Firestarter challenges players to beat it within 48 hours -- or die trying. With story elements similar to those of Tron, The Matrix, and Bandai's contemporary .hack series for the PS2, this first-person shooter from GSC Game World places players in a game within a game, to take the role of characters in a virtual reality adventure. A virus has corrupted the game's code, however, so the player's character must battle under a new set of rules and complete a number of dangerous challenges before time runs out. Firestarter characters begin with a single skill, and can acquire a number of new abilities as they progress through the game. Classic, unforgiving video game enemies, including as zombies, demons, and robots, test players' ability and resolve at every opportunity.
It's 2010 and a virus has infected Firestarter a virtual reality computer, trapping you inside. If you want to escape you have 48 hours to fight your way out. The previous two sentences are the last you'll see of the "story" behind Firestarter, the game.
Once you get past the installation you get a peek at a dark and stormy interface that leaves a little to be desired. It's a bit noisy with a lot of flashing text and random windows with pieces of data in them that seem like they should be important. But eventually I didn't pay any attention and skipped past them.
First off, as a writer, I have to complain. Can games developed in non-English speaking countries please start using English speaking editors to do your copy for the English-speaking audience? The manual and the game are riddled with typos. Things like "Immerse in an unbelievable world, created by super-modern playing machine, where you are to make it a winner of the adrenaline-brimming action," dot the landscape of Firestarter.
Ok, on to the game. You can play one of six classes. The Agent has good acrobatics skills. The Policeman is a nice balance of health, speed and armor. The Gunslinger has great reaction time in a pinch. The Cyborg has heavy armor. The Mutant is strong. And the Marine is a Policeman on steroids.
The designers should certainly be commended for trying to inject some new blood into the FPS genre. But the execution of these gameplay additions isn't good enough to make a great game. Firestarter ends up as a standard FPS with some half-clever features added to make it seem more sophisticated. While the extras seem slapped on they are at least an attempt to make a better game. For example, the more you kill in each level the more experience points you get. Experience points, gained by picking up the souls of your victims, allow you to improve your character in the areas of health, speed and armor.
When you finish a level (there are 16 in all with 4 sub-levels each) you go to a status screen where you'll see a summary of your achievements and a run-down of optimizations/skills at your disposal. You can get secondary powers that allow you to alter time, arm two weapons at once, land safely from high falls and the like. This should have been a big selling point in the game but, in the end, the skills feel unnecessary and not effective enough to warrant heavy use. I got through most of the game on Normal difficulty without even using them. Also, the menus between levels -- where you choose your upgrades -- are very poorly done, with no sense of how to proceed to the next level unless you pull out the manual.
Some other novel touches... You get the standard jumplifts but instead of jumping straight up to the second floor you flip - and your POV shows it. It's a cool effect but that's all it is, an effect. It doesn't enhance the gameplay. In fact, if anything, it makes it more difficult. It takes awhile before you get an idea of which direction you're going to be facing when you land. Sure, that's realistic. If I go flipping all over the place I'm going to lose track of north. But realism isn't necessarily a good thing. Another example of the same kind of realistic detail that infringes on gameplay is the "bullet-time" trick. Every time you take a shot you slow to a crawl for that clichéd slow-mo effect. But it doesn't feel like the kind of bullet-time you see in Max Payne. It feels more like you've been injured and you can't move. It's a frustrating part of the game (though I see how a little more tweaking might make it fun). But as it stands the bullet-time effect is out of place.
Enemies aren't waiting in the shadows in Firestarter. No, they fade in to the level with ample warning. Many times their introduction into the level will break away from the action to show what the new baddie looks like. Yet another break in the flow of the game. You can see where the enemy is with a handy map that also highlights new ammo and gems, which are the crux of the action in each level. When the gem appears you have a set amount of time to find it and pick it up. The map will tell you where it is on the level but it won't tell you which floor it's on so there will be times where you're racing around looking for the thing. Until you know the levels well enough to get around you will run out of time a lot and see a lot of effort gone. This could have been an interesting angle on FPS action but the end-result is frustrating primarily because you can't save the game. All your progress is mapped by checkpoints. You get 3 quick-loads but they run out fast, forcing you to start the level over again more often that you should have to.
The game mostly consists of you running and shooting with one of the 20 or so weapons. The 20 creatures are pretty uninspired, though they do seem to have many influences. Some look like Gremlins, some like Quake baddies and some like a Stephen King anti-hero. You don't really get a good look at any of them because the action is fast-paced and bloody. The AI is okay, presenting a challenge to the casual and die-hard gamer. There are a lot of difficulty settings and they seem to work as advertised.
As far as the structure of the game, you get a small variety of tasks in each level ranging from collecting artifacts to killing a Boss. But, in the final analysis, you just pull the trigger a lot.
The graphics and sound are certainly above average but can be hard to make out. The textures on the models and walls all have a kind of gray, rusted metal look that gets fuzzy after an hour of play. There are a lot of cool effects and nice large levels but it appears to be patched together. The engine shows signs of potential but Firestarter doesn't reach it. As far as sound is concerned, I enjoyed the eerie music and some sound effects are cool - though there were times when I didn't know what effect went with what action. I like some of the weapons' sound effects, especially the machine gun which has a metallic push-back sound. The weapons also look pretty good though it can be tough to tell the difference between them due to the limited color palette in the game.
Besides the standard campaign you get an instant action mode that lets you jump in and play any of the levels you already completed. You also get a multiplayer LAN mode for up to 32 players. Probably the most interesting multiplayer match is Hunting, which lets you and a buddy team up to hunt a monster. The levels are big enough and the monsters can get mean enough to where this is a good use of the game.
You can see that all the elements of a good shooter are here. Good graphics, good sound, good depth, bloody gameplay...it just doesn't add up. There's a stubborn sloppiness to the game that makes it tough to recommend. With a little more time on level-design, art, and balance (more effective skills and more interesting bad guys) Firestarter could have been a good game. There are even hints that the game's story, if it had been more fleshed out, could have played well with the novel skill sets.
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