I made a bit of a shameful admission to Scott Youngblood, lead designer of FireFall, and I'll make the same admission to you; I had never heard of FireFall before PAX East. Granted, the free-to-download, free-to-play, almost-MMO action shooter was only announced a few months ago at PAX Prime, though it has been in secret development for close to five years by Red 5 Studios.
Mr. Youngblood was good enough to chat with me about FireFall while I tried my hand at fragging some of the other folks in attendance at the Boston Convention Center. The game is played entirely online, across multiple game modes. There is a shared, open world that can be inhabited by hundreds of players at once, as well as instanced matches ranging from 5-on-5 to army against army. The armies are FireFall's equivalent of guilds, and unfortunately, Mr. Youngblood wouldn't let out how large army vs. army matches would be.
Team deathmatch was the only mode playable at PAX East, which is good enough for me, as it was a blast. After you successfully deplete an enemy's health, you have the ability to finish them off from close range with an execution. It takes two or three seconds to pull off, but executing the downed opposition is a surefire way to score a point for your team. Sure they can bleed out as well, but in this period there's always the chance that a teammate revives them, denying your team the points for your hard earned kill.
The map I played at PAX East was wide open; a large playground of powered suits making boost-jumps and frantically gunning each other down. We weren't told how many maps would be available in the final product, only that the developers plan on expanding on the world post-release, so we can expect updates with new maps well into release, free of charge. Maps will never cost the player any money. And the map, like the character artwork, just looked good. The thick outlines that go along with cel-shaded art made the entire game look like a smooth running comic book. My eyes were very pleased during our play session.
Aside from competitive matches, there are also cooperative scenarios to keep like-minded players working toward a greater cause. Resource gathering is a large part of the game, but while doing so, the world will not slow down as you reap rewards. Thus gathering is probably best done in teams, as you'll have some help fending off the worlds hostile mobs. We didn't get too in depth into resources, but crystite is one of the resources that is extremely important, used in just about everything in the world. From what I've seen, 'mining' consists of an orbital drop of equipment called a Thumper, which mines for you and attracts mobs, allowing you to play defense. That's all good, especially compared to resource gathering in other games. However my fingers are crossed that it gets no more tedious than Thumping.
Now let's talk classes, which FireFall calls battleframes. The build we played featured three; the offensive minded assault frame, supporting medic, and fast moving, light hitting recon. Just a note here, the developers have made absolutely sure that the medic, while a support class, is not limited to that, with the ability to be a viable offensive force on its own. I can vouch for that, as I was able to register quite a few kills as a medic on my own. Each battleframe has its own special abilities and weapons. The primary weapons have alternate fire functions, which can be changed as new weapon modules are found in loot or from enemy drops. The battleframes also have secondary weapons, as well as unique skills, which each had three in this build. As in most team-focused games (the well designed ones, anyway) working together is encouraged and rewarded. Aside from basic assists, there are several classes that can execute abilities in unison to increase efficiency on the battlefield, further proving that teamwork pays off. Each frames abilities are all on cooldown timers, which can be foregone if you know your maps and find the proper power-up, one of which completely resets your timers.
I'll say it again; FireFall is entirely free, so any type of customization we get is gravy. Fortunately. there is a modest amount of customizing you can do. You'll be able to buy or find better gear such as entire frames, modules, and different backpacks, which will only visually benefit you if you play in the very viable third-person perspective. By now you must be thinking, the true customization begins when you start shelling out the cash for this free game, right? Yes and no. Mr. Youngblood was very explicit in stating that you will NOT be able to purchase power. So the the broke guy playing in his school's computer lab can still be on even ground as the chick who spends her week's pay on Firefall. Buying will however, net you things like different colors for your frames, extra backpacks, and items to beneficially affect the resource gathering process.
FireFall has incredibly promise, not only because it's free to play, but because it's fun to play. I'd advise you to head over to the FireFall homepage, where you can sign up for the beta, which if it's anything like what was playable at PAX East, is considerably polished for a beta build. FireFall hits retail -- maybe I should say freetail -- at the end of 2011 as a PC exclusive. And in the words of Scott Youngblood himself, "Hope to see you online.. In my crosshairs."