Firefall preview: The sprawling beta

Firefall has had a long road to release, but it seems like that journey is finally coming to a head. Red 5 Studios recently began monetizing the free-to-play game with Founders Packs, which grant a priority beta queue spot and tiered bonuses. The game's soft launch makes it seem ready for a full release, even if the development team is still keeping that timing close to the vest. In a guided, hands-off demo at PAX Prime, lead designer Scott Youngblood showed me around the newest features and explained the team's intent for its MMOFPS fusion.

Quite a bit has changed over the game's beta phase, most notably to the game's various Battleframes. The Assault, Dreadnaught, Engineer, Recon, and Biotech (formerly Medic) Battleframes aren't traditional multiplayer classes, but rather starting points for the customization options. Picking a Battleframe should be based on your level of "twitch," according to Youngblood, which Red 5 hopes will make the game accessible to shooter fans of different skill levels.

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The tech trees have been revised recently, so each branch carries a distinct theme. Customizing a tech tree to your liking makes for a staggering number of possibilities, but you don't have to commit to just one. You can slot various load-outs for different classes, and the game lets you purchase additional slots. If a player is satisfied with his or her perfect build, that's fine, but Youngblood suggests that different situations will call for very different types of Battleframes.

This is still an MMO, so I saw hints of the usual elements like resource gathering and map exploration. Laying down a mining drill called a Thumper gathers elements for your army (aka guild), but also tempts creatures to attack. This makes for PvE battles that can take place anywhere the Thumper finds minerals to mine. PvP battles take place in their own designated zones, but the entire game sprawls across a large map with shaded elements. These can eventually be pushed back by the efforts of your armies to access new areas, and Youngblood said any new maps the team develops could be hidden behind the shade and then sit waiting to be discovered.

If combining disparate MMO and FPS elements weren't enough, Red 5 also wants the game to have a presence in the eSports market. To this end, it's created a pretty impressive spectator mode, allowing live viewing or replays of highlighted matches. The camera is smart enough on its own, hopping from player to player to assure the viewer understands where they are in relation to each other. But beyond that, the directorial control looks robust enough to support the kind of insightful commentary required for an eSport.

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So far, the for-sale items in the free-to-play title come down mostly to the Founders Packs. Youngblood highlighted a few "for fun" items, like a tiki torch to inspire dancing or an alcoholic consumable to get drunk, but he stressed that none of the items will impact gameplay.

Firefall certainly isn't rushing to the finish line. It's taken a measured approach and slowly built up to its current point through extended testing. But all that time has let it carve out a unique identity of its own, making it unlike anything else on the market -- shooter, MMO, or both.