Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Time to Get Mecha-nized: Part II





Of course, there is another mecha game fast approaching on its stompy legs:  the much ballyhooed Titanfall from Respawn Entertainment.  This is already proving something of a lodestone in gaming as it pits the aggrieved team that formerly constituted Infinity Ward - the geniuses who reinvented the first person shooter with their world famous Call of Duty franchise - against their old bosses at Activision who fired them out of alleged avarice.  So we definitely have a lot of emotional baggage in play with this title.  But Titanfall is also drawing a lot of attention for another reason:  it promises to repeat the success of CoD by reinventing a very stale shooter genre yet again.  Will the devs catch lightning in a bottle for a second time?

Did I mention that I have about twelve hours in the beta so far?  Yeah.  Twelve hours in the Titanfall beta.  Sort of gives away the answer, doesn't it?


Now, I think it is important to point out that I found nothing revolutionary about Titanfall, so if you go into the game expecting to have your mind blown by a totally new shooter experience, well...it's not going to happen.  Truth is, Titanfall is less about being an entirely new shooter experience, and more about an experience cobbled together from the best FPS games released over the last two years or so.  So, when you play Titanfall, you will often find yourself experiencing some gaming deja vu due to moments that seems remarkably similar to the intense multiplayer combat of Call of Duty (of course), the combined arms (i.e., man and machine) battles of DICE's Battlefield, and the frenetic need to escape from a bad scene on the last plane out a la Left 4 Dead.  This is not a bad thing, rather it is very, very smart game design.  Why reinvent the wheel when you can just enhance its roundness?

The Titanfall beta only comes with two maps, but boy are they beauts!  Some time ago I wrote how DICE could learn a thing or two about map design from Treyarch - clearly there will be no need to repeat this lesson for Respawn.  The maps I have experienced in Titanfall, from the urban setting of Angel City, to the environmental chaos of Fracture, feel incredibly detailed and lived in, unlike the Potemkin villages in Battlefield 3.  Interiors vary from building to building, vending machines are found lining the streets, and billboards line storefronts (I want more Electric Chicken!).  In other words, the maps feel real; you can get a sense of the people who lived there and, in the case of Fracture, an idea of why they left.  In many ways, I find these wonderfully detailed environments reminiscent of Hawken's equally detailed maps.  Both games manage to tell a story - that is, convey information to the player - via innumerable bits of map detail that come together to paint a narrative picture. As a result, immersion is increased, and the player finds himself fighting all the harder for a victory.

In terms of map size, I would estimate that these two run 1.5 to 2x times larger than your typical CoD map.  Nowhere near as big as a Battlefield map of course - that is okay since Titanfall isn't about sprawling, anonymous battles - but large enough to keep things very interesting for the players.  As mentioned previously, I have a bunch of hours in the beta and I am still finding new alleyways, hidden entrances, and perfect ambush positions.  In short, Respawn has really outdone themselves with the included maps.  It is striking for me to compare Titanfall's beta maps to those found in Battlefield 4's beta:  I was thoroughly bored by Battlefield's beta map in a matter of minutes (something that saved me from wasting $60 on DICE's bug-ridden game), while I remain quite captivated by Titanfall's maps because they continue to surprise and delight me with their detail and clever design, something that is not easy to do when you have to accommodate both infantry and mechs!

Speaking about infantry and mechs: I love the fact that this game combines the two.  I have lost count of the number of times I have lamented the fact that whenever a game includes mechs, or some other mechanized leviathan, it inevitably leaves out the presence of infantry.  It is really a tragic decision as without small, squishy infantry, the player can't really get a sense for the size and power of a walking tank.  I recall raising this point some years ago on the Supreme Commander forums only be ridiculed at the silliness of the idea of mixing infantry with, um...vehicles on the same battlefield.  Like what apparently didn't happen in World War I onwards (hint: it did happen).  I was told such an idea would never work...even though Steve Jackson did it with his superlative Ogre back in the 1970s.  And Titanfall has now done again.  Silly me.

Of course, what we have here is a failure of imagination, both on the part of previous devs and their fans.  As Respawn has demonstrated (and Steve Jackson, for that matter), infantry will always find a way to survive the mechanized battlefield and, as world history has shown, even find a way to overcome the mechanized beasts of war.  In the case of Titanfall, this is accomplished by giving the grunts a jet pack that provides them enhanced movement, from being able to leap (small) buildings in a single bound, to such parkour techniques as wall running.  Mechs (titans in Titanfall), being slow and plodding, can't really compete in this arena and, as such, are highly vulnerable to such fleet-footed infantry attacks, much as real world tanks are vulnerable to infantry in an urban environment.

It is this combined arms environment that makes Titanfall so much fun; it is not an exaggeration to say that Titanfall is almost like two games in one: an infantry game and a mech game.  What is amazing is how seamlessly the two come together.  Titans aren't overpowered in the least, so their presence on the battlefield isn't an "I win button" in the slightest.  In fact, if you want to focus mostly on the infantry fight, you can do that and still remain competitive, especially if you call in your titan and set it to be autonomous - it will do quite well on its own!  What is nice is that titans, like vehicles in a Battlefield game, make for a refreshing change of experience from within the game itself.  Also, like in Battlefield, it creates moments of spectacle - you haven't lived until you find yourself looking out a window at two titans slugging it out in the street!



Speaking of spectacle, this is where Titanfall's bots come into play.  I know that there is controversy about their presence, but I suspect a lot of that is either coming from the "l33t" crowd who wants Titanfall to just be another hardcore competitive shooter, or from people who haven't even played the game.  While I do think the bot difficulty could be tweaked upwards a bit, I personally love their presence. One of the big talking points concerning Titanfall is how this game is attempting to merge both a narrative-driven single player experience with a competitive multiplayer experience.  While I can't comment on the narrative aspects as the campaign storyline is not included in the beta, I can see the possibility of such a merger via the presence of these bots.  Here is why: in Titanfall, you have two types of bots: the militia, who are ordinary human grunts, and the Specters who are robo-soldiers.  What is really cool is that as you go about your MP duties of capturing hardpoints and fragging other players, you will see these bots going about their own duties as well, from ziplining out of assault shuttles, to capturing objectives, too.  I have even spotted bots engaging in hand to hand combat, as well as militia bots dragging wounded comrades out of the line of fire.  Let me tell you, it really adds a much greater sense of battle immersion.  It can also be fun to listen to them call out orders to each other ("clear those corners!" or "second floor secure!"), or even comment on your passing ("pilot coming through!").  And while all that is neat, what it does in toto is to give the player the sense of being in a typically epic single player campaign as found in shooters such as CoD.  In other words, the bots are there to help weave a war story around the player just as much as the map artwork does. 

These bots also have another purpose:  like "creeps" in a MOBA, they are there as easy kills to help the player garner extra points.  Again, this angers the hardcore crowd, but as an inept shooter enthusiast I love the fact that I can pad my bill with some easy bots!  The player can also hack the Specters and unleash them on the opposing team, leading to some nice moments of mischief.  In retrospect, Respawn hasn't just merged a single player shooter with a multiplayer shooter, but has also found a way to add in some MOBA and tower defense elements, too!  And it all works wonderfully together despite the odds!

By the way: that whole controversy surrounding the 6 v 6 player count?  Don't sweat it.  While I do think the player count could be upped to 8 v 8 (be nice to have the option),  the current numbers of players is perfect in light of the presence of the bots as the lower the player count, the more important the action of the bots become.  Again, it is all about that SP/MP hybrid system that can really be seen shining through the gameplay.

The titans themselves are also fun to play with, as you might expect in a mecha game.  From the heartwarming "switching to pilot control" announcement from the on board AI  that is sounded when you board your mech, to the satisfying ejection sequence - and subsequent mini-nuclear explosion when a titan's reactor goes critical - everything about the mechs in this game is extremely well done.  Control really is little different than fighting on foot, something that makes for an intuitive leap to go from one to the other (and why the MWO naysayers are wrong for critiquing the humanoid movements of the mechs).  While these titans do possess some of the fleetness of foot that Hawken's mechs possess, particularly when dodging incoming fire, they are generally more stompy and less fleety.  What this means is that the player has to plan slightly ahead when fighting inside a mech as these boys don't turn/fight on a dime, making for a challenging experience in their own right.  With that in mind, why do I suspect Titanfall's "Last Titan Standing" gameplay mode, where everyone gets only one mech per match, is going to be very popular?

I also love the sound design in this game.  Sound is important to me as it can really add to that all important immersion.  For example, one of the things that I believe really elevated Radical's Prototype game was its fantastic sound design where you were constantly able to intercept realistic sounding military communications during the course of a rampage.  Same thing going on here.  As the player fights his way through a match, the battlefield is alive with communications, some from the bots on the battlefield, and some from your mission controller who is always commenting on your performance or updating the player's mission objectives.  Because of this, the player never feels like he is just running and gunning for the heck of it.  Rather, Titanfall always feels like a proper military op with a purpose, and the player never feels alone on the battlefield.

The weaponry likewise sounds great.  All the weapons I tried, from the requisite assault rifle to the always fashionable shotty, sounded powerful and deadly.   They also all have a great sci-fi aesthetic that makes them seem like something out of (the disappointing) Elysium, particularly the "smart pistol" that automatically locks on to multiple targets.  Now, I am already hearing cries of "OP!" from people concerning that weapon (again, particularly those who haven't played the game), but I have to tell you that I think the smart pistol is one of the toughest weapons to use in the game!  It's tough because while you can almost insta-kill bots with it, it takes three time-consuming lock-ons to kill a player, something that is not at all easy to do in a frenetic combat situation - in some ways using the smart pistol is almost like attempting a knife kill.  However, precisely because it is so tough to use, I find the smart pistol a wonderfully challenging weapon that I return to time and again because it is so rewarding to use it correctly.

Lastly, the music is also extremely well done.  It has the perfect balance of an action movie-like drive to it that really gets you pumped, while also being able to appropriately fade into the background so as to better underscore the on-screen action.

So, What's Not to Like?

One thing: no destructible terrain.  This game would shine with some destructible terrain via DICE's Frostbite engine.  I'd even take some of Hawken's destructible trucks and light posts.  Something - anything! - to convey the might of a titan would be appreciated because having a mech walk over cars and trees without leaving a mark really spoils the immersion. 

Final Thoughts on the Beta

After playing the beta for a bunch of hours, I have determined that the indisputable guide star for Respawn in making this game was, simply, to be fun.  Really, how did the industry ever lose sight of such a basic ingredient in game design?  While I have heard critiques about all sorts of Titanfall's features in relation to other more hardcore/realistic shooters, what the "l33t" naysayers don't seem to understand is that Respawn is clearly trying to make a MP shooter for the rest of us.  In a sense there is more Team Fortress 2 to Titanfall than there is Black Ops 2 as everything in the game seems designed to maximize fun for players of all skill levels rather than just cater to a dedicated competitive crowd.  Heck, Respawn even thoughtfully removed the in-game chat function as they clearly understood that 95% of the time only griefers and trolls bother using the chat box in a fast shooter!  Everything in this game just seems designed around a "big tent" theory of welcoming the most people with the most entertaining gameplay possible - not simplistic gameplay, mind you, as there is a surprising amount of tactics in this shooter (I haven't even covered the delightful "Burn Cards" and weapon customization!), but easy to pick up and play gameplay.  Respawn has succeeded wonderfully in this regard.  So wonderfully, that I now believe the worst part of the Titanfall beta is...the knowledge that it is going to come to an end within hours!  I don't know if I can make it to its March 11 PC launch without a daily TF fix!  I need more Electric Chicken!

Yes, Titanfall is already that addictive. 

Yes, Titanfall is going to be a huge hit.

Yes,  Vince Zampella (et alia) has done it again.

Trailer:

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