How do you transform an entire genre with one game, and kickstart sales for the fledgling Xbox One? A good start is to put Vince Zampella and Jason West in charge; they were two of the men responsible for the Call of Duty series, which blended twitch action shooting with RPG-style persistent progress. Titanfall, their debut effort at new studio Respawn Entertainment, again breathes new life into the FPS genre with an incredible mix of intense gunplay and precise movement; which somehow manages to be both familiar, yet unlike anything you've played before.
Titanfall does this by blending two very different kinds of gameplay; the titular Titans are slow, powerful brutes with huge arsenals, but the Pilots that control them are nimble parkour experts that can dash across a level in moments, and without even touching the ground.
Players start every round as a Pilot, fighting on foot, in the air and on any surface they can reach using a mix of wall-running and jet pack double-jumps. Once a two minute countdown timer has expired, however, they gain access to their Titan, which is deployed from orbit as and when it's needed.
Titan's aren't a reward for good play, as every player will have the ability to call down a Titan several times per match, regardless of their position on the leaderboards. Pilots can board their Titan and take direct control, or stay on foot and let the Titan's AI do the driving – either to defend a particular point or follow them around the map, engaging hostile targets as they come into view.
Titans each have unique abilities, like the rocket-catching Vortex Shield seen here
Respawn has balanced the two types of gameplay brilliantly; Titans pack serious firepower and have the weight to crush infantry underfoot. Get caught in the open and a Titan will have no trouble picking you off from a distance with a brutal mix of chainguns, 40mm cannons and rocket launchers. However, pilots have several ways of taking them down.
Each pilot carries an anti-Titan heavy weapon, such as a rocket launcher; while a more risky tactic is to jump on a Titan's back in a 'rodeo' manoeuvre, from where you can open a hatch and shoot into the vulnerable electrics. This usually forces the pilot, if there is one, to exit his armoured 'bot to take you out. It's the interplay between man and machine that makes Titanfall so compulsive, and which creates 'those moments' which you just have to tell other people about.
Each mission epilogue provides a welcome change of pace, with no respawning and a mad dash to the escape pod
Another refreshing addition to the traditional Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Domination modes is the Epilogue, where the losing team has to escape to a drop ship while the victors try to mop up any remaining opposition. Once you die here, there's no respawning, so you have to adjust your play style accordingly. Make it to the escape ship and you'll earn an XP bonus, but it's not an easy task when the entire enemy team is tracking you down.
Each of the 14 maps have been designed with this balance in mind. They all have plenty of verticality, lots of walls to run along and enough room to manoeuvre that they feel like a playground for pilots to explore using a combination of parkour and jet pack double jumps. You move at a much greater pace when wall-running compared to sprinting on foot, so the best players will be constantly hugging vertical surfaces to make themselves a hard target.
With so much verticality, you'll have to keep your eyes trained on the sky for enemy pilots
The Titans can't jump and are often hemmed in by buildings, though there are clear areas ideal for Titan vs Titan combat too. There's no structural damage here, as while it would be nice to smash through walls or tear down buildings when piloting your mech, it would arguably unbalance the man and machine nature of the game.
Titanfall is a multiplayer-only game, pitting teams of six against each other in a range of game modes. This sounds small compared to Battlefield 4's massive 64-player servers, but Respawn has managed to make every moment action-packed with AI-controlled grunts. They fill each map, airdropping in at random points to ensure you always have something to shoot.
They don't pose much of a threat, and shooting them will put you on the mini-map of enemy pilots. Ignoring them is a bad idea too though, as weapon upgrades and accessories are tied to the number of grunts, Spectres (stronger, yet still computer-controlled, enemies) and enemy players you shoot. Encounters with several grunts, enemy pilots and Titans in follow or guard mode feel like hectic, large-scale battles, even if you're only actually taking on a single human opponent.
With EA in charge of publishing duties, we were worried about the possibility of micro-transactions. Consumable cards, called Burn Cards, give you in-game rewards such as more powerful weapons, extra abilities or unique skills. They would be an ideal way of monetising the game, but as with the consumable cards in Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, the actual monetisation is thankfully absent.
Burn Card abilities only last until you die – or to the end of the game if you don't bite the dust. This helps balance the more powerful cards, but frustratingly it does sometimes mean losing your supercharged grenade launcher or explosive-firing sniper rifle before you even have the chance to pull the trigger.
Snipers will struggle to find safe vantage points, as you can get to any surface with a few jumps
And you'll do a lot of dying unless you're very good. Having both the nuances of Pilot and Titan combat to master makes this a harder proposition than Call of Duty. The maps are complex, due to their more vertical nature, and the game types mean you rarely have a chance to stop and think, it's all go, go, go if you want to come out on top, plus with only six players a side there's nowhere to hide your deficiencies. All that makes the learning curve pretty steep, though there is one place for new players to take a little refuge.
Despite being presented as a 'campaign' the nine story missions play like any other online shooter - albeit with brief cut-scene interlude at the beginning and end of each match as NPCs fill the gaps in the rather basic plot. You can finish the campaign in 90 minutes, and experience the action from both the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC) and Militia viewpoints in under three hours. This certainly isn't the game for anyone after an engrossing single player story.
scripted moments at the start of each mission are as engaging as the campaign mode gets
Nor is it the title to show off the power of your next generation console Microsoft has secured an exclusivity deal which will surely help boost sales of the Xbox One, but the heavily modified version of Valve's Source engine is hardly a visual tour de force. The particle and smoke effects look pretty, and frame rates hold up for the most part, even during intense action, but textures are muddy in places and everything feels a little flat. A fact that isn't helped but the unremittingly drab colour scheme of Respawn's frontier planets.
Whether there's enough content to keep casual players entertained for long remains to be seen; there are a limited number of weapons, Titans and abilities to unlock, and you could run out of new kit to try quite rapidly. For the hardcore, Respawn has yet to add clan support, private matchmaking or spectator modes. Through its £20 DLC season pass, Titanfall may gain new game modes, maps, weapons and Titans, but that remains to be seen. For the moment it's quite expensive given what you're getting, and those who aren't up-to-speed with online shooters may suffer badly.
It is by no means perfect, but the flow of movement, rapid pace and sweetly balanced man and mech gameplay has comfortably usurped Call of Duty as our go-to twitch shooter of choice. Battlefield has more depth and Counter Strike is much more tactical, but Titanfall is something else, something very important, it's fun.