There are a lot of different ways to make videogame fights meaningful. Singleplayer games do it by couching your shotgun blasts and pistol whips in the context of a story. Multiplayer games do it by emphasising competition via scoreboards, and by layering XP bonuses and equipment progression on top as rewards for each kill. Titanfall aims to do it with a mixture of all of the above, and based on its limited beta, finds mixed success.
Titanfall is a sci-fi multiplayer shooter in which you play as a futuristic foot soldier able to regularly summon a mech from orbit. The robot crashes to earth and then you can jump inside, piloting it alongside fellow mechs and ground troops like so many anime characters, across team deathmatch ("Attrition") and capture and hold ("Hardpoint") modes. I've been playing it since the beta launched late last week.
I say that it's a multiplayer shooter, but Titanfall is one of a few games trying to remove the distinction. When you start it up, you're immediately placed in a private lobby to which you can invite friends. If you play the tutorial, which contains no other players, you're still online (I know because I experienced lag while playing it). Multiplayer matches are always six humans versus six humans, but the battlefields are populated by NPC soldiers on both sides, and the finished game will string together its multiplayer scenarios with intro and outro plot segments. It's another take on what Brink attempted.
The beta contains a few maps, and no recognisable plot. It does have a lot of fighting, though. Immediate impressions: it just works, and far better than I expected it to.
A quick note: you might have noticed that these screenshots look like a butt. That is because my computer is a butt. I've ordered a new one, but in the meantime I appreciate that Titanfall's modified Source engine scales down till its butt-graphics run smoothly on my butt-computer.
In so many ways, Titanfall is everything you expect it to be. The game's developer Respawn Entertainment were started by the founders and many of the former members of Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty, and it shows. Pilots are basically a slightly sci-fi twist on a Call of Duty soldier: you select your loadout from primary and secondary weapons (pistols, machineguns, shotguns, or futuristic equivalents), an anti-Titan weapon (lock-on missiles launchers, etc.), a grenade, a tactical ability (cloak, speed boosts), and Burn cards, which I'll mention later.
Pilots are hyper-mobile. You can wallrun, doublejump, and you run extremely quickly. You'll immediately begin chaining these moves together, leaping and bounding across levels without touching the ground. It's far more forgiving than Mirror's Edge's parkour system, and any moment when I wasn't wallrunning started to feel like failure.
After a two-minute build period/cooldown has finished, each Pilot has the ability to call down their Titan from orbit. The risk, I thought, was that Titanfall would feel like two separate games. This happens even with less outlandish concepts - Battlefield's jets, for example, feel disconnected from the battle raging on the ground. I thought being inside a Titan would feel like you were playing a different game than the on-foot soldiers.
That isn't the case. In one instance, While playing the Hardpoint mode, I found myself pinned down as I attempted to capture a control point. Instead of rushing out to try to fight my assailants personally, I peaked out from behind cover just long enough to call my Titan down outside the warehouse I was trapped inside. Three seconds later my robot landed, I flicked on guard mode, and he killed my attackers for me. I captured the point, ran and jumped towards him, and he caught me in the air before placing me inside his cockpit.
In that moment, my Titan felt like my bud, my best robo-pal, but I think it's the animation that's important. Clambering inside a Titan cockpit enables a different view mode, but it's a seamless transition. The Titans feel like physical objects within the levels in a way I didn't fully anticipate. That means you can do things like leap on the back of friendly Titans to hitch a ride, or do the same thing to enemy Titans in order to open their brain and start shooting it from point-blank range. That means that you can use your Titan's robot fists to punch inside an enemy Titan and pull the pilot out from inside. That means you can call your Titan down from orbit and use it crush camping enemy robots.
It allows you to include interactions with Titans as part of that rapid flow from action to action. You'll spawn, sprint towards the nearest building, and double-jump through a second floor window to get inside. You'll find a room with the roof collapsed, and you'll wallrun and leap to pull yourself up and outside. From there a double-jump takes you on to a higher neighbouring building. From there you'll leap on to the back of a friendly Titan, until it passes close enough to the building across the street, at which point you'll leap off and continue to the next edge.
Looking over, you'll spot an enemy Titan on the street below. Leap down, attach to its back, and shoot its brains out. From this position, it doesn't take that many shots to take it down. By the time the pilot inside knows what's happening, there's only enough time for him to eject, and the sudden propulsion of his ejector seat will fire you into the air with it. As you drift back to earth, you've already spotted your next target, and are double-jumping to land on the nearest available roof.
When I say Titanfall just works, what I mean is that it promises some core fantasy - that you will fight people and robots and sometimes be inside a robot - and that it delivers on that fantasy as much as you want it to. It's a base, primitive pleasure. I've watched lots of people on Twitter snort at the enthusiasm for the Titanfall beta - like, oh good, another game with robots - and I get that. But you know, I've never done this stuff with robots before in a videogame. If you ever looked at an AT-ST or a Dreadnought and felt this feeling in your nine-year-old stomach, this 'Mm, robots'-warmth, then Titanfall is fucking cool. This is my critic's opinion: I think hanging with and from robots is fucking cool.
Right, but there's that other thing, which is: how do you make videogame fights meaningful? Call of Duty did it with killstreaks, which tied your murderin' to rapid increases in power. Titanfall has all these levels and unlocks and new weapons and challenges and the Burn cards. You can have three Burn cards in your loadout at a time, and you can activate which to 'burn' for the coming life just before you respawn. The cards only work for that one life, but they might cut 40 seconds off your Titan build time, or they might make your legs move faster, or whatever. They're a nice way to make your character more specialised, and your fighting more rewarding, without overpowering your character in ways that feel unfair like a killstreak unlocking an AC-130 gunship.
But I don't think fighting in Titanfall is as meaningful - by which I mean, as rewarding, satisfying, compelling, purposeful - as Call of Duty, or other games like Counter-Strike or Battlefield. And it's the NPC soldiers that spoil it for me.
Titanfall feels like a large-scale game, more on a par with Battlefield than Call of Duty. The robots are three-storeys tall; maps have large opens spaces or cover more than a few city blocks. Yet there's only ever six players on each team, some of whom will be on foot and some of whom will be in a robot. To stop you spending a lot of time alone, in empty locations, Titanfall drops NPC soldiers on to the battlefields. These are grunts, who are idiots, go down in a single hit, and net you a puckle of XP, and there are Spectres, who are idiots, go down in two hits, and net you slightly more XP.
Neither are fun or interesting or challenging to fight. They're a source of ambient combat, like elevator music for machineguns. You can almost ignore them, as they're too dim to kill you even if you run directly past them. The net effect is that they're insignificant in themselves, but their presence serves to diminish the occasions where you meet another player. Discovering another player needs to either be frequent and dangerous, or occasional and startling. In any case, the NPCs create a bland soup for players to drown within. I worry that I'll play it for a couple of weeks, reach max level, and then lose interest because killing never feels significant. And killing is what the game is about.
It's only a beta. Maybe improved AI would fix it. Maybe a more specialised, max-level playerbase will fix it. Maybe having more maps and therefore more variety will render it moot. Maybe the story will be compelling enough to see me through. I can't say, yet. I will return with a WIT when the full release plummets from orbit on March 11th.