Microsoft took a hell of a risk locking Titanfall down as its premier exclusive for 2014. It demonstrates intent to tap into the desires of the hardcore gamer – a crowd that has become increasingly disgruntled as the Xbox One positioned itself in the family living room over curtain-drawn bedrooms. We’re six months in: this is when the main franchises should be coming out with the big guns, forcing those sitting on the next-generation fence in with showboating graphics and new frontiers to explore. Instead, we’re being handed a new IP from an untested studio; an FPS designed on an aging Source engine that’s eschewing single-player in favour of tight online-only multiplayer firefights. All things considered, Titanfall is an almighty gamble. But here’s the thing about going all in when the stakes are high, the potential payout is almost always worth the risk.
Titanfall is Microsoft admitting that the majority of Xbox gamers aren’t looking for a new experience, but are simply eager for a true iteration of an experience that they’ve already played to prestige: Respawn has unleashed the first worthwhile revision the Call Of Duty formula has undergone since Modern Warfare redefined online multiplayer.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been seven years since developer Infinity Ward unleashed Modern Warfare. In the ensuing years, the FPS has gotten itself into a rut. The triple-A blockbusters have become monotonous shooting galleries, offering little more than minor updates and small graphical polishes. Respawn Entertainment – staffed by ex-Infinity Ward developers – has looked to its past for inspiration, taken that core experience that we all know and (hopefully) still love and threaded it expertly with elements of the Online Battle Arena genre, action games and, of course, arena shooters from a bygone era. The result is an effortlessly entertaining, sophisticated and whole-heartedly fresh take on a genre that was stagnating. Truth be told, Titanfall has no right to be as god damn satisfying as it is.
At its most basic level, then, you’ll find a familiar experience at the core of Titanfall. You’ll speed through urban maps with reckless abandon, an assault rifle at the ready to shoot anything that moves. Kills are rewarded with XP; you’ll unlock weapons, attachments and upgrades to make you more effective on the virtual battlegrounds of Xbox Live. It’s as Respawn rethinks this formula, however, that Titanfall breathes new life into a genre that’s become content with being hooked up to life support.
You’ll drop into each battle as a Pilot – a special class of soldier that makes a mockery of the non-player minions that also inhabit the battlefield. Within seconds, you are confronted with more mobility than games like Call Of Duty or Battlefield have ever dared to explore. It’s liberating, and after a few games of Titanfall you’ll wonder how you could ever return to the snail pace of the traditional shooter.
Every Pilot comes equipped with a jet pack; letting you double jump, run along walls, vault over obstacles and utilise momentum to fly across the map at unrelenting speed. Assisted parkour, in other words. If Brink had been given the incubation time it deserved, Splash Damage may well have delivered this experience three years ago. Where Titanfall finds success, (and where, comparatively, Brink failed), is through streamlined controls that make the complexity of the systems second nature. Pulling off a wall run is as simple as jumping towards a wall while sprinting, double-tapping A will execute a double jump – Respawn has empowered the player and somehow made it as effortless as pulling the trigger.
Titanfall encourages experimentation with these systems, pushing you to find new ways to traverse each of its 15 maps. Most other multiplayer shooters exist on the horizontal plane – rushing you into cover-controlled exchanges and corridor firefights. In Titanfall, death can (and will) come from any direction. Adventurous players will utilise the environment to find new vantage points, some of which can only be accessed by making wall-runs over extended spaces, taking gut-churning leaps of faith and by using more than a little intuition. Every ledge and low-hanging piece of debris presents a new challenge, and after many hours, we are still experimenting. As soon as our boots hit the ground we are leaping into the sky, finding new paths to take through the maps, looking for new ways to take advantage of the environment. Of course, with six enemy players all doing the same, a game of Titanfall rarely unfolds like the one preceding it.
Considering the state of the multiplayer shooter, you may be surprised to hear us praise one for being intelligent, but Respawn has constructed Titanfall in such a way that every match presents an escalating tension unlike anything else. Battles start out as a war of attrition, as twelve nimble Pilots drop into conflict and attempt to gain an early foothold. Killing Pilots and slaughtering AI-controlled grunts chips seconds off of your Titan timer. Once this hits zero, standby for Titanfall: you’re about to see your own personal bi-pedal tank drop in out of orbit. The Titans bring about a whole new dynamic to the battlefield, forcing Pilots to make considered runs across the environment and work together to take down the towering dangers that now stalk the battleground. Minutes start to tick away, the corpses of fallen Titans litter the ground, explosions rock the screen and the game amplifies to a frantic crescendo. Finally, as the defeated team makes a desperate scramble to the dropship – a last-ditch attempt to escape the battle and reclaim a little XP for the effort – the game comes to a close, leaving you exhilarated and desperate for more.
The Titans provide such an interesting dynamic to the structure of the matches. The balance is incomparable, and undoubtedly Titanfall’s greatest success. The Titans feel like they’ve been ripped from other media entirely – sitting somewhere between the spectacle and speed of Gundam’s mechs and the raw power of the walking battle tanks found in Steel Battalion. They provide an undeniable power shift; you’ll crush Pilots and minions underfoot with reckless abandon, utilise big cannons and armoured artillery to take on the enemy from afar before dashing into visceral steel-on-steel fistfights. You can even leap out of your Titan and let the AI take control – two guns are better than one, right? You can have it follow you around and attempt to draw the fire of enemy combatants as you run amok in the skies, or you can leave it to guard a position – an integral tactic when trying to secure hard points or defending a flag. Despite their size and capabilities, they never disrupt the flow of the game – they are refreshingly vulnerable to the nimble Pilots, who are able to run circles around the Titans or even leap onto their chassis’ and try their hands at some shotgun assisted brain surgery.
In many respects, the Titans represent yet another successful revision of a well established system – that of the killstreak. Rather than rewarding already powerful players with more ways to ruin your kill-to-death ratio, Respawn looks to constantly disrupt the pace of games. Skilled players will call in their Titans relatively early, but any advantage is short-lived – every player will have access to their Titan after a couple of minutes. Better still, once a Titan has been shot to pieces, it isn’t the end. Mashing X will see you jettison from the corpse of your exploding mechanised friend, launching you into the sky and granting you an opportunity to take revenge or find a new foothold on the map entirely. As soon as your Titan has been expended, the countdown starts all over again – Titanfall doesn’t punish failure, it makes it fun and rewards you for your effort. It ensures that you’re never stuck in periods of downtime, never without anything to shoot at. No matter how dominant the enemy team is, there’s always a strategy to turn the tables your way.
It’s impossible for us to understate this point – Titanfall is best in show when it comes to the FPS. The controls are responsive and smooth, the weapons feel great, but don’t rely heavily on twitchy thumbstick movement. Response and feedback is sublime. Titanfall really has taken the best elements of its peers’ mechanics, refined them, and made them work in the confines of a six-versus-six arena shooter. That said, you’ll never feel like there are only ever six enemy Pilots out there vying for your blood – Titanfall is a fast and frantic experience, and barely a second goes by without something to point your reticule at. Battlefield 4 might have brought 64-player action to Xbox One, but Titanfall is the first game to truly make you feel like you’re in the middle of wider conflict. It just goes to show; multiplayer shooters didn’t need to expand after all, they needed to go back to the drawing board Quake first pitched in the Nineties and carefully iterate from it.
Titanfall might be online-only, but that doesn’t mean Respawn hasn’t made a considered attempt to incorporate a narrative-driven campaign into the package. It’s an interesting concept; assigning players to a side of the intergalactic conflict, IMC or Militia, before pushing you through a nine-map gauntlet. More than anything else, it serves as an easy introduction to the Attrition and Hardpoint Domination game types. While we’re thankful Respawn hasn’t diluted Titanfall with a laborious, overblown campaign, we are eager to see more of the world surrounding the conflict. Rare glimpses into the larger IMC battleships and galactic space battles during pre-mission briefings are but a tease to an experience that remains just out of reach. Whether it was an issue of confidence in the success of the mode on Respawn’s part, or perhaps an unwillingness to dedicate too many resources to such an unproven concept, we can’t help but feel like the studio could have gone bigger with the campaign. The success or failure of campaign multiplayer has the potential to change the way the industry approaches single-player content in triple-A shooters in the future, but Respawn’s unwillingness to go further with the concept means it could be following a trend rather than leading by the time an inevitable sequel arrives behind future iterations of Call Of Duty and Battlefield.
The question of longevity will inevitably be a concern when looking at any online-only product, though we’ve yet to encounter any such problem after the ungodly amount of hours we’ve sunk into Titanfall thus far. We’re still finding new ways to traverse the 15 maps, new loadout and Titan combinations, and new approaches to tackle objectives. Beyond the campaign – which serves its purpose after the bountiful early level XP and access to the Stryder and Ogre Titan chassis – there are five modes. The two variations of team deathmatch, a domination type, Capture The Flag and new mode entitled Last Titan Standing – where the game rages until all five enemy Titans have been downed – continue to hold attention, though the lack of private lobbies (and, subsequently, custom game types) is a curious oversight for launch, but Respawn has promised these additions will come in the form of free DLC. Titanfall has the potential to take off in a big way across the competitive and eSports scenes, replacing Call Of Duty as the title of choice, so we can only hope they – and a spectator mode – aren’t left out for too long. Like the FPS genre that Titanfall has wholeheartedly refreshed, an online-only game is an iterative experience as well – but players should have no concern with the launch content, it expertly provides a template for exhilarating and emergent moment-to-moment gameplay.
This is the multiplayer shooter we’ve been waiting six years for. A genuine iteration of a fantastic formula, Titanfall is the shooter the rest of the industry will undoubtedly look towards and imitate in the coming years. Respawn has forged a game that’s so much more than the sum of its parts; a new height for multiplayer gaming that provides enough imaginative twists on established mechanics to entertain the hardcore shooter fanatic, while offering an accessibility and simplicity in its core systems and accelerated pace to bring in a new breed of gamer. Titanfall is an unapologetically fun experience, a wonderful debut for Respawn Entertainment, and a wild gamble that has paid off massively for Microsoft.