Respawn on Titanfall and breaking free of Call Of Duty’s ‘spawn-die-spawn-die loop’

Word spread fast. Titanfall was demoed at August’s Gamescom show and, by day two, players were queuing for up to eight hours for a single 15-minute game, because once you play it you want to tell people about it. Titanfall is a mechanised and rocket-propelled anecdote generator, a meme with an Xbox One controller, a six-on-six multiplayer shootout where every moment is worth recounting, from the time you racked up a 20-man killing streak fighting alongside your own AI-controlled mecha to the moment an enemy Titan gunned down your armoured suit and you ejected straight onto the killer’s hull. Titanfall’s systems seem purpose-built to make stories happen.

“There were three core mechanics we wanted,” explains producer Drew McCoy. “Mobility, survivability and scale. Once the Titans started to come in you naturally started to get this longer lifespan, and even if you get destroyed you can eject and keep living. A lot can happen in a single life.”

Living is easy in Titanfall. Certainly a shotgun to the chest will drop a Pilot in one hit, but Pilots are so mobile and the maps so large that there’s always a way out of any compromising shootout. Every Pilot has an anti-Titan weapon, a double jump, gravity-defying footwear, and a cloaking system that’s especially effective against a Titan’s optics when making a break across open ground. Rack up enough kills or just wait long enough and you’ll call in a customised Titan of your own, effectively wrapping your pilot in a tank costume and adding an extra life to your current spawn. Those are all the tools Titanfall needs to break free of the Call Of Duty spawn-die-spawn-die loop.

“It’s not boom-you’re-dead, boom-you’re-dead,” says McCoy. “Because you move so fast, it’s not about who [aims quickest]; it’s about who outmanoeuvres the other. I think it’s a response to the fact that we’re all getting older and our reaction times aren’t what they used to be. I want to hop into a game and not feel like every 14-year-old is going to dominate me. I want a fighting chance and I don’t want to feel I’m screwed if I didn’t get in on the first week.”

Such survivability should prohibit large bodycounts but Titanfall’s maps are target-rich environments, populated by dozens of AI soldiers run by Microsoft’s dedicated servers. All of them put up a decent enough fight to be trouble, but they’re thick and flimsy enough to be worth fewer points than a Pilot or Titan kill. “AI grunts keep that quick time-to-kill feedback loop,” says McCoy. “When you can kill three guys in eight seconds, that’s good – but when you’re on the other side of that, it’s not. If you run into a group of AI [units] you can take them out, and you still have that gameplay loop of doing things, achieving things, killing people.”

Respawn rejects the word ‘bot’ for its AI units, but like all bots, Titanfall’s grunts are terrible in concept – a legion of semi-coordinated goons – except here, they work so well that Titanfall wouldn’t be Titanfall without them. “They’re not bots,” says McCoy. “They’re not meant as a human replacement. They’re a different class of people. Pilots are these super-awesome soldiers that have the gear to do double jumps, the weapons to take down Titans, but the AI are the low-level guys that are always on the ground – they’re not double-jumping and they’re really weak, but the purpose they serve design-wise is multifaceted. They show new players where to go. And once they start fighting, they’re usually fighting other AI because all the experienced players are fighting on walls and rooftops. New players start getting kills on AI, when usually in multiplayer games they’re getting completely whacked.”

Mobility, survivability and scale are Respawn’s buzzwords but players leaving EA’s booth at Gamescom were more inclined to mention how the game feels. Titanfall doesn’t play like other modern shooters; when asked for influences McCoy mentions Quake, Tribes, Doom and Street Fighter. “Tribes for motion,” he says, “Doom and Street Fighter for Titan combat. I loved rocket-jumping, learning routes in Unreal Tournament team maps, the grapple in Tribes: Vengeance; I loved figuring out what the physics was like and how I could use it to my advantage. I think a lot of games have narrowed things down to your reaction times – who can pull the trigger faster? – and we want to open it up a bit.

“Doom is actually where some of the Titan combat came from. That dance you did, strafing back-and-forth with rocket launchers; you felt like you could actually evade their fire. Titans can fire a slow [missile barrage] by holding the trigger, and that’s actually a fighting game inspiration. Like in Street Fighter, if you throw a fireball you can force your opponent to jump over them and do another move to take them out.”

This is zoning in an FPS. While Pilots zip around with their sticky boots and jetpacks, Titans play a slower, more tactical game of move and counter-move. “Maybe you’re really good at moving around the level, timing your Vortex to block their fire then dashing at a Titan, reading your opponent’s tells. It feels like a fighting game,” says McCoy.

It feels different and new, the way Modern Warfare felt in 2007 and no major console shooter has felt since. Our story goes like this: we spawn and rush forward, moving ahead of the AI grunts and breaking off from our five teammates to climb the tower in the centre of the Angel City map. This is a mission torn from the campaign, a plot-driven deathmatch where the enemies are real players, and from that vantage point we can pick off grunts two or three at a time while firing on Pilots still too attached to the ground beneath their feet.

It’s enough to call in our first Titan, deployed in front of the tower where we hand control over to the AI and set it to Guard mode, halting the Pilots trying to scale our high spot. When one finally makes it onto the roof with a shotgun it’s time to bail, leaping straight into the waiting Titan and rampaging across the map, gunning down enemy Pilots right up to the point when they’re forced to evacuate from the map on their last remaining spawn for a massive XP bonus. Ten minutes, one spawn. It’s possible in Titanfall.

“It’s [those stories] that matter,” says McCoy, when asked about the buzz from the show. “Who cares what rendering features we have or dynamic audio generation? Who cares? Did you have fun? Did you know what you were doing? Did you learn something new? That’s what matters. We’re never going to be telling you, ‘We have this many levels, this many guns and this is our player count’. Numbers aren’t something we care about. We just want everyone to have fun. Our game designers went nuts, like, ‘What do we want?’ And the answer was: ‘We want everything!’”

Titanfall will be released early next year on Xbox 360, PC, Xbox One.

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