Multiplayer shooters really have been in a rut lately, haven’t they? This year will see the release of the eleventh Call of Duty game (not counting expansions), which will surely dominate servers once again with gameplay and player douchebaggery that hasn’t really changed since 2007. The Battlefield series seems content to advance purely in terms of graphics. Halo is similarly stale, with recent titles leaning heavily on user-created content for longevity and variety.
Fundamentally, these series are all about shooting other players; how much innovation can be brought to such a concept? Respawn Entertainment’s blockbuster hopeful Titanfall proves it doesn’t take much to freshen up the man-shooting formula; just a few good ideas, applied in the right ways.
At first glance, Titanfall doesn’t even really offer anything genuinely new. Sci-fi gunplay is trodden into the ground; mech combat has been a middleweight genre for decades; and the game’s parkour elements seem cribbed from Mirror’s Edge. But it’s the finesse and balance with which these mechanics are executed that not only convinced me to actually play an online shooter for once, but to enjoy it.
Titanfall is unique amongst AAA shooters in that it has no single-player element. Instead, its campaign plays out in multiplayer matches, with voice-overs and scripted sequences topping and tailing each match for added narrative value. The story - one of personal vendettas amidst a future war between the generic IMC military and ragtag Militia - is sadly nothing special. It doesn’t even really end, revealing its true purpose: to provide context for an endless war of multiplayer matches. It’s a shame the storytelling is so limited by its open-ended match framework; the one mission that splits from formula (admittedly, only in its final moments) is a terrific change of pace. More of that would have been nice.
With no single-player, though, Respawn could hone in on their multiplayer bread and butter. And hone they have - the gameplay is exhilarating, polished, and often surprising.
Respawn have, understandably, placed their lumbering Titans front and centre in marketing. They’re the most visually striking element of the game, and a significant cog in the gameplay. While they’ve been compared to Call of Duty’s killstreaks, they’re far more democratic, since everyone gets one. You can call a new Titan down at semi-regular intervals and either hop in or have it follow you around like a thirty-foot-tall dog with rocket launchers. It’s pretty adorable having a big metal buddy by your side. You can also grab onto friendly Titans to hitch a ride through the battle. Their scale is really best communicated by the little details: the deft animations by which they grab their pilots to plop them into the driver’s seat, or the little “NO STEP” written on a part of the Titan machine gun.
But as prominent and ubiquitous as Titans are, it’s actually the on-foot Pilot gameplay that steals the show. What could easily have been standard shooting fare is completely transformed by the addition of a parkour-enabling jetpack. Once you get the hang of wall-running, wall-hanging and double-jumping, you become a sci-fi speed demon. The double jump in particular is extremely versatile, with split-second timing letting you pull off some truly spectacular manoeuvres.
An unexpected twist to the responsive and even delicate Pilot movement dynamics is that I, at least, found the game virtually unplayable on a mouse and keyboard - unthinkable for a shooter. With a controller, though, I was able to nimbly pirouette through the levels, hopping through windows and between walls like a heavily-armed ballerina. The speed with which a confident, skilled Pilot can zip from one end of the map to the other makes it almost disappointing how much detail has gone into the level design only to whiz by in a blur.
The best part of Titanfall’s human-mech duality is how well-balanced it is. It’s totally possible to get ahead as inexperienced player, even when opponents have “better gear” - the AI-controlled minions help out with that, providing cannon fodder and useful battlefield chatter. Titans and Pilots are evenly matched, thanks to sprawling, intricate, yet navigable maps designed to furnish a variety of play styles and rapid transitions between them. You can go from close-quarters firefight to leaping across the battlefield to lumbering around in a mechsuit in moments, and it’s damned exhilarating. Every action taken in Titanfall has an equal and opposite reaction. Your Titan may get destroyed, but you can eject, skyrocketing up in the air for an overview of the battle. Ziplines are the fastest way to travel, but leave you vulnerable to enemies. The fastest way to kill a Titan is at point-blank, riding on its back, but its pilot gets warned you’re doing it.
Unless you’re some kind of superhero and move exclusively in superhero circles, you will lose some matches, but that’s okay. When you lose a match, the game goes into overtime where the losing team must get to a dropship for evacuation while the winning team hunts them down. It adds an extra dimension to the narrative of each match, and gives the losing team a chance to thumb their noses at their victorious opponents. Nyaaah!
In today’s download-centric gaming industry, it’s no surprise that map packs are already available for pre-order if the initial 49GB download wasn’t enough for you. But what I want more than extra maps are more options in the existing game. Currently there are only half a dozen gametypes, a few of which are essentially deathmatch variations. One hopes that Respawn can add new modes to match the breadth of gametypes that say, Halo has built up over the years. Custom matches and map selection would be handy too. Also: as you level up, you can customise your weapon and gear loadouts, but that’s not enough for me. As shallow as it sounds, I want cosmetic options, other than a binary male/female gender choice. If I want to drive a pink Titan, and let me tell you, I really want to drive a pink Titan, I should be able to drive a pink Titan, god damn it.
Lack of pink Titans aside, Titanfall makes big AAA shooters fun again. It's refreshing to have such a game introduce new verbs into the shooter lexicon. Perhaps the best yardstick of its success is in the unexpected delights its new mechanics create. Feeling safe inside a building only for a Titan to smash its gun through the window; being crushed by a falling Titan; or being a little ant caught in Titan crossfire is wonderful - and those are all situations where you die. I found myself grinning and laughing often throughout my play, even as I got crushed. How often does that happen?