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The highs and lows of the Firefall open beta

Red 5's multiplayer RPG shooter feels solid, but lacks personality.

Let me tell you a story. A giant meteor strikes the Earth, huge chunks of it raining down across the globe, while yet more remains in orbit, continually showering the planet with more alien space rock. Our world is changed forever, plunged into nine years of darkness. But that's not what Firefall is about.

It turns out that these meteor fragments contain something called Crystite, an element with boundless energy potential. Using Crystite, the human race is able to overcome the aftermath of the meteor's impact and create spaceships capable of reaching Alpha Centauri, the origin of the meteor. A colony is established on Alpha Prime to mine Crystite and ship it back home. But that's not what Firefall is about.

Fearing rebellion from the colonists, which would cut off the supply of precious Crystite, the united governments of Earth develop something called "arcfolding" - a technology that allows matter to be transported between planets in a matter of months, rather than years. However, the test flight of the first city-sized arcfolding craft, the Arclight, goes horribly wrong and it crashes into Brazil, wiping out millions. But that's not what Firefall is about.

The crash opens up a dimensional rift, called The Melding, through which pours an energy storm which completely terraforms the Earth and brings with it, apropos of nothing, an alien invasion force known as The Chosen. This, it finally turns out, is what Firefall is all about.

The standard Battleframes cover the basic assault, recon, medic and engineer classes, with the Dreadnaught filling the tank slot.

That the game uses such an elaborate and overly complicated backstory to establish two simple gameplay features - a mystical element that doubles as currency and a faceless alien horde that you'll get to shoot many times over - is indicative of the otherwise-fun Firefall's biggest weakness: its belief that complexity is the same as depth.

Thankfully, the game also has some obvious strengths, namely some enjoyably different character classes - defined by Battleframe armours that players can equip and change at any time - and a solid combat engine that means the satisfaction of a good firefight isn't lost amidst the occasionally overpowering RPG trimmings.

The game is only just in the early throes of an open beta soft launch, and changes are being made all the time, so it's hard to pin down precisely what Firefall's eventual form will be. Right now, it feels torn halfway between being a really solid - if largely generic - third-person shooter and an MMO staggering under too many superfluous systems.

In both setting and design, Defiance is the obvious comparison and even at this early stage Firefall easily comes out on top. It's much better at being an action game, its world is more interesting and colourful and there are more opportunities to stamp your identity on your character and the way you play. At least in theory.

In-game purchases won't give players an obvious advantage, but they do cut down on the crafting grind.

Enemies are rather too simplistic at the moment, with skittering beasts that are straight out of Starship Troopers and generic alien grunts who could be from any game in the last 20 years. Their AI seems to default to running towards players, shooting or biting. While the variety of Battleframes offers potential variety in the way you can fight, the actual encounters never really demand strategies more detailed than circle-strafing around the bad guys while firing continuously. Ammo and health tends to litter the battlefield, so resources are rarely an issue.

"Firefall's biggest problem right now is how unfriendly it is to new players."

Firefall's biggest problem right now is how unfriendly it is to new players. After a standard tutorial, you're dumped into the game's central hub town and walked rather clumsily through your first weapon purchase and your first attempt at crafting. Both are too complicated for what should be incredibly basic systems, and while recent updates have trimmed back the splurge of information and added some new video explanations, they haven't really addressed the core issue.

For example, crafting new items requires you to first gather resources in the wild by scanning the environment and then dropping a space drill, which must be protected while it harvests whatever you found. These are then taken back to town, where you can use a terminal to craft the elements needed to craft the items, which must then be taken to a different terminal to be equipped on your Battleframe.

There are simply too many stages to the process, and the intricacies of those stages are easily lost in the dense, cluttered interfaces and tiny typefaces that make up the menus. It's no surprise that delving into the game's forums finds plenty of players baffled by the process, and just as many suggesting that it's just as easy to stick with the stock in-game weaponry since everything is designed to wear down and break eventually anyway.

The jet boots are the game's best feature - hopping and gliding around the map is always a pleasure.

Certainly, having waded through the crafting tutorial I didn't feel compelled to return to it any time soon, and found that I was able to boost my performance far more easily by trading in XP for upgrades rather than relying on crafted equipment.

It's also not a particularly interesting world right now. It looks good, with an enjoyable mix of scenery spread across a map that feels large without being overwhelming, but as you stomp or fly from one random mission marker to the next there's not a lot to do along the way. Enemy encounters in the wild are incredibly rare and it doesn't seem like there are any ambient events that can break up a journey.

The missions themselves are standard fare - go to a location, kill the enemies, interact with a thing - but the balancing feels off. Enemies are so quick to rush the player that any solo incursions are an uphill climb. Find a mission with a few more players already engaged and the game really comes to life.

But then the mission ends and everyone goes their separate ways. The game's clan equivalent is called Armies, but browsing through them it's notable that very few have more than two players. Again, this may be down to the game still being very early in its lifespan, but it's a feature that even early adopters seem to be avoiding, preferring to romp off on their own and shoot stuff or save their interactions for the game's decent but predictable PVP deathmatches and capture modes.

Perhaps it's the way Firefall tries to be that most convoluted of genre hybrids, the RPG shooter. If you make a game that looks like a shooter and plays like a shooter, then the majority of people will treat it as a shooter and never get round to engaging with all the deeper systems.

The cartoony visual style has a Borderlands feel to it, but the gameplay couldn't be more different.

Certainly, the game currently does a poor job of selling its bewildering crafting options as something worthwhile. Sending people zooming out into the world on rocket boots, blasting bugs and space-tigers with their chain gun, and then expecting them to come back and slog through a series of lumpen menus, at terminals located in multiple locations, seems like a big ask. The gear change between the two games being attempted here is sometimes just too jarring.

But that could - and should - change. Red 5 seems fully engaged with its players and is already making changes based on player feedback. The first of the game's story missions is apparently on the way, and will hopefully give some direction to those muddled first hours of play, and as the world becomes more populated hopefully the fundamentally solid game underneath will begin to blossom. The monetisation is unobtrusive, and the core game is entertaining enough - despite its lack of personality - to make it worth putting in the hours while the wrinkles are ironed out.

That requires patience, and it's here that being free-to-play may just save it. As a traditional retail game, there's not really anything here to spark much excitement. It's currently pretty good without being particularly interesting. As a starting point, however, there are worse positions to launch from. The mechanisms are sound, and the developer is actively building on top of its foundations.

Firefall may be unlikely to become a phenomenon, but there's potential enough to suggest it's worth checking in on over the next few months.

Firefall recently entered open beta, so you should be able to sign up and play it through the official website.