With the imminent release of EA and Respawn Entertainment’s epic Titanfall, the question on everyone’s lips is will this be the game to finally break the stranglehold Activision’s Call of Duty franchise has on the multiplayer shooter genre? Surprisingly the answer is no. But this is in no way a reflection of the quality of Titanfall, which is undeniably epic.
One of the first things that hits you about Titanfall is its speed and ferocity. It’s frenetic, hyper-active and unrelenting. Its wide-open maps are less about funneling you down obvious choke-points but instead act as corrugated, industrial adventure playgrounds – all angular metal grills and sharp isometric edges. A window is no longer an opportunity for a devious sniper to pick you off from a distance. Instead, it’s a chance for you to double-jump off a roof, wall-run across a vertical wall and double-jump again from a seemingly-impossible angle in order to surprise an unsuspecting enemy with a Bullet Storm-esque size ten boot to the face. A gargantuan Titan is no longer the sign of a murderous kill-streak from which you must run and hide. Instead it’s something on which you can hitch a ride. It’s an opportunity to rack up points thanks to every class having an anti-titan weapon. Or it’s something you can run in circles around as you fire a tirade of bullets, as its pilot worries less about you and more about the three other Titans unleashing a holy hellstorm of missiles and shrapnel at it
Respawn inevitably shows its Infinity Ward heritage thanks to its fairly typical perk and weapons classes but it also brings plenty of new toys to the table. Pilots, taking a leaf out of Crysis’ book, can cloak making them near invisible to Titans – less so to other enemy pilots – while Titans can equip themselves with such devilish delights as the devastating nuclear ejection which takes out anyone unfortunate enough to be within range as it sounds it final death knell.
There’s also the introduction of the brilliant Burn Cards. These one-off bonuses, of which you can choose three per round, can only be used once each per game and only last for a single life. In the beta test I’ve used Burn Cards to replace my default weapon with an explosive equivalent, to decrease my Titan’s charge-up time by 40 seconds, to immediately respawn in a refurbished Titan or to give me a speed and aim boost. Timing is key. Using the right card at the right time can be the difference between success and failure, but then at the same time, many a time I’ve spawned with a Burn Card activated and been killed immediately before I even had chance to use it. Them’s the breaks unfortunately but it’s the same for everyone.
Another brilliant new addition – in the attrition game mode at least – is the introduction of rescue drop ships. When one side achieves the target score and basically secures victory, the opposing forces have to retreat. A drop ship will land somewhere in the map and the grand finale to each round sees everyone dropping whatever they were doing before quickly heading towards the drop ship’s location. As a player on the losing team, returning to the drop ship gives you a points bonus and an opportunity to pick off enemy players once seated safely inside. Meanwhile, the victorious team has the chance to kill all remaining opposing players before they manage to escape. Knowing exactly where every player will be heading, opens up the end game to all kinds of mind games as players contemplate sniping in the general direction of the drop ship from a distance, or prefer to hise somewhere close to it hoping to pick off retreating players mere feet from their escape. This tension is further reinforced by the fact that once the drop ship is inbound, Search and Destroy-like, player respawns are disabled and all of a sudden the emphasis is much more on staying alive.
Titanfall’s eponymous Smart Pistol is surely one of Respawn’s most divisive additions to the genre. The Smart Pistol, surprisingly draws comparisons with Rez and Child of Eden of all games. Featuring less of a target reticule and more of a giant hit box, the smart pistol will automatically lock on to any enemies within its relatively short range and within sight of its target area. AI grunts require only one lock one, while Spectres and enemy pilots require all three targets to lock before unleashing its quiet but unsuspecting payload. With a much reduced range than a typical assault rifle it’s only useful for relatively close-quarters-combat but it’s a concession to less hardcore players that feels at home in this marvelous universe.
To the hardcore drop-shot, 360, no-scoper (look it up) the Smart Pistol might seem like it’s the ultimate cop out. After all, where’s the skill in using what is essentially auto-aim? But then at the same, it seems that Respawn has designed Titanfall specifically not to appeal to that gamer. Sure there’s plenty of potential for fantastic skill and flamboyant headshots, but Titanfall is, whisper it, a hell of a lot more accessible than Call of Duty. Sure you’ll die a lot but with the enemy grunts being so dim-witted and stupid, there’s always plenty of opportunity to earn some easy kills and feel like you’re actually contributing something. Instead of being silently and impossibly head-shotted from the other side of the map less than 5 seconds into proceedings, not before long you’ll be calling in your own Titan and either manning it yourself or having it follow you around like a loyal fifty feet tall guard dog.
Then there’s what we’ll call the fundamental gameplay loop. Call of Duty’s strength lies in the tensions created by building up a kill streak. There’s nothing quite like the excitement of knowing you’re only one kill away from unleashing hell by way of an attack chopper, a Predator Missile or if you’re really good an AC130. It’s why campers exist. Sure the John Rambo approach can be effective with the right weapon, but rarely does it result in ridiculously high kill streaks. The last few Call of Duty games have gone some way towards rectifying this with the introduction of point streaks and deathstreaks but at its most basic and thrilling level, Call of Duty is all about the kill streak.
Titanfall – at least based on what we’ve seen so far in the beta – does not feature kill streaks at all. This removes that need to camp, to sit back and turtle and the necessity to take a cautious and softly-softly approach. Instead, you’re encouraged to hurtle around the maps, double-jumping, boosting and wall-running across the beautifully futuristic dreamscapes. It doesn’t matter if you get killed, you’re almost immediately thrust right back in the throng. And if your Titan is ready to spawn you can even re-join already positioned inside your metal harbinger of doom.
But for me this lack of a reward for doing well makes the game seem slightly empty. Many will argue that players that are already mowing down enemy after enemy shouldn’t be rewarded with something that makes this murderous rampage even easier, but after playing so many third and first-person-shooters over the last ten years, the kill streak has become an almost defacto standard.
It’s also difficult to tell at this point, just how much scope for customization and custom classes there is. There appears to be a decent array of perks and weapons but only time will tell if there’s enough variety to keep things interesting and allow gamers to apply a bit of personality and
From a performance point of view, much has been made of the Xbox One’s inability to output games at full 1080p but honestly, the action is so packed chaotic that you barely have time to notice. It certainly looks polished, well designed and leaps and bounds above the previous generation. But worryingly there’s a considerable amount of screen tearing when the action gets going and even noticeable slowdown when engaging multiple Titans. Whether this is something Respawn will have time to polish out before the game’s final release is hard to say, but based on experience and forever giving developers the benefit of the doubt only to see no difference in the final retail product, I have my doubts.
Titanfall will be a huge success for EA and Respawn, of that there is no doubt. It’s a timely shot in the arm for the first-person-shooter and perhaps more importantly, for Microsoft’s supposedly ailing Xbox One console. That it is Xbox One and PC exclusive (for now) is not to be taken lightly as the hype train is well and truly rolling. Titanfall's release also means Activision, Treyarch, Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer now have to considerably up their game. The announcement last week that Call of Duty games are now on three-year development cycles is surely no coincidence. Activision has been complacent in recent years with the last couple of Call of Duty games taking the safe tried-and-tested route to success. Now there’s a new kid in town and competition is good for everyone.
Titanfall will appeal to Halo players, to casual Call of Duty players and even hardcore Call of Duty players. Its March release is a canny move by EA; it’s not in direct competition with Call of Duty and therefore not going to necessarily splinter the community. There’s plenty of opportunity for both franchises to succeed and indeed continue to succeed if they avoid going up against each other. But they’re entirely different games and to compare them as much as people inevitably will, is to actually do them both a service. Buy them both. Enjoy them both. It’s a win-win situation.