Titanfall: next-gen gaming’s most powerful weapon

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Gamers are already paying to play Respawn’s online-only Xbox One shooter and it’s not out till next year. Matt Hill meets the next generation’s most exciting exclusive…

[Originally published in the November issue of OXM]

Eight-hour queues are usually the preserve of theme parks in high season, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here” countdown signs peppering an endless line of fed up-looking families wanting a brief few minutes of mechanical excitement to break the monotony.

Yet as Cologne’s video-game expo Gamescom opened to the public, Respawn and EA’s online-only, mech-v-man shooter got in on the anticipation action, wads of 100 euro bills exchanging hands for a bit of light line-jumping, every last patient face filled with excitement from beginning to end. There was even a bloody fast-pass system.

It would appear that Titanfall is proving to be less next year’s shooter king in waiting, more the first next-gen title that the world at large really seems that bothered about.

The Battle of The Slightly Better Graphics, the ongoing charade of whose camera spies on you the least and the general issue of the most public-pleasing franchises also arriving on current generation consoles has left many wondering if they should opt out of this next round of one-upmanship.

But then Respawn Entertainment, the at-last-active new developer from former Call of Duty head honchos Vince Zampella and Jason West, chucked everyone in a room with an HD screen, a giant mech and an Xbox controller, and the gaming world lit up a little.

As much as it can grate to sing from the game-industry song sheet, multi-tier shooter Titanfall really is just about the most exciting thing a games journalist can play right now – which, in turn, means the most exciting thing you’ll be able to play some time next year (“March 14,” smiles the schedule). A few months on from the first playable demo of the Microsoft platforms exclusive, tales of mech takedowns, bravery under fire and that gun that blows multiple heads off still fill our offices.

It might be to do with how Respawn is showing it off, a ‘no appointments’, random six-on-six death match that feels more like queuing up for Laser Quest or Alien War than a video-game demo. There’s the 12 combatants waiting patiently for their turn before being carved into two sides; there’s the explanation of The Rules and the nervousness of those fresh to its killing field (i.e. almost everyone).

There’s the ‘choose your weapons’ moment where, even though it’s running on PC, players side-glance nosily to scope who’s opting for keyboard and mouse or Xbox 360 controller; there’s the ‘two rounds are better than one’ approach to ease the player in; and there’s the pre-game story build up, placing a context inelegantly on the ensuing carnage.

Best to get out of the way early that, so far, it’s this bolted-on storyline that’s most wooly. There’s a guy who needs to be extracted, really quite urgently, and one of the teams has to get somewhere to do something or other – whatever, it’s pure placeholder hokum. If this is indicative of Titanfall‘s ‘campaign multiplayer’ combo of online fighting and plot-shifting story – single-player narratives are so 2012, don’t you know? – it needs some finessing for anyone to care. Most players had run off before the prologue had passed, and we can’t say we blame them.

Luckily, Titanfall doesn’t dilly-dally for long. A brief loadout screen for your infantry “pilot” and Titan sidekick gives you, at present, three armoury sets to choose from before throwing you into action (heads-up: the pilot’s multiple-headshot Smart Pistol is a riot, and way more powerful than it looks).

The relatively small map may resemble the distressed, brown-tinged palette of typical modern multiplayer warfare on a static screen, but in person is teeming with excitement and explorations. The verticality of the space really is something to behold, Titanfall‘s combination of double-jumps and jet pack-powered, parkour-like wall running allowing you to scale buildings in seconds, each round setting off at a furious pace as if you were in a Mirror’s Edge time trial.

Respawn rather helpfully printed out and laminated the controls at Gamescom for every player’s delectation like a greasy-spoon menu, but after a rudimentary scan for the new (double-jumping, mech summoning, etc) it’s not something you’ll need to delve too deeply into. FPS players will be at home instantly with Titanfall‘s triggers, bumpers and analogue assignments, with traversal familiar and head shots instinctive, which is vital as this is as speedy and twitchy as a shooter gets.

After time and, importantly, kills have been racked up as infantry, you get to summon your Titan, pulling it down out of the sky into a clearing of your choosing like a portable Robot Jox. Either set it up as a turret, firing in your defence as you nip around like a machine gun-toting ninja, or jump into the cockpit and take it for a ride around town.

Here, the balance between the classes comes into its own. Titans are powerful but cumbersome; you can’t jump and are stuck to the main streets, so everyone can see you wherever you are, but your weaponry is stonkingly strong. The best plan of attack on such a tight map is to give any other mechs the runaround, obscured by buildings, as you target bunched infantry groups who pose a surprising threat, before cornering the big guys to be pulverised later.

Pilots, by comparison, are less powerfully armed yet agile, nimble and a far less easy target, able to hang out in any of the map’s three tiers, be it firefighting troops at ground level, sniping from high windows or scaling rooftops to take the fight to the Titans from above. A co-ordinated effort can bring down the seemingly unassailable mechs relatively swiftly, while the frantic drama didn’t prevent us from some Full Metal Jacket-style sniper time, taking out respawning troops from parts unknown.

It makes for a high-tech cat and mouse game, with neither team able to get the upper hand easily. When your Titan is flaming under fire, you must jab at the buttons to pull the ejector seat. Time it well and there’s no need to go to Silicon Heaven with your mech suit, instead rising like a machine gun-toting phoenix from its flames, spraying your aggressors with airborne gunfire. Everyone will remember their first time.

There’s also a palpable learning curve here that is only possible with new IP, an excitement that comes from the simple pleasure of being able to do new things. Within a week of it being on Xbox Live we’re all sure to be offed within seconds as a teenage Texan swears in our ear, but right now, very few people have played it, which is as level a playing field as you can get.

First go I’m second from last, the wide-eyed traversal of the world taking up more time than actually shooting people. By the second go, I top the kill list, a Respawn producer yelling, “We’ve got a hell of a streak here,” as everyone in sight is reduced to rubble. I may even have cackled.

Unlike the patchy story intro, the battle’s novel “epilogue” idea is an excellent addition, pitting the losing squad after the match’s time limit is up into a Left 4 Dead 2-style ‘get to the chopper!’ sprint for XP and pride, as the victors attempt to mow them down a second time. It lasts barely a minute, but adds enormously to the theatre of the piece, the Company of Heroes-esque retreat more disheartening/empowering than any screen full of stats. How the welded on dramatics work a narrative throughout the solely multiplayer effort will be telling.

An industry show is often a testing ground and a difficult barometer to read, analysing the public, press and hastily crafted cardboard certificate-laden walls to see who’s coming out on top. Yet at Gamescom, people ran up to you and jabbered, “Oh my christ, have you played Titanfall yet?”, eyes bulging, before you’d even had a chance to ask what the Wi-Fi password was.

It’s the people’s champion, and the people, it seems, have great taste.

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