I love first person shooters, so when Titanfall for the Xbox One was revealed I was ecstatic at the possibility of playing not only as a wall-jumping commando, but in a 20-foot tall mechanical beast. When Titanfall was revealed to be multiplayer only, my heart sank as I am not that good at multiplayer shooters. I am competent enough to not die every 5 seconds, but I never am able to match the skill of players who live and breathe the multiplayer shooter. So to say I was skeptical at a multiplayer only game for the Xbox One would be an understatement. Could a game that constantly reminds me of my lack of talent in a particular area of gaming capture my interest?
As The Inquisitir has commented on in the past, Halo was the single most important franchise for the original Xbox and Xbox 360, as was Gears of War. Both games were the reason many people bought an Xbox 360. Titanfall has become synonymous with the Xbox One in much the same way. First hinted at during E3 2011, developers at the newly formed Respawn Entertainment were said to be developing a new sci-fi shooter, but no one at the time could guess how big the project was or how ambitious the goals were for this new shooter. Indeed, if you read most feature stories and listen to podcasts from the gaming press, a constant theme of shooter fatigue would pop up more often than not but, despite this, Titanfall has continued to grow in anticipation to a level that is normally reserved for Halo and Call of Duty releases.
Amidst this hype, Vince Zampella, co-founder of Respawn, who developed the game, stated that Titanfall would bring the multiplayer shooter to a new level. It was going to bring scale, verticality, and story to the forefront. The question is if Titanfall has managed to pull this off.
Speaking to USA Today, the Titanfall lead artist, Joel Emslie, was working on creating model robots. One day, he put a small action figure next to the robot and it was “the right scale,” he says. “Something kind of clicked that day.”
What clicked were 20-foot tall giant mechs, called titans, standing next to a 6 foot tall “pilot”. From there, the game took on a life of its own as mechanics were built around not only the traditional soldier vs. soldier which has come to dominate the current multiplayer scene. Titanfall would not only introduce a fast moving, almost parkour, movement to the human characters, but it would allow players to pilot these behemoth walking tanks that could dish out damage with extreme prejudice.
When you get your first titan drop from the sky, the wind whistles and a sonic boom of impact signals this giant mechanical construction’s arrival to wreak havoc on the battlefield. Upon embarking in a titan, the view shifts to a higher vantage point and combined with the larger gun and the slower, plodding pace of the towering biped you feel as if you are invincible and that you will pour wrath upon the battlefield.
What Titanfall on the Xbox has achieved is a balance that gives players and titans equal footing on the battlefield. While the titans are more powerful and dominating, they are limited in their movements and speed. Reloads take longer, and an enemy pilot can easily wear down your titan’s shields, jump on your titan, and blast it up close before you have a chance to get out of your titan to defend it before it explodes.
When you play a standard military shooter, the only sense of being above the action you ever have is when you unlock the ability to pilot a remote control drone or fighter jet. With Titanfall, you must unlearn the conditioning we have learned as gamers to run in straight line, moving left and right with never a look up – beyond wondering if a sniper is in the window camping across the map. In this game, you must consider the area above your head as much as you consider what is in front of you thanks to the near parkour style of running through the environment.
Anyone who has played Metroid Prime will have a good idea of how jumping works. Double jumping works by means of a jet pack on your pilot’s back which allows you to increase your height and distance when jumping. At the peak of your jump, you can find yourself pulling yourself up nimbly onto the next level. Roofs suddenly become accessible, the lights in a room are a perfect hiding spot, and the distant satellite dish become a perch from which to hide and snipe.
This was a hard lesson to learn during a hard point game, when I was defending a point which was extremely high up and I didn’t even consider the skylight in the bathroom next to the hard point to be a threat. That was until the opposing team pilot sneaked up behind me and I was treated to a short replay of my death showing how the player jumped and wall ran to my position, a path which would never work in a conventional shooter. But in Titanfall, the rules are different.
Wall running was another skill that takes a few rounds to utilize effectively. In another match, a long empty street was in front of me. In Call of Duty, that street would be a gauntlet of death. In Titanfall, it became a speed run along the sides of the buildings, and a high jump at the end brought me on top of an enemy titan by accident. Wrenching open the cover and blowing the other player’s titan to kingdom come, I experienced the thrill of victory which has always been absent in multiplayer shooters for me. It became more than simply tag, it because something more than point and shoot to win. Titanfall became a multilevel strategy game that was immensely satisfying.
Titanfall for the Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PC has a story that is told in multiplayer only. Respawn entertainment is the first major studio to attempt storytelling in a multiplayer game on this scale. Other games have attempted to make multiplayer fit into the single player narrative, such as BioShock 2, but with mixed results.
We have known since the game was announced that there would be no traditional singleplayer campaign and that the game would be the first AAA game to hinge its sales on multiplayer alone. The story consist of 18 missions, 9 for each side of the conflict between the IMC and Militia. The story treads on familiar territory as the underdog militia seeks freedom for the powerful IMC. Each of the 9 missions for the IMC or Militia fill in the backstory as to why each side is fighting but there are no cut scenes, no scripted animations between matches, and only voice over gives the player any context as to why you are fighting on a desert planet or a glass and chrome sci-fi planet.
The story is given out in bits during the matches themselves with key players appearing in your upper right hand HUD. The problem is with the chaos of the battlefield, it becomes harder and harder to give attention to the exposition being given through snippets on screen. It also becomes increasingly harder to care.
During one of the first missions you are tasked, along with the other 5 players on your team, to clear out the Militia from a location. After successfully crushing your adversary under a titan’s legs only to be vanquished by the same player moments later kind of kills the immersion of “clearing” anything when the player will only respawn moments later. You also realize that no matter who wins the match, the story continues unchanged, leaving a feeling of “what was the point” hanging in the air.
The other fact is that the game features a story without a hero. Like an MMO, you are only the star of your own internal narrative. The characters written by Respawn do not address you by name, nor are you singled out for awards or merits beyond the XP you receive at the end of every match. The end result is that any loyalty you have to a side is only as long as the match lasts, or until the half time when you switch sides.
Stories give us characters we are meant to empathize with, hate, or cheer on. With Titanfall, the only character you care about is your own and the story you make up in your head. You can not choose to fight only with the IMC or Militia. You are not the rockstar of the story, only of the match. With little to no backstory given, only a skeleton framework as to why these two sides hate each other, there is little to anchor you in the world.
Still, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad and expecting a new studio, no matter their pedigree, to succeed in their first attempt at what is probably the most difficult of propositions is a tall order. Other studios like Bungie and their forthcoming game, Destiny operate on similar ideas so time will tell if this type of storytelling will evolve into a new genre or be left by the wayside in favor of just shooting everything in giant mechs.
It is yet early in the next generation, and Titanfall for the Xbox and PC are an important first step in evolving the genre. If it can make someone like me who despises most multiplayer shooters want to keep coming back after the review is over, they are onto something and that should be lauded.
Platform: Xbox One / Xbox 360 / PC
Developer: Respawn Entertainment | Bluepoint Games (Xbox 360)
Release Date: 3.11.2014 (PC/Xbox One) / 3.25.2014 (Xbox 360)
ESRB Rating: Mature for Blood and Gore, Strong Language, and Violence
Image Source: Respawn Entertainment