Back in the days of Battlefield 1943, I almost always took the same approach to one map in particular -- Iwo Jima. I would hop into a plane; zoom over the to the western side of the map and bail out; capture the flag, then activate the bombers and crush the mountain. After that, anything could happen; but like in chess, I had my opening moves down pat.
In Titanfall, things are a little different. The battles are less chaotic, more structured, especially on certain maps. After a few matches, I found myself falling into a particular rhythm, which had both its benefits and drawbacks. This is how it broke down for me.
Phase 1: The Battle Begins
I should start by saying that I love the way each Titanfall match commences. You begin in a dropship with a handful of grunts; the hatch opens, and you bail out amid a rush of adrenaline. You have no control whatsoever over this sequence, but it feels great. It kicks off the battle on just the right note.
Once on the ground, the flow varies depending on what mode you're playing. In Hardpoint -- a Conquest-style battle for checkpoints -- the usual rush to secure the points immediately commences; whereas in Team Deathmatch (sorry, Attrition), direct combat begins much more quickly. It doesn't take long to run into the enemy -- usually in the form of Grunts or Spectres who like to take point and serve as useful cannon fodder. But when a player shows up, you know it, because they're the ones who leap all over the screen tossing grenades and generally acting like a lunatic.
After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the first Titans begin to automatically arrive, and what I contend is a crucial phase of the battle gets underway.
Phase 2: The First Batch of Titans Arrive
Titan deployment is time-sensitive; automatically arriving around two minutes into the match, give or take few seconds for killing Grunts. Once they begin to hit, everyone usually jumps into the cockpit and begins slugging it out.
Having an affinity for mechs myself, I put extra effort into learning how to pilot the Titans, and I found myself grasping the ins-and-outs pretty quickly. The main thing to remember is that the Titans are really big targets, and that they are definitely not invincible. In a heated engagement, it's better to cut and run than it is to die, because every Titan is extremely valuable. When possible, it's always best to flank an opposing Titan and bring them down with a teammate, as fighting one-on-one often means taking a lot of damage.
Once I found my preferred weapon -- the 40mm cannon -- and got the hang of the quick dash maneuver, I had a lot of success in the Titan. When the first major Titan fight erupted, I would usually sneak around to the other side of the map and start surprising enemy machines from behind, quickly overwhelming them with a burst of gunfire. Soon enough, my team and I would have the run of the map in our Titans.
Phase 3: Depending on the Map, One Team Gains the Initiative
This is where things begin to diverge a little bit. In the demo that I played last week, there were two maps -- Fracture and Angel City. Depending on the map that you end up playing, things can go very differently following the first Titan battle.
Compared to Angel City, Fracture is considerably more open. It's possible for the Titans to reach and dominate all of the checkpoints; and with so much open ground to cover, it's hard to soldiers on foot to compete. If a team falls behind in the opening battle, then they have to rally to take Titans down together, because otherwise they will get rolled. Titanfall is not like Battlefield, where C4 explosives, mines, and other insta-kill attacks will level the playing field. Unless the Titan has a specific anti-Titan loadout, they will usually crush infantry on the ground.
As you might imagine, this has the potential to profoundly impact map balance. On Fracture in particular, if one team gains the initiative with Titans, they will probably win. But when I asked director Scott Fukuda for his thoughts, he didn't seem too concerned: "That's what we call the 'Voltron Effect' internally -- people assemble together and roll the other team. My perception is that it tends to go away in the course of normal matchmaking.. putting like-skilled players together. As players learn how the game works, there's an aspect of that initially, but the good thing is that every player gets a Titan eventually. There are Burn Cards to throw in that zinger that allow even new players to have an advantage, while at the same time it remains a fairly skill-oriented game where if you're situationally aware of the different abilities and environments, you can still win. It's not like that sort of thing goes away."
Indeed, the balance of power shifts considerably on Angel City -- a map with a huge number of nooks and crannies that are inaccessible by Titans. In Attrition, Titans can usually wait out enemy players and beat them; but in Hardpoint, many of the checkpoints cannot be accessed via mech, thus giving the advantage to the pilots. It's still advantageous to gain the initiative, but it doesn't feel quite as crucial as it does on Fracture. In any case, after a few more minutes, the next phase of the battle begins.
Phase 4: The Second Batch of Titans Arrive
In any given battle, you usually only get two -- possibly three -- Titans. If you are winning, then they can solidify your advantage, especially on a map like Fracture. If you're losing, then they represent the opportunity to change the tide of battle.
If you got whipped in the first Titan battle though, you're at a considerable disadvantage. That's because the second wave of Titans arrive piecemeal, making it easy for a team presenting a united front to pick them off together. On Fracture, I was able to regain the initiative once or twice if I lost my Titan; but most of the time, I ran into a wall of enemies who were ready to crush me the second I appeared.
On Angel City, the battle usually devolved into chaos at this point. Indoors, pitched firefights would erupt between pilots vying for checking points; while outdoors, Titans would try to capture and hold various intersections and attempt to punish any human who dared show their face. It's at this point on this particular map that Titanfall comes closest to realizing Respawn's original vision for an asymmetric shooter governed by Titan vs. Titan, human vs. human, and Titan vs. human matchups.
It's proof, if anything, of how much balance really matters in Titanfall. If it's even a little unbalanced, which I would argue is currently the case with Fracture, then it throws the balance of the entire game out of whack. Right now, I would say the balance is almost there with Angel City; but elsewhere, it needs a little work.
Phase 5: Emergency Extraction
Jeremy's already written about this part of the battle, but it kind of bears repeating -- the emergency extraction phase is really cool. I never once made it all the way to the dropship -- it would always leave just before I arrive -- but the challenge of trying to get to safety added a welcome extra dimension to a losing battle. It's in these moments that Titanfall tends to really shine, since it adds an element of the cinematic to an ordinary multiplayer battles.
All told, I really enjoyed my time with Titanfall. Rarely did I feel like the maps were under-populated, which was one of my concerns going in. Usually, there was something interesting happening around every corner, especially once the Titans began dropping. I think my only real concern is that the current flow feels somewhat rigid. By design, the Titans always arrive at the same time, with the result being that battles tend to unfold the same way every time, especially on maps like Fracture. As a result, the combat felt the tiniest bit repetitive after a couple hours, which isn't necessarily a feeling I want in my multiplayer shooters. I'm hoping additional maps will alleviate this feeling somewhat.
For now, I would say that there's every reason to be excited for what Titanfall has to offer. The crew at Respawn really know their shooters, and they seem to have crafted something really unique in the relationship between human and mech. With a little more balance and a wide selection of maps, I see no reason that this can't be my preferred multiplayer shooter for years to come.