Titanfall is a videogame. If you’ve looked at a television in the last four months you’ve probably seen ads for it, either dedicated commercials or as part of those Xbox One omnibus ads where cosmopolitan Euros talk seductively to their videogame console. It’s the game with the giant robots that look slightly like extras from the Transformer movies, and it might be the most anticipated game of 2014 among the most serious and hardest core of game fans. Based on the beta we’ve been playing since last Friday, it might actually deserve that anticipation.
We’ve put in the hours on the Xbox One, hit the level cap of 14 and are now ready to share with you a few facts, thoughts and observations. Here are eight things you should know about Titanfall based on several hours of playing the beta.
Respawn Entertainment was founded by the former heads of Infinity Ward, the studio behind the ridiculously popular Call of Duty games. In 2010 they had an acrimonious falling out with Activision, opened a new studio and signed a publishing deal with Electronic Arts. Titanfall, the first game from Respawn, is an online, squad-based shooter where players control both regular soldiers and giant mechs called Titans. It arrives on the Xbox One and PC on March 11, with an Xbox 360 version following on March 25.
Initially it was a closed beta, which lead to rampant code begging on Twitter throughout last week. Late on Saturday though Microsoft announced that they were turning it into an open beta. That means anybody with an Xbox One can download the beta through Xbox Live—look for it in the “New Game Demos” section. The PC beta was opened up today for anybody who registered for the beta before February 15.
Before it went open, the beta was scheduled to wrap up early this week. Between unscheduled down time over the weekend and the decision to change it to an open beta, Respawn and Microsoft discussed extending the beta for “at least a day”, according to a tweet from Vince Zampella, Respawn’s CEO. Last night the official Respawn Twitter account announced that it would end on Wednesday, February 19, at 6 PM PT. So you have a little over two days to get your reps in.
Titanfall is online-only. There will be no single-player campaign in the official game, just a collection of different squad-based multiplayer modes. Three of them are playable in the beta, including a standard team deathmatch; a “king of the hill” style set-up (seriously called “Hardpoint Domination”) where the goal is to capture and hold three locations on the map; and a tense stand-off with mechs called “Last Titan Standing”, where players get a single life, start in a Titan and can’t call a new one once it’s destroyed. These are all squad-based modes, with six players per team. Players get points for killing enemies or securing “hardpoints”, and the team with the most points wins. Those points level your character up, unlocking new weapons, abilities and custom loadout slots. It is all very familiar to anybody who’s spent any time with online shooters in the last few years.
The core controls when you aren’t in a mech are similar to Call of Duty. That’s not a surprise, and not just because these are the folks responsible for Call of Duty—that control scheme is close to the default setting for shooters now. You’ll fire with the right shoulder trigger, line up your weapon’s sights with the left shoulder trigger, push in on the left joystick to run and snap into the right joystick for a melee strike. It shares the blistering pace of Call of Duty’s multiplayer, along with the basic physics. When you’re running and shooting it’s easy to think you’re playing another Modern Warfare.
Titanfall takes a tip from parkour-influenced games like Mirror’s Edge and the newer Prince of Persia titles, greatly expanding your character’s ability to move. You can now double-jump, a crucial maneuver when leaping from one rooftop to another. If you jump into a wall at an angle you can wall-run for a brief period. If you jump straight into a ledge you will automatically grab on and pull yourself up. It’s a very acrobatic game, and vertical movement is both easier and more important than in Call of Duty and most other shooters. Double-jumping into a wall, running as far as you can, and then double-jumping from the wall into the open window of a nearby building is more exciting than shooting a bunch of videogame soldiers.
The Titan mechs are massive and imposing, and can cut down normal soldiers in an instant. They don’t imbalance the game, though, because it takes a few minutes for a Titan to be available for any player, and because they don’t last long in a battle with another mech. It takes up to two minutes of battle for you to gain the ability to call on a Titan, and once that Titan is destroyed it’ll take another two minutes for a replacement to be available. And yes, they literally fall from the sky—when your Titan is available, you hit down on the directional pad and the Titan drops a few seconds later, crushing any player underneath. When you’re in a Titan the game slows down considerably, even with the mech’s limited ability to surge quickly in any direction. Titans come with four main attack options—a standard primary weapon, an explosive secondary weapon that has limited ammo, a powerful punch and a special defensive ability picked from a small roster of options. Titans are useful for protecting locales in the “hardpoint” mode, but usually they seem to fight amongst themselves, battering each other with rockets and fists until one blows up.
I am horrible at shooters. I’ve played every Call of Duty since the first Modern Warfare but I lack the reflexes (and often the interest) to ever be even halfway decent at them. I’m the guy you never want on your team. So I was surprised when I did really well on my first night in Titanfall. I was taking enemies out everywhere I turned. The next day I looked closely at the scoreboard and saw there was an entry labeled “minions”. My next round I noticed there was a drastic point difference between certain kills, with 20 experience points for killing some enemies and 100 points for killing others, and that many enemies just stood there passively as I shot them. It turns out there are AI-controlled soldiers on both sides of every battle. They can’t kill players, but players can kill them, earning a small amount of experience in the process. So if, like me, you can’t handle real live humans in your online competitions, every round is full of computer-controlled grunts and specters to help you feel like you’re accomplishing something.
Again: I’m not a big shooter guy. Call of Duty stalled out for me after the first Modern Warfare, the shooting was probably the worst thing about Bioshock, and the great Far Cry 2 would be even better if I didn’t have to mow down Jeeps full of mercenaries every five minutes. Beyond my real-life distaste for guns, shooters usually let me down for two main reasons: The single-player campaigns are repetitive and interested more in shooting gallery-style action than timing, pacing or level design, and the multiplayer modes are too frustrating due to my lack of skill and my lack of time to increase said skill. I have no idea what to expect from the full, final Titanfall package when it comes out next month, but I’ve enjoyed the beta without reservation. The distinction between play styles inside and outside of the Titan is significant enough to keep repetition at bay, and the AI-controlled soldiers make me feel productive even when I’m not really doing anything to help my team.
It’s easy to dismiss action games that fetishize gun violence and that are hugely popular with (and often marketed to) an audience that is younger than the game’s official rating. Sometimes it’s not just easy but correct to do so. It’s perhaps easier to dismiss heavily hyped upcoming games that are designed with that particular audience in mind—hype can be a killer, and the hype might be worse in games than any other medium. Nobody could ever mistake Titanfall for Papers, Please or Gone Home, but based on the beta it does what it set out to do with grace and a bit of ingenuity. Sometimes action blockbusters are well-made and enjoyable. Titanfall could be one of those times.