Titanfall preview: The first blockbuster of 2014 pits men against machines
The team behind Call of Duty have moved to new killing fields
ARE you sick of Call of Duty? I know I am. I also know millions of gamers disagree with me on a daily basis, logging countless hours on the world’s most popular shooter.
But even the original creators of CoD are bored with the format. They walked away from developer Infinity Ward after a billion-dollar contractual dispute with publisher Activision.
That core team formed new developer Respawn with the intention of approaching shooters from a new angle. The result is Titanfall, an innovative FPS pitting giant player-controlled robots against each other and hyper-agile infantry - headed for Xbox One, X360 and PC next month.
You can get a taste via the short-lived beta for PC and Xbox One owners, but a preview event last week showed enough to convince me Titanfall will be the first big hit of the year.
The game’s first public outing at E3 last June gave a strong flavour of what’s to come. But the final code last week revealed a fast-paced, chaotic six-on-six fragfest with echoes of Unreal Tournament, Counter-Strike and, yes, “Call of Duty with robots” as some wags have dubbed it.
What’s interesting is how many risks Respawn was prepared to take with its new IP, a series which publisher EA has already predicted will be around “for a long, long time”.
Even with the team’s pedigree, it required courage to focus exclusively on multiplayer - avoiding burning millions on a single-player campaign but potentially alienating a whole demographic.
Then there is the paradox of men versus huge mechs. The balancing of Davids vs Goliaths was a nightmare, ensuring the robots weren’t too impregnable and the infantry too vulnerable.
This is a game stuffed with layers – and it has to be because it still operates in the crowded FPS genre.
“We knew what we were doing has been done a lot,” said Joel Emslie, lead artist on Titanfall, at the preview event. “There’s a lot of science-fiction games out there.”
The team sought fresh inspiration in movie-making techniques dating to the 1970s such as “kit-bashing”, where props and designs were fashioned by mashing familiar objects together. So Emslie visited hardware stores and bought various materials and a bunch of nuts and bolts to model what would become the first Titan – the colossal robots of the title.
“Because we took that path (rather than the traditional computer-generated artist design), it led us in a direction visually that you wouldn’t see anywhere else,” said Emslie.
We saw just two maps last week and their art style couldn’t be described as startlingly different.
One was a compact cityscape with narrow streets filled with nooks and crannies that felt right for the parkour abilities of the infantry but claustrophobic for the mechs.
The other was a sprawling cluster of rocks and multi-level buildings that suited much better the choice of playing styles. Whether you enjoy stomping around in a giant suit of armour or effortlessly leaping through a second-storey window with a jet-powered trooper, Titanfall becomes exhilarating on levels like these.
But Respawn remains resolutely coy about the tally of maps and though a campaign story mode of some sort is promised, the long-term success of Titanfall rests on the game delivering enough interesting levels to sustain its undoubtedly entertaining core mechanic.
“Once you go through the whole campaign from one side, you go through it again with the other,” said Emslie. “Each level will have a story with two outcomes, a win or a loss, which is complemented by a theatrical moment. It all plugs into a large story arc.
“Our intention was to stray away from the scripted AI story, which is almost as if you’re on a rail.”
But Emslie admits that no matter whether you win or lose each battle, the plot unfolds on the same final path.
Whether the story will be any way meaningful, the gameplay certainly avoids cloning the repetitive CoD cycle of kill-die-respawn. The skirmishes begin on foot until a timer expires to enable the player to call in a Titan, which falls dramatically from the sky.
You can immediately scramble aboard and unleash massive firepower, albeit at a slow pace and without the ability to jump. Or you can instruct the Titan to follow you like a protective hellhound, automatically targeting the enemy.
Either way, the battle continues via modes including team deathmatch, last man standing or capture the flag. If your Titan is destroyed, you can eject and fight on before calling in another mech after a cooldown.
Some players might never use a Titan if they favour the acrobatic wall-running, double-jumping gameplay of the troopers. It takes persistence to bring down a Titan but it’s worth it for the big points, which like every other reward feed into upgrades for your kit.
Mercifully, Respawn has resisted the temptation to build in microstransactions, something that has been an unfortunate feature of many Xbox One launch games.
“We like our fanbase – we didn’t feel it was fair to do that to anybody,” insisted Emslie. “You buy the game and you play it. You get what we built.”
Don’t count on a ton of new mechs as DLC either – Respawn had enough trouble balancing the existing roster of three Titans that they considered capping it at just one.
“There was a point in the project where we had the other two Titans built but we hadn’t balanced the one Titan yet,” explained Emslie. “We were really close to not using the other two. But we did.”
Respawn may not be reinventing shooters here but the team have been careful to expand the template so that familiarity won’t breed contempt.
When each battle has been won (or lost), there follows a frantic race to the extraction point, with the defeated team scrambling to escape or the victors pursuing them to inflict more humiliation.
In an attempt to even up the odds between players of various skills, the game infrequently awards power-ups known as “burn cards”. Your soldier may acquire faster movement or a super-destructive weapon.
The preview event gave little insight as to whether skilled players can earn more of these perks but Respawn is at pains to explain how much balancing its engineers have put into the game, so we’ll have to take their word.
“Our priority-one was to make a multiplayer game that ensure that if you the most hardcore player come, there’s game for them,” said Emslie. “For the average joe like me, I don’t have the time to develop the muscle memory of a 12-year-old hopped up on Mountain Dew.
“We worked really hard towards levelling the playing field with stuff like burn cards. Traditional modern shooters have power-ups that pro-gamers can earn during a match and completely kick the s**t out people like me. We installed gameplay features so that everybody can have a good time.
“Having a Titan is the first way we do that. Everybody gets a Titan, so people like me can survive in a Titan.”
Titanfall is released for Xbox One and PC on March 14, with a slight delay for the X360 version to March 28. Given the ambition for the franchise, it’s unlikely to be a platform exclusive forever.
The Respawn team can’t say anything under pain of death but their knowing looks to the question hints the PlayStation crowd won’t have to wait too long.