In the future universe of Warhammer 40,000, the galaxy is, and promises to remain, enflamed by war. The Imperium of Man wants to exploit everything; everyone else wishes to remain unexploited. It is against this backdrop that tabletop gamers have made war against one another, using elaborate boards and lead miniatures, for quite a little while now.
I don't know much about the game setting, but if Firewarrior is any indication, it's the gritty dystopian kind of science fiction, as opposed to the gleaming wonderlands of clean plastic and shining chrome that you see in happier future stories. We're talking big guns, exploding buildings, trench warfare, splattered corpses, and horrible bastards given free reign to do the things that horrible bastards do. All the future means is that men and orks have found a few thousand other ways to kill each other.
The color palette is entirely comprised of dull and muddy colors, but rather than seeming unimaginative--like someone on the design team was drastically colorblind or manic-depressive--it fits the mood. You really are in a macabre wonderland of scrap iron and broken bodies, and the graphics reflect it. They're muddy, and frequently dark, with little musical accompaniment and few sound effects besides gunfire and screams, but, well, of course. What else would you expect to hear? War is hell, buddy.
That approach extends to Firewarrior's gameplay. In single-player, you're Kais, a young Fire Warrior, and a member of the recently introduced race of the tau ceti. Your people have been attacked by the Imperium of Man, and your first mission is a reprisal for that assault. Through twenty-one missions, alone or as a member of a short-lived group, your enemies will shift from the Imperium, to the forces of Chaos, one of the single most evil factions within the Warhammer universe.
In the field, you are often accompanied by other Fire Warriors, but they drop like flies against enemies that're often unseen until they strike. Distant explosions shower you with dirt; frantic radio communication from dead enemies will tell you about how poorly your side is doing, or how well theirs is. Even when you're winning, there are blatant and frequent hints that something even worse is waiting around the corner.
The overwhelming impression I get from Firewarrior is that of being constantly and willingly (?) in over my head. You're always alone, fighting off vastly superior forces by the skin of your teeth and by, more than occasionally, stupid blind luck. The enemy AI isn't great, but given the situation, it doesn't have to be.
Kais is equipped with a Halo-style personal force field, and his Fire Warrior armor does do wonders against small-arms fire. Just the same, he is the single least durable FPS protagonist of recent memory; some opponents have weapons that can bypass the shield entirely, or strip it from you like they're cracking your shell to get to the meat inside. Heavily-armored Space Marines's rocket launchers can take you out in four shots, even if you're at full health and shields, and he doesn't hit you directly; a passel of Tech Priests will light you up with energy bursts that eat personal shields like candy. Even on the first stage, you're besieged by indestructible gun emplacements, and harassed by the horrible bastards that are Imperium sergeants. I hate these guys; they wield rapid-fire laser pistols and some kind of hellish crossbreed between a riot baton and a chainsaw, dealing out immense punishment up close or at a distance while simultaneously soaking up enough damage to sink the Nimitz. The fully battle-armored jamook with the assault rifle goes down like Aztec barbecue after one grenade; his immediate supervisor takes two. Those guys come running out after me, and I go screaming in the other direction, bustin' caps and throwing grenades like mad. I am going to have freakin' flashbacks, man.
The lack of weaponry in the game doesn't help matters, either. Oh, sure, there are plenty of guns; fallen Imperium soldiers yield up their assault rifles, lazguns, laser pistols, missile launchers, shotguns, sniper rifles, and some kind of man-portable railgun-lookin' thing that reduces opposing soldiers to a flavorful meat spray. Problem is, Kais was out sick the day they covered "Carrying Way Too Damn Much Stuff" in FPS Protagonist 101; you're limited to his standard-issue plasma rifle (later upgraded to a plasma carbine), ceremonial sword, one additional firearm, and up to eight grenades.
The name of the game here is doing as much damage as you can with what you've got, and praying to whatever gods govern FPSes that the gun you pick will prove sufficient for the task at hand. You can switch guns on the fly, and return to an earlier location to reclaim a dropped weapon, and the game design compensates for this to some extent with frequent ammo and grenade pickups (I have never had a problem with ammunition in this game, unless I'm relying upon a rare weapon that no one else in the level has), and every single location I've run into has explosive barrels carelessly lying around (whoops! spilled toxic waste all over you! butterfingers!), but often, it's down to picking and hoping.
So, yeah, this isn't the easiest game on the planet. Moreso than usual, even for the genre, you're outnumbered and outgunned. Consider Firewarrior something of a stress test for your FPS skills, if you will. If you play this like so many other FPSes, with magical bloodless heroes who can eat a rocket and come up with unmussed hair, then you're going to be lizard jerky in about six seconds.
It's a good thing that the combat requires so much attention, because aside from that, Firewarrior isn't blazing any new trails. (No pun intended.) Your goals within a stage, aside from simple survival, often boil down to killing opponents for their keys, killing opponents to get them away from the switch you need, killing opponents so you can plant a bomb in relative piece, and killing opponents because your supervisor told you to over the radio. The point here is that sometimes, you will be killing people for reasons other than "He shot at me!" or "I wanted his gun!" or "I find his opinions on the dadaist movement of the 1920s wholly abhorrent and had to address them with automatic weapons fire!"
Okay, I made that last one up. But come on, it'd be neat.
The singleplayer mode has demanded most of my attention, because it's the kind of difficult that begs you to take another crack at it. It is not impossible; it merely means you haven't found the knack of beating it. Firewarrior controls fairly well, letting you shift between weapons and move with smooth and practiced ease. It allows you to make use of previously mastered skills, like circle-strafing, while simultaneously adding its own wrinkles to the mix. Grenades, for example, are a serious facet of effective gameplay, as they go off on impact and are only rarely useful in any other fashion; each grenade is, essentially, one less opponent in that horde rushing towards you.
THQ has assured us, however, that multiplayer is where this game shines, both offline and off. The multiplayer does abandon several of the more annoying facets of the singleplayer mode, such as lengthy reload times or, well, as far as I can tell, finite ammunition. It's raw, high-body-count, adrenaline-pumping action, with Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, and Capture the Flag modes for the use of the discriminating firearms enthusiast.
That being said, multiplayer Firewarrior suffers from the same problems that games like Quake 2 have in the past: limited strategy. Even in deathmatch, grenades, missile launchers, Space Marines' railguns, and the shotgun will drop you like a bad habit in one shot, so victory is often a matter of stocking up on those and then stalking the level like a beneficient sprinkler of high-velocity explosive death. There is no room for a humble assault-rifle user, save for target practice; a sniper rifle could be utilized, theoretically, but the inherent problem with that is you have to stand still. Standing still in deathmatch anything isn't the best idea ever.
I'm not saying that this makes multiplayer Firewarrior a bad game. I'm saying that it's kind of disappointing, in that even the most technical players will eventually abandon the fantasy and go nuclear, so a heated match winds up sounding like the 1812 Overture played by grenadiers.
The lack of multitap support is also puzzling to me, as is the absence of a cooperative mode. There are several missions where having the backup would not only be nice, but seems almost necessary, if for no other reason than you'd have that much more room for grenades.
Then again, that may be an excellent indicator of my final feelings on Firewarrior; I am now officially complaining about the lack of an advantage. This is a game that hates you like rats, providing just enough of an edge for the player that you don't give up, while simultaneously nailing your face to the wall with some of the most punishing combat this side of Halo on Legendary. It's not quite up there with something like Contra: Shattered Soldier, but I would call Firewarrior an excellent stress test for your skills on console FPSes.
I can't speak to its faithfulness to the source material, as it is an arena of hardcore geekery that I've unaccountably ignored, but Firewarrior is solid. Its gameplay, stripped of challenge or context, is the same kind of switch-flipping, bomb-planting, key-hunting FPS we've been playing for years, with intensity-in-ten-cities combat to conceal the lack of innovation. It's slightly above average, but only slightly, and can be enjoyed on that level.