'Firefall' has changed these past few months, and for the better

Firefall is not the same Firefall I played just two months ago at E3. Its colorful, subtropic environments look the same, and the jetpack-infused gunplay is familiar; but on a whole, the past 60 days have made it sleeker, and much smarter.

Firefall is not the same Firefall I played just two months ago at E3. Its colorful, subtropic environments look the same, and the jetpack-infused gunplay is familiar; but on a whole, the past 60 days have made it sleeker, and much smarter.

You can start with the broadest change of all: The Medic, one of the game's five classes (or "Battleframes") has been eradicated entirely. Its Team Fortress 2-esque healing beam boxed the player into a support-only role, which wasn't developer Red 5's intention. In its place, the Biotech has been introduced, which heals friendly units with large, AoE blasts while assaulting foes with shotguns and cluster bombs.

Progression, on a whole, has been revamped from the ground up. Players no longer level up when they gain experience, granting them access to more powerful equipment and abilities; now, they spend that experience on licenses placed in a branching tech tree. As players complete those branches by choosing which parts of their Battleframe they want to enhance, they can unlock new tiers of Battleframes. It's a much more horizontal form of progression, as players are specializing within each tier rather than strengthening, unchecked.

"We knew it was the right thing to do for the game, so we took the cost for doing it."

This system, lead designer Scott Youngblood explained to me during Gamescom 2012, was designed to make the system more PvP-oriented. Before the switch, stronger players were decimating lower-level players in the game's handful of competitive gametypes. With the licensing system, competitive multiplayer can be separated into Battlesuit tiers, ensuring that players will be equally matched based on a broad system of specializations — Tier 2 players can queue up to play against other Tier 2 players, and so on.

It's not the only aspect of the game that's been retooled for Player vs. Player combat — the game now comes with a robust suite of easy-to-use eSports functionality. As players queue for competitive matches, they can choose to instead spectate a current or recently-concluded match. The spectate screen displays all the tools a shoutcaster would need at their disposal: A scoreboard, free floating camera controls and a handful of pre-set camera options, such as static map views or "smart cameras" which detect where the action is during a game, automatically panning over to it. There are even instant replays, if you don't mind missing a few seconds of live action.

The game has been completely transformed by beta feedback, from large sweeping changes like the ones described above, to the smaller, cleverer solutions for common complaints. Take, for instance, players' concerns that getting back into a battle after dying was taking too long. To combat that, Red 5 has added "Gliders" near most respawn locations, which let players sail down back into the action after dying. It's an incredibly quick and stylish way to travel, which is saying something, as players' standard form of travel involves self-contained jet propulsion. Things are shaping up very, very well. These changes must have required countless hours to design, balance, and implement, adding more time to an already lengthy 6-year development schedule. What's more, they were added before the game even launched — from a development resources standpoint, that's mind-boggling. According to Youngblood, the time and effort is well worth it.

"It's for the right reasons," Yougblood said. "We knew it was the right thing to do for the game, so we took the cost for doing it."

Of course, changing a game — even a free one — as drastically as Red 5 did has drawn a bit of resistance from its players; even though feedback from those players is what inspired the changes in the first place.

"As expected," Youngblood said, "if you change someone's pet Battleframes to something different, they're going to rage. We got some of that. But more people are really digging the new changes. We increased the skill ceilings for the game so it's a more viable e-Sports title because of some of the skills required to use the Battleframes effectively at the higher tiers."

The only real roadbump left is its system of economy-supporting microtransactions, which will be revealed at PAX Prime later this month. Youngblood promises we won't be offended by the store, as it largely focuses on aesthetic additions, fun social items and experience, gold and resource multipliers. We'll have to wait and see how the community reacts once the store is implemented, but as for the rest of Firefall, things are shaping up very, very well.

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