Tuesday, 11 March 2014
When I first heard about Titanfall, I was excited. I was thrilled by the idea of running side-by-side with gigantic mechs on a futuristic battlefield, and then having the option of piloting them, because (a) no other game offers this level of interactivity; and (b) it’s a concept that challenges my imagination.
But my excitement was fuelled by many presumptions – that it would look amazing and run smoothly; that it would offer a sensible learning curve, with suitable challenges that drive me towards playing at a higher level; that it would allow a scale of combat and immersion that surpasses the usual fare offered by the Call of Duties and Battlefields of the world.
I knew in advance that Titanfall would fail me on all three fronts. The announcement that it would be a 6v6 multiplayer game (which members of the games press fatuously defended) was a signal for me to shift my expectations of the game.
So, rather than being a whinge about being promised the world and only being delivered a pizza, my review is going to be an earnest assessment of the merits of Titanfall’s structure and design.
In a basic Team Deathmatch (what developer Respawn calls Attrition), it’s a race for the two opposing teams to score 250 points. Grunts are worth one point each, pilots are worth four, and titans are worth five. So basically it’s like Quidditch – hit a harder target, get a bigger score.
The grunts, incidentally, are Respawn’s way of addressing concerns about 6v6 multiplayer matches feeling too sparse. There are scores of them all over the field, running around in squads, laying covering fire, pulling their wounded out to safety, cheering you on when they see you run by… it’s a nice atmospheric touch, but they are ultimately just NPCs (non-player characters, for the uninitiated) whose sole practical function is to get shot. Seriously, if you want a few cheap points, you can just mow these guys down by the dozen.
But watch out for the pilots. They’re the other human-controlled players, just like you. Armed with auto-targetting smart guns, sniper rifles, ARC grenades and jet boosters that make the opening parkour run from Casino Royale look like a morning stroll, they are the ones most likely to kill you. They are the ones you have to look out for.
They’re the ones on higher ground and on rooftops, the ones who are flanking you and wiping our your grunts. Stop them, and they stop earning points. Stop them, and you earn more points.
And then, of course, there are the titans. You get the option to call these things in every couple of minutes, which you can then use to wipe out the grunts even faster… until you meet another titan. Titan battles are actually pretty boring – they’re like glorified tank battles because they move so slowly, but with shields and smoke bombs and the occasional rail gun.
It only becomes interesting when you try to take out a titan using just a pilot – a bit like Legolas climbing on top of the cave troll in Lord of the Rings. The titan is completely vulnerable, but its pilot can hop out and kill you if you’re not paying attention.
In my first hour or so of playing Titanfall, I struggled to figure out a tactical balance between killing grunts, hunting down pilots and doing some damage with the titans. Based on the numbers and the time and effort involved, it would make sense to just concentrate on killing pilots, right? No, pilots can activate a stealth camouflage that makes them difficult to see, and it’s very, very easy to get picked off (or stomped on) by a titan. Pilots aren’t worth chasing.
So in that first hour, I hated it.
There were a few other details that grated at me. The sniper rifle has no recoil and no bullet-drop, and there’s almost no need to lead a moving target. After three months of playing Battlefield 4 exclusively, it’s hard not to be annoyed by this – especially now that I have to commit myself to unlearning those techniques for what’s clearly a simpler shooter.
It’s also annoying that exploration is nigh-on impossible. The futuristic environments that Respawn has created are pulsing with detail – detail that I want to explore and inspect. The geometry is beyond anything I’ve seen in a first-person shooter – there is so much stuff that you can run under, over and through. But this game is so fast-paced that, well, if you stop moving, you’ll be shot.
And that’s annoying to me because there’s enough of an in-game narrative to follow. With a little exposition, you get the feeling there’s some kind of political misunderstanding, some kind of interstellar conflict between a militia and a resistance group… on the loading screens, there are little details shared about wealthy colonies that are left to ruin after all of their natural resources have been plundered… all of which points towards a broader history and context to be absorbed.
But you can’t because, again, you’ll be shot.
And no, it’s not possible to spend a little more time to get these details from the single-player campaign because there is no single-player mode.
But it’s probably just as well that there isn’t a single-player mode because, when you think about the simple Quidditch-like mechanics of the game, it wouldn’t be able to sustain more than three or four hours of story – which is, interestingly, a problem the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare games ran into.
So, this is a futuristic world with futuristic technology that I’m not allowed to explore or understand.
Fine. I won’t bother trying to understand it, then. Scratch exploration off the list – all I ostensibly need to know is that the gun goes “boom” and that I shouldn’t ever stop running for too long.
Got it? Good.
Some friends on Twitter said that things should pick up for me when I hit Level 10. At that stage, I should get more weapons and options unlocked by virtue of all my achievements. So I grinded away to Level 10 to see if things did, in fact, pick up.
And yes, in some ways things did pick up. I earned some new guns for my pilot, some new guns for my titan, some new tactical options like being able to see through walls and auto-targetting more things at a time… the usual stuff. I also earned a stack of Burn Cards, which are temporary modifiers that let you do amazing things, such as unlimited ARC grenades, a boost to your running speed, unlimited stealth mode… that sort of thing.
This is when the game started unravelling for me. See, people like me enjoy the thrill of the hunt – of finding a good pattern to run or a nice vantage point to shoot from, and using our dexterity to outmanoeuvre and fire off the first killing shot.
But in Titanfall, you’d be mad to do that. You have to use the radar, because everyone else is using it to see where you are. But it’s not all bad – even if you can be seen on the radar, you can still evade an enemy by using your knowledge of the maps to weave your way up broken stairwells, jump in and out of windows, scale up the wall between two buildings in a back alley… that is, until they use the bonus that lets them see through walls. Or they use the Burn Card that gives them unlimited grenades.
The bonuses and Burn Cards in Titanfall essentially nullify any challenge there is to hunting down another player and turns it into a turkey shoot, enabling you to rack up points faster. Once you encounter an opposing team that has enough of these bonuses (and you’ll meet them frequently), there’s practically no point in playing. Even if you’re well-matched for bonuses and burn cards, it’s a pointless shooting gallery where you’re racing to 250 points.
Considering how carefully Respawn has balanced its play mechanics and rewards system for killing different types of characters, it’s incredibly odd that it should adopt a bonus system that throws that entire balance to the wind.
I won’t reveal the strategy I’ve eventually adopted as that would simply be telling, but I don’t expect it to last long. I’m at Level 25 now actually getting bored with it.
Titanfall is a fast and loose shooter that’s light on detail and rewards its players by sacrificing the tactics it was built upon.
Nice try, Respawn, but no cigar.