Monday, February 17, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

Often while playing the Titanfall public beta, there was very little indication to me that this wasn’t a final release. Sure, there are only two maps, one Titan, and a limited amount of customization options with a level 14 level cap; but when wall jumping, pilot stomping, and Titan destroying, Titanfall is one of the most mechanically sound game’s I’ve ever played.

The beta opens up with an extensive and methodical tutorial, breaking down the physics and gravity defying maneuverability as a Pilot. This is quickly followed by Titan coaching which is a less complex lesson.

Everything sticks relatively quickly when playing as the Pilot. Wall running is fast and rather automatic; it’s far more seamless than other games that’ve toyed around with the idea such as Mirrors Edge. Getting acclimated to the cockpit of a Titan primarily goes as far as to getting used to the icons on screen. Shield and health is boldly displayed on the HUD as is the same information of enemy Titans, and doomed states (when your Titan becomes vulnerable to other Titan’s melee attacks and detonation is imminent) and rodeo warnings are aggressive and hard to miss.

Preparing for battle feels all too familiar to those who’ve played other modern day shooters. But hey, these guys began this trend in the first place, and their innovative strength is unquestionably elsewhere. Custom options are rather thin at this point. Primaries and secondaries along with Kits (think of perks) are fairly standard, though Kits work within the context of Titanfall’s design such as Minion Detector, which permanently highlights Grunts and Specters on the battle field, and Enhanced Parkour Kit which extends the period of time you can wall run and hang. Mandatory are Anti-Titan weapons – which I’ve already discussed – as well as Ordinances (think equipment from Call of Duty) and Tactical abilities. For now, the most popular Tact ability is Cloak which is effective in sneaking upon Titans, but more are sure to come.

Burn Cards offer an additional layer of complexity in customization. Delivered at seemingly random success, Burn Cards pop up in your deck with an unpredictable assortment of one-off advantages. Some will decrease the amount of time till Titanfall, some will grant you powerful anti-personnel and anti-Titan weapons, and others will allow you to see enemies through walls. You have up to three slots that you can fill with Burn Cards, and they’re initiated before respawning. This could just be me, but I often find myself forgetting that I even have them. Perhaps a more obvious notification will show up in the final build.

When the match begins, you’ll hit the ground running, literally. Respawn has ensured that the system that operates Titanfall keeps you moving. Fast. Players move as if (and I’m going to throw some more COD terms your way), they’re in a Cranked match from Ghosts. Movement speed is fast and incessant, reloading is a snap and can be done while sprinting, and as I observed in Titanfall post embargo footage, ammo capacity is incredibly high in order to prevent you from having to worry about running out of bullets while you focus on chasing down who to shoot.

From a personal stand point, beyond robots falling from the heavens, what impressed me the most is how well the map design works both in concept and execution. For years playing competitive shooters, one handicap I’ve always had was dealing with opponents on an elevated vantage point. It becomes a nuisance getting to them; I’d have to find a door, remember which way’s the stairs, and often deal with awkward design that makes it more sensible to chuck a grenade and run  (outside of the destructibility in later Battlefield titles). If I see someone in a window or a roof top in Titanfall, I can either jump straight to the window, or use a platform to get to the top. Ladders? Fuck that noise. We use jetpacks. Getting to higher ground in Titanfall is far quicker than any modern day shooter, revealing layers of this dynamic level design.

The speed and verticality of Titanfall makes subtle changes to the way in which you approach gunplay. Angle City fits my shotgunner angle like a glove. As one who’s never used a shotgun as a primary weapon in shooters, Titanfall’s pacing allows you to rapidly close the gap on unsuspecting enemies. In fact, I can perform so well with the shotgun that I fear it may be overpowered. My integrity says nerf it if necessary, but my greedy competitive nature prays for this weapon to stay as it is. This will also be the first shooter where I used the bumper-jumper configuration on the controller. Bumper-jumper swaps the A button (to jump) and the left bumper on the controller, allowing you to keep your thumb on the right analog stick for aiming while in midair. And in a game like Titanfall where your feet is frequently off the ground, this is a crucial format.

Walking into Titanfall, I was looking to have an issue with the AI filling out the padding around the 6v6 player count. But I can honestly state that such an attitude hardly crossed my mind. Titanfall does a great job in highlighting human players with big red dots on your mini map, so there’s not much mystery as to where your opposing six are. Minion Detector (which fits gloriously with the Smart Pistol) helps parse this distinction. Yes, Grunts and Specters practically ask to get shot nearly all the time, but there was never a point where I didn’t feel competitive as everyone has a strong awareness where each other are.

This competitive nature is amplified when piloting a Titan.

Getting in a Titan isn’t a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of when and how often. The AI’s easy pickings primarily serves in cutting your time till Titanfall incrementally shorter. Killing Pilots and Titans lobs off bigger chunks off your clock – fighting Titans as a pilot is incentivized by cutting seconds off by just doing damage, and rodeoing Titans for a massive kill is very possible once you take advantage of higher ground, or ascend after being shot up into the air when ejecting out of a Titan. Once you’re in a Titan, the tides can shift drastically if you’re careful. Only human players will be controlling Titans, which makes these battles more intense than when on the ground.

Titan piloting requires an acute awareness of your surroundings. Your mechanical beast will be severely damaged if you’re not quick to get out of harm’s way with the dash, and firing upon other Titans shouldn’t go without knowing what’s happening with your opponent. Pieces of their armor will glow red if they’ve suffered from extensive damage which reveals weak spots, and the Vortex Shield – which collects bullets, rockets, what-have-you in a Neo like Vortex and fires them back – is a popular Tact ability, so fire with caution.

Lone wolfers can get away without armor, but playing as a team has a significant advantage when battling metal to metal. Smart players will double team enemy Titans as taking one on alone feels like a desperate fighting game if the two are evenly matched in skill and health. Respawn’s well aware of this as well as your system’s AI will alert you if you’re being ganged upon. It turns into a very different shooter when in a Titan as planning an approach becomes far more important. But wrecking your Titan isn’t the end. Nuclear Ejection detonates your Titan to the point of dealing massive damage to any enemies around it, and managing to eject out of your Titan before its destruction allows you to drop on an enemy Titan and scramble their brain with your weapon. Just don’t use Anti-Titan guns when doing this, you’ll kill yourself.

Titanfall works in looping stages. Hunt down enemy Pilots, Grunts, and Specters on foot (and occasionally in midair), call down of spawn in a Titan once the countdown has reached zero, battle head to head with other Titans while squishing AI combatants and carefully taking enemy Pilots into consideration, and repeat. It’s a predictable loop in which HOW you get there is unpredictable. Adhering to a structure in battle chaos is very difficult to do in the scale that Titanfall manages, and it is this feat that makes Respawn’s (so far) success story one of the best shooters in many, many years. 

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