Beta tests have begun to feel like glorified demos with the game’s features and mechanics generally set in stone before it’s opened up to the testers. As soon as night falls in the Firefall beta, it’s clear Red 5 Studios wants to test the crap out of their game. The lengthy test period lets them experiment with everything, looking for the right mix of challenge and gratification, or simply checking out a new aesthetic. Trying things to see how they work is exactly what a beta test should be, and the team is taking every advantage to play with stuff other MMOs might not get a chance to try. Developers can debate whether a feature will work or look like crap until they are blue in the face, but seeing how it works with a large group of live players is an incredible asset to making the huge leap into the free to play MMO market.

And even though the game’s been in beta for a while, lead designer Scott Youngblood’s team keeps at it. After the latest patch in this April, nighttime in Firefall is dark. I mean, really dark, way darker than what passes for night in other MMOs. The darkness feels more at home in a scripted sequence from the survival horror genre, even if it’s not quite so scary. The cycle between day and night takes about thirty minutes, so even if it’s dark you’ll just have to wait a while before the sun comes up again. We don’t know if the night will end up that dark in the open release version of Firefall, but dang it if the designers aren’t dedicated to seeing the reaction from players.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the beta doesn’t have huge holes in its gameplay, bothersome glitches and a general lack of content. Without the lore in full evidence in the beta, I’ve been able to piece together the story of Firefall from trailers and interviews with the creators at Red 5 Studios. On a future Earth already wracked by one apocalypse that brought a new energy resource, the human race attempts its first lightspeed jump using a massive spaceship called the Arclight. The jump fails, and the Arclight crashes on the Brazilian coast. At the same time, a purple energy storm called the Melding envelops most of the Earth. The surviving humans band together to gather crystite to try to reverse the purple storm. There’s also a new alien race attacking human settlements and a bunch of newly evolved bug monsters keeping the pressure high.

That’s the barest of setups, but it’s really all that’s needed to inform the gameplay of Firefall. As the player character, you need to gather resources, and there are aliens trying to stop you. That’s it.

You have several tools to help you in that goal. You have a gun with class-based abilities, a standard alternate rifle , and a new flashlight to help you see in the darkness of night. But you also have a battleframe supplying a brief burn of lift to help you jump around the landscape. Every player has five battleframes to choose from – which boils down to a typical shooter “class” – and you can switch between them by accessing a battleframe station. Don an Assault battlesuit, and take on all the characteristics and powers of the Assault class, such as a massive kinetic “Hulk” smash damaging all enemies around you. Switch to a Medic battleframe, and you have a heal gun and a healing wave ability. Engineer, Recon (think sniper) and Dreadnought (think TF2‘s heavy) round out the classes. You level up each suit independently, so it’s possible to specialize, say, in setting up turrets as the engineer or healing, but the devs believe savvy players will eventually have all classes leveled.

At its heart, Firefall is really just a third-person shooter with persistent MMO elements. To succeed, you must have some skill in aiming your gun and avoiding fire, but how much skill you need depends on your battleframe of choice. Loot is also important. New guns and battleframe components will drop from random enemies, but you will also get rewards from merely leveling and collecting resources. These rewards have battleframe level requirements, so you might get a new healing gun you can’t use unless you are level 3 in medic, for example, and these help towards motivating you to earn XP by killing bugs. Sometimes the reward is a pattern for an item you have to fabricate yourself from resources you collect in the world.

And resource collecting is really the only thing you can currently do in Firefall. After the opening cinematic, you are dropped into the former resort called Copacabana and you have a few introductory quests that serve as a basic tutorial of how to gather resources, including blowing up resource nodes with sonic detonators and scanning for underground resources using a “scan hammer”. But after that, there’s virtually no PvE content in the beta except a single daily quest to stock up on coralite or other ores with made-up names. It’s a good thing that collecting those resources still ends up being enjoyable.

Firefall‘s gameplay centers around huge mining apparati called Thumpers. These 20-foot-tall drills can be called down from space, and once they land, immediately begin “thumping” the ground searching for resources. The beat acts as a beacon for all of the creatures in the area to spawn in and try to attack it, so the player has to defend against wave after wave of increasingly more difficult baddies. Teamwork among the classes works really well here, with an engineer’s turrets and repair stations aiding the assault and dreadnought classes in shooting the buggy bastards. Currently, the waves feel a bit too scripted, with roughly the same sequence of enemies popping up each time, but hopefully Red 5 will add more variety to spice things up.

The enemies in Firefall boil down to bugs and bad guys. Aranhas are a species of spider-like creatures with various special varieties like ones that inflict poison damage or explode in fire. They go down pretty quick to a few shots and serve as foot soldiers. Bigger monsters with more HP called Rageclaws and Terrorclaws, only spawn when a Thumper is thumping away. These bugs can usually only hurt you through melee attacks, but watch out for the big flying mosquitoes with a nasty ranged stinger. Other than the “wildlife”, beware of the weird whispers that mean the alien Chosen are nearby. I played Firefall with surround-sound headphones, and more than once the demonic whispering made me whirl around my character in fear. The Chosen are humanoids wearing mysterious black armor and wielding guns, and you’ll mostly see them when random events occur.

Two of the three random events in the beta can happen anywhere in the game area and they offer a bit of a diversion to break up the monotony of resource collection. A crashed Thumper might need to be defended from Chosen so you can salvage parts, or you might be tasked with wiping out a small patrol of Chosen nearby. The events are open to all players to participate, but most of them can be soloed fairly easily. There does appear to be some dynamic difficulty calculations in effect, so you might need to call in help if more people are online at the time.

The ramped-up difficulty is definitely true of the Chosen Incursion event. A huge Chosen ship will drop down near the fancy beach property of Copacabana, and the players have to assault the Chosen hordes, knock out the generators, and destroy the “Warbringer” dropship. The whole event takes a fair amount of coordination among players, and easily feels like the most developed content in Firefall‘s beta. The designers promise that dynamic events will effect the world, with Chosen taking over towns if they aren’t defeated, but that hasn’t yet been shown in the beta.

PvP is another diversion, and can net you some resource rewards as well. There are four maps and they include standard team deathmatch rules and the attack and defense of a series of nodes. Fighting is vicious, and each class needs to work together to survive the onslaught, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done in other games. There’s little consideration for the newbie, as players just starting out don’t have much chance at defeating guys who’ve been playing a while equipped with fully upgraded battleframes. I’m generally awful at PvP shooters though, so your mileage may vary.

I know it is only a beta, but the world of Firefall feels pretty empty. Upon starting, you plug into the SIN (Shared Intelligence Network) of the surviving humans in Copacabana and get a map of the habitable area surrounded by the Melding. You can go to the edge of that map, and discover a few new SIN terminals in settlements, but these buildings are devoid of NPCs or any content. I spent time poking at the edges of the Melding, but soon realized the purple haze will kill you fast. There was such a lack of stuff to do, I couldn’t help exploring in the hopes I would find something to entertain me. Other than a few abandoned old cars, there was nothing.

Red 5 Studios has been opening up the beta of Firefall to players in waves slowly since December 2011. It’s clear that lead designer Scott Youngblood and his team want to concentrate on perfecting the core mechanics of the game before moving on to seeding the world with content. No monetization has been implemented either. There’s no way to tell how the free to play elements that Red 5 CEO Mark Kern says will support the game will feel beside the current offerings from merchants in Copacabana like crafting patterns and consumables.

I imagine the slow build of content and the iteration of mechanics will only strengthen the game as it gets closer to release. I hope the very dark night is just one of the many experiments the team is willing to try before dismissing it outright like it might be forced to do if Red 5 were on a strict release schedule.

Firefall is in a true beta test, with all the empty space, glitches, bugs and bold ideas that entails.

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