Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

Firewatch is a very lonely video game that's all about people. Set in 1989, you play as Henry, AKA Hank, a guy who has had a pretty shitty time of things lately, and who decides that a summer job in a Wyoming national park is just the thing he needs to take his mind off things.

Turns out it's not. I won't go into any details here, since what happens once you get there is the entire point of the experience, but let's just say that things don't exactly go according to plan.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

(It's not that kind of game.)

What follows is a short first-person experience that — unsurprisingly, given some of Campo Santo's background on The Walking Dead — often feels like a smoother, prettier version of a Telltale adventure game. Only without the quicktime events.

Firewatch is a game that leans heavily on its story. Forget what you may have assumed from the game's early marketing: this is not a survival sim, a deadly wilderness action game, or a gripping thriller. This is a game where you basically walk around the woods, occasionally climb something, and do a lot of talking over a radio.

You do all of this in first-person, and there's a real joy to Firewatch's sense of just...being. The game's movement has a tremendous heft to it, an unbreakable dedication to the perspective that could only come from a bunch of people who love Far Cry 2 getting together and deciding to make a video game. You're not some disembodied camera floating around the landscape; you are Hank, constantly seeing your own body, swaying with Hank's weight and just generally walking a mile (or a hundred) in Hank's boots.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

You'll grow to love Hank's fat little fingers.

Note also that there's no HUD. No health meter. No waypoint marker. No inventory. It's just you and a compass/map combination that gets pulled out in real-time. As you peer over the map in first-person, you navigate through the park's various areas in order to reach objectives.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

The map looks vast and impressive, but the game's world is surprisingly linear.

If you want to strip it back, all you really do in Firewatch is run around the woods. You talk, and sometimes you'll need to climb up or down something, and very occasionally there'll be a door to open or a tree to cut down, but for 95 per cent of your time interacting with a controller or mouse in Firewatch, you're doing nothing but moving through an empty landscape.

Which sounds terrible! And yet, your movement in Firewatch is simply a means of giving the story space to play out. Aside from a few very brief (and distant) confrontations you are entirely alone throughout Firewatch. It's just you, your fat fingers and the Great American Wilderness. That isolation is only physical, though, because you've always got a walkie-talkie with you, which is used to communicate with Delilah, the woman in the watch tower next to yours. And you do that a lot.

Ah, Delilah. Delilah and Hank. For a game where you rarely see anyone's face, Firewatch is dripping with character. The relationship between the two is as raw and real as their voice acting is fantastic (Hank is played by Mad Men's Rich Sommer, while Delilah is voiced by veteran games actor Cissy Jones).

Taking another page out of Telltale's book, Firewatch makes conversation a little more involved than the usual, not only giving you speech options to make and a countdown timer to push you along, but a wonderfully "real" walkie-talkie action on a control pad to select them, making the player squeeze and release triggers to select and send your selections (you can see it in action in the video above). Rarely in a video game has something so simple and rudimentary, something we normally take for granted and get past with a simple click, felt so involved, so much fun.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

It's a shame, then, that Firewatch's story can't last the distance. For a game that's all about a great mystery and how you get caught up in it, things fall pretty flat by the time you get to the finale. Firewatch spends much of its latter half building towards what you assume is a big finish, before taking a turn and leaving much of the best material from the opening behind. (To Campo Santo's credit in this regard, there's a little extra punch delivered during the game's closing credits).

Also a little disappointing is the game world itself. Olly Moss' art design (born from some early promo work) has been transformed into a varied and often beautiful 3D landscape by Jane Ng. And I mean beautiful. Just... look at this nonsense.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review
Firewatch: The Kotaku Review
Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

All of that is in-game. Ridiculous.

Pity it's all a bit superficial, then. The setting of a vast national park and the fact you've got a map and compass might suggest a place that you can really explore and get lost in, but in truth Firewatch is little more than a series of corridors pointing towards objectives and areas of interest, each one frustratingly walled in by rocks and devoid of any real sense of openness or space.

You've got a run button to make things go by a little faster. The game is divided into "days" which open and close to hit certain story beats, and, smartly, a lot of missions are automatically cut short by the game to save you going everywhere in real-time. The constant travel becomes a bit of a drag, though, even with the conversations going on to divert you from the trudge.

This takes a bit of the wind out Firewatch once the beauty and gimmicks wear off, making you feel more like a set of eyeballs being herded through a (gorgeous) animated comic book than a player in control of an experience where your movement and actions around such a seemingly vast space actually count for anything.

I finished Firewatch in around four hours. That was by running most places, exploring the more obvious "secret" locations for story stuff and making sure I picked up every empty beer can I came across. Someone rushing straight through the main story could probably wind it all up in around three hours, while someone obsessed with finding all of the game's secrets — and there are many — might double my playtime, if only because they can't fast travel around the map.

Firewatch: The Kotaku Review

Your watchtower is your HQ, a place where you can kick back, relax and throw a bunch of old novels around the room.

None of that was enough to derail my Firewatch experience, though. This is a very cool video game, which if nothing else shows the power and potential in making a game that dedicates itself so wholly to the first-person perspective. Its art design is wonderful. I fell in love with Hank (and Delilah). And, if there's any justice, the walkie-talkie thing will become the new gold standard in video game communications.


Comments

    Yep. Sold. Buying it ASAP.

      I. Had. The. Opposite. Reaction.

        Fair enough. Takes all sorts.

          Yup, indeed. I was hoping for more of a survival, rescue, emergency response game and, for some odd reason, I was hoping the protagonist to be female.

    Heard some talk that the PS4 performance is a little bit patchy. I might wait to see if more people confirm this. Looks like my kind of game otherwise.

      It's a bit jittery at times, mostly when autosaving. For me, I barely noticed it once i got drawn into the game. Guess it depends how much that sort of stuff bugs you?

        Not usually. The Internet tends to exaggerate things ;-)

    Note: PC includes both Windows and Linux [which also includes steamOS]

    Um hurry up and appear on the ps store, can't believe there isnt even a spot for it pre load or not.

      This exactly. Really looking forward to playing this and because it hasn't popped up in the PS store yet I missed my slot to play it while the kids were at school. Grr!

      I tweeted them the other day asking if there would be pre-load on ps4 they confirmed no

      "@Switch2015 No preload on PS4 unfortunately but it'll be up there on the 9th! (midday-ish Pacific time) -nels"

    According to the official twitter it releases on PC on the 9th at 10am US Pacific Time. Which I believe is around 3am-5am on the 10th here. Says PS4 time unsure but not long after.
    https://twitter.com/camposanto/status/696755726186713088

    Anyone know what the Australian price might be on the PS4 store? Exchange rate says about $28 but I'm wondering if we'll get hit with the Australia tax too.

      I would guess at about $39, but I'm hoping it's a little cheaper.

        Confirmed Prices:

        Playstation Store: $19.99 (10% discount with PSN)
        Steam: $17.99 (Preorder discount)

        Also these prices are in AUD

      We all know who ever runs our psn in aus with gladly triple the price fml. I hate to say it but i might just steam it...

    The AU Playstation Twitter account confirmed this would be available in Australia when "the store refreshes" whenever that actually happens.

    There's something a bit off the way this game is launching on PS4. No pre release info, no Australian pricing...I really want to play it and find out info about it but there is nothing Australian specific around.
    I may be paranoid but it's all a bit "Gone Home"...speaking of which, has that appeared on PS4 yet? What happened to that game?

    Nichboy does a pretty fun let's play of the 1st day - to give a bit of flavour to what the game will be like. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=10lahHfpEIU

    $20 for a game that lasts 3 hours, they missed the mark with this. Feels rushed, under developed and promised to be a good unique exploring game, but is in fact on rails. Good marketing campaign, Dud game.

      Seems more like a $10 game.
      I would love the developers to use their talent from this to then create a full-blown 10 hour + gaming experience.

    $30 Australian for this in the store. 10% off for PSPlus members. Seems a little steep, might wait for a while, no rush. Looks good though. I loved Rapture and Ethan. Time for another walkathon.

    Hmmm. I was looking to pick this up ... Now I'm not so sure ... I don't really know anything about the story, but I at least thought that there was going to be a bit of suspense or whatever.

    Whelp, back to Arslan Warriors Orochi 3 Ultimate Hyrule Final Fantasy of the 15th Dynasty: Alpha Zero: Ninth Attack: Cowabunga Tactics: Magenta.

    Last edited 11/02/16 12:32 pm

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