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Stuck in freefall: ‘Firefall’ in review

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Firefall is one of those games that demonstrates just how much of an effect “developer limbo” can have on the finished product. Over eight years in the making, the finished product still feels half-baked at best. There are some redeemable and even commendable ideas here but for every step forward; the game takes two steps back. The end result is a game that you want to like but the flaws will drive you away.

Set in Brazil after Earth got slammed with not one but two world changing events, a meteor impact and an alien invasion, Firefall slips players into the power armor boots of Ares 35 as a global military organization known as the Accord tries to repel an invading alien race known by the wonderfully original name of the “Chosen.” Names aside, the opening premise of being a free agent with a suit of power armor and a jetpack in a beautifully realized war-torn world sounds promising. Unfortunately the wheels start to come off the game the instant the player wraps up most of the starting quests. Which is a pity as there are a few things Firefall does that would be nice if they appeared in other titles.

While Firefall is, in essence, a role-playing game, it joins similar titles like Global Agenda in trying to bridge the game between RPGs and the growing community of online team-based shooters like Battlefield or Team Fortress 2. Players select from five different classes, each with their own anime-esque “battleframe” power armor, and can change classes freely at the appropriate station. The tradeoff is that each class is leveled up separately so while experimentation is allowed, finding a preferred class and sticking with it is strongly encouraged. The crafting system is refreshingly hands off, just queue up your tasks in an automated machine and you can pick it up at the next terminal on your travels, but somewhat unrewarding as most of the crafted items will be outstripped by better gear you pick up off the ground. Which is a pity as how Firefall handles group events and mining is actually fairly cooperative. Resource collection is a two-step process, striking the ground with a surveying tool then calling down an automated drilling rig on the most ideal spot. Once set up, the player must defend it from waves of attacking monsters for five minutes. During that time, other players can drop in and help out. If they contribute enough to the machine’s defense, they can get a share of the experience and mining yields once the drilling rig finished. Other map events work very much the same way, even if you arrive too late to start the quest you can still hang around and help out for a percentage proportional to your contributions. Given how defending a squad’s mining thumper often has a higher reward for time spent compared to doing quests, being able to drop in like this helps deal with the grind.

Grinding in online games, that is the repetition of monotonous tasks (such as the infamous “slay ten rats” quest) for experience and treasure, is expected to an extent. Yet there is also a fine balance between being enjoyably tedious and just plain tedious. Firefall unfortunately does not maintain that balance particularly well. While taking place among many imaginatively designed vistas along the coast of Brazil, the aesthetic appeal is marred by how much time you will spend repeatedly walking back and forth across these same vistas until you’re prompted to move onto the next location hub to start the process all over again. And there is no real relief from this tedium until level 25 where the player unlocks a quest that allows them to craft and summon their own vehicle. There are dropships forming a “bus service” between major travel hubs but more often then not the quests send you a good five to ten minutes away from town mostly spent running and flying over obstacles to cut down on travel time all while annoying non-player characters are chirping away in your ear.

Story writing is arguably the most difficult and under appreciated aspect of designing a game for potentially millions of players, most MMOGs try to work around this with a minimalist approach, global story events necessitating a cast of thousands and small pest control errands. Now one can tell a number of engrossing stories with the basic plot of Firefall, being injected into the eleventh hour of a war with an alien species that isn’t going well could lead to a number of “hot seat” decisions that would make for good storytelling. But the potential is ruined thanks to a generally unlikable cast of NPCs and a forced morality play littered with logical fallacies and straw men that feel so forced it hurts. I have never felt less motivated to save the kingdom, planet, or galaxy from annihilation then I have playing this game. If the cast of non-player actors isn’t being overly preachy and whiney, they’re spiteful to you and each other simply for the sake of being spiteful. Your job agent and mission coordinator Aero is arguably the worst offender of the lot thanks to her grating and repeated insistence on picking fights with your clients over contrived ethical issues instead of just letting them carry on with their own self-destructive stupidity.

Summery: Firefall is an okay but not exceptional free to play online game. An interesting premise, decent mechanics, and graphically beautiful world are marred by long travel times, tedious grind, an average crafting system, and a story that is as flimsy as it is naively moralistic. If you are looking for a proper futuristic wargame, stick with Planetside 2. Even the most abrasive player in PS2 is more appreciative of your presence then most of the NPCs of Firefall, three out of five stars.