There’s not much that can’t be improved by giant robots. Ironing is one obvious example, but gaming’s favourite genre: warfare, is another clear contender. How can one not love controlling mechanised machines that roam the battlefield, unleashing missile after explosive missile at anything that moves? Perhaps it’s a power trip thing. We all secretly want to possess the strength of fifty men, and the armoury of several tanks.
Titanfall is the first release from new studio Respawn Entertainment, created by some of the former members of Infinity Ward, developers of many of the Call Of Duty games and it’s clear from the outset where their experience lies. Titanfall is essentially a multiplayer-only Call Of Duty style game, with soldiers choosing their ever evolving loadout, jumping into a fight, sprinting across the battlefield and promptly dying from a well aimed head-shot. Then swearing, respawning and charging straight back into the fray. But this game is injected with something else, adrenaline perhaps, or maybe steroids. Oh, and really big robots that plummet down from the heavens, ready for you to climb inside. That’s called Titanfall.
It would have been extremely easy for a development house to have taken the frenetic multiplayer elements of Call Of Duty and thrown in a massive machine that makes the controller feel like a god and everyone else feel like worthless ants. That’s actually a problem with some of the more ridiculous kill streak rewards in the Call Of Duty series, but it’s clear immediately from the brief training tutorial that Respawn have not taken this route. Early on you learn that as a pilot, the term used for a soldier outside of their robot armour, you have just as much up your sleeve (or more accurately your highly advanced flight suit) as any mechanical monstrosity.
In this form you are vulnerable, but you can wall run, double jump and fling yourself across from building to building with ease, escaping hostile fire. The controls are surprisingly easy to get to grips with and are far more forgiving than nearest point of reference Mirror’s Edge. The player automatically clambers up ledges and reaches for grasping points, ensuring that rarely do they plummet to the ground. And even if they do, there’s no falling damage so it rarely causes an issue, except for the occasional rocket to the face. Like the Assassin’s Creed franchise this parkour element feels more like a skilled dance that players can really learn and become proficient at. Make no mistake, as a skilled pilot you are just as much a lethal weapon than any lumbering machine.
But the lust for power is strong. Gradually the clock ticks down, teased further forward by kills, and after a couple of minutes the time for your own Titanfall arrives. A face appears in the corner of the screen informing you that it is ready. It’s called down with a touch of a button, smashing into the ground nearby. Briefly it stands idle, covered in a protective forcefield, awaiting the pilot to clamber in and activate it. The camera shifts to a new perspective, the HUD swaps over, and suddenly you are primed to unleash hell on the battlefield.
At first it is satisfying to be able to empty hundreds of rounds of your minigun into the waves of encroaching enemy grunts, or set the map on fire with a payload of explosives. Marching around the warzone, you hunt for other pilots, grunts or titans to engage. Each titan is equipped with a devastating weapon as well as two additional inventory slots, determined by the player’s loadout. In this preview build, with our low level of experience, we could only play with two abilities. One was a mighty barrage of rockets that decimated the area in front of you, the other was a magnetic bullet shield that caught any incoming shrapnel then flung it back at your target, a skill reminiscent of the Return To Sender Vigor from Bioshock Infinite, with the possibly more amusing twist that another titan could return your throw with a vengeance.
You may be a huge target but titans can take a large amount of damage, their shield absorbing all ordinance except specific anti-titan weapons held by pilots or the canons of other titans. However when the shields are depleted, the shell takes irreparable damage. Which often means you cannot stay in this steel suit forever. And when the machine takes too much damage the pilot has only a few seconds to hammer the eject button, rocketing him to the skies. Staring back down onto the battlefield you can watch the titan collapse into a heap, before you fall back into the fight. Some loadouts even cause the monster to go nuclear, obliterating everything around it. That’ll show ’em.
It’s clearly a tricky balancing act to allow giant machines to roam the same field as puny humans, and it’s surprisingly easy to feel as you’re sprinting and climbing as the pilot that you have more control. Conversely as a titan you become an easy target and as you’re blasted by missile after missile, rocketing out from every window, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable. There’s also a huge worry that it is simply not as fun being a titan. Oddly in this form the game feels more like a traditional shooter, where you move slower, and have to run to take cover from fire. The ability to deploy a quick dodge helps. The player hammers a button firing jets off in the direction pushed, flinging the titan away from harm. But with this only being deployable twice in quick succession, and having a fairly long cooldown period, it only saves you for a brief period. Additionally the lack of destructible landscape really drives home the lack of raw power your titan wields. You can’t bring down buildings on enemy pilot’s heads, no matter how much destructive ammunition you unload into them. All this adds up and one can’t help feeling that at this point the finely tuned scale is tipped in favour of the pilot.
In this preview we had the chance to sample three of the game modes: Attrition, Hardpoint Domination and Last Titan Standing. Attrition is perhaps the most traditional form of the game, with points awarded for killing enemy pilots, titans and grunts. It also highlights one of the most controversial areas of the game: the maximum six versus six team sizes, which has got the fan base riled before the game is even released. The two maps on show, Fracture and Angel City, are sizable beasts that would feel empty if it were not for the lumbering giant titans stomping around the map. But it is also the presence of NPC grunts, who clamber out of drop pods, that make them feel more alive.
Initially these rather idiotic grunts seem like a strange addition. They tend to group together, failing to take cover and consistently missing with their weapons. They are cannon fodder. Even the more advanced robotic Spectres, that are armed with more formidable weapons, are easy prey to any competent player. But at least when wielding the titans they provide entertainment when the heat is off, flinging their shattered corpses across the map with another rocket barrage. They do however make the map feel like a warzone, more realistic than just a handful of pilots zipping around an empty cityscape or an abandoned fuel depot as shown in these examples. The sceptic in me suggests their addition was a late entry to cover for a dubiously low player limit, the optimist in me believes they improve the gameplay. I’m not entirely sure who is right.
Picking off grunts and Spectres obviously generates less score than killing human pilots, which in turn generates fewer points than destroying a titan. One thing that did feel particularly strange in the Attrition mode was that it was never particularly clear just how many points were scored for certain actions. Mostly I found myself running around the map, killing whomever I could find and hoping it was the best for the team.
Hardpoint Domination will be a familiar mode for many First Person Shooter fans. The aim is to hold key points across the map, while attempting to steal others from the enemy. These points vary in position from tricky to protect open areas, to more defensible rat warrens. The presence of titans here makes events slightly more interesting than in similar modes from Call Of Duty, as these armoured suits can bombard the open areas, meaning that teams must first take down the machines before attempting to steal the area.
It is during the Hardpoint Domination mode that one function of the titan, that seems irrelevant at first, comes into play. Pilots can jump out of their rides and make off on foot, leaving the machines behind. While unpiloted the titans can still defend themselves, though not particularly proficiently, but it just about gives the player enough time to run inside a key area that a titan cannot reach, steal it, then retreat back, ready to rocket any incoming enemies. The titan can even be set to a follow mode that in theory means you could run inside a building, emerge at another exit and hop onto the following titan. Though in practise I never managed this since the titan would be destroyed while lumbering around unpiloted.
At the end of both these modes, when the result has already been decided, the game suddenly erupts into an entertaining man-hunt. The winners are informed that the enemy is trying to flee via a drop-ship and the escape point is marked onto the map. The losers must attempt to sprint across the map, and climb aboard the waiting airship without being obliterated. It’s a brilliant change of pace to proceedings and while there does not seem to be any specific reason for this event, it certainly adds some bragging rights for the winners or a final raised middle finger for the losers.
The final mode on show, Last Titan Standing, does pretty much what you would expect. Everyone leaps onto the map already encased in their metallic armour, charges across the map and unleashes hell on the opposition titans. Death here is final, though you can still eject and survive as a pilot, but you do not want to get overwhelmed and outnumbered. It is tactical to attempt to split the enemies apart and pick them off, but in reality you just want unleash your rocket barrage in their face. That’s the fun thing to do.
Fun. It’s a simple word and one that the gaming industry sometimes shies away from in favour of gritty realism, deviously addictive gameplay or, umm, microtransactions. By taking the Call Of Duty essence and merging it with a science fiction background, adding the brilliant ability to climb across the landscape and then throwing in giant mechs for good measure, Respawn Entertainment have injected fun into the sometimes tiresome genre. It seems that Titanfall is aimed more at the casual shooter fan, than the hardcore twitch-headshot merchant. And while I can see a fanbase developing around the game, it find it unlikely that such devoted addicts will develop compared to the likes of Battlefield and Call Of Duty, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
There is still a lot we do not know about Titanfall at this point however, areas that could still decide its fate. In this preview build there was little to no evidence of the touted single-player elements, such as NPC allies barking orders, or a plot developing out of the science-fiction world. The lack of specific single-player missions will no doubt hurt marketing, but in many ways the FPS audience as grown tired of these campaigns with a very low percentage ever finishing them. It will be interesting to see whether the team can make the fictional world come alive without deliberately scripted sections. At present without any context it seems like it is just a war between men armed with flight suits and giant robots. Still, Titanfall shows a vast amount of promise for the Xbox One system that has yet to completely prove itself (it is also being released on the 360 and PC). It looks beautiful, utilising that new hardware, and best of all tries to innovate in an often stagnant genre. We are looking forward to March 14th (here in the UK) to see just how much the final game will have to offer.