Six on six is quite enough, thanks. Respawn caused a brief kerfuffle last month when its co-founder Vince Zampella nonchalantly confirmed over Twitter that a maximum of twelve players could do battle in Titanfall’s online arenas. For a few online shooter devotees, that figure was worryingly low – compared to Battlefield 4’s skirmishes, it’s miniscule – but as players sampling the game’s beta for the first time today will discover, the player cap is a design decision, first and foremost; it’ll stop the game from turning into “a chaos factory,” as Respawn lead artist Joel Emslie puts it.
“You know what, I understand where they’re coming from,” he told us at a preview event last week. “I think when you hear a raw number like that and you’re not familiar with the game then yeah, it can be a little off-putting but we’ve played the game with other player counts and there’s a very specific reason why we chose the number. It’s about making sure that there’s a nice balance of real human players and AI counterparts. We’re trying to do something new and we’re standing by it.”
He’s right. Titanfall’s firefights are hectic enough, a slew of AI grunts filling out the map without making them feel clogged up or infuriatingly deadly every few minutes. There’s a subtlety and complexity to Titanfall which belies the thundering bombast of its impending arrival. It’s a game about stomping around firing missiles in giant mechs and running along walls unloading an assault rifle, sure, but there’s nuance here, too.
Tellingly, its tutorial is lengthier than most. This isn’t just move, aim, shoot, go; both Pilot and Titan have sci-fi movesets that military shooters can’t justify within their more grounded fiction. The more striking additions include a timed cloaking device, double jumps and wallrunning for Pilots; a dash, a dodge, a Jedi-style vortex shield and a brutal melee smash for Titans. You won’t feel truly accustomed to all of your arsenal until you’ve felt the heat of battle for real, of course.
Start out in Attrition – deathmatch by any other name – and Titanfall’s battles feel familiar at first. As your team spread out from the spawn point, you dash forwards and strafe around corners using the same dusty old tactics until you see one of your contemporaries leap – twice – up onto a blown-out office block’s roof and run along an adjacent wall. It looks fun.
But this isn’t the autopilot parkour of an Assassin’s Creed game. Smooth navigation of these two maps, Fracture and Angel City, requires timed button presses and practice. Buildings and rocky outcrops are no longer insurmountable obstacles, and it takes a while to fully grasp the idea’s potential, forcing you out of familiar patterns of play. Once that clicks, it’s hard to go back, says Respawn’s Emslie. “I’m a huge multiplayer shooter guy – now I look at walls and fences and they feel like they’re in the way,” he says. “I just want to rip it up there and do whatever the hell I want.” Pilots, though nimble, feel much weightier than your avatar does in Call Of Duty. Dipping into Ghosts soon afterwards felt like playing a game about a floating, twitching camera-mounted drone.
The game’s trademark change of pace comes when you jump into the lap of your pet Titan a couple of minutes into battle. Perhaps as a way to prevent that switch from jarring, Respawn’s Titans are as surprisingly nimble as the game’s Pilots are unexpectedly hefty. The contrast between the two roles is clearest in the moments just after the switch, when you realise you can’t duck into an office block or scurry along and up the walls of a crumbling building any more. You’re much more exposed, but plenty more powerful.
The staggered arrival of Titans, plus the bonus thrill of the escape at the end of each round lends each bout of Titanfall great variety while throwing up myriad tactical considerations. Do you call in your Titan as soon as you’re able to? Or perhaps jump in and out of it as the mood takes you, toggling between Guard and Follow commands? Would a stealthier, on-foot approach be more effective? Respawn is forcing decisions upon the player throughout.
In Hardpoint Domination, three cores must be won and defended to grant a team victory, prompting the usual dash to and from more concentrated combat spaces. It’s good – the ability to leap out of your Titan and have it defend your Hardpoint while you pick off interlopers is particularly pleasing – but it’s familiar stuff.
Last Titan Standing’s scramble for survival feels fresh, though, and is an early highlight. It’s a reversal of a round’s usual pacing, in that every player begins in their Titan, which doesn’t respawn once its defences are spent. The scale of these opening battles means that combat pivots around a few very clear bottlenecks on both maps, with sides swapped at half time to even out any advantageous vantage points. One by one, they fall, the pace quickening with each player’s transition from mech to Pilot, and finally the race is on toward the final Titan, either to defend or attack it.
Titan combat is still pacy and close quarters melee attacks are surprisingly common. Each mech’s vortex shield, able to suck in any oncoming fire before spitting it back out again, allows players to run in close and throw an almighty haymaker at an opposing mech with a click of the right stick. As a Pilot, the sight of two Titans duking it out like this is quite a sight to behold. Just don’t get too close.
On the ground, nipping about the heels of a Titan is one of the game’s mischievous joys. By ducking into a building and out the other side, Pilots can quickly turn a panicked escape into a defiant last swipe at the goliath before wisely abandoning the scene to seek a fairer fight.
The combat is spectacular, then. The intensity of battle masks Titanfall’s smart but functional looks, described by Respawn’s art lead Emslie as a “used future” aesthetic. The two maps on show at the preview event were each bombed-out future cities, and were difficult to tell apart. There’s greater variety in the final game, we’re told. “One [map] that we’ve shown is a level called Boneyard which is more of an open environment that favours Titan gameplay,” says Emslie. “But there are also other levels where we got really exotic with it. There’s one that I love that’s more for pro Pilot players – that has really exotic geometry that Pilots can go crazy with.”
What’s consistent in all three modes is the feeling that dying matters. These aren’t 30 second snatches of fun ending with a one-shot death; Titanfall’s battles are lengthier and more substantial than an average round of COD.
Outside each firefight, there’s a familiar variety of bars that go ever upwards and an initially impenetrable selection of weaponry. Custom loadouts are unlocked almost from the start, a constant string of new armaments and stat boosts imploring you to experiment a little with each round. There are also Burn Cards, one-off powerups that look like they’re lifted straight from FIFA Ultimate Team, though these will be earned, not bought.
A singleplayer mode does exist, though you wouldn’t know it; the campaign remains obscured by Respawn’s laser-focus on multiplayer, which has the support of publisher EA and, unusually, Microsoft. It’s an important game for Xbox One, to say the least, so the platform holder has been active in its support of the game’s infrastructure. Titanfall’s launch won’t be another Battlefield 4. “They’ve been coming in and working with us as much as possible,” says Emslie. “With the Beta and cloud servers they’ve sat with our lead internet guys and have gone back and forth with how we solve problems.”
In some respects Respawn is preaching to the converted with the release of Titanfall, its language and set of scenarios familiar, if augmented somewhat. What it needs to do is add to that lexicon – the studio won’t be satisfied with merely stealing away a chunk of the COD and Battlefield playerbase. Titanfall is a pacy, complex, nuanced shooter that’ll entertain experienced players for months, maybe years, but its most surprising trick is in feeling welcoming to newcomers. Accessibility needn’t be a dirty word; if Titanfall is to revitalise the genre and provide a real shot in the arm for Xbox One, then it has to go beyond the established COD crowd and turn the heads of everyone else. So far, so good.