A peculiarity occurred last weekend. Due to the sudden aligning of Mars and Venus and, err, the solar plexus, and an open beta and a Steam sale, there were suddenly MMOs charging up my gangplank with forceful yet thoroughly open and welcoming expressions on their launch windows. Namely, Firefall is the one which has sired an open beta, and Defiance came walking into Steam dressed to kill. They're strikingly similar, sharing the unquestionable and indefinable trait of somehow appealing to me, and they both have the honour of being the first MMOs I've played in ages. I mean, aaaaaaages. Speaking of which, I should dig out my Collector's Edition of Tabula Rasa. That thing's still going strong, I assume?


Firefall (Open Beta)

This game has seemingly been in development forever. I remember first being excited about Firefall, I was thrilled that it looked to be an MMO with straight-up shooting mechanics on what looked like an alien world. Finally, I had a successor to PlanetSide that I'd always ached for! That should be a good indication of how long ago this was.

Firefall's first impression is one of beauty. It looks gorgeous. It looks colourful. It looks like a cartoon paradise. It looks like Borderlands. The game takes place in future Brazil, post-apocalypse. And, may I say, sir, your post-apocalypse is the best one I've ever seen. In fact, it's just the one I want. White, sandy beaches; crystalline, turquoise sea; azure, infinite sky. Not to mention city hubs that look like someone decided to start a Tiki bar and just didn't know when to stop building (it's probably not coincidence that all those dev videos I got excited over years back kept boasting that the company had a Tiki bar on premises, the bastards). Behind the beaches, hills rise up into lush tropical jungle. The world is very much vertically-inclined, hills and cliff faces dominating the landscape, navigation provided through roads not much bigger than footpaths. This fits nicely with the game's two chosen primary forms of locomotion, jetpacks and the soles of your feet.

It's perhaps hideously unfair to point it out, considering that this is, it must be stressed, an open beta, but from what I gather the game's traversal mechanics are complete, which means that getting around the world is always going to be a bit of a pain in the butt. The paths meander and deviate, and the cliffs are often too high to jetpack over, which means that unless you like a long slog you're stuck with the two other ways allocated to you to move around: glide pads and dropships. Glide pads boost you up a few dozen metres before unsheathing fixed wings made of blue energy. This'll propel you for a few hundred metres before you make landfall again, which'll get you about a third of the way to the nearest outpost (and the next glide pad). Dropships bumble between several key locations dotted around the map, but they don't always take the same route as one another, and there's no indication which way the next one will be going, which sort of makes the whole affair like waiting for a bus blindfolded. I'm not asking for a button to push to go somewhere magically via load screen, but being able to call those dropships like taxis would be quite nice.

Anyway, there's also combat. It does, indeed, operate on the solid philosophy of pointing and clicking on the object you wish to interact with (shoot), in the finest tradition of both adventure games and bloodthirsty virtual murdering. Your class, or battleframe, dictates what weapons and abilities you possess. There's five, including archetypes like an assault with a plasma rocket launcher thingy, recon with a scoped rifle and an engineer with a grenade launcher and turrets and so on. You can switch between them at terminals in hubs at will, and any experience earned is class-specific. There's, additionally, two further specialisations for each class that allow you to spec up more distinctively, which can be unlocked through copious grinding or unhurried application of your wallet. They can all buzz around with their jetpacks, and the shooting is responsive enough to be enjoyable. If you want any tactical nuance to combat, it seems PvP (which takes you to separate arenas) is the way to go, as PvE has provided me exclusively with enemies that rush towards me eagerly trying to gnaw my face off. Feel my jetpack's backwash, cretins. Quests specify whether a group is recommended to take them on, or if it thinks you can triumph solo, but I've done several of the latter and still been thoroughly trounced, so either I need to sharpen up or a group is always necessary.

Random passing players can assist in your thumper's defence, which is neat.

There's also resource accruing, which is handled by smashing the ground with a giant hammer to reveal a window telling you what juicy minerals are under the soil, then calling in a thumper pod to greedily gobble them up. The thumper, err, thumps, annoying the local wildlife and compelling it to attack, so you need to protect your pod until it dings like a microwave and can take off again. It's alright. Bit samey once you've done it a dozen times or so. All these resources turn into numbers which, from staring at them on the menu screens for a not-inconsequential amount of time, are absolutely terrifying. There's just too many different kinds of numbers, for all different purposes. Some are for virtual currency, some are for virtual currency that you can buy with real money, some are for converting one to t'other, some are for minerals, organic components and gases, each of which can improve your battleframe in different ways, and others are XP that is specific to different objects in your possession. And others, which I've no doubt forgotten. I'm frozen with fear just thinking about dealing with them all again. Look, I'm absolutely sure that the existence of so many different resources is just the result of balancing and design getting a little out of hand, but to the uninitiated it can look an awful lot like intentional obfuscation of the economy, which, in a free-to-play game, will only make people conclude that the makers are trying to trick customers out of their money. A little simplification will certainly go a long way, and I'm hopeful it'll happen before the game launches.

Because it is very sunny and pretty. If my winter break is in Firefall, I'll count myself lucky.

Defiance

Hey, did you hear this was tied-in to a TV show on the Sci-Fi (no, I'm not going to spell it the other way) Channel? They fucked up a bit there, as the moment I heard that fact - even before it was repeated over and over in previews, reviews and promotional materials - I lost all interest in Defiance. Maybe I just have too little faith in contemporary American science fiction television, or maybe I'm just suspicious about how committed the channel will be to the game (after all, the last thing they tried to make "big" was Red Faction: Armageddon), but I was suddenly intensely wary.

It was a little over $13 in the Steam sale on Thursday, which was low enough to compel me to watch some game play videos, read some forum comments and scan the Wiki for information. Fun fact I discovered #1: Defiance does not require a subscription. Huh. Fun fact #2: Defiance (the show) will have a second series. Huh. Fun fact #3: Some people quite like Defiance.


Now, I am one of 'em. Hurrah!

It's a bit janky, but it has heart. The writing is terrible, a point which does not compel me to give the show a try, and it's all a bit grey and murky (did I mention how Firefall has azure skies?), but once you're in it, it's relatively straightforward. You aim and shoot, the combat is fairly responsive (when not under lag's hypnotic glare) and it has a nice assortment of features. The menus are clear, the progression easy to understand, and there's deft touches visible all over that betray Trion World's obvious experience in the genre. I guess the aspect that won me over most, though, is the cheaply produced science-fiction TV feeling that has carried across to the game. It's apparent in the alien design, which obviously must be distinct from human, but not too unusual to warrant expensive rubber suits and multiple hours of make-up. So, a funny shaped nose and dreadlocks. It's apparent in the costume design, which feels like the characters inherited and cobbled together the wardrobes and props from Gears of War and Fracture and various other games. It's even apparent in the repeated models and textures dotted around the environment, much like reusing old sets. Others may find it a turn off, but I find it utterly charming.

Playing is quite strange at first. Running through the tutorial, and warping to the starting zone, feels like any other MMO. It plays the same chords, and you're suddenly thick with latency because there's two hundred other new players running around with their names displayed above their heads, mobbing the quest-givers. When you venture further afield, however, and get into missions, there are times that you may forget you're playing an MMO. In a group, it's a bit like a co-op shooter (not the very finest of co-op shooters). On your own, it's like a third-person action game (a passable action game). You'll sometimes run into other people running the same quest, and the game will dynamically link up your progress, so when he or she pushes a button the objective will clear on both your screens. Out in the world, your HUD will sometimes display an icon denoting an Arkfall, which are random events open to all where players congregate to fend off waves of mutants and churn experience. You can also enter distinct co-op missions, which are short and sweet, and while you're waiting for your lobby to fill you can carry on with whatever you're doing in the world. Then there's adversarial multiplayer (PvP, if you must, though it feels like the moniker doesn't really apply here), the matchmaking of which works similarly to co-op.

This screenshot accurately captures the experience of an Arkfall. If anything, it's not confusing enough.
There's a few problems, some down to a lack of clarity of on-screen information (for instance, your inventory has a nasty habit of clandestinely filling up), and some down to menu navigation that, in places, was clearly designed for a controller. The quests are, so far, of a singular nature: go here, kill all the baddies at the waypoint, press "Use" on a piece of machinery. The social aspects are pretty barren, the community choosing resolutely not to interact with one another. I've appealed, in vain, for intercourse from my peers in chat to no effect. It's eerie how there is zero banter. Nothing. I've not seen a single message or response in over a dozen hours playtime, which leads me to believe that all the other players are just cunningly-programmed AI.

Put together, maybe they point to a game with a lack of long-term appeal, but in the here and now, Defiance is very inviting and enjoyable. Sweet!

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