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.
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'.
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?