Firefall is a massively multiplayer online game with heavy action shooter roots and a gear based advancement system. It's the debut game from Red 5 Studios and was announced way back in 2010. Entering beta in late 2011 the game has continued to be worked on behind the sort-of-closed doors, with only the occasional open beta weekend or visit to a gaming expo.
Whilst Firefall is planning a lot of solid features to support its player-vs-player (PVP) gameplay, the player-vs-environment (PVE) setup is at least as interesting, if not more so. Particularly for ping-impaired Australians like myself!
At the core of Firefall's gameplay are the warframes. In the first tier of these armoured powersuits, players are presented with five options, ranging from the minigun toting Dreadnaught to the medic-like Bioengineer. As you gain experience, almost exclusively through killing everything in sight, you can spend the accumulated points on unlocking new pieces of gear. Some gear lets you jump higher, withstand more damage or use your jetpack for longer. Others provide you with entirely new skills or weapons to use.
It's a slightly odd way to use experience points, but it does make a little more sense than having abitrary "levels".
Once you've unlocked enough boxes in a Tier 1 warframe you gain access to a Tier 2 warframe (surprise!). Generally this means choosing between a more offensive set of unlocks, or a more defensive or support type of gear. Buy the new warframe and swap to it in the garage and you essentially start over from scratch, earning more experience to unlock new boxes to get access to more pieces of gear to slot into your warframe back at the garage.
But in Tier 2 and higher (Tier 3+ is not yet available in the beta) you also have the option of crafting your own version of the pieces of gear you unlock. The standard versions are fine, but you can do much better with the right resources...
Those resources come from Thumpers, automated mining machines you call down from the sky to dig into the earth. You can use a Scan Hammer to find particularly rich veins of specific crystite (crystalline versions of regular minerals) or you can just call a Thumper down on any empty patch of ground. The former is recommended if you're hunting for crafting materials, the latter if you just want a bunch of critters to fight.
See, these Thumpers make a lot of noise while in operation and that noise calls in all sorts of mutated wildlife. Firefall's set on Earth, but in a shocking turn of events humanity has really screwed the planet up and now there's aliens (The Chosen) and giant spiders and killer hermit crabs everywhere. So if you go mining for goodies, expect company!
The Chosen aren't just around to make life difficult for miners, of course. In fact it's usually the wildlife that is attracted to Thumpers. The Chosen, on the other hand, see the watchtowers and settlements scattered across the landscape and decide they'd make lovely new homes for them and their families as they emerge from The Melding.
Nobody's entirely sure what The Melding is, but in-game it's a pulsating wall of blueish energy that will very rapidly kill you if you are foolish enough to enter.
Chosen patrols can emerge from the melding, or more often they will teleport in after a drop pod crashes into the ground and settles into place. These patrols can overwhelm the human defenders (both AI and players) of a watchtower and hack a central console, switching control to their side of the battle. Players can no longer respawn in that tower's spawn room after death and new Chosen patrols will start to be generated from there to head out and potentially capture more territory. This provides a lot of fun back and forth fighting, though solo players will be hard pressed to hold back an invasion by themselves.
The Chosen can also establish their own independent footholds, with turrets and shields for defense, providing a steady stream of troops for further conquest. These require the intervention of many players to dislodge from the landscape, with all players present receiving rewards for participating, should they be successful in destroying the central hub.
Then there's the really wild Melding Tornadoes. Huge, dark and liable to spill dozens of critters in the blink of an eye, these monstrosities require a great deal of dedication from players to whittle down, but the rewards in both experience and resources make it well worth the effort.
All of this action happens in surprisingly smooth fashion, given both the beta status and the unavoidable latency when playing from halfway round the world. Rocketing around the countryside is accomplished with ease and only minimal compensation is required when aiming most of the weaponry. Switching between third-person and first is a snap and both are quite practical to use in combat.
Though it is a bit more fun playing in third-person when firing off your rocket boots to roast a horde of critters crowding around your Thumper...
While the storyline and general questing are only barely functional right now, the base mechanics of Firefall are solid and enjoyable. I find myself losing an hour to it here and there far more often than I had expected.