Beta tests have begun to feel like glorified demos with the game's features and mechanics generally set in stone before it's opened up to the testers. As soon as night falls in the Firefall beta, it's clear Red 5 Studios wants to test the crap out of their game. The lengthy test period lets them experiment with everything, looking for the right mix of challenge and gratification, or simply checking out a new aesthetic. Trying things to see how they work is exactly what a beta test should be, and the team is taking every advantage to play with stuff other MMOs might not get a chance to try. Developers can debate whether a feature will work or look like crap until they are blue in the face, but seeing how it works with a large group of live players is an incredible asset to making the huge leap into the free to play MMO market.
And even though the game's been in beta for a while, lead designer Scott Youngblood's team keeps at it. After the latest patch in this April, nighttime in Firefall is dark. I mean, really dark, way darker than what passes for night in other MMOs. The darkness feels more at home in a scripted sequence from the survival horror genre, even if it's not quite so scary. The cycle between day and night takes about thirty minutes, so even if it's dark you'll just have to wait a while before the sun comes up again. We don't know if the night will end up that dark in the open release version of Firefall, but dang it if the designers aren't dedicated to seeing the reaction from players.
Of course, that doesn't mean the beta doesn't have huge holes in its gameplay, bothersome glitches and a general lack of content. Without the lore in full evidence in the beta, I've been able to piece together the story of Firefall from trailers and interviews with the creators at Red 5 Studios. On a future Earth already wracked by one apocalypse that brought a new energy resource, the human race attempts its first lightspeed jump using a massive spaceship called the Arclight. The jump fails, and the Arclight crashes on the Brazilian coast. At the same time, a purple energy storm called the Melding envelops most of the Earth. The surviving humans band together to gather crystite to try to reverse the purple storm. There's also a new alien race attacking human settlements and a bunch of newly evolved bug monsters keeping the pressure high.
That's the barest of setups, but it's really all that's needed to inform the gameplay of Firefall. As the player character, you need to gather resources, and there are aliens trying to stop you. That's it.
You have several tools to help you in that goal. You have a gun with class-based abilities, a standard alternate rifle , and a new flashlight to help you see in the darkness of night. But you also have a battleframe supplying a brief burn of lift to help you jump around the landscape. Every player has five battleframes to choose from - which boils down to a typical shooter "class" - and you can switch between them by accessing a battleframe station. Don an Assault battlesuit, and take on all the characteristics and powers of the Assault class, such as a massive kinetic "Hulk" smash damaging all enemies around you. Switch to a Medic battleframe, and you have a heal gun and a healing wave ability. Engineer, Recon (think sniper) and Dreadnought (think TF2's heavy) round out the classes. You level up each suit independently, so it's possible to specialize, say, in setting up turrets as the engineer or healing, but the devs believe savvy players will eventually have all classes leveled.
At its heart, Firefall is really just a third-person shooter with persistent MMO elements. To succeed, you must have some skill in aiming your gun and avoiding fire, but how much skill you need depends on your battleframe of choice. Loot is also important. New guns and battleframe components will drop from random enemies, but you will also get rewards from merely leveling and collecting resources. These rewards have battleframe level requirements, so you might get a new healing gun you can't use unless you are level 3 in medic, for example, and these help towards motivating you to earn XP by killing bugs. Sometimes the reward is a pattern for an item you have to fabricate yourself from resources you collect in the world.
And resource collecting is really the only thing you can currently do in Firefall. After the opening cinematic, you are dropped into the former resort called Copacabana and you have a few introductory quests that serve as a basic tutorial of how to gather resources, including blowing up resource nodes with sonic detonators and scanning for underground resources using a "scan hammer". But after that, there's virtually no PvE content in the beta except a single daily quest to stock up on coralite or other ores with made-up names. It's a good thing that collecting those resources still ends up being enjoyable.