Still Playing: Titanfall – why endlessly rewarding players is not endlessly rewarding

Titanfall 2

Publisher: EA Developer: Respawn Entertainment Format: Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360 Release: Out now

Shooters are the ultimate videogame power fantasy: a man and a gun fighting through a string of life-or-death encounters with the heart-in-mouth tension of war but none of the risk. Yet the online FPS’s sparse traditional framework – a winner, a loser and a scoreboard – naturally limits its own longevity. The object of the game never changes, its systems stay fixed in place, and you’re as powerful when you set foot on the battlefield as when you leave it. The thrill wears off.

Infinity Ward offered two solutions to that problem in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Its persistent levelling system, which ensures players are always working towards something new, might be its greatest gift to the industry as a whole. What it gave to the FPS power fantasy, however, was the killstreak, which doles out rewards of increasing bombast to players who can rack up kills without getting caught in the crossfire.

We vividly remember lying prone under the stairway in the big house on the hill in Modern Warfare 2’s Estate map, our sights trained on the front door, waiting anxiously for our streak of ten kills to become 11. It felt like the whole enemy team must’ve known we were there, and a well-placed frag grenade, sniper round or shotgun shell would reduce all our good work to nothing. After what we imagined were several minutes, but was probably only a handful of seconds, an enemy walked in and made the fatal mistake of checking his corners before looking under the stairs. Two rifle bursts and he was gone, a message onscreen telling us a new killstreak was ours. We found a quiet corner, pressed right on the D-pad and were warped high into the sky to take the controls of an AC-130 gunship. Eleven kills quickly became 12, then 15, then 20. We’d earned our reward, and the payoff was enormous.

Primarily because it was so rare, though. Only the very best could start every game confident they’d reach the high-end killstreaks – the Chopper Gunner, AC-130 and match-ending Tactical Nuke – without the perfect storm of a cool head, steady aim and hefty dose of luck on which we mere mortals had to rely. A rummage in the toybox was a rare occurrence indeed, which just made it all the sweeter when it came.

Titanfall’s developer Respawn understands the need to give online play a sense of progression through reward, but does that soften the sense of achievement and overcoming the odds?

Titanfall is the work of a studio that considers such uncertainty a problem rather than a strength, and that sees the spawn-sprint-die loop of the downtime between streaks as something to be fixed. Respawn wants every single player to feel powerful. It’s why the Pilots have the Smart Pistol, their double jumps and wall runs, and can rodeo a giant robot to death. It’s why the maps are populated with a steady stream of weak, witless AI cannon fodder. Above all, it’s why the titular Titanfalls aren’t solely the preserve of the very best players, but guaranteed to all of them in time.

It’s certainly effective. In your very first multiplayer match, you’ll wall run and double jump and cut down a dozen grunts before calling a massive robot from orbit, jumping into the cockpit and watching the sparks and bodies fly. You might end up on the losing side with an abysmal kill/death ratio, but you’ll have wreaked a good deal of destruction while doing so, making a few widows and destroying a few billion dollars’ worth of machinery. You’ll feel pretty good about yourself.

Yet this supposed solution also creates new problems. What you get in the first round is what you get in every match you play, and while unlocks, loadouts and Burn Cards offer flexibility and empower different playstyles, they don’t afford any tangible increase in power. As you get better, you get your hands on the toys quicker, but none ever really boosts your chances of winning. Modern Warfare 2’s AC-130 could turn a match on its head and the Nuke simply won the day, but while there is a clear advantage in being the first to call in a Titan, it’s short-lived and no guarantee of victory.

Unlocks, loadouts and Burn Cards offer flexibility and empower different playstyles, they don’t afford any tangible increase in power.

It’s symptomatic of a game that goes out of its way to constantly reward players. The perk-like Burn Cards are given out almost as quickly as you can use them. Many of the game’s challenges merely ask that you keep playing – spending an hour with a certain gun; travelling so many kilometres on foot – and reward you with a hefty dollop of XP just for existing. Keep taking any kind of drug and tolerance builds up, the buzz wearing off unless you take progressively bigger doses. In Titanfall, what should be a dopamine rush in reward for a job well done is the default setting.

Fortunately, the scope of the tools at your disposal means you’re able to create your own fun. You can stop mid-wall run, cloak and pick off passers-by; you can leap out of a second-storey window, return with your double jump and shoot your pursuer in the back; you can swing a gigantic robot fist and embed an enemy Pilot in the ground. In Titanfall, you’re free to toy with ideas that are new to the genre and available from the word go. This is so much more than a man and a gun.

Developers have been tinkering with the killstreak ever since it was invented. In recent CODs, there has been a clear attempt to cater for the lesser skilled, with toys split into multiple classes. One carries over your streak after death, the trade-off being that the rewards support your team rather than destroy the other. None of these solutions has quite worked as intended, but more will follow. Clearly, Respawn will tinker with Titanfall’s framework in the inevitable sequels to come. As it does, it would do well to remind itself why the multiplayer FPS exists. When power is permanent, the fantasy rather loses its shine.