On the Shoulders of Giants

Now we’ve all had some time to digest Titanfall post-beta I think it’s fair to say that it’s a game that’s got a lot going for it and has made a big impression. The question has been raised here and there whether Titanfall could be the next Call of Duty, but I think this kind of thinking shows a misunderstanding about what Titanfall is trying to be, that is unless you want a definition of “The next Call of Duty” that’s incredibly vague. The CoD games from 4 onwards hold the place in gaming history they do because they helped pioneer and cement so many of the popular conventions for modern competitive shooters and even modern multiplayer games in general, popularising perk systems, progression systems, modern military thematics, and more. Titanfall is not a game trying to do something so revolutionary, it’s a game trying to take ideas from currently popular multiplayer FPSs like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and even a bit of Halo, and alter and build on top of many of the ideas that made them work to accentuate their best features.

Everyone enjoys a good war robot.

One of the things that most defines Titanfall is the aspect of itself it places its primary focus on, especially in its outward presentation. CoD sells itself as having a focus on modern military warfare and the experience of being a soldier in such conflicts; Battlefield’s focus is on you being part of an enormous, frantic battlefield; Titanfall however, doesn’t claim upfront to be about a setting or large-scale experience, but instead about a single, ultimate piece of military equipment. It shows us a hulking machine of war fitted with all the game’s most impressive weapons and says “This is our centrepiece”. Of course all shooters have their power weapons and most have their more iconic vehicles, but they usually aren’t as strong a driving force of the gameplay as they are here, and I think this is a big part of what makes the game so empowering.

The Tools of War

In most games getting the high end weapons or vehicles is somewhat uncommon or only happens after a certain amount of work. There will only be a few jets or tanks on a map to go around, we will have to get a certain amount of kills before we can receive a killstreak reward, etc. and this is perfectly logical. Rewards don’t seem as special if you’re constantly receiving them, and weaponry doesn’t give you as much of an advantage over your opponent if it’s likely someone on the other team is in possession of the same weapon, but Titanfall makes a trade-off. Getting a Titan may not be rare or be the gleeful culmination of a few minutes of particularly skilful play, and you may find that the opposition have some legitimate defences against it, but it makes you feel like a badass when you can spend so much time with the most powerful equipment in the game on a very regular basis.

You want that sweet Titan power.

Notice that binding all those high power features up in the Titans doesn’t just make them feel formidable to pilot, it also gives the experience of piloting them more depth than the experience of wielding a high-powered weapon or driving a vehicle in most other shooters. Weapons and vehicles in FPSs or TPSs usually only have one or two exclusive player actions associated with them: firing and sometimes being able to perform a secondary fire. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with this, it can be perfect for the roles these weapons and vehicles occupy in these other games, but to see the kind of depth in controlling a vehicle you do in Titanfall is still welcome and exciting. When you pilot a Titan you’re not just dealing with a couple of weapons, instead you have your main gun, your rockets, your shield, your dash ability, you can grab incoming projectiles, you can release those projectiles, you can eject to have the Titan AI take over, and so on. There’s a lot to manage here and a lot of choices for how you tackle a conflict at any one time. Your tactical options are further expanded by the way the game lets you customise the loadout of your Titans. All this makes it so that there’s as many or more ways to take on combat while in a vehicle as there are if you’re a regular soldier, and that’s atypical for a game like this. The gap of just two minutes between losing one Titan and getting another also keeps the game moving at a rapid pace, guarantees that you get regular use of the Titans, and ensures that losing a Titan isn’t a devastating experience. Obviously there’s a lot of excitement in the way you deploy your mechanical warrior into combat as well, especially when you can use a falling Titan to crush an opponent.

However, while they may be similar in terms of depth, the differences between being a plain old pilot and being in a Titan make the game feel like its being played on two different but closely connected levels at the same time. One is the world of these enormous mechs, slow and bulky, but able to indiscriminately wreak havoc on whatever’s in their path, often dramatically clashing with each other while everyone else scurries around below. The other is the soldiers who may not wield the terrifying power of the Titans, but can move into places and navigate the map in a way the Titans can’t, and experience a more fast-paced and twitchy version of the game. Some precise balancing and clever design choices mean that while the Titans can do a lot more damage, you never feel completely helpless against them as a soldier. Anyone in one of these mechs knows they can potentially blow you away in a single shot, but if you’re playing intelligently you can avoid direct confrontation with them, or exploit their lack of manoeuvrability and firing speed to your advantage. It can feel a bit like trying to gun down a brick wall firing against one of these monstrous machines, but destroying one of them as a regular soldier is a real David and Goliath moment.

The Trimmings

Among the other interesting mechanics here, the AI on the maps are a strong addition. They provide some extra fodder for you to chew through in combat and in terms of the difficulty of taking on an opponent and the reward you get from defeating them, they fill the gap between a full-blown player and nothing at all. The Burn Cards also help spice up things. Usually when you unlock some kind of reward that will give you a combat advantage in a game like this, a new scope or armour ability for example, you can only be given the reward once, and as you make your way through the progression system, especially into the later game, useful rewards can be few and far between. As disposable powers-ups the Burn Cards allow a steady stream of new rewards that can constantly be renewed, and they come with some of that same sense of gratifying surprise we get from acquiring new cards in actual trading card games.

The best of luck to Respawn with what they've created.

And when everything’s over the “Epilogue” allows for a steady wind-down of the match that seeing a hard declaration of “Victory” or “Defeat” and then being chucked out to the lobby doesn’t. In my eyes it serves as more of a grace to the losing team than the winning team, but it’s enjoyable from either side. If you’re on the defeated team, evacuating successfully allows a sense of a minor victory even if your team didn’t win the game, and the Epilogue makes you feel like your ultimate fate in a match is more of a result of how well you personally played. While if you’re on the winning team, killing players attempting to evacuate or even halting their evacuation entirely can serve as the icing on the victory cake. The way all of this comes together is really important as well. The dueling Titans, the maps swarming with AI, the dynamic skyboxes, and everything else collectively create the impression of a chaotic, noisy warzone where it feels like an actual battle is taking place. Overall, It’s hard to tell exactly how much longevity or popularity Titanfall will have when it properly releases, but in here there’s definitely a fun, exciting, and smartly designed game. Thanks for reading.

Posted by Pezen

That's a nice and balanced writeup. As someone on the fringes of the discussion having neither access to an Xbox One or the Titanfall beta, I've found myself getting less solid information and more emotional reactions to what Titanfall may or may not be. Either people are all acting like it's the second coming of christ or they're reducing it to Call of Duty with mechs and that's supposedly boring.

To be honest, I have been back and forth on how curious I am about this game. Seeing it in action doesn't quite do it for me because I can see where that second group of people are coming from. But at the same time, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. And the extra features surrounding that (such as the burn cards etcetera) sound interesting.

I suppose it's a wait and see. The tail of the game sort of hangs on the balance of people getting into it, and from what I can tell it seems like getting over the idea of your Titan not being the end game is the first step in that direction.

At this point I think I am more curious about it's reception when it comes out than I am the actual game.