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Hands-On: Titanfall

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Posted on February 13, 2014 AT 03:30pm

Of Mechs and Men

For a moment, during the first loading screen between the game’s main menu and tutorial, I somewhat regretted being assigned to the Titanfall hands-on session last week. “Being assigned” is disingenuous, I suppose. It was more along the lines of demanding that I go. See, I’ve been championing developer Respawn Entertainment’s debut—ad nauseum—from the get-go, ever since its name and premise first leaked June of last year.

Of course, expectation can be a dangerous thing, especially when it comes to videogames. More often than not, we buy into impossible, hyperbolic promises from publishers and developers that are half-delivered or outright broken in the final product. Seldom does our idea of something bear the weight of its reality. Rarely do games we crave with fervor ever truly wow us when they actually emerge from the ether in playable form. But when they do? Man, it’s something special.

Titanfall is one of those games.

This, in no small part, is the direct result of developer Respawn Entertainment’s pedigree. It’s a company comprised of first-person-shooter veterans, the men and women who first put Call of Duty on the map and revolutionized online multiplayer in the process. Every inch of Titanfall gushes with that history. The gameplay—centered around battles between soldiers and the two-story Titan mechs they can call in for support—is familiar enough to be immediately identifiable and navigable but innovative enough to be such a welcomingly fresh experience that it’s instantly addictive. I put in three hours, non-stop, during the press event. If I had it my way, I’d have played it all day long. Hell, I’d probably still be playing now.

Titanfall is both the sum of its parts and much more. Each component is noteworthy and appealing in and of itself—sci-fi weapons, jetpacks, robots, a cinematic sensibility that gives multiplayer the purpose of a single-player experience—but it’s the way in which all these traits come together that produces wildly emergent conflicts through crazy, intense encounters.

I spent my time with Titanfall juggling between two maps: the dense, urban Angel City and the more sprawling Fracture. The final version will, of course, contain more, but even with such a limited selection, no two matches in Titanfall ever felt the same, since any given round can shake out so many different ways. At the start, everyone’s limited to being a Pilot. As you accumulate kills, be they the cannon-fodder AI enemies or human opponents, the countdown to when you can summon your Titan speeds up a bit. Initially, it’s deceptively simple—a lot of humans jumping around, dashing across walls, gunning each other down. Then the first few Titans drop, and suddenly, the rhythm of the game evolves. Titans gun down exposed pilots with ease and engage in lengthy battles of attrition with other Titans. Pilots launch sky-high from their destroyed mechs, then sneak onto the backs of enemy Titans to engage in a bit of deadly, destructive rodeo riding. By the halfway mark in any given match, there’s a whole lot going on.

Respawn may have caught some flak for the recent news that matches would be limited to 12 players, but in practice, rounds feel anything but underpopulated. The notion that I was only ever playing with 11 other people (sometimes fewer) never occurred to me. When not squaring off against another human being, the popcorn AI grunts offered a satisfying way to keep my trigger finger busy, despite knowing how harmless they really are. They’re illusions, extras in a film, but they make Titanfall sessions feel less like conventional multiplayer showdowns and more like full-scale engagements, that intersection of single- and multiplayer.

Even without firing a single shot, Titanfall is a blast. Having access to so much verticality is downright thrilling and unhindered by complication. Everything is super-streamlined. When you leap at something, you just sort of stick to it automatically. All you need to do is keep moving to run across it, jumping again to bounce over to an adjacent wall to maintain momentum. If you fall a little short, your character will catch the ledge and haul over it. Smooth and accessible—but that doesn’t mean there’s not a learning curve. It’s easy to control, yes, but by long-built habit, it’s easy to spend your first few matches thinking about navigation in two-dimensional terms. Titanfall’s biggest barrier for entry is the adjustment period necessary to internalize three-dimensional thinking. This is a game about checking your ups and downs just as much as your lefts and rights. Once you catch on, it’s refreshing.

And if you’re struggling to adjust, Titanfall has one more trick up its sleeve to draw you in: Burn Cards. These one-off perks are accumulated over the course of matches as rewards for performing a variety of different tasks, such rodeoing a Titan as a Pilot. By burning a card before you respawn, you can grant yourself a one-life bonus that does anything from making a specific weapon slightly more powerful to cutting 40 or even 80 seconds off your Titan’s build time. In effect, you can activate a Burn Card to get a brief, modest advantage. It might not tip the balance in your favor in any overt or dramatic way, but it could give you just enough of a boost to get their edge back, shake off the funk of a nasty death spiral, and ensure you don’t feel completely outclassed by more talented opponents.

The end result of all these strokes of minor genius is something that feels both familiar and novel, ambitious but comforting, the same but different. When Respawn first revealed Titanfall, they pitched it as a game that straddled the boundary between single-player and multiplayer. After going hands-on, it seems like there’s another line being blurred that may prove more instrumental to the game’s success: the one between legacy and innovation. Come March, we might not quite get a brave new world, but it certainly looks like we’ll get a better one.

Chris Holzworth, News Editor
Chris Holzworth has wanted to write about games all his life. He first cut his teeth writing for enthusiast sites such as RPGFan, and after writing for just about every other enthusiast website he could came across, wound up as EGM's east coast news correspondent (read: editorial intern, a fancy phrase for "slave") before relocating to LA to serve as news editor. [Meet the rest of the crew]

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