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Firefly Online Gets Gameplay At SDCC, But Can It Withstand The Fans?

Firefly Online Gets Gameplay At SDCC, But Can It Withstand The Fans?

Filed inside: Games

Settle in, kiddies, there’s a lot to be said here.

At this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, in an unassuming room on the second floor, many people’s dreams would come true. Or be shattered, depending. For in that packed room, we would finally get our first look at the coveted Firefly Online, the game to continue the series that is the dearest to the most people in the known universe.

Understandably, of course, the internet exploded. There were a few cries of joy, but much of what I’ve been seeing is a mass run for pitchforks and torches, people all worried that it looks terrible and won’t be able to stand next to the rest of the entries in the Firefly story. This game is exactly why I’ve chosen to approach these situations in the manner that I have. While I can’t necessarily say these people are wrong, there are concerns, they’ve leapt to a conclusion based on a product that is far from complete, and generally because it didn’t fit into the mold they were already envisioning when it comes to a game like this.

So first, in case you missed it, you need to know what you’re looking at.

Firefly Online Planetside

Imagine a game in three parts: a strategic turn-based combat game, a space exploration game, and an MMO-like community all rolled together into one package.

Before the presentation started, we had a revolving set of images to sort of set the stage. Concept art of lever-action rifles with futurist attachments, a number of different styles of grenades, character archetypes of mechanics and mercenaries, and even a render of Malcolm Reynolds himself. This raised more than a few questions, until the trailer confirmed—through in-game footage and the appearance of Nathan Fillion himself—that the Serenity crew would be involved.

Now, no matter who we found out was behind this game, there would be cause for concern from some parties, I imagine. If, for instance, we’d discovered that EA was publishing the game and it was being developed by something like Visceral studios, we’d be concerned that it was too much about gunplay, not character, and would be wrought with EA’s shady business shenanigans. If it were some unknown or tiny studio, we’d instead worry that it would fall short of scope or just be generally terrible.

What we got was something quite unexpected. The game is being developed by Spark Plug Games, a studio that’s mostly done mobile work—some of which has been quite popular, however. It’s being made in conjunction with Quantum Mechanix (Qmx), a Los Angeles-based collectible company that makes high-quality replicas and collectibles based on popular science-fiction series such as Star WarsBattlestar Galactica, and of course, Firely and Serenity. It’s an unusual combination, to be sure, but has provided some unexpected benefits to the game’s development.

This is one of the reasons it’s been so easy for people to settle into such a hostile front here. The studio is one more known for casual excursions on platforms that are less conducive to what many would want to be a core gaming experience. But the Qmx brand is a strong one that has many of the blessings of series creators in many different areas.

Early footage displayed in the trailer shown before getting into the meat of the panel was sparse, and suffered from some technical issues here and there, instilling an initial sense of discomfort in me as I furiously scrawled notes in the dark. Fears began to subside, however, as I heard the devs talk about the game more.

I’ve said it before, but sometimes it really helps in these situations to listen to the team talk about their product. Their not some ragtag bunch of cubicle monkeys that were approached by Fox studio execs that only want to cash in on the ever-present nostalgia surrounding the series. They were passionate folks. They’ve been with it from the start like the rest of us. And while passion for a project surely doesn’t equal quality, it goes a long way to assuage fears that you’ll have a group that may not respect the IP as much as you do.

The lion’s share of information came from the game’s lead producer, Andy Boor, and the lead designer, Adam Hogan. The led with a rather large announcement, as well—the original cast of the series are all returning to reprise their roles as the members of the crew of the Serenity, a big win for overall production values and the like.

The game is being built in the Unity engine, which is again a source of contention among consumers. Unity is great for fledgling devs to whip projects together in a relatively inexpensive and complex manner, and is capable of some great things—Ori and the Great ForestThe ForestAmong the Sleep, MonochromaBroforce, and Wasteland 2 come to mind. At the same time, its often relegated to simple mobile titles and (usually) doesb’t provide much in terms of high-end visual fidelity.

Firefly Online Malcolm Reynolds

The live demo we saw at the very least confirmed that the game has a solid grasp on its look. It’s not trying to be something it’s not, but rather is striking off with a look of its own. While ships and space can generally be taken as they are, characters have a stylized look about them that’s almost cartoony without being overly distorted or relying on things like cel shading for a striking visual look.

It all fits well with the theme of the game, in my mind. You’re a captain of a ship. You might be a hero in some senses, but for the most part you’re just trying to make your way in the ‘verse. You’re one of many, forging ahead, taking jobs as they come, and trying to find your place. The game doesn’t portray you as the bulky superhero or the hyper-sexy lady captain. People don’t have sixteen packs and breasts larger than their heads.

So, how does it play? That’s a more complicated answer than normal, and invites its own set of major concerns alongside exuberant nods of approval. Gameplay is divided into two distinct varieties, with a smattering of MMO elements throughout.

While in space, you take a sort of EVE Online-esque exploration game, of sorts. Unlike EVE, however, the controls in this are simple, the HUD is minimal, and you’re not going to be spending a lot of time doing anything but flying through space to find…stuff. Spark Plug has taken Qmx’s Complete and Official Map of the Verse and modeled every planet on it. You can jump between  worlds (provided you have the fuel to do so) and simply approach it to land.

In MMO fashion, other players will of course be flitting about in their ships, as well, following objectives for jobs, hunting down resources, or hunting down other players for sport. There is no ship-to-ship combat in the game—it was only very loosely touched upon in the movie Serenity, instead you can board an enemy vessel by catching up to it to initiate combat on the enemy ship. When pressed on the issue, the devs indicated that this is a game that is planned to continue to expand for quite a long time—ship combat isn’t impossible to implement, but isn’t planned for launch.

Ships in this sense will be expensive, but also quite modular. You can customize ships in a massive number of ways, both inside and out. While there may not be as much functional reason to do so, you can swap out engines, apply paint and insignias, and tweak all other bits and pieces to make a ship all your own. Inside, you can decorate to your heart’s content, altering wall placements, laying down rugs, placing tables and chairs, hanging art, whatever you like. This is a touch more deserving of your time and energy—when enemies board, they’ll be engaging you on your turf in a ship laid out as you have decided.

Firefly Online Landing

Flying toward a planet will allow you to land to seek quests and interact with the locals. While the live demo quickly moved from space to a particular settlement, I imagine that some planets might feature considerably more civilization to explore.

While on a planet’s surface, you move about in a manner more akin to a game like Shadowrun Returns, speaking with various people and interacting with other players, as well as shopping about for resources and components for ship customization. Down in these places you can also find work, as well as find more members to join your crew. Sometimes, you might find trouble, as well, which leads into the third subset of gameplay: the combat.

It’s actually quite easy to describe how the game’s combat is going to function: just play XCOM: Enemy Within or Shadowrun Returns. It’s strategic, turn-based combat, meant to instill a stronger sense of fear, and less a sense of blatant heroism than a shooter game might. Essentially functioning by comparing stats and things like distance and angles relative to targets, the game uses die rolls to determine hits and damage in a highly tabletop-like scenario.

When landing on a planet, you select an away team of (at least as displayed in the demo) up to four people, including yourself as captain. These crew members will have different sets of skills based on some of their stats, and many of these abilities are also chosen by you to affect their growth as they gain experience. You can create demolitions experts for area-of-effect damage and denial, solid Jayne-like tanks, or long-range snipers. You might bring a doctor with you that has few-to-no combat skills, but can stabilize and keep your crew alive in emergency scenarios.

You’ll be taking cover, shooting, tossing grenades, and scrapping for your life against not only groups of NPC humans or other players, but it has been confirmed that you might have some run ins with with the cannibalistic Reavers, as well.

While players are given choices in not only the way their crew grows, how they look, and what they’re carrying, but quests and jobs will also have divergent paths and decisions to make to affect how they’re completed and the rewards you’ll gain. Even more important—as Firefly has always been a show about the characters and their interactions over anything else—your crew members will all have personalities and morals (or lack thereof) that will be effected by your decisions.

If you’re going into a job knowing you’ll be double-crossing your handler, you might want to bring crew members of a less noble standing. If you continue to display that your disposition is opposed to a particular crew member’s, they’ll not only become disloyal, they may leave your crew altogether, taking all their gear and skills with them.

Even better, these jaded ex-crewmen can develop a grudge against you, which may return to bite you in the ass—crew members that leave enter a global pool from which they can be hired by other captains. You might run in to a player who has hired your old demolitions guy, and brought him to the party. No indication yet on whether or not that grudge gives them any bonuses against you, but the potential for the feeling of betrayal is almost too delicious to pass up.

The narrative was one of the most compelling parts of the series and the film—not only in terms of the story of each episode and the characters that inhabited it, but the lore of the world and the history therein. This was a point of interest of much of the audience, as is really any foray people take into this space. The main setting of the game is immediately following the series, but before the movie Serenity.

The Alliance is still in full operational capacity, untouched by the events of the Broadcast. Browncoats still gallivant about the less settled portions of space, scraping together work and eking out an independent existence. While many games (MMOs especially) traditionally feature two major factions with some smaller loyalties interspersed within, Firefly Online will feature many more than that for you to choose to ally with. You can decide to join up with the Alliance and promote civility across worlds, or the Browncoats, of course. While not many more were detailed, Andy did say that Niska was also offering some work here and there to those willing to take it.

The devs also expressed that, should the game be successful, we could expect there to be additional modules for the game exploring other time periods—of particular interest to them is the Independence War that created the divide that’s so pervasive in the show. They’re deliberately shying away from expanding into otherwise unexplored temporal territory. Without Joss’s involvement directly, for example, they don’t want to move into post-Serenity stories.

Firefly Online Pistol

Imagine if you will, then, that this is a game aiming to be the MMO that pervades more of your life than usual. After all, many major MMOs can generally only function on PCs (console MMOs perform notoriously poorly), but the Unity engine affords this game a little more wiggle room. The game will be releasing through Steam, sure, but will have its own login portal and system. You can make an account right now at the game’s site, actually and that account will function for you across all platforms—PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. You can play on PC for a while, pick it up and head out while picking up your progress on a tablet (maybe a phone).

Additionally, the devs have been working on implementing a series of tools to allow players to create content on their own as well. While they’ve spent considerable effort in ensuring that the story they’ve crafted is one that people will appreciate (apparently the actors have said that the script read very much like an original episode of the show), but want to give players the opportunity to tell their own stories, as well. As such, players will be able to put together their own quests to dole out to other captains.

The system wasn’t detailed with specifics (remember, the game is in insanely early alpha), but there may be benefits in both directions for taking part in content creation: special rewards for those that take these jobs, and enhanced rewards for the creator, perhaps.

This introduced a bit of doubt to me, however. As more was expounded on the various systems that would be included in the game—as great as many of them sounded on paper—it started to sound more and more like the devs were getting too ambitious. Perhaps it could be cited as poor phrasing but whenever they were asked a question about a feature or gameplay component it sounded like it was on their list of things to do, a list that kept growing and growing and—in my mind—couldn’t possibly be executed in time. They did say that some of the features were planned for post-launch updates, so it may be that they have a more adequate vision of what the game is going to be at launch.

As it stands, for example, they have fully human crews as a “high priority”, but it likely won’t make it to launch. You’ll have to settle for just you controlling your captain and crew, and your friends handling their own avatar. I’m not really certain that having other friends control individual members of a crew would be conducive to gameplay anyway. It might be more interesting to see a strategic take on traditional MMO raids, with multiple crews entering large and highly dangerous spaces, having to coordinate actions across asymmetric stages.

Firefly Online Ship Screenshot

In all honesty, the demo footage was fairly lackluster. I can understand people’s predilection for rage at what they saw, but many only got to see the trailer—which only displayed the mobile version of the game. A quick scan through some video reactions had at least a few cries of “Don’t worry, visuals will be updated,” but I still don’t understand why people are so utterly focused on the visual aspect of the game.

If I were going to worry about anything from the game (and I am a little worried, but that’s healthy) it’s this kind of odd gameplay divide, and the threat of the game falling short of promises to emulate the feel of the series. I don’t like that I worry about that, because I’m so often a proponent of adaptations like this across different media forms and how these differences are important—the reason that Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead differ so greatly in TV form from print form is because if we stuck with the print stuff, the show would be boring as hell.

If the devs can ease the transition from space flight to planetary exploration to combat well while legitimately encouraging strong relationships to form between characters, then we’ll have something special on our hands, I think. Qmx are pretty intense Firefly fans. The devs have an obvious love for their work and for the source material. Original writers are consulting, original cast is back, and, more important than anything we still have time. Arbitrarily complaining about what you see in YouTube comments and Reddit threads won’t help make the game better, but engaging the devs might.

The trailer worked, but was definitely a little heavy-handed and made poor choices in terms of gameplay to display. That was a green decision on the devs’ part, and is another reason to be skeptical. At the same time, many of the cast members (according to the devs) expressed interest in returning for more modules if the game is successful, so the faith exists from people very close to the original series. The addition of other high-end sci-fi actors to the voice cast (Kelly Hu and Michael Dorn) is also an indicator that things have the potential to move in the right direction.

I encourage cautious hope and patience with this one. The game hasn’t even had a chance to go into alpha yet, so there hasn’t been a chance for anyone to offer realistic feedback on the game, only some concept art, this trailer and panel, and whatever information has gone up on their website and Facebook page. If you’ve got concerns, respectfully voice them there and be the change you want to see in the game.

Firefly Online Ship Art

It’s got big shoes to fill, but Firefly Online might just be the glorious return to form we’ve been hoping for. The game was supposed to hit this year, but with the new inclusion of the original cast, the window has been pushed to first quarter next year. You can pick up the game through Steam for PC or Mac, as well as grab it on iOS and Android devices, so be prepared to have it on every screen possible. Pricing hasn’t been announced quite yet, but the devs did mention that cosmetic microtransactions would be present. Get yourself signed up over at keepflying.com so you can get a name reserved and get in as soon as the game is ready.

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Written by Ray Allaire -The Reasonable Gamer

Writer, game designer, and gaming analyst. Practitioner of all nerdy arts: Games, tabletop, TCG, and all. Twitter: @mateusrayje

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