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Sturm und drag: Firefall is a free-to-play shooter you should play--with friends

You'll likely want to play free-to-play shooter Firefall with friends.

My chief problem with Firefall lies with the pacing. It's technically my fault--I've always had a bit of an issue with wanderlust, but Red 5 Studios served up a free-to-play shooter with a gorgeous, fairly large world to explore, and then added jetpacks. Jetpacks! There's a giddy feeling of wonder to be found from sprinting through dense forests, taking potshots at the local fauna and blasting into the air to escape. A feeling that's irrevocably eclipsed the first time you strap on a glider, barrel over trees, down a canyon pass, and faceplant into a boulder because really, you have no idea how this works. Time to find another one.

Right, pacing. Firefall is a PC shooter, currently in open beta. There are points to capture, bases to defend, and all manner of guns to ogle over. But it's also an MMO. Events and quests spawn regularly, but it's up to you to hike over to them before your content-hungry peers gobble up the foes, and any prizes. It never fails: jetpack my way up the side of a mountain, plop down a glider (you can get one of your own!), and brace myself for an epic flight, only to take a peek at the map and realize that a massive, potentially fun invasion event is happening clear across the zone, and I'll likely never make it in time. Crud.

Of course, there's always something to do. Peppy assistants will chime in whenever you're near a quest, and a list of activities constantly keeps you informed of what's nearby. You can even create your own events: resource gathering involves calling down a "thumper" drilling device and defending it from enraged critters who are alarmed by the din. If you're more of a misanthrope you can initiate duels with other players, or dive into the PVP arena and partake in traditional gun-centric fisticuffs.

But I'm not really interested in all of that--I've gotten my fill of relentless player-versus-player battles in sprawling spaces from Planetside 2 and Dust 514, and was looking for something a bit more, well, cooperative. And that, as the old adage goes, means lots of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer [awesome].

Combat is rather good. It's a bit flighty (pun intended, what with the jetpacks), with a focus on verticality and fast, frenetic motion. This livens up the game's "quests" quite a bit, as the old "kill all of the things" objective is decidedly more interesting when the baddies are strafing around your shots and generally behaving a bit more intelligently than the industry-standard boar or Orc. The increasingly popular world events model works rather well here--Guild Wars 2 players will feel right at home--as players can cooperate against a common foe without ever need to form a party or even say hello. And as everything--including healing allies and gathering resources for crafting--involves planting bullets into something's face, getting that quintessential shooter-feel just right bodes well.

The game's got an undeniable sense of style, replete with bright colors, pleasantly-chunky armor, and comically large weaponry. The character models look amazing--or can look amazing, rather. Firefall's free-to-play model revolves around cosmetics, which means that cat ears and stunner shades will be limited to folks who want to pony up cash. As of this open beta, you'll also pay each time you want the wait time on a crafting project eliminated, and players who buy starter packs get immediate access to battlesuits that offer new abilities, along with a motorcycle than can speed up travel quite a bit. Nothing you can't earn with a bit of effort, and nothing that'll give you a leg up in competition. That said, I have been eyeing those motorcycles rather enviously, and am not averse to spending cash on virtual baubles.

So it's all a bit fun, provided you enjoy first- or third-person shooters--the game lets you toggle between modes at a whim, which is fantastic. It's even more fun if you stick to the beaten paths, hugging major settlements so you'll always be close to a group or a firefight. But stylish visuals and satisfyingly aggressive combat only gets me so far; two or three hours into my open-beta experience, I was getting kinda bored.

And then it hit me. Or rather, we hit it. MMORPG fans have undoubtedly experienced this: you're roaming about the map, ticking off quests or just having a look around, and there's one other person who happens to be heading in the same direction. We defend a few outposts together, and eventually form a squad--Firefall's groups. Eventually our squad grows to the cap of five people moving as a unit to take on missions, occasionally sidling up alongside other squads to defend or retake bases. And then, between firefights and standing on a cliff , we see our next object about half a kilometer or so in the distance. Someone drops a glider and we all take flight, technicolor valkyries all neon and muzzle fire.

It can be a bit sluggish. But moments like those kind of make up for it. And Red 5 Studios has promised that there will be more zones to explore later on, which bodes well for my wanderlust. Firefall is in open beta and completely free-to-play, so grab a few friends, get the client, and hop on in.

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