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PC Preview - 'Firestarter'

by Velvey on Feb. 3, 2004 @ 2:35 a.m. PST

Firestarter is set in the near future, in the year 2010. A malicious virus has infected a virtual reality machine, the FireStarter. The intruding program has caused the computer to malfunction. The rules of the simulation have been altered in a potentially deadly manner, with the player's consciousness trapped inside. There is only one possible way to escape, by completing the game within a period of 48 virtual hours. The penalty for failing to do so is the ultimate one - real death. HIP Interactive kindly sent us a beta build for us to try out, read more for our initial verdict ...

Genre: Action
Publisher: HIP Interactive
Developer: GSC World
Release Date: March 2, 2003

Pre-order 'FIRESTARTER': PC

FireStarter is a first person shooter that is in development by a Ukrainian game developer called GSC Game World. This little known game company has been slowly putting out some games since 1995 like the tactical 3D shooter Codename: Outbreak, an arcade combat racer called Hover Ace, and the historical RTS, American Conquest. GSC Game World will soon come to the forefront of fps lovers everywhere as they are currently developing S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost. S.T.A.L.K.E.R has been scooping up some awards at E3 and other shows where they have previewed the game. FireStarter, another fps, has been in development along with S.T.A.L.K.E.R and has actually been released in Europe. We got a preview copy of the version that is mostly complete for U.S. distribution and set for release in early March this year.

FireStarter will be released within a year that will see an onslaught of very high profile first person shooters. Set to release within a month or 2 from FireStarter, at least currently, are heavyweights like: Half Life 2, Doom 3, Thief III, Painkiller and Far Cry. All of these games already have thousands clamoring for them and they are all set for a March/April release. Release dates can certainly move as pc gamers especially know all too well. However, 2004 will definitely be the year of the first person shooter for the pc. Just to give you an idea of how big it will be, a statement about John Carmack, lead programmer for ID software, should help paint a good picture. It has been said, games that Carmack develop actually generate hardware and pc sales in the market place. When he releases a game people want to play it so bad, they will literally go and buy new pc's or hardware to upgrade their current machine. He is literally the Michael Jordan of the gaming industry. With the formidable Doom 3 on the way the industry is hoping for him to make a slam dunk to boost sales in a sluggish pc market.
So how will FireStarter possibly stand against these giants? Only time will tell, but FireStarter does have some tricks up its sleeves. The game play focus is on survival in a fast paced environment that with plenty of weapons to meet the challenge. The look and feel lends itself very easily to Quake 2 and Alien vs Predator. At times the number of enemies being pumped out can even remind you of Croteams Serious Sam. Several elements like timers and power ups increase the adrenaline surge. This, along with a mixture of some rpg elements may be enough to set FireStarter apart. It certainly has been proven that there is an appetite in the gaming community that will support this type of game with the likes of the early Doom series, Serious Sam and others. The question is, does FireStarter give gamers a unique enough experience in comparison to the competition?

You will get more story from reading the opening paragraph of this preview than you will the actual game. FireStarter starts off with a video that alludes to some sort of virtual reality machine that goes amiss, but that's about it. The story was just kind of tacked on as the game play is the focus the developer has gone after. You start off with a circular saw and a machine gun. As you progress through the levels the weapons continue to pour in. The weapons also support modifications so your next level up from the machine gun may be the heavy machine gun. The enemies are all some type of monster ranging from ghouls and machine gun toting beasts to flame throwing zombie like creatures. The monsters have a decent amount of dodging and strafing built in to provide a little bit of a challenge. However, most of them are just big T-bone steaks waiting to be fried by your weapon of choice. The enemy a.i. does seem to be able to chase you down fairly well and they are often as fast, or faster than you so you will be running and shooting most of the time. This puts a very heated pace to the whole game.

The first time you begin firing at a monster you will notice a kind of bullet time reduction in game play speed. This felt a little odd at first however after a while I actually liked it because it gave a short pause in the constant fragging. This option can be turned off for those that want to spray away with no change in the game speed. I left it on as I wanted to experience the game as the developer intended as default. If you are a fan of the fps genre, you may have already played games that have similar features as this built in. Bullet time like effects have already found there way into games like Unreal Tournament 2003 as a mutator called Monkey Matrix Moves and of course Max Payne.

Something that is a good idea but ultimately can be a frustration is introducing the new monsters as they spawn. When they are, the game stops and the monster spawning into the game are shown in a 360 degree view. This is an interesting option as it seems to really put a stop to the enjoyment of the game. It would be nice to see the developer add an option to turn this feature off. When you are right in the middle of a battle, often the 360 degree pan will start and leave you a little disoriented and open for attack. Along with the introduction of monsters new weapons show up with a small bit of text about them. You can turn this feature off. Another suggestion would be to slow the text down as the weapon description flies right by. Maybe a scrolling option here would resolve this for the folks that aren't speed readers.

So far I haven't described too much off of the beaten track with FireStarter. If this was it, the game could get a little monotonous. What has been added into the game play makes progressing through levels a little more interesting than just finding new weapons and monsters. FireStarter has some minor role playing features thrown in as you complete levels. Now, don't run off quite yet you fps purists. The emphasis here is 'minor' rpg elements. You can choose from one of six different characters when you start the game. The characters have different stats in the area of speed, armor and health. Some examples are the Mutant, the Gunslinger, the policeman, and a cyborg. Your character also will have certain innate attributes to differentiate them. Heavier characters will get to develop "brutal force skills" like using a weapon with each of your hands, whereas lighter characters will get to develop skills that will help them to dodge monsters and their shots easier by jumping longer and running faster. You will be presented with options ov leveling up certain attributes at the end of each level. An automatic boost to your stats like health, armor and speed will also happen based on how well you did in the previous level. This can provide a little more to look forward to than just surviving the current level and seems to be a nice addition to the game. Soul collecting is another part of the game as you will also be able to collect the souls of the monsters that you have killed. After a fresh frag, a translucent blue soul rises from the body and you have a couple seconds to try and grab it. This affects your energy rating. When you have enough soul energy you will be able to use one of five different special abilities such as having monsters attack each other, a bullet time that slows the monsters down and allows you to move around them, or enhanced damage for example. This will make soul collecting a priority.
To add to the pace another adrenalin inducer is thrown in to the game. At various times an artefact (sic) will appear and you will need to find it before a timer runs out. If you don't get to it in time your game is over. You can navigate to them very easily by way of a minimap that runs in the lower left corner of the game window. Artefacts and monsters show up there to help you achieve your objectives. Getting to the artifact usually isn't a problem and it does add a diversion to the fragging.

The game engine is being borrowed from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R engine and looks pretty good. The look of the game can be compared to the environments and corridors of Aliens vs Predator and Quake 2. The graphics and design are very industrial and maps usually have you in fairly tight spaces. The load times do tend to be a little long as you start the game and go into a mission. Fortunately you won't have to wait at all if you die and need to respawn in the same level. You are given three opportunities to respawn in the same level before your game is over. Weapons and effects all look quite nice and professionally done. The monsters themselves look very good however there is a lack of animation to them. For the most part they will just come at you, shoot and die. This is a little disappointing in comparison to how far we have come with a.i. movement in games today.

Multiplayer support in FireStarter is exciting and disappointing at the same time. First the disappointment, currently there is no internet options in the game. If you want to use the multiplayer options you will need to be on a lan. This is hard to understand as there are several game play modes in the multiplayer setup including the eternally coveted cooperative play. This was a surprise as game developers seem to completely eschew cooperative play for the pc today. The most popular games on the net usually involve some kind of cooperative play and Kudos to the developers for including this. Unfortunately you will need to be on a lan to enjoy it. I tried to sync up the multiplayer option on a lan with my preview copy and it did not work. I'm not sure if this is because you will need two different copies or if it wasn't enabled yet. This certainly will be a big selling point for lan gamers.

The sounds for the weapons all fit together well. Other ambient sounds in the game add to the feel of the game as well. At the same time monster sounds didn't seem to stand out but were adequate. The music tracks though are mostly all 120 beat per minute mindless pulsing tunes that get repetitive very quickly.

FireStarter is shaping up to be quite an enjoyable game. The game looks great and has quite a few game play elements that try and differentiate it from the rest of the pack. The addition of some minor role playing elements is very welcomed in a game of this nature in my opinion. They provide some needed game play elements that help make completing levels more interesting. The game is also very sound as the preview build that I played never crashed or locked up once. I am very interested in trying out the lan gaming options, especially the cooperative mode that is sorely lacking in pc games today. This may put the game right over the top for many gamers. At the same time the lack of internet play is a let down. Earlier in this preview, we discussed the fact that FireStarter will be up against some very stiff competition in the fps category this year. If you check with on line retailers right now the game is pre-selling for about $20.00. At less than half the cost of the games it is competing with, FireStarter will be an easy recommendation. Now excuse us, we uhmm, need to keep previewing the game.


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