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Review: Titanfall (XBox One, XBox 360 and PC)
STANDBY FOR TITANFALL, PILOT!
As Jeremy Clarkson once observed, there's nothing quite as satisfying as doing something well, out of spite. He was talking about Henry Ford II, who when snubbed by Enzo Ferrari (Ford had been negotiating to buy Ferrari), created the GT40. It then beat Ferrari at Le Mans four times in a row...
This brings me neatly to Infinity Ward and Activision.
Infinity Ward is the elite development studio behind the most influential shooter of modern times, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. It's little exaggeration to say this set the blueprint for most current shooters. It did so much to establish the cult of online multiplayer in FPS games and established the multiplayer component as even more significant than the campaign, for all shooters going forwards.
IW cut its teeth with Medal of Honour for EA, before gradually being acquired by Activision. It then created Call of Duty and Call of Duty 2, followed by the seminal 4th game.
But in March 2010, with Modern Warfare 2 shipped the previous winter and bonuses about to come in, Vince Zampella and Jason West - the two heads of IW - found themselves fired by Activision. Speculation swirled about the reasons; for sure no-one could question the quality of MW2.
46 other members of Infinity Ward resigned in protest. Shortly after, Zampella and Ward founded a new studio - Respawn Entertainment. 38 of these former IW staffers went to work for Respawn. And then it all went quiet for a while.
It wasn't until 2013 that Respawn's first project was officially unveiled - Titanfall. It was to be an epic, triple-A shooter. A potential killer app for the XBox One. EA was on board to publish it. And it would feature robots. Giant robots...
It was clear that Respawn was aiming to take the fight back to Activision - and re-establish themselves as the best studio in the genre, on their own terms - no more Modern Warfare.
Activision, too have a new title coming for this autumn, Destiny, produced by the former Halo producers, Bungie. Both are sweeping, multiplayer, sci-fi epics. Both have huge weight of expectation upon them. All true gamers are going to buy both...
But Respawn have got their jab in first and shipped TItanfall beforehand. What's it like then?
The game starts with a tutorial. Not uncommon at all these days - most games do, even shooters. Titanfall's tutorial takes around fifteen minutes to play through - and it is something that players will need to re-visit and brush up on multiple times, I'll explain why later.
As well as the standard skills required in an FPS - movement, shooting, evading, learning weapons - there's a great deal more to do here. Your character is a Pilot. The robots are Titans. Pilots drive Titans. That's the first lesson.
So, the tutorial has to give a good grounding in the operation of the systems and basic techniques in getting the best out of your metal buddy. They come with a vast array of huge weapons, shields, evasive moves and also their AI - you can jump out of a Titan and command it to defend a point or follow you - a first glimpse at some of the tactical depth on offer here.
But there is even more to learn as a Pilot. All of the FPS basics mentioned before apply. There are also some very innovative weapons - for example a wonderful pistol called the Smart Pistol. It's self targeting, like Vasquez' smart gun in Aliens. Get in position, give it a moment to acquire three or four targets, and just pull the trigger the requisite number of times.
Pilots can also used abilities such as cloaks - making them all but invisible for a while and anti-Titan weapons - strong enough to take down any robotic foe in a few hits. Here, another glimpse of the game's depth is revealed - you realise that although it's asymmetric, the playing field is actually kind of level. No-one is safe, Pilot or Titan.
The real lessons come in how to manage the movement of your Pilot. The running, aiming etc feels fluid, quick, responsive. However, being the future and all, you have a lot of gadgets at your disposal.
For example a Jump Pack - any Pilot can double jump and boost across very large gaps. This Jump Pack also allows a Pilot to jump at a wall and run along it, hanging from the edge if required. You just sort of stick there.
If you run along the wall, you can build up even more speed to jump even larger gaps, building to building. It's only one step short of being able to fly around at will. It feels a lot like sci-fi parkour - think Mirror's Edge with gadgets. And here you realise that this isn't going to be like any other shooter you've yet played - which is correct.
Then the game starts. The whole experience is multiplayer, but there is a campaign. It's played out over nine chapters that take place in parties of six per side - with other players pulled in to join you. There are two teams and there is a storyline - involving the colonisation of a group of planets, the iron handed government that controls them and a band of rebels fighting against them.
Crucially this establishes the fact that there are many planets with different environments and settings, as well as countless ships in low orbit above you. This allows the game to present its fifteen maps (at launch) - all radically different, sprawling and vast.
So, the game assigns you a side when you first play - you'll get a spoken briefing in the lobby beforehand - if you are on the IMC (government) side, it's addressed by none other than Idris Elba! Ol' Luther himself - really adding to the Pacific Rim feel.
Invariably it'll be a story - often involving control of fuel, or weapons, or territory - that somehow ties in to a deathmatch or domination type multiplayer situation.
The six vs six human players face off - all as Pilots initially - surrounded by AI troops, called Grunts or Spectres. These can also be killed for points - they have their role.
Initially that's how it feels, a good looking new shooter - but then the first message comes in "Pilot - your Titan will be ready in two minutes". The ships in orbit above you are allocating and loading out a Titan, ready for you to call it in where and when you nominate.
Two minutes doesn't sound like a lot, but as that timer runs down - 30, 15 seconds to go until you can call in your robotic pal seems like a tense eternity. And then you get the message saying your Titan is ready - you can initiate Titanfall.
It gets dropped down, through the atmosphere and lands in the spot you designate - surrounded by a bubble shield, doors open and ready to go. Walk near and your Titan will just pick you up and pull you inside. There's a split second as the doors shut and its screens come on - then you're stomping around, firing its gigantic weapons, ready to take on all comers.
As mentioned earlier, you're not anywhere near as invulnerable as that. Titans never last very long - all too soon they take critical damage from other Titans or from Pilots, with anti-Titan weaponry. You get a warning as the damage approaches critical, enough time to eject - straight up into the air above the battlefield, no problem with landing because of all the Jump Pack gubbins attached to your Pilot.
And then it's another two minutes or so until the next Titan is ready to be dropped for you...
That's the basic dynamic - but each class can do things the others can't. Obviously Titans can simply stomp on Pilots, have seriously heavy armament and can soak up a fair amount of flak. Pilots can fit into places Titans never could - for example capturing points in a domination game. Titans are not slow, but Pilots are far quicker - Pilots can also carry out all of the jump boosting, parkour and wall-hanging that a Titan never could.
But to play, the depth of the game reveals itself in distinct layers. You start to play and quickly adapt to the controls as a Pilot, even handling a Titan for the first time is not difficult. For a little while it feels like that's all there is to it - an asymmetric shooter. Then you start to notice that the better players are actually applying some of the techniques shown in the tutorial - running along the side of buildings, blasting Titans while hanging from a wall. This is when you find yourself using the tutorial again - more than once as time goes by, to brush up on these techniques.
Then you start to realise how to really handle your Titan - using buildings and trees as cover, using streets as huge choke points, the way you would use an indoor corridor as a Pilot. Or when to eject from your Titan before it is damaged, to leave it in guard mode, covering an entry point into an area for you.
Finally, you start to understand when to use a Titan and when to deliberately not use it, even though one is ready and waiting for you. I had a hugely successful game last night where I didn't call a Titan in once, on purpose, as it was a domination type game that required full concentration on controlling the cramped, indoor spaces. I came top of the whole game for that and an achievement was unlocked.
In the background, other developments occur, you level up, unlocking weapons and attachments, you unlock Burn Cards - one off perks that are spent when used. These could be faster running, less time to wait for a Titan to be sent, a more powerful gun etc.
Also, if you complete the campaign from both sides, then both additional classes of Titan chassis are unlocked - the three types on offer are very different, from lightly armoured sprinters to hulking armoured tanks.
It goes without saying that the graphics and sound are beautiful and effective. The controls are responsive and smooth - quicker and more sensitive than a typical shooter, but very easy to get on terms with. Extremely polished. It is also perhaps the first killer app for XBox One - although it can be had on 360 and PC.
Its real significance, is that it is an even bigger game-changer than Modern Warfare was. That game altered the design of FPS games permanently - this absolutely tears the rule book up, puts it through a shredder and incinerates the shreds.
It is original, intuitive, spectacular, compelling, enjoyable, fun and most importantly IT HAS GIANT ROBOTS IN IT.
Who laughs last, laughs loudest and a point really has been proven here. Bravo, Respawn Entertainment and EA. Superb game.
Titanfall is out now for XBox One, XBox 360 and PC. XBox One version tested.
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