One of the more unexpected side-effects of the difficult last couple of years I’ve had was that I stopped playing multiplayer games. Completely, totally stopped, to the point that I was almost phobic about them, even making excuses in order to avoid them both personally and professionally. Why? Well, “it’s complicated”, but I suspect it’s as simple (and pathetic) as not wanting to feel humiliated in front of strangers in the very likely event I played poorly, for fear it would compound my other various self-loathings and anxieties. Don’t I sound fun at parties, eh?
Now, I’m not going to claim that Titanfall is some miracle cure, or that the profundity of its multiplayer achievements puts all else in the shade. However, I have, genuinely and very quickly, found that I can tread onto a server full of strangers without worrying about it and then have a fine old time, usually ending even a losing match feeling I achieved something of personal merit and often trembling slightly with adrenal excitement. The last multiplayer game which did that for/to me was Team Fortress 2.
There’s loads that doesn’t really work about Titanfall, or at least smacks of design by committee getting in the way of the quick, customisable robo-blasting experience in deserves to be. The ‘mission’ format and its attendant Voiceovers Of Dreary Doom is the major bugbear for me, followed by the inability to get any sense of what server I’m joining and who with, and the all too obvious sense that big parts of the game have been reserved for the ‘season pass’ DLC. And bloody hell, the 80 second wait for a watch to start. Even so: it’s got me.
This was not a game I expected to drink any Koolaid about. Its heritage is a (albeit noisily reconfigured) studio whose most recent games I’d found to be odious and vacuous, and it arrived dripping with the slime of corporate greed such as as in-your-face DLC and the obstacle of Origin. Here I am though, giving what spare time I can find to a game from the makers of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 & 3. Honestly, it’s so lovely to have one’s prejudices subverted.
I’m going to talk about why Titanfall has me in its mighty iron grip, and I’m afraid it’s going to be in the form of a list because I don’t feel like I have an essay in me on this. But I didn’t announce it was a list feature in the title or intro, so please don’t shout ‘Buzzfeed’ at me.
1) The Smart Pistol
The Smart Pistol is an awesome piece of design, and arguably more iconic to Titanfall than even its titular giant mech suits are. More than that, this apparent starting weapon is, I think, the most important addition to a multiplayer shooter since Team Fortress 2’s Heavy. With its ability to lock on to up to three targets (or put up to three bullets into a single target), it’s the gun for people who are either inexperienced or lousy at aiming, able to wound or kill a foe even as they run, jump or climb away from the reticule at speed. It lets them score hits on enemies even if their precision is poor, but it has enough drawbacks (low damage, slow lock-on, middling range) that it doesn’t remove more adept players’ edge. It’s there to make relative newbies feel they can achieve something even – and better still, it still also serves a useful purpose for those who do know their way around a reticule. It’s one of the most effective ways of getting a rodeoing pilot off a friendly Titan’s back, for instance, and it can thin the ranks of the AI-controlled grunts with unparalleled efficiency.
I love the Smart Pistol, but more than that it was instrumental to getting me multiplayer again. It’s not so much that my aim was rusty (though it was), but more than I’d lost the nerve, that I presumed I wouldn’t be able to hit or dodge. The Smart Pistol freed me up to focus primarily on movement, on staying alive, while the gun took care of stopping others from being alive. Realistically, my killrate with it is low, far lower than than it can be when I’m in the zone with an SMG, shotgun or sniper rifle, but that’s not what the Smart Pistol’s about. The Smart Pistol is really about…
Because movement is what first-person shooters, especially multiplayer ones, are really about. And boy does Titanfall give good movement. Jumpy, slidey, fast, responsive, dramatic movement. Parkour-inspired running has been finding its way into action games for a long time now, but the ease and speed of it in Titanfall somehow brings to mind early Quakes and Unreals despite being nothing like them. There’s no flab to it, but more importantly it never takes a degree of control away from you, Assassin’s Creed style. All that double-jumping and wall-running, and how superficially derelict and jumbled levels are built with it in mind, combines to make something where the rush back to the frontline after a respawn is a pleasure rather than a chore. It also creates a game where running away is as valid a defensive tactic as is shooting back. I run and double-jump and wallrun and clamber away from a chap with a shotgun, until I get into a position where the Smart Pistol has its second or two to lock on to my pursuer, and often enough it works.
Movement is why controlling infantry winds up being far more exciting (and dangerous, in the right hands) than controlling a gigantic robot suit does, which is Titanfall’s greatest surprise. The Titans were certainly my gateway drug here, but I stayed for the footsoldiers and their marvellous agility.
3) The Glory of defeat
Joining a team of randoms (and very much being a random myself) means that my side has even odds of victory or failure in any given round. Oddly (well, partially to do with Titanfall’s experience/unlock system not being terribly inspiring – I’m not particularly craving the spoils of war) I almost crave defeat more than I do success, purely because of how desperate and thrilling the endgame is. Get to the chopper. Leave this battle alive rather than dead. First you’ve got to get there, but the HUD also tells the enemy excactly where the chopper will land, so they’ll be hunting you as you run. Once there, you’ve got to stay alive until the bird actually descends. Then you’ve got to either pray a raft of enemy titans don’t shoot it out the sky, or spend precious seconds trying to thin their ranks so you and your allies can get away. There are so many dramatic ways this last 30 seconds of match can go down: you can be killed en route, you could leap (the leaping is the best bit) into the aircraft at the last second, you could bittersweetly find yourself the only one on it, you could find yourself shot down a half-second before departure, you could stage a heroic last stand to distract the enemy so everyone else can escape, you could use your own Titan, in guard mode, to cover your back while you scramble to reach that chopper.
It’ll wear thin in time, I’m sure, but right now it’s an action movie finale and a way to find even defeat invigorating that the sight of a scoreboard or even a new unlock couldn’t hope to match.
4) Titans as pets, not suits
I have the best time in Titanfall when I’m not in a Titan (see point 20), but I nonetheless have one at my disposal. The option to have your Titan follow you around or guard a specific point opens up a range of tactical options – defend a captured hardpoint while you go grab another one, take enemy fire while you sprint across an open plaza, keep a opposing Titan busy while you rodeo onto its back and shoot its computerised brains out… Titans work best as an aid rather than a source of first-hand firepower, and this way they also wind up feeling like a bus-size pet dog despite the game avoiding any overt charm or cuteness in their appearance or behaviour. The pop-up message that, unseen, it’s just nobbled an enemy mech or pilot is somehow as exciting as doing it yourself.
There’s more I like and more I don’t like, but it’s those four things that have me playing a multiplayer shooter again, feeling like I can achieve something despite being rusty and despite tending towards lone wolf rather than team player. I end each round trembling slightly, a feeling I’ve really only otherwise had in Quake III and early Team Fortress 2. There’s a sickening amount of money attached to Titanfall (in so many ways), but at least it seems worth it – it really does understand how to give the otherwise multiplayer-averse a good time.
(It also makes me feel desperately sorry for Brink, but that’s another story).