Firestarter's popularity is very hard to describe (EDIT: Actually it's not hard to describe. It's not popular at all)... I haven't seen a review that rates it above 70%, but at the same time they don't rate it below 50%. I asked other's opinions who've played it and they didn't really like it.. They said it was boring, and there was no point to the game. I think it's safe to call them haters, because I enjoyed the game a lot.
There is a point to playing it. It's to kill lots and lots of monsters. Kill them with different weapons, and kill them some more. Not only this (That's not all!), but you also have a score that will add up as you kill them... The points you get for a kill depend on how fast you kill the monster from the time it spawns. To me, getting points adds a lot to gameplay - especially if it's simple gameplay (and I have a theory that makes me feel that getting points is the sole reason why multiplayer gaming is so popular... Think about it... what multiplayer game exists that doesn't have some sort of scoring system?).
The game can be very difficult. The difficulty level is changeable in various increments from 25% up to 200%. At 100% difficulty I was unable to progress past the first level. At 25% it was very easy and boring... At 50% it was easy, but a little less boring. Unfortunately there is no 75% setting as that probably would have made a great sweet spot.
You have several characters to choose from. Each have their own attributes like health, defense, speed, jumping, accuracy, etc... One of the most notable attributes belongs to the mutant who can carry four weapons at once. Also as you progress through the game (and gain experience points) you can add attributes (like dual and quad weapon wielding) and special abilities to your character. These abilities include slowing down time, teleporting, invincibility, invisibility, speed, and stuff like that... basically nothing you haven't seen in another game but still effective when used.
The gameplay itself is (obviously) simple. You start in a level and you grab a newly spawned weapon. After that, ammo appears, and once you grab that an enemy appears. Once you destroy the enemy a new one appears. After a few of these cycles an artifact (spelled "artefact" in the game) appears. You have a certain amount of time to get to the artifact or else you have to start over. Once you get one or two artifacts new zones in the level open up. You go to these new zones and kill more monsters (that are now coming at you in larger numbers at a time) and get new spawned weapons all the while trying to collect artifacts. Once all the monsters are killed, your points are tallied and you can choose new abilities or improve other things like your speed/health/etc. Then you move on to the next level.
The weapons you get are pretty varied... but you don't really get a 'choice' to use the most effective one because of how the game is constructed. This fact makes it seem like the game is more of a tech demo where the developers simply played around with a few ideas and just never removed them from the game. There's two different rocket launchers, one of which launches several different types of rockets... all kinds of machine guns, gatling-style shotguns.... Every single one of the weapons have a distinct difference that sets it apart from others, but all kill with the same effectiveness. They all have an "impact" to them that makes my heart leap that no other game I've played has been able to reproduce. It may have something to do with the nearly overdriven effect volume or the way the screen shakes with each round being blasted into the nearest chest. When you play as a mutant and you're holding four huge shotguns surrounding your screen, there's nothing more exhilerating than walking up to a small enemy and decimating it an a shower of blood and flesh chunks... or even better finishing off a larger enemy this way.
What's especially sad about this game... the part of the game that I couldn't believe was missing... is that there is NO INTERNET PLAY. There's a very well thought out multiplayer mode... there's even Co-op! But it's only for LAN. This game is so obviously geared towards multiplayer from start to finish that I have to wonder what it was that kept the developers (GSC Gameworld - also famed for the not yet released S.T.A.L.K.E.R.) from implementing it. Could they not afford to pay Gamespy? Could they not afford their own master server? It doesn't make any sense to me. It's very depressing. :(
The game engine is extremely efficient (this is something that other reviewers actually agree with). It ran super-smooth when I first tried it on my 8500. It ran super-smooth when I bought the game on my 9700 Pro. At 1280 x 1024 with 4xAA it never dropped below 60 FPS. It has a benchmark mode where I ran it on my newest card (a POS X800 Pro) and newest processor (Athlon 3500+; before it was a 2000+) and it averaged out at 160FPS. Unfortunately I don't remember the benchmark numbers for my older cards. I never had to lower the settings for anything.
The graphics themselves I thought were pretty good (especially when considering how smooth the game ran). Textures were pretty sharp and models were reasonably detailed. The world layout usually made sense and there were a lot of effects almost every angle you looked. Every metal piece had a reflection/shine to it.. Every light had nice looking corona applied to it. Most impressive are the extreme particle effects that actually did not hinder my framerate. The level "art" is comprised of mainly a futuristic gothic style that I felt was well done. I don't know the story behind the levels but it was definitely atmospheric enough to immerse me.
The music in the game is its best attribute. I think it's safe to say... that if the music weren't as good as it is, or that if it were of a different style that I would not have enjoyed playing the game nearly as much. Dark, heavy techno is really effective for getting you into killing evil demon monsters from outer space over and over and over again. It matched the pace of the game perfectly and there were enough songs cycling through that I never got bored with it. As an example, you're welcome to download the song that comes with the game demo HERE (5.8MB). The same guy (MoozE) is doing the music for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and from what I've heard from other games he's worked on he has shown incredible versatility and it will likely be very good. Despite how long it's taking to come out or how buggy it might be when it finally is out, it will probably be worth buying just for the music (much the way I feel about Firestarter).
The game has pretty good replay value - thanks to the difference in characters' abilities as well as the scoring system. It does actually remember your score for each level that you've played through; so when you play through it again you can compare yourself to how you did the time before that. Unfortunately the levels all are pretty straightforward... No secrets, no tricks, and very linear. And what I said about the scoring system... well.. you can cheat it by simply getting to a part in the level where monsters will spawn until you grab a newly spawned weapon... This way you can get a really high score by just maintaining some patience (of course when you run out of ammo in your current weapon you are forced to grab the new one). However, if you don't play like that, the replay value can be salvaged.
Very good overall. The textures and models match each other pretty well while looking sharp (which can't be said about a LOT of budget games). One thing I noticed missing was dynamic lights... You could stand under a red light but it would effect nothing but the ground and walls around it. You could be outside, inside, in a corner, or whatever and the only thing that made your weapon/hands look different was the angle of "reflection shine" on the metal parts. Also rockets and explosions did not light up the environment. I liked how colorful everything was and (again) overall it looked pretty good.
Excellent music... Perfect for the game. Only a couple of songs are worth listening to outside of the game (read: in your car or on your home stereo) but all of it (with the exception of the dismally boring main menu track) makes for some great background music. If you add in the sound of very loud gunfire and the screaming of demon monster aliens it's even better.
Straightforward FPS controls... I did not like how the special abilities were used by the F1-F4 keys. This made a lot of them (like the super-kick move where if you used it while cornered it would knock all the enemies into the furthest walls) unusable because by the time you moved your hand up there the opportunity to use it was gone.
Simple. Straightforward. Fun.
All in all, there isn't much to do in the game. It's shooting monsters and moving around. However, this is also the core of what makes First Person Shooters fun to play. A lot of games I play spend an assload of effort trying to give me a story or give me a variety of missions or whatever... but always in between I'm running around shooting monsters (or people). That is why I play First Person Shooters; because I like killing things. 90% of the time I skip past the story anyway because it's usually pretty stupid or unoriginal (like Far Cry) or tries too hard to be funny but falls waaaay short (like Serious Sam 2).
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