo in Firefall), but overall the game works wonderfully when there’s activity hopping on the server. The problem is that Red 5 only recently (in the past six months) figured out exactly what direction they want Firefall to go in terms of design. This is evidenced by the new story missions, the Blackwater Anomaly, Melding Pockets, and less of a reliance on instance PVP as the game’s main draw (though that’s still there and competent as ever). In recent months, Red 5 has really turned a focus towards the game’s open world content, its invasions, events, and the idea that the players will ultimately decide what parts of the world are uncovered for further exploration in the future. We’re going to shake this review up a little bit and jump right to the Longevity category on that note.
LONGEVITY - 6
Right now there are only a handful of events, a small but very lush world to explore, and a few smaller zones that you unlock as you progress. There’s one “dungeon” instance for players to dig into, and a bunch of Battleframes (classes) to unlock and test out and progress. But most MMO gamers will feel lost in the world because there’s not a lot of direction given from the get go. If you manage to find your own goals and set out to achieve them, chances are you’ll do so within a month or two at a casual pace and be left waiting for more. The biggest problem facing Red 5 and Firefall is that they’ve created a great base game that’s truly in need of more stuff to do. The developer has hinted at some big plans for world PVP in the future, more zones as the Melding is pushed back, more dungeons, more frames on a monthly basis, and on and on… but right now it’s safe to say that Firefall is light on content. You can keep yourself plenty busy working on Battleframes, crafting, and unlocking the Melding Pockets (which only recently saw a massive decrease in resources needed to be opened). But as any of the game’s players will tell you: there are only so many times you can push back the Chosen, protect a crashed Thumper, or thump for resources before you’re left wishing there was something else to do. That said, there’s more than enough to occupy your time for the price of free, and it’s fun enough that I’ll definitely be watching and waiting for more added content and jump in repeatedly as it’s introduced. And that brings us to Value.
The cost of modulators is way down since this weekend's patch.
VALUE – 10
Firefall is F2P, and I’ll be damned if you won’t find pretty much all of the game on offer for that cost of zero dollars. Yes there are plenty of things worth buying in the game (cosmetic items, teleportation devices, quicker access to new frames, and so forth), but every bit of actual content that affects your gameplay is free for the taking. You can unlock all the Battleframes simply by progressing the five base models you’re given at the outset. PVP is entirely unaffected by money as everyone’s given the same gear in the instanced PVP area. You can’t buy power as gear in the open world as all gear for frames is dependent on progressing those frames and making or obtaining items yourself. The real money currency known as Red Beans is pretty much reserved for cosmetic stuff, quicker access to new Battleframes, the ability to speed up the crafting of items (which takes real world time to process), and that’s about it. In fact, I’m actually curious if Red 5 is making money on more than starter packs, because they give you so much for free. You really don’t have anything to lose by trying Firefall, and you won’t be hammered over the head to pay for shiny things all the time as you are in most other F2P MMOs.
SOCIAL – 6
There’s a lot of fun to be had with others in Firefall. Group resource thumping, the Blackwater Anomaly instance, PvP, and more all perform really well when there is a mess of players roving about. There’s an excellent VOIP service running behind the client as well. You don’t have to group up with players to get credit for helping each other out either, a la Guild Wars 2. See something happening, join in and you’ll get the rewards. But one thing that’s really missing from Firefall is a meaningful guild system. It has Armies right now, but these are little more than glorified chat channels at present, and finding an active one to join up with is a pain in the rear even with the in-game search functions. Luckily, the community in Firefall is actually very helpful, easy to get together with via the open world chat, and pretty much everyone will reach out and give you some advice on the game’s systems if you ask. In time, with the eventual Army versus Army open world PVP that’s being bandied about, the social landscape of Firefall could be as robust as something one sees in EVE.
POLISH – 7
A few weeks ago, this score would have been lower. But every week or two, Red 5 puts out another series of adjustments and bug fixes that pushes the game closer and closer to a “complete” feeling experience. The UI, its responsiveness and occasional server wonkiness are the biggest issues facing Firefall’s stability these days. Broken events don’t happen anymore in my experience, though they were a common occurrence in the first couple weeks. In general, the game feels more and more “finished” with each successive patch. Once there’s some added content and the aforementioned UI, scaling and lag issues are remedied, Firefall will stand up with the more fine-tuned MMOs out there.
There's nothing quite like an evening glide.
INNOVATION – 9
There’s very little to Firefall that’s not innovative. Shooting and running might be the only things I can think of, actually. I mean, sure, we’ve seen the sort of public events on offer here in other games before, but Red 5’s entire game is built around the system. They’re not just things which happen and reset after a time either. Though it’s not quite there yet, the goal of Firefall’s world is to have it run something like Left 4 Dead’s Director AI… in other words, the world will respond to players and their actions and throw different challenges at them accordingly. But then there’s also the classless and level-less progression, the harvesting and crafting, the way the story’s presented, the art-style, the invasions, and on and on. There’s not really any game out there you can compare to Firefall. The only reason this score isn’t sitting at 10 is because it’s not all “working as intended” yet.
Red 5 Studios’ Firefall is an ambitious undertaking for any studio, much less a ragtag bunch of gamers who want to see the MMO genre try new things. Despite what their large presence at PAX conventions may signify, this isn’t some mega-huge publisher-owned studio. Red 5 are gamers who were sick with the same ol’ shooter and the same ol’ MMO. So they went out and started making a game they’d want to play. Somewhere along the way, they got a little lost, but they’re back on track and with a thriving but small community they’re onto something very special. It’s a little rough around the edges right now, but I’d heartily recommend Firefall to anyone who’s sick of the same old MMO fodder. Just be prepared to roll with the work-in-progress nature of the game, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the fun on offer.
Bill Murphy / Bill Murphy is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com and RTSGuru.com. He’s a lover of all things games and geekery, and has been writing in the field since 2002. In his spare time he likes to skin whales and wear their blubber as squishy but effective body armor (not really).
Read our four previous review in progress pieces to supplement this review: