Monday, July 28, 2014

Firefall - Firefail

This is a hard review for me to write. I really dislike being completely negative about a video game experience, because there's a ton of work behind what I'm experiencing. Sadly, my recent time with Firefall has provided me very little to work with in the plus column.

Firefall has had a lot of ups and downs during its fairly extensive beta. I wrote a first-impressions post way back in November 2013. If you're not familiar with the game, it calls itself an open-world MMO shooter. And here let's point out one of the very few bright spots in the game: It's a competent shooter. Players cruise around in power armor (battleframes), with jump jets, and a variety of heavy weapons. It's all downhill from there though.

The game used to have a very flat progression. Experienced player A could team up with casual buddy B and newbie friend C, and everyone could have a good time. No more! Now there are 40 levels of battleframe progression, and if you don't have a near match for your friends, well, sorry citizen, go level.

How do you level? Glad you asked! Used to be you could run around, find dynamic missions to take on, find random mutated wildlife to kill, or fight off Chosen incursions. Now the dynamic content is hard to find, and leveling is driven by the infamous job boards (a.k.a. job bored). Using these super-special interfaces (but only if you're in the exact right level range, if not, sorry you're screwed, run find a correct-level board), you get to run a few KM between various random points on the map while insipid voice-overs ramble on about goals and objectives. In the end, you shoot some things in the face, and then wait for the next objective to load, while the voice-over drones on.
The game *is* pretty
It feels like there are three job board templates and the designers slapped a few name changes into them, recorded some new audio, and called them done. To make matters worse, each job board covers 2-3 slooow levels worth of content, and most have fewer than 10 missions. That means... DO IT AGAIN. This is WoW-style questing at it's absolute worst. Grade: F-

And speaking of running, I wasn't kidding when I said a few KM. I measured distance on five or six missions, and came out to 7-8 minutes of pure A to B to C running for each (3 KM average). That's not fun, that's tedium, especially when the spaces between mission points are utterly devoid of... everything.

"But Mark!" you say, "There are three zones open now! So much new content!"

To which I say: "HA!"

You see the old Copa region now only covers levels one to 24 (plus/minus). Once you finish running job bored missions there, you can move to the vast empty waste of Serato, and... run more job bored missions until you're 35ish. Then you can go to Devil's Tusk and repeat until 40. We won't mention the mysteriously vanished Sargasso Sea or Antarctica zones either.

Sure Serato is a big zone, and, in fairness, I really like the look of the place (I'm a sucker for desert worlds), but I was bored to tears running the same damn jobs over and over. The wildlife is incredibly sparse, so hunting is out. ARES missions are few and far between, and are basically the same old bomb, payload recovery, aranha pods, or still-broken raid leader missions we're all incredibly tired of. I haven't seen a single new ARES mission, and, digression: The broken raider leader mission has been broken since I last played. I've bug reported it at least three times (over six months ago). Why the hell is it still broken? Stuff like this makes me think the developers just don't give a damn any more.

The so-called open-world is a boring pile of crap. Grade F-
I actually like Serato appearance-wise. Grade A (ha something positive)
Dynamic content an endangered species. Grade F

Oh, I guess I should mention thumping, since it actually does have a reasonable amount of XP associated with it. I guess if you like sitting on a single point and shooting waves of mindless mobs for 10 minutes at a time, you could level by thumping. I think I'd rather claw out my eyes.

You'll note in my above open-world comments that I haven't mentioned the Chosen much. That's because they're pretty hard to find these days. The old tower take-overs and death-squads and strike teams are, like the ARES missions, rare as hell. I played 20-odd hours over the last few days. I think I've run into three Chosen fights that weren't part of a job board mission. Exception: Devil's Tusk, which has regular warbringer and Chosen thumper missions (except oh, not any more, Chosen thumpers are exploitable, yanked for review). Devil's Tusk actually has dynamic stuff happening too, but HA HA new players, you can't get there til you're 37!
You'll be digging hard for XP in the new Firefall

What about frames? Well, they're not terrible, with a few notable exceptions: the Mammoth, once a slow, indestructible and implacable front line for a fire team, is now a slow, low damage, slightly higher hit-point frame (and by slow I mean, the rest of the team will have completed step 3 of the job board mission before you get there slow). The remote-turret-master Bastion is now master of turrets that explode on contact with the enemy. Yes R5 has said these issues are 'known'. Well, screw that. Simple testing should have revealed these fundamental flaws in frame design *before* the early access launch on Steam. More developer-not-giving-a-damn here. Grade: D+

The R5 team also rebuilt crafting from scratch. Ability and weapon slots remain, but now you have a core slot, which is a single frame enhancement slot you can customize to fit your play style. You can apply modules, essentially gear tweaks, to each ability and weapon, with higher quality gear providing more module slots. You can make gear for each of these slots if you're willing to grind out a huge pile of mats and pay a ton of research points and crystite to unlock the recipes.

The new, simplified frame gear / ability / module model isn't bad, though someone with imagination needs to do an edit pass over the various module names, which read like Homer Simpson explaining science terms to Lisa (this is the widening module Lisa, it widens things). Sadly the UI design hasn't improved. The research interface is about 20 giant tech trees of identical icons with no actual descriptions of the gear you acquire from doing the research beyond 'plasma rifle' or 'red module'. The manufacturing interface shows when you have insufficient resources, but doesn't tell you how many you're missing, or even the base requirements of any particular recipe.

PS - color coding quality and module names? Bad idea. Now I can have a yellow blue module or a blue yellow module! Again, the level of don't care is high. Grade: C-

I should also mention the job board missions pay out vouchers, which let you buy gear / modules / abilities. Of course each voucher vendor is unique, and they only sell like-level gear, so they're kind of useless. It would have been much better to establish five or six vendor lines and share vouchers across levels so they're... actually useful when you're at level cap (it's not like we don't have five or six NPC organizations in the game world). I guess this is to encourage and enhance leveling a new frame, if you can stand the rage-inducing boredom of the leveling game. Grade: D

Hmm. Have I covered everything? Yeah I think so. No, wait.
  • Perks are little bonuses you unlock by leveling frames. You can apply unlocked perks to any frame you own. They work, and are fairly solid.
  • World travel is terrible. Zone to zone transfer is done by arc porter or a couple special jump ships. Far too limited, and oh, Serato has no arc porter.
  • Respawn points, again, Serato is the main culprit, are also terrible. Log out in Andrev Station? Come back in Dredge, half a zone away. Hope you like RUNNING (or maybe you should buy something from the cash shop to speed your travel time).
  • PvP is in there somewhere. I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to even figure out how to get to the PvP zone. The Sunken Harbor arena is still PvP though, and PvE job board missions send you there, so have fun with that!
Yeah, I think that's about it. Minor stuff Grade: D

Final verdict? Firefall could have been something. I think it's failed. I might give them one more shot if they push out a solid patch, but I don't think they have a clue how to fix the mess they've made.

What a Mess
Followup: It occurs to me that many of the big problems above stem from the fundamental shift from low-power-creep sandbox game to theme-park MMO. There's nothing wrong with a theme-park unless, as is the case in current Firefall, all the rides are teacups and merry-go-rounds. Where's my giant roller-coaster or the fun house? It's all very flat and same-y.

Footnote: This review is based on experiences with the July 2014 1.0 patch (and subsequent mini-patches), plus about eight months of history with prior beta releases.

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