When the Titanfall beta goes live later this week, players will experience a first-person shooter that takes some of the best competitive elements of other genres, not just the military shooters endlessly iterated on in the wake of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's success.
Titanfall does some of its smartest idea borrowing from other competitive games, games like Dota and League of Legends, fighting games and even collectible card game Magic the Gathering. Game director Steve Fukuda describes Titanfall as a game inspired by martial arts, saying its battles can play out like choreographed fights, full of emerging tactics.
The arc of a Titanfall match, in game modes like Attrition, Respawn's take on team-based deathmatch, and Hardpoint Domination, where players fight to capture and hold a series of control point, is complex.
Players start on foot as Pilots, battling each other and teams of AI-controlled human units called Grunts. They sprint at superhuman speeds, cloak themselves to near invisibility, bound onto rooftops. They shoot, stab and blow each other up.
A couple minutes in, as the body count rises, players get access to titan drops. With the arrival of titans come new, more resilient AI-units, the anti-titan mechanical soldiers known as Spectres. Player tactics expand further, as Pilots can fight from within their titan or put the walking tank in follow mode, essentially becoming a two-person unit. With human players, titans, Grunts and Spectres — nearly 50 units in total — now populating the battlefield, Titanfall matches reach a crescendo.
But matches don't end at victory, when one team has acquired enough points in Attrition or Hardpoint Domination. Instead of abruptly cutting to a scoreboard, Titanfall matches end with an epilogue, when the defeated team is given the opportunity to escape via dropship, earning some points of their own and maybe a shred of dignity. Of course, the winning team can put a stop to this, destroying the dropship or wiping out the remaining team members for extra points of their own.
The epilogue felt reminiscent of Valve's Team Fortress 2 when, after victory is declared, the defeated team runs and hides, powerless but hopeful that they'll be spared one more humiliating death.
One of Titanfall's other multiplayer modes, one that players will get to experience in the beta, is Last Titan Standing. That mode puts everyone into a titan right from the start and severely changes the dynamic of combat. The goal is keep your titans alive as long as possible, turning multiplayer into a more methodical game of survival in contrast to the faster-paced modes in which Pilots are more disposable. My first impression of Last Titan Standing was that the mode would be dull, more of a gimmick than a interesting way to compete. But the all-titans mode plays like a thrilling, stealthier game of cat and mouse, punctuated with tense, thrilling mech-on-mech encounters.
But all of Titanfall's multiplayer modes, based on our time with the beta, are exciting and diverse in their tactics.
In addition to the run and gun thrills of a first-person shooter, which in Titanfall feels finely honed in its speed and weight, the game's traversal component makes the experience feel fresh. The ease with which Pilots can double-jump, wall-run and mantle over ledges is astounding. After a brief tutorial, these things feel like second nature and players quickly adapt to the multi-level structure of maps.
The inclusion of AI-controlled units in matches also feels like an important step forward in how a multiplayer shooter plays. Bots in multiplayer are nothing new, but the cloud-based artificial intelligence that governs the Grunts and Spectres of Titanfall helps ensure that human players share a similar experience while fighting with and against those bots. They also give new and less skilled players something to fight against, something to farm for kills and experience.
"At the same time they're not just there to be cannon fodder," Titanfall lead artist Joel Emslie explained. "They're there to be used tactically, to advance the game. Friendly AI will give players clues as to where to shoot; [they'll] call out enemy Pilots in their voices."
According to Emslie, those bots also have a bit of personality and "literally talk shit to enemy Pilots."
Players can use AI-controlled units to their advantage, Emslie said. Players can join up with a pack of Grunts and use them to draw another player's fire. For the robotic Spectres, the "Terminator-like" bots, players can do more than just use them as cannon fodder. Sneak up behind one and stab it in the back — or "data knife" it — and you can rewrite its AI, turning an enemy Spectre into a friendly Spectre who fights for your team.
All of Titanfall's many-layered components may feel intimidating at first, but Respawn has entry points for new players to be competitive, to feel like they're successful in all of the game's beautiful violence. That includes multiplayers options like Burn Cards and the headshot-seeking Smart Pistol.
The collectible cards in Titanfall, called Burn Cards, unlock as players level up. They'll grant players special, limited-use abilities, like the option to shave off 40 seconds from your titan's build time, to inflict extra damage in a titan or an experience multiplier. Players can also play Burn Cards for effects like faster running speed or an amped version of a weapon. Play with a particular weapon frequently, for example, and you might unlock an amplifier card that makes that weapon perform better.
Fukuda said Burn Cards were inspired by the desire to add some randomness to the game and partly the idea of Respawn's "Mackey" McCandlish, whom he described as a big Magic the Gathering fan.
Burn Cards are also a measure that helps to level the playing field for all players, according to Emslie, not just seasoned Titanfall players.
"They really came out of trying to find a way to do power-ups in the game," Emslie said, "but not do it in a way where pro gamers could come in and dominate the environment, by knowing the exact way to start a match, wreck everybody as fast as possible, get all the power-ups and grief everyone."
Players will earn Burn Cards through gameplay, through successfully evacuating a level during Titanfall match epilogues, "rodeoing" a titan or hacking enemy AI units, among other challenges, Emslie said. They're collectible rewards earned through play, not purchasable through microtransactions.
"The goal is to make them feel collectible," Emslie said, likening them to "favors" from the upper echelons of factions in which players do battle in Titanfall.
One of the weapons players will get access to in the Titanfall beta is the Smart Pistol MK5, a handgun that consumes a player's primary weapon slot. The gun requires little in the way of careful aiming and locks onto enemy targets automatically. Simply paint your target and pull the trigger. One (or more) dead opponent, coming up.
While the Smart Pistol may sound like an overpowered primary weapon option, it targets and fires much slower than more traditional weapons, like an assault rifle or shotgun, in Titanfall.
"The idea for the Smart Pistol was really to help make short work of AI-controlled grunts and spectres," Emslie explained. "It's also meant to be a little bit of a bridge weapon for newcomers to the game. It can help you ease into the game a bit better."
Fukuda said that the Smart Pistol was born of a complaint from Respawn co-founder Jason West, who complained of "no shooters for old men." Fukuda recalled that West had expressed frustration caused by sneaking up on opponents, "having them dead to rights" and failing to close the kill — probably because the enemy in his sights did a quick 180-degree spin and shot him in the head.
"It's a nice entry-level weapon in the hands of a new player," Fukuda said, "but you can still be competitive with it."
"I consider myself a bit of a higher-level gamer," Emslie said. "I do feel like there's enough depth in the Smart Pistol that pro players can have fun with it as well as new players."
While Titanfall feels considerably friendlier to new players than other, more established shooters, like Call of Duty and Battlefield, it has its share of depth for veterans as well. Pilots have access to a wide range of unlockable weapons — rifles, shotguns, sidearms and heavy, anti-titan weapons like machine guns and rocket launchers — as well as ordnance (frag and EMP grenades), tactical abilities and kits.
Tactical abilities available in the beta include the option to cloak your Pilot, making her or him nigh-invisible, or to stim their movement, letting them sprint at super fast speeds. Kits include options like the explosives pack, which lets players carry more ordnance; a minion detector for spotting AI units on the battlefield; and an enhanced parkour kit for extended wall-running and wall-hanging.
Titans can also be outfitted with a number of options, including tactical abilities and kits of their own. These include items like the vortex shield, the handheld force field that absorbs and returns enemy fire, and a mini-nuke that, when your titan is fatally damaged, deploys and (hopefully) takes out any titans and Pilots nearby.
That last-ditch nuke effort is just one of Titanfall's many-layered tactical choices. Fukuda says he's seen some emerging tactics coming from high-level play, pairing a Smart Pistol with a grenade (locking on and firing at it before it hits the ground), or psyching out another player who has a vortex shield up by firing a volley of heatseeking "slave warheads" way off target, ultimately taking out the unsuspecting enemy titan from behind.
Pairing those emerging moment-to-moment tactics with Titanfall's many unlockables, its diverse options for players to kill and the interplay of Pilots and titans make Respawn's next-gen debut the most exciting shooter in years.
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