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Titanfall: Respawn breaks free from Call of Duty’s shadow

Wednesday, 28th August 2013 08:05 GMT By Dave Cook

Titanfall was the talk of gamescom last week. VG247′s Dave Cook plays it on PC and interviews Respawn Entertainment producer Drew McCoy to learn more about life after Call of Duty.

Titanfall

Developed by Respawn Entertainment, Titfanfall is an online-only twitch shooter.

It’s coming to PC, Xbox One and Xbox 360 in 2014.

Despite its online nature, Titanfall will not have microtransactions.

Respawn released a new gameplay trailer during gamescom that showed off the Angel City map in action. You can watch the footage here.

Respawn Entertainment is a new studio, yet it has already found itself under immense scrutiny from the gaming press and players alike. Formed in 2010, the Californian outfit was comprised largely of former Infinity Ward staff, the same team that achieved worldwide success through its Call of Duty franchise.

With such a profound legacy, there was always going to be pressure for Respawn to deliver another hit and in Titanfall I’m already convinced that the team is poised for success. It’s a twitch shooter that handles like Call of Duty at base level, but benefits from the added scope that both free-running and giant Titan mechs provide.

It’s a format that works on so many levels, throwing great verticality, speed and urgency into a shooter cocktail that many CoD-weary players have grown tired of quaffing. I’ve been asked if Titanfall is ‘just Call of Duty with mechs’ many times, and to describe the title so simply is to do it a disservice. It’s one of few next-gen titles of gamescom that actually felt fresh, innovative and that embraced the power of new technology.

And it was all achieved through unconventional means. For starters, Titanfall’s producer Drew McCoy told me that the game doesn’t even have a design document, and the premise came organically as developers tinkered around with PC mods and figurines, rather than boardroom meetings and brainstorming over expensive lunches. It smacks of rogueish, guerrilla game development, just like the Infinity Ward of old.

“This game was completely conceived after Respawn became a company,” He replied when I asked if Titanfall was conceptualised while the company was on Activision’s dollar. “We had no idea what we wanted to do. We were a blank slate and it was a really long process to get here. We went through a lot of iterations on different things we wanted to try, we didn’t really nail this down … we were making things and pieces that we are still using, but our pre-production prototype phase was really long. It came about over the course of a year or two.”

McCoy explained that Titanfall came naturally with great collaboration across the Respawn payroll, and it started with the team asking itself what kind of games or mechanics it has personally been excited about in the past, or that were executed well. There wasn’t even a guarantee that the studio would work on a shooter as its first project. Nothing was ruled out, and everything was open to consideration, all without a whiff of focus-testing or market research.

The end format is an online-only shooter that weaves its sci-fi narrative into multiplayer sessions. You can choose to play each chapter sequentially in the ‘Campaign Multiplayer’ playlist and drink in a chronological account of the plot, or focus purely on your competitive career. My first hands-on PC session with Titanfall took place in Angel City, and saw the IMC and M-Cor factions battle it out in Attrition mode, which is Respawn-speak for ‘Team Deathmatch’.

Watch some Angel City gameplay from gamescom here. It’s representative of the sessions I played last week.

If you’ve played any twitch shooter then you already know how Titanfall handles at its core, but once you start double jumping, wall-running and hoisting across Angel City’s playground of rooftops, billboards and open windows, you start to think very differently about how you move. Free-running is performed without a button-press and is executed by jumping into any vertical surface at an angle. I managed to combo my way across the map without touching street level once.

The parkour mechanic works well and turns the Call of Duty format on its head. However, it was inspired by a most unlikely source: Half-Life 2. “I don’t remember who suggested it, but I remember when it first happened, “McCoy recalled. “This happened three years ago, and we weren’t even using the Source Engine yet, we were still evaluating engines at the prototyping phase. We had an evaluation version of the Source Engine and one of the programmers had put a really early, rudimentary wall-running mechanic in Half-Life 2.

“There’s a scene early on where you’re in a tight hallway where a Combine soldiers stops you and starts beating you with a stick. I watched him just stick to the wall, run over him, look down at him and shoot him as he went over him. I was like, ‘Oh my god that was amazing,’ because I’ve played that over a dozen times in the last six years since Half-Life 2 came out and it totally re-arranged how I thought about things you should do. I’ve been playing game forever. I was a big Quake guy so I’m used to mobility and stuff, but to see that sort of stuff put into a mode modern style shooter was like, it really changed a lot.”

If athleticism adds pacing then Titan mechs surely pile on urgency. After a few minutes you gain the ability to call in your stomping robot of death from orbit, and seeing it hurtle to street level to the words “standby to Titanfall” is a moment of true empowerment. Once you jump inside a Titan cockpit for the first time you feel like a colossus, but the reality is that these rigs don’t break the game’s balance as they are easily destroyed by anti-Titan weapons, which are wielded by each player in their third gun slot.

Titans can’t jump, although they can execute a short rocket dash. It ensures that they are big, lumbering targets for everyone to turn on in a heartbeat. You won’t go unnoticed and you will likely be destroyed, but when you do you’ll get to try out Titanfall’s eject move. I managed to blast out of my crippled mech another 20-feet above the map while hip-firing at an enemy robot below. I landed on its head and hitched a ride on its back. With my one free hand I shot it in the back of the head before it blew up in front of me. This empowerment is why Titanfall is so exciting.

“The Titans themselves were a process,” McCoy told me. “It’s wasn’t like ‘Hey cool we’ve got these 20-foot tall robots that you can get inside of and do cool stuff. It actually started … our lead artist created these 12 or 14-inch tall ‘mechettes’, like, he would go and buy wood, wire and plastic and he created these super-detailed characters. He had made some regular looking soldier dudes and then he made what is now the Atlas Titan.

“It was originally envisioned to be more of a power suit, maybe eight or nine feet tall, like a person could just fit right inside of it. We were talking about it and one of the things we were doing was, we wanted to work on survivability in a multiplayer game, because if you play Battlefield or Call of Duty and you get head-shotted from across the map, you have no idea what happened. You’re instantly dead and it’s terrible.”

McCoy added that Respawn’s model-maker then put a small three-inch soldier figure next to his mech statue and asked for the team’s opinion. Visually, that comparison of scale, or as he put it, a “Big versus little” design philosophy was born, but for it to work the studio knew that whether in a Titan or as a pilot on-foot, every player had to be given the same chance to succeed. Get a pack of pilots together with their ‘Archer’ anti-Titan rocket launchers or chain-guns and you can reduce a mech to scrap in moments.

Teamwork does exist here and this extends to the solider bots you’ll fight alongside during each battle. Human-controlled Titan Pilots aside, AI grunts will spawn into the map and charge into the fight. They’re easily killed and offer small XP gain but they really do enforce the idea that you’re fighting a full-scale war. They run along walls and respond to enemies convincingly, yet they never feel over-powered or unfair. They aren’t set on Call of Duty’s ‘Veteran’ difficulty tier that’s for sure.

McCoy explained, “We’ve got a logical spawning system that does a lot of figuring out where to spawn players as well as AI. They come in from dropships, they zip-line down based on where action is happening. We have this concept in the levels of frontline spawning so the AI knows where the action is happening: where friendlies are, where enemies are, where the AI are and it’ll try and spawn you accordingly.”

You always seem to spawn far away enough from the battle that spawn-killing isn’t an issue, there are no killstreaks, no annoying aircraft dominating the skies, no grating perks like Ghost or Last Stand and you also take a fair few shots before you die. It’s a middle-ground between Halo’s health system and the quick deaths in Call of Duty. It never feels cheap, and your load-outs are relatively small, with a primary, secondary and anti-titan weapon in tow, along with frag and support devices.

Think about any gripe you have with Call of Duty’s balancing and you’ll find that Titanfall addresses it. There were many next-generation titles on show at gamescom last week, but many of them felt like better-looking versions of experiences we’ve seen before. In the end Respawn stuck with a shooter – it is the team’s bread and butter after all – but McCoy and his team asked themselves the right questions about what it would take to make that archetype relevant once more.

“We didn’t have say, ‘We’re making a shooter,’” McCoy stressed. “People pitched ideas that ranged the gamut. It literally was, ‘We’re going to make what we’re going to make’, and we hadn’t decided as a group what we were going to do, which at times was hard. We had 40 guys who all were very experienced game developers, and all having an equal voice, so how do you reconcile that into one singular vision that everyone’s excited to work on?”

It’s a tough question for sure, but just a few rounds of Titanfall prove that Respawn has rested on a template that works. It has an intense pace, chaos erupting all around the players and the tools to give rise to insane feats of emergent skill, such as the Titan hijack I mentioned earlier. These are the moments Xbox One DVR and YouTube let’s plays were made for. The studio’s desire to give you fewer, yet more profound weapons and support gadgets shows great restraint and it stops the game’s balance from being wrecked.

The end-round ‘epilogues’ are also superb. On Angel City, the losing team must run to a random evac zone and wait for a drop-ship to appear. When we lost, our team members double-jumped and wall ran their way to the escape point where we had to defend the position until our ship arrived. The other team started trying to hunt us down and stop us from escaping. If you survive and make it to the ship you net an XP bonus, die and you’re out, which gives your killer a similar reward.

It’s a thrilling last-chance dash to the exit that serves as a mini-game mode within a game mode. These elements may sound simple on paper, but this is the first time in a long time I’ve played a twitch shooter that offered something new, along with impressive visuals and technical features that truly felt next-gen, rather than just a aesthetic touch-up of worn ideas.

Returning to its upstart roots seems to have worked wonders for the former Infinity Ward crew, and it highlights a studio liberated; freed from the bi-yearly expectations of new Call of Duty titles and given the chance to let its creativity run riot. It’ll be interesting to see how Titanfall fares against Activision’s franchise when it launches in 2014.

For now, what’s your take?

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18 Comments

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  1. deadstoned

    Hope to see Respawn do well and cannibalise some COD sales. I lost all respect for COD with MW2, no dedicated servers, Activision kicking out West, Zampella and eventually alot of the other leads leaving too.

    Just hope to see Titanfall release on PS4 eventually after a few months/year of Exclusivity. I hate 3rd party exclusives… 1st party absolutely, but 3rd party feels cheap, despite the massive cheque Microsoft most likely wrote them. Microsoft use that cheque book to make more of your own games next time! Stop buying stupid exclusive content for 3rd party stuff! Grrrrr! Make a fresh new IP instead! Then you can use the word “innovate” without everyone scoffing.

    #1 8 months ago
  2. VibraniumSpork

    @1 Agreed! Hoping they release a Titanfall XB1 bundle when the game drops though (they’d be fools not to, right?) – that’d be awful tempting…not sure I’ll be able to wait for this to hit PS4.

    #2 8 months ago
  3. deadstoned

    True Titanfall’s definitely the best looking game on xb1 at the moment. How about the PC version? I expect it’ll come with some TF2 hats. Hats! Yey =D

    Just hope they release on all announced platforms simultaneously or only a month or two after the Xb1 release.

    #3 8 months ago
  4. Dave Cook

    @3 I suspect that all footage so far is from the PC build. It’s what I played it on. So much fun though, seriously great so far.

    #4 8 months ago
  5. Aullah

    @3 This will be on Origin, so no hats :(

    #5 8 months ago
  6. AmiralPatate

    I grew tired of Call of Duty with Modern Warfare because of all the perks, weapons, killstreaks and whatnots. I grew tired of Battlefield thanks to BF3 because it felt just bland, easy without complexity.
    I’d like a game with a simple gameplay but difficult to master, a game without all the COD ridiculousness. TitanFall looks like that game.
    Plus it has mechs, though no hover tanks à la BF2142, but I’ll take it :P

    Also, I spotted that : “you start to thing very differently about how you move.”
    Second line below the first video. I guess it should be “think” instead.

    #6 8 months ago
  7. Dave Cook

    @6 thanks bud, fixed :)

    Yeah it’s very straight up, no bull-shit play that has great pace and urgency. The class load-outs wee curbed however so who knows? Maybe there is bullshit around the corner, but for now it works a treat.

    #7 8 months ago
  8. mistermogul

    I’m moving to Sony’s camp next gen so this is not on my radar though it does look good.

    I might pick it up one day on 360, PC (or eventually PS4?) but tbh the lack of single player campaign puts me off a bit…

    #8 8 months ago
  9. AmiralPatate

    @7 I can deal with a bit of bullshit. But I think if they had that kind of thing, they’d be showing it, like DICE and IW did.

    #9 8 months ago
  10. zme-ul

    how is TitanFall not just another COD? because has robots!??!?!

    #10 8 months ago
  11. MCTJim

    This game is going to rock. I cannot wait to get my hands on it :)

    #11 8 months ago
  12. Dave Cook

    @10 Because it does many things differently.

    @11 It’s insanely good. So much fun :D

    #12 8 months ago
  13. MCTJim

    @12 sure rub it in LOL

    #13 8 months ago
  14. Arcnail

    Disclaimer: Not being a fan boy here as I’ll probably get both consoles but..

    http://www.gamespot.com/news/titanfall-developer-tackles-xbox-one-cloud-confusion-6410672

    Sounds to me, as Sony sits right now, they’ll never get Titanfall without a cloud (cheap hosting) solution. Sure dude could be just saying that cause MS paid them well, but still, it’s hard to argue the dedicated server vs player hosted server + the other supposive benefits.

    #14 8 months ago
  15. silkvg247

    I’ll give it a go, I am in need of a decent FPS.

    #15 8 months ago
  16. luv1138

    Titanfall = CoD w/ robots

    #16 8 months ago
  17. TheWulf

    I kind of wish they’d gone further from Call of Duty. More sci-fi and more colour, more risks, instead of it just being Call of Duty with jetpacks and robots.

    #17 8 months ago
  18. Lance Corporal USMC

    Since MDW2 (One of the best FPS games in my opinion,) I have not seen anything new, a few improvements but mostly just a game that lacks new vision and seeks to improve the gamers experience.

    Clearly Respawn Entertainment has done a wonderful job and I had hoped they would after leaving Infinity Ward.

    I look forward to purchasing this game because after seeing this, it reminds me of how wonderful and creative MDW2 was. I look forward to this game and all future games from Respawn Entertainment

    #18 8 months ago