This week, Zero Punctuation reviews the free-to-play MMO shooter Firefall.
Buying a video game in the traditional manner is like booking a weekend in a nice warm bath of milk: sometimes the milk is unpasteurized and contaminated with lumps of shit, but it's nice to get away from things and at least lumps of shit give you something to talk about. In contrast, free-to-play games are like being given a cow: it was free and there's still milk to be had, but you're gonna have to put some effort in to get more than a few squirts out of it, and for some reason the cow has a large variety of optional hats and sunglasses.
Fortunately, I have a policy against spending any money on free-to-play games, because a game bought from a store might cost a hundred bucks, but at least you'll never somehow lose track of how much money you've spent on it, barring a severely malfunctioning cash register or Alzheimer's. I bring this up 'cause this week, I've been playing Firefall, a free-to-play massively multiplayer shooter. Now there's an evocative six-word phrase, possibly right up there with "before running screaming from the room."
Firefall has a plot, and frankly after a bunch of hours playing, that's all I'm prepared to state with certainty. From what I remember, Earth's fucked. A dice was rolled on the usual "fuck the Earth" table; on this occasion it landed on "big asteroid". But wait! Firefall plays its roll-again card with the +1 modifier and the Earth gets fucked a second time when the dice lands on "misuse of miracle element." Slow down, intro cinematic, I'm still mentally digesting the first round of fucking. Thankfully, neither fucking is the kind that means we don't get to fly cool spaceships or wear glowing armour, so we boldly step into this bleak arena now the backstory's being hurled at us like a fucking custard pie.
As is tradition for me, I immediately sought the rudest name I could get past the profanity filter. "Buggernuts" was rejected immediately, but no objections were raised at me playing as Mr. Titwank, Esq. Maybe enough people might want to use the name "Titania" that you'd let the "tit" part slide, but I'm shocked you didn't think I'd consider "wank", Firefall. Man, I've had titwanks on the brain lately. Time I filled some water balloons and bought a new bottle of washing-up liquid.
As the game begins, we're dropped into a war zone and must swiftly choose our class from the five options of burly person in power armor Nos. 1 through 5. Why is TF2 still the only game that's figured out how to make each class immediately recognizable? Firefall resorts to floating symbols above the characters; you might as well just slap Post-it notes on their foreheads.
Anyway, I pick the assault class and start trying to get involved, except my gun wasn't firing when I clicked the mouse because I always keep my gamepad plugged in and sometimes games can be iffy about that, I guess because they're designed by people who can reach their USB ports from their couch. But it was while I was in the option menu sorting this out that I heard my earpiece assistant lady say, "Wow, you're really good at fighting battles, Mr. Titwank. Good job!" Fuck you, earpiece lady! I know you have to say it to everyone, but you could at least wait for a moment when it won't sound disingenuous! Anyway, turns out the whole battle was a VR sim or something and then some officers show up and say they too were impressed by the way I navigate option menus under pressure.
So we enter the world proper and our quest begins! I'm at a bit of a loss to explain what our quest is, though. I think this is a case of too much setting and not enough plot. I'm reminded of a piece of writing advice I was once given: is this the most interesting period of our character's life, and if not, why aren't you showing us that? Things must have gotten really interesting when the Earth was being fucked, but that's all past. Here in the present, all I seem to do is fight bandits and aggressive wildlife and resolve domestic disputes, like a game warden who moonlights as a social worker.
So the intro cinematic establishing the double-fuck backstory started to feel like setting up a Modern Warfare game with a brief history lesson of Hitler's Germany. But MMOs never do good story 'cos they have six million protagonists and model themselves on a factory production line job. They usually build appeal by grinding you down with tedium until the slightest breaking of the monotony in the form of a level-up sound effect becomes more precious to your ears than a single word of grudging praise from a stern father figure. So imagine my surprise when Firefall turned out to be somewhat fun to play as well!
Well, first of all, Australian internet is still like a piece of frayed string tying a dead horse's cock to his balls, and online shooters particularly suffer when the world in which a monster is in my sights as I fire my gun may not be the world that the server currently occupies. Assault was probably the best class to pick 'cos the main weapon has area of effect and direct hits aren't necessary, but even then I could land four direct hits in a row before the game jerked awake and went, "Bluh! What? Four hits? Nope, doesn't count, I wasn't looking."
But after a while, my mind sort of shifted gear until I was about a second behind the rest of the universe and I actually started enjoying myself, 'cos rather than the usual MMO arrangement where combat entails standing opposite the enemy and the two of you quoting numbers with each other until the guy who quoted the lower number falls over, the maps are designed with a bit of verticality and you can use jump jets to dodge around and change position, which is hilarious when swarmed by monsters with no ranged attack 'cos you can just take to the air and fire straight downwards, laughing at the groundlings as they bitterly consume your jetpack farts.
I also like how they do missions. No fannying about looking for glowing exclamation marks highlighting people who think I give a shit how their husband disappeared; there's just one job notice board in each town. You pick a job, get on a glider, bam! No nonsense. Plus, the scenery's nice enough for gliding between destinations is fun in itself, and since you can't do it from just anywhere, it's not so easy that it stops being special.
So on the whole, fun gameplay if nothing else. But I wonder if it might actually be bad business for an MMO to have fun gameplay, 'cos it throws the combat into focus and when it inevitably got repetitive, I lost interest. You see, the brighter flame burns out quicker; keep things on a WoW level of grim mediocrity sustained with the occasional defibrillation of level advancement and you can keep the engine running for years.
There's always an issue reviewing MMOs when I can only devote a week to what demands a long-term commitment, but I think Firefall may appeal if I were the kind of person who could commit to just one smack addiction. Sadly, I'm firmly subscribed to the Crystal Meth of the Month club.
- Flash, aa-aah: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Coincidentally the word "Firefall" also offers complete instructions on how to commit suicide with a gun
- "Oh That Mr Titwank" coming soon to Channel 4