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Monday, March 12, 2012

Screenburn: Starhawk, Tribes, and Firefall

Well readers, South x South West may rumble ever onwards but the ScreenBurn Arcade portion wrapped up yesterday. Fortunately Azeroth to Zork was there and, as promised, we have coverage of the biggest games on display.

If this year had a theme it was definitely “Fight together or die alone.” Co-op modes and gameplay were prevalent, like what we saw in Mass Effect 3 earlier. This may just be because co-op matches lend themselves well to demoing a game, but they were certainly hard to get away from.

First up we have Starhawk, a third person action-shooter for the PS3 with a space western theme. The gameplay mode I saw had a small team of players working to defend a giant rig that was pumping delicious glowing space-juice out of the ground. Waves of enemy infantry, vehicles, and aircraft spawned and attacked the rig, which was sturdy but not invincible.

What made things interesting was the so called “build and battle” system, where players could call down walls, turrets, supply stations, and vehicle deployment pads. The buildings are deployed from orbit to almost anywhere on the map and unfold in seconds, though sadly it appears you can’t actually drop them on people’s heads. Resources for buying buildings and vehicles are limited, but their use gives the game a strong RTS flavor. Other highlights included a very cool looking vehicle that seamlessly morphed between fighter aircraft and bipedal mech.

Another standout was the upcoming team-based online shooter Tribes: Ascend. I didn’t actually get a chance to play, just watch, but from what I could see characters are incredibly fast and mobile, equipped with jetpacks and able to skip across vast maps with tremendous speed. Weapons, on the other hand, fire slowly and frequently have one-shot or very small clips. There’s a lot of emphasis on speed and aerial agility to avoid getting hit, combined with a need for high accuracy and leading your shots to hit your equally nimble opponents. Watching a group of players bound and careen through the air trading colorful blasts was a visual treat.

The centerpiece of the show was definitely the Firefall demo. Their booth was heavily decorated and big enough for about twenty people to play at once, which was good because it better simulated the sci-fi MMO-shooter experience Firefall aims to create. The game contains a potent mix of features from many of the games we’ve already talked about.

Players control “battle-frames”, which expose an improbable amount of skin, (especially on female characters) but at least have a clear art direction that stands out from the usual mess of generic powered armor. Frames have clearly designated roles, like Assault or Medic, and are restricted to only a few slots for weapons and powers, but you can swap between different frame load-outs at in-game kiosks with few mouse clicks. You’re not button-holed in-to any one role if you want to try another, although experience appears to only be earned for whatever frame you’re using at the moment. They all have a limited jetpack- boost feature, so it’s all good. 

Really, you can't go wrong by adding jetpacks to stuff.
The demo starts off with some fairly generic MMO gameplay at a colorful sea-side resort. The game is apparently set on Earth, but something has clearly gone wrong because the beach is crawling with giant bug creatures. Combat is pleasingly fast and furious, with enemies dropping plentiful health and ammo pickups to encourage you to keep fighting rather than hiking back to town if you get low.

Most of the missions were standard fetch-this/kill-that fare, but one had me defending a mobile resource extractor that touched down from orbit to drill tasty future-money out of the ground. (Notice another running theme this year?) The drill’s arrival stirred up the bugs, and I had my hands full defending it, but before it could finish filling up on space crystals the town fell under attack and I was teleported back to help defend it.

Firefall will apparently contain a lot of open world PvE scenarios like this one, although exactly how random and balanced they might be, as well as what degree of participation will be required, isn’t clear. In this case a huge, ominously painted ship parked overhead, raining weapons fire and drop-pods full of heavily armed jerks and more giant bugs onto the town. Suddenly all those different types of turrets scattered around make a lot more sense.

The bold and colorfull graphics are reminiscent of Borderlands.
The players had to defend the town’s multiple power generators while trying to clean up the drop-pods and lay into the ship when it dropped its shields to deploy more. Keeping our giant AA turrets up and running helped a lot. The scenario really gave the more support themed battle-frames, like the engineers and medics, a chance to shine. As expected with any shooter there were still plenty of snipers crowding the rooftops, picking away at the enemy and periodically getting vaporized by the attacking ship. Swapping to an engineer frame I was able to use my force-field and turret to cover one approach to a generator and provide some handy cover for my allies. 

The scenario ended when a timer ran out and the enemy ship cloaked and sped away, leaving us victorious. I was told that if we’d done enough damage we could have blown it up and earned bonus rewards, but the whole thing was still highly playable and tremendous fun. The game is supposed to be free to play, and I look forward to giving the beta a try if my invite request goes through. If so I’ll keep you all posted.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.

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