TitanFall: why Respawn’s mechanised shooter has legs

Mecha are stupid. There already exists a mobile weapons platform capable of dispensing a variety of munitions and traversing almost any terrain at high speed. It’s called a tank, and the reasons why you’d replace it with an unstable bipedal walking target are entirely silly – and largely beside the point when the hows are more interesting than the whys. Stand a tank on two legs and you don’t get a better tank, but you might get a better mecha.

“Titanfall isn’t fantasy sci-fi,” designer Fairfax ‘Mackey’ McCandlish says. “You look at it and you believe this stuff could be built. At Respawn we have art guys from Infinity Ward, new guys from art school, and even guys from Sony Santa Monica, and they put a tonne of research into it to make sure that these things could be built.” And build them they did. For three days of E3, Respawn’s design work stood tall in LA’s Convention Center on a 1:1 scale that demonstrated the implausibility of mecha-on-mecha combat –a nd the incredible fun that Respawn’s recruits had turning tanks into Titans.

The result is a compact but long-legged machine with a bulky barrel chest housing the pilot’s cockpit, and inexplicable flat armour covering the vulnerable arms and legs. It takes its cues from modern military design – and, yes, you can build it but you wouldn’t want to ride in it. But then that’s kind of the point – unlike tanks, Titans are uniquely vulnerable to infantry on Titanfall’s skirmish-sized maps.

“Our game is still infantry-based,” McCandlish explains when asked how Titanfall compares with the Infinity Ward refugees’ previous work on Call Of Duty. “But it’s infantry on two different scales, so these maps are all carefully crafted to have all the strengths of a traditional shooter level, but with this scale disparity that you get between Titans and Pilots. If you’re a Pilot, we want you to feel you can turn the tide of a fight between two Titans, and if you spot a Titan looking the wrong way, you can scramble up the leg, rip off the panel and start tearing up the innards.”

Large infantry only come into play when a player orders a Titan dropped in from above the battlefield. Players deploy as hyper-mobile Pilots and navigate the maps at high speed with a double jump and wall run, while a clock ticks down to Titanfall. Kills knock time off the clock, accelerating Titan construction and lending the game a unique rhythm – kill, kill, kill, Titanfall, kill, kill, kill, Titanfall. The deployment of each walking tank is akin to Call Of Duty’s Killstreaks, dramatically reshaping the battle and potentially turning the tide. A friendly Titan in the right place at the right time can level an entire capture point with its vast firepower, but an enemy Titan in the wrong place can hold a hardpoint singlehandedly for as long as it takes players to get the elevation they need to board and destroy the mecha.

“We’re not making wide-scale tank-driving maps here,” McCandlish explains. “That means we can focus on making the maps just the right size for large infantry and small infantry.” And that means dramatic changes in elevation, short sightlines and close-quarter battles on the one map Respawn showcased at Microsoft’s E3 press conference.

“We’re a very small team, so we had to pick a platform if we were going to be on consoles,” McCandlish continues, “and Xbox made the most sense. I feel that, in terms of multiplayer and communal gaming, Microsoft is like the Apple of videogames. You can just start your game without finding your disc, you can go to your friend’s place and your saves are all there, and with the cloud servers you don’t ever have to worry about transferring between hosts or bad latency.”

Those dedicated servers will be essential for powering Titanfall’s story-driven multiplayer, where player-controlled Pilots and Titans fight alongside AI grunts and giant autopilot Titans on maps with a narrative beginning, middle and end. Multiplayer needs a story in the same way that tanks need legs but, McCandlish argues, adding a little context to multiplayer lets the team shape and direct the action in a way not possible in other shooters. Grunts and giant Titans alter the flow of the battle, objectives change based on narrative moments, and every battle builds towards a spectacular climax, never culminating in a steady, flat march towards a victory or defeat.

And never mind practicality – Titanfall’s Titans look the part, give every battle a unique shape and style, and have received the seal of approval where it counts: Japan. Based on press coverage and Internet reaction, Microsoft has secured – in return for financial backing and an entire cloud’s worth of dedicated servers – the one shooter capable of shifting Xboxes in the territory where Xbox One will need most help. How stupid do those Titans look now?