Hands-on With Titanfall

This is the extended version of our article, Hands-on With Titanfall, as featured on our home page.

It was a predictably warm Monday morning in Downtown Los Angeles when I walked into Milk Studios, a tucked away treasure not too far from Hollywood Boulevard and the Walk of Fame. I was greeted at the door by a man in a suit, who directed me to a sequestered desk, replete with name badges and a long sign in roster. After picking up my name tag and fumbling with my gear, I walked through the separate black curtains. Like Alice through the Looking Glass, I was in a new world - big screen LCD screens and Xbox Ones lined the walls and clustered in the middle of the room, each emblazoned with the Titanfall logo in glorious high-def.

We started the play test predictably with a tutorial level. Though the level was wrapped in a faux virtual reality training module, the thing that fascinated me about it was the pure fluidity of the controls; while the art of free-running known as parkour has been done before in various other titles, it has almost always been done either with little direct interaction from the player or with too many fiddly inputs and key combinations, almost always resulting in wonky and uncoordinated movements that long relegated the concept to the land of gimmickry. This isn't so with Titanfall - the controls are ridiculously tight and fluid, with each jump and twist feeling more visceral than ever before. It feels as if your character is an extension of you, moving smooth enough to grant fine control of motion and movement; running along walls, double jumping, and chaining air jumps with wall run acrobatics became almost second nature by the time I was done with the level. During one of my breaks, I joined in a conversation with Abbie Heppe, the Respawn Community Manager who I would later interview, and she put it best - "People need to get used to it I think, but once they get it, they love it. People say they try doing it in other games after they do it here!"

Once the tutorial was over, the real meat of the game began. Titanfall currently has three confirmed game modes, and between them - Last Titan Standing, Hardpoint, and Attrition - the game is broad and varied in focus, feel, and gameplay. As I joined a game of Hardpoint, a futuristic variant on Capture the Flag, I could feel the hectic gameplay luring me into the fog of war. I started reacting reflexively, taking defensive measures before threats even came onto the field, and supporting teammates in ways I would never have considered without having the parkour abilities of a pilot. After defending a Hardpoint from capture, I darted into the street, and encountered probably my first breathtaking moment in a first person shooter ever - a Titan stood before me, firing a salvo of rockets towards a friendly behind me, reloading his chain gun as he dashed quickly to the left. I managed to avoid the Titan's step, narrowly avoiding being crushed to death, only to have my pilot killed by a distant sniper, picking me off of from a rooftop several buildings over. Unlike most FPS deaths, I found I wasn't mad - I was impressed. Titanfall is a game that demands innovative strategy to survive; in other titles, circle strafing, rushing, and camping are viable methods of warfare, but in Titanfall, each Pilot and Titan has a variety of weapons that can obliterate any position from any distance, ranging from grenade lobbing rifles to high-rate miniguns. I found myself thinking less about how to rush from Point A to Point B, and more about how to simply survive from Point A to Point B.

Hardpoint ended dramatically for my team. Our assured victory started its slow descent into defeat about three quarters through the match, when our best Titan pilot was caught in a pincer attack between two enemy Titans. Though his nuclear meltdown meant at least one of the enemy Titans was damaged beyond repair, the other Titan managed to keep ground control relatively secure, and we were slowly pushed pack to point Bravo, which we lost during a surge of ground activity. As the game ended, we were urged to get to the dropship in the distance, and as a large group, we started to sprint towards our salvation. As we neared the dropship, a Titan dashed from behind a building, unleashing his chain gun into the crowd, dropping at least two of my allies, and a multitude of AI controlled grunts. I barely had enough time to look at my fallen comrades before I was shot myself, forcing me to watch in horror as three enemy Titans launched an all-out offensive on our drop ship, stopping any who had survived the onslaught from reaching it. It was only as the dropship exploded and the last salvos emptied that I realized we had evacuated on top of an apartment building; for the first time, the scope of the city hit me, and I realized just how large this world was.

"The world of Titanfall is one that's at the edges of the universe, where people journey to build lives, and it's more like getting to the west after traversing the Oregon Trail, but in space." Heppe explained the world to me, and it suddenly made sense why it felt so massive. "We want people to see Titanfall and say, 'this is a bed, this a home'; we want it to be something that is very familiar, but at the same time, you're looking around and saying 'Oh my God, we're in space!'." The aim is certainly familiar - games like Battlefield  and Rogue Squadron have long tried to make the world feel truly massive and intricate, to various rates of success. Titanfall has treated this backdrop almost as a fine art, sculpting each element with precision and allowing it to flow organically into the game. There were many times where I caught myself becoming distracted by where the firefight was as opposed to the actual fight, and during my downtime between encounters, I found myself exploring the level and all the rich little details that come along with it.

As Hardpoint ended, Attrition began. The poster child of all FPS shooters, Attrition is essentially death match, but without all the trappings of the normal death match game mode. There are no penalties to your Titan countdown: if you have a Titan to call on, you can drop it now, during the next opportune chance, or as the mode of entry on your next life. Whereas other games push death match as a mode of absolute bloodshed and chaos, Titanfall seems to be the more regal, refined approach to the concept. While the mode is certainly a blood bath, success requires skill, not luck; grenades have a small radial splash damage range, and guns have very little aim drift, meaning that you have to be in control of your fire and strategy, or you'll simply get mowed down. It's not simply enough to have the largest weapon, either; during my match in Attrition, I discovered how to mount enemy Titans, an event that results in your tearing off protective plates and shooting into the brains of the Titan itself, either resulting in total TItan meltdown or your death by an angry and annoyed Pilot. Attrition is what it says on the tin - a war of troop loss. And troop loss there is. Your friendly AIs fall by the dozens, and you can expect Titan fire to engulf your entire area of operations; but do not think this replaces skill or talent, or you might just find yourself on the armored soles of an enemy Titan.

Last Titan Standing might be the standout mode of Titanfall. As the game started, I found my entire team were outfitted in the standard Titan mech, replete with chaotic and destructive weapons aplenty. It was only during this last game mode that it struck me; Parkour, though fluid and fun, was only half of why Titanfall was so fluid and fun. In any first-person shooter, weaponry is of prime importance, and Titanfall's weapons are fun, varied, and powerful. The chain gun feels like a chain gun, and I found myself experiencing a rush at the pure firepower of the rocket salvo. The Smart Pistol feels like it is what it is - a powerful weapon that requires skill and precision to use it effectively. The guns in Titanfall feel like actual firearms, with kickback, weight, and real-world behavior. More so than any title in recent memory, the firefights in Titanfall feel like actual firefights, in both hectic mayhem and as an analogue of the real world. When I encountered two enemy Titans in Last Titan Standing, I proceeded to force them to circle around a building, separating their firepower. When I encountered the first, I unloaded my entire barrage against them, and found myself losing sight of the target due to gun smoke and rocket trails. I could feel the kickback of the weapons as I unloaded into the hull of the enemy Titan, but when I was knocked from the side by the second enemy who I had lost visuals on, I was truthfully frightened; for the first time in recent memory, a game had scared me not by jump scares or loud noises, but by making me feel so much a part of the game that I literally had a fight-or-flight reflex. I had become my Pilot due in part to the realness of the environment and weaponry, and that is impressive in and of itself.

All of this is intentional, of course: nothing in Titanfall works because elements came together randomly or in unexpected ways. It all works because it was designed to, because it was planned and executed with the entirety of the game in mind. When asked if these designs, choices, and structures in gameplay were as intentional as I suspected they were, Heppe confirmed my suspicions. "We try to explain to people the reason why we do things, and the reason things are the way they are; a lot of people who are asking for things haven't played the game, so us doing the beta and getting the game out there for people to play and figure these things out for themselves is super important." It's an important distinction to be made for Titanfall; the game is meticulous in design and well thought-out, something that is refreshing in such a title. One of the many things I told Heppe during our conversations was that the game feels like it was designed by fans - it seems like every member of the Titanfall team is truly a fan of the game they are making, not just employees of a company that is happening to make a game. They truly enjoy what they are doing, and that comes through in the (near) finished product. That's not to say the game is entirely uni-directional or single-faceted; the game is as varied as the gameplay, and in a funny turn, this variation was due to the level of attention dealt by the developers. "Originally, there was this work on...power armor and stuff that was not really titans, so there is definitely a lot of those things [that] came along as the game was developing towards a Titan-based game...there were a lot of concepts early on." Heppe has of course spoken on other occasions of these concepts and plans, mentioning the mecha anime and manga influences on Joel Emslie from Masamune Shirow, famed artist best known for his work with Ghost in the Shell. These influences are obvious in the designs of the Pilots and the Titans, but it is clear that the art direction, like the game mechanics, is varied and complex, resulting in the beautiful masterpiece that is Titanfall.

The interaction is not just one-sided, though; Heppe made it clear that the community had a significant role in development as well. "We are always listening to [the community]. It's very rare that somebody is saying something about Titanfall on the internet, on twitter, on everything, and we're not aware of it." Heppe smiles, obviously excited. "For us, we're building this foundation that is Titanfall, so there's a lot of things that we found interesting, or we incorporated, or added later, but this is the game we're making." Heppe made it clear, however, that the game had not fallen into the "vocal minority" trappings as so many other crowd-influenced games have. "We hear all of that stuff, and some of it is stuff for a future date, and some of it is stuff that would horribly unbalance the game if we did it. I think you'll remember when we were clarifying, 'yeah, this is a 6v6 game'; it's not that we haven't tested it 10v10 or higher numbers, it's that the game wasn't fun when we did that, and we need to make decisions that make it a fun game for everyone playing it." It's a strategy that is clearly effective; every single person I talked to at the event was fascinated by the title, and as we played, we found ourselves rooting for the opposing team's interesting, unique, or skillful kills, taking joy in the exciting and fast-paced world that is Titanfall.

Of course, this experience is what makes a first-person shooter a success, and support for competitive play has been heavily balanced with the regular play experience. "We've tried to build a foundation for a fun game that is going to be awesome to play," Heppe continues, "We're not going to be shipping with all the same features to support [competitive play] that games that have been around for however many iterations, almost a decade I think for some of them, have, but I know that there's so much interest from the eSports community competitively and we’re definitely interested in what they have to say. We can't build the whole game for them; we have to build an awesome game and hope that they enjoy that and are interested in picking it up and playing it, and carrying on Titanfall for the next few months or years. I think at launch it's going to be interesting to hear their feedback." That feedback is of prime importance to Titanfall's success in certain parts of the world. Case in point, there was a lot of legitimate fears amongst Australian gamers that the lack of local Azure servers, the servers that will be hosting online games, would result in an unplayable hundreds-large millisecond ping. Heppe assuages some of those fears, stating "Microsoft is building Azure servers in Australia...and they'll be going online later this year. In the meantime, we have been testing the game in Australia to make sure they won't get super ridiculous milliseconds lag. [...] Obviously we don't want anyone to have a bad experience playing Titanfall, and I'm really excited that Microsoft is building data centers to support them; I know that there's a huge community of Australian gamers, and I know we had said at E3 last year that we thought they'd be there by now - they're not, but we're doing everything we can to make sure they get a good experience too."

It's a common sentiment amongst EA and Respawn; the community is incredibly important, and they want the experience itself to be fun before anything else. In an age of rampant micro-transactions and derivative gameplay, Respawn seems entirely committed to the end-user experience, and this definitely comes across in Titanfall. Every single feature is so finely tuned, so perfectly balanced, that it is definitely an experience most players will want to continue for years to come. While it is far too early to be talking about sequels and DLC, I can say this - from what I've seen here, Titanfall is likely to become a franchise, and a popular one at that.

And as for the most common query for Respawn? "We get asked the number [of maps] all the time, and realistically, we want players to just go in and discover a lot of things about Titanfall for themselves, and the number of maps is one of those things. There are a lot, and they are very varied, even compared to what we're showing you today. Fractured has a lot of open spaces, and Angel City has a lot more vertical flanking and jumping off of buildings and sort of weaving in and out of these passageways. There are maps that are higher, there are maps that are totally different." Heppe laughs and smiles. "We haven't even shown one of my favorite ones yet!"

Kristopher Sandoval is a Wiki Content Manager who is the current administrator for the official Titanfall Wiki. He can be contacted at [email protected] or via his twitter, @sandovaleffect. Additionally, the full text of our inteview with Abbie Heppe can be found on the official Titanfall Wiki.

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