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Win Me Over, Titanfall

Can Titanfall get its claws into a hardened shooter cynic like Pete? After ten matches, he has an answer.

Article by Pete Davison, .

I used to like first-person shooters. I used to like them a lot. In fact, on some level, I still do, because I can still have an enjoyable time booting up a first-person shooter from the mid to late '90s and beyond, but modern shooters tend to leave me cold.

Part of it's due to the fact that playing army men just doesn't resonate with me, and the two biggest names in first-person shooters today are both army men games. It's not something I want from my interactive entertainment; it's not subject matter I'm at all interested in outside of gaming, either, which doesn't help. But the other part is that on the few occasions I have given games like this a chance -- usually in the name of having something to play online with my real-life friends -- I've come away feeling bored by repetitive multiplayer or like my intelligence has been insulted by a shallow-as-a-puddle single-player campaign in which the NPCs standing in front of you for the whole game always get the interesting things to do.

Who better to send into the trenches of Titanfall's beta, then? I know, I know, absolutely anyone but me, although that's not the point of this feature. Instead, what I'm setting out to discover here is if Titanfall has anything to offer to someone who, like me, has perhaps enjoyed first-person shooters in the past, but who has fallen out of love with them in recent years. Can it offer an enjoyable experience and counter the boredom I feel after just two or three Call of Duty deathmatches? Or am I justified in wanting to hide in a cave with a copy of Atelier Rorona until everyone shuts up about big stompy robots? Let's find out.

Pre-Game Jitters

I'm installing Titanfall's PC beta as I type this. The ever-helpful EA didn't actually inform me that I had access to said beta, but I logged in to Origin on the off-chance it was there just to see, and there it was. I guess this is happening.

I'm honestly not all that sure what to expect. My personal lack of interest in Titanfall and games like it means that I haven't really been following what is going on with it outside of the few occasions over the past couple of months when I've written news stories about it. I'm expecting to hate every minute of it, but I'm also aware that people I know who have fairly similar tastes to me -- people who feel they have, for want of a better term, outgrown modern competitive multiplayer shooters -- have found themselves enjoying the experience. So I'm trying to keep as much of an open mind as possible.

Titanfall has ten matches to win me over. After that, I'm either going to be a convert, or I'm never going to touch the bloody game ever again. Which will it be? Without further ado, it's time to prepare for… you know.

After-Action Report #0

Okay. False start. There's a long, boring and apparently mandatory tutorial to do first. Presumably in the name of "immersion," this kicks off by asking you to do complicated tasks like looking up and down and walking down a corridor, but to its credit does quickly move on to the interesting new things that Titanfall offers such as the parkour moves -- specifically, how to wallrun, mantle and double jump.

I am yet to play a game in which parkour and similar moves are implemented convincingly from a first-person perspective. Mirror's Edge came closest to doing a decent job, but it still didn't quite feel… right. Titanfall, so far, doesn't feel at all right, either; wallrunning still feels like I'm just sliding along a wall rather than running up it, and mantling just means you get a faceful of wall texture. I don't feel like I'm doing cool parkour moves, I feel like I'm pinballing off the walls. I will, however, freely admit that this may just be down to my own incompetence at this juncture.

The tutorial then continues with some basic shooting and moving around, then tosses you into a Titan, which plays very similarly to running around on foot only everything is a bit smaller, your footsteps are louder and you can't jump.

You're not selling me on this yet, Titanfall. Let's jump into a game and give it a shot.

After-Action Report #1

Mode: Attrition
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Tank
Map: Fracture
Victory: Us

Titanfall recommends that new players begin with Attrition mode, so it was Attrition mode I began with. In this mode, all you have to do is shoot everything that isn't on your team -- Titans, players and AI-controlled grunts. Simple enough.

I picked the Assassin class so I could have a chance to play with the Smart Pistol that Eurogamer's Chris Donlan argued so passionately in favor of. Spurred on by the promise of locking on to multiple opponents Rez-style then eliminating them in a graceful burst of gunfire, I thought this would be a good class for my debut on the Titanfall world stage.

Within a minute I felt like I was playing Call of Duty, right down to the same feeling of not being immediately sure what color team I was on that I habitually feel in Activision's series. Once I figured that out, I was running around with little to no awareness of where the rest of my team was, what they were doing and whether or not I should be doing anything to support them. I shot a few things, then I got killed by something or possibly someone -- I don't know, because I couldn't see what killed me and the game made very little fuss about the fact I had actually died. Given the fact that death was instant, I can only assume that someone shot me with the Smart Pistol I was so keen to try out. Hmm. Maybe it's not so much fun after all -- though I will note that there is some small nod to balancing with this weapon in that killing a player (or "pilot" as the game refers to them) requires three separate lock-ons instead of just one, while AI-controlled grunts can be killed with just a single lock-on.

I found it difficult to distinguish between players and AI grunts -- and that's not really a compliment. Both seemed to be running around fairly aimlessly, though the grunts had a bit more of a habit of charging into a room then staring at a wall for a moment while I got a nice solid Smart Pistol lock-on. The players, meanwhile, were probably charging around like headless chickens more as a result of the game mode than anything else -- with no objectives other than "kill everything," things just descend somewhat into running around with no real strategy and taking potshots at anything that happens to cross your reticle. At least it did if you're me.

Not feeling it so far, then. But let's jump back in for a little more.

After-Action Report #2

Mode: Attrition
Pilot class: Rifleman
Titan class: Artillery
Map: Fracture
Victory: Them

I can't honestly say I'm really having a good time yet. It all still feels completely chaotic and disorganized, though as noted above this may be more to do with the game mode I'm playing than anything else. I'll try a different mode for my next match and see if that feels any different.

I tried playing with a controller this time around. I'm not sure whether I prefer the precision of mouse and keyboard, or the ability to sit back on my couch with a controller. I'm leaning towards mouse and keyboard so far, though I'm still feeling particularly disconnected from the parkour moves regardless of control scheme -- they still just feel like flinging yourself at the nearest wall and hoping something cool happens.

One thing I do quite like, to counterbalance the negativity so far, is the Epilogue sequence that concludes each match. Rather than a battle ending with something of a whimper as someone scores a cheap kill, exactly what you do in the final moments of a match is determined by whether or not you were on the winning side. If you were, you get a few moments to try and eradicate the other team from the map. If you weren't, you get to flee to the dropship and hope it doesn't take off before you get to it. You don't get to respawn during these sequences, so if you get gunned down, all you can do is watch and cheer your team on, similar to Left 4 Dead's finale sequences. It's a nice idea, though if the last match is anything to go by, I have a suspicion the Epilogues will tend to descend into the winning team surrounding the extraction point with Titans and picking off any rivals unfortunate enough to appear beneath their crosshairs.

After-Action Report #3

Mode: Hardpoint Domination
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Artillery
Map: Fracture
Victory: Them

This was a little more enjoyable, or at least interesting. The necessity to capture and defend the Hardpoints around the map adds something concrete to do besides simply shooting everything, which helps to cut down on the amount of aimless wandering. That said, there wasn't a whole lot of meaningful communication going on, at least not on my team, meaning that pretty much as soon as a Hardpoint was captured, everyone on the team would charge off to go and capture one of the other two, leaving the one we'd just scored completely undefended. No-one wants to be the guy left behind.

Use of Titans in Hardpoint Domination is vaguely interesting, because they can't go inside the buildings where the Hardpoints usually are. As such, strapping yourself into a Titan means dedicating yourself to being a pain in the backside to anyone attempting to cross the open areas of map between the hardpoints. Alternatively, you can call down your Titan, leave it on AI mode and trust that it won't get itself blown up.

I successfully "Rodeo Killed" an enemy Titan in this mode, but it didn't feel very satisfying. I launched myself onto its back with the unfeasibly large double-jump you're equipped with when on foot, then was locked into just shooting… something on its back. I didn't feel any Shadow of the Colossus-style wrestling with the mechanical beast as I struggled to maintain my balance; it was just something I had to pull my trigger at a lot of times. What a letdown.

I wouldn't say I'm having fun yet, but it's clear that Hardpoint Domination is a much more interesting mode than Attrition. That said, it's also nothing new; I've played this mode in numerous other games before, and the only real difference here is the Titans stomping around outside, which, to be honest, doesn't really feel like a gamechanger to me right now.

I've also seen no real evidence of the whole "story in multiplayer" stuff Respawn's been making a big deal about. There are characters who bellow orders at you, sure, but nothing particularly compelling; in this match the South African dude who wouldn't shut up was just telling me to go after Hardpoints. I have no idea who he is or why I should care.

After-Action Report #4

Mode: Last Titan Standing
Pilot class: Rifleman
Titan class: Assault
Map: Angel City
Victory: Us

Okay. I actually enjoyed this match, at least partly because Last Titan Standing mode abandons all pretense of being a super-serious War in Space and instead embraces its "gameness" to such a degree that there's a sports-style "halftime" in which both teams change the ends of the battlefield that they spawn at.

The sports comparison is a pretty apt one, actually; I can see this mode in particular being a big hit at tournaments and on the e-sports circuit. Rounds are short, snappy and rewarding -- since there are no respawns within a single round, you feel like everything you do is a whole lot more meaningful and that there are definite consequences. When I was the last person on my team still in a Titan -- though some others were still on foot -- and I secured victory for the round through a well-timed punch in the face on the last surviving Titan on the enemy team, it was undeniably satisfying.

That said, the melee attacks, even in a Titan, are a bit weedy. As with most first-person games, there's no feeling of them actually connecting; you just feel as if your Titan is wafting their arm in front of their opponent, and said opponent's health bar goes down a bit. There's no sense that you're in control of several tons of machinery that has decided punching several more tons of machinery that is equipped with a variety of death-dealing equipment is the right thing to do; no feeling of your metal fist making a solid connection with your opponent, driving deep into their steel abdomen as you roar with primal rage. No, just waft, waft, waft.

Should Titanfall succeed in winning me over at the end of this little exercise, I can see Last Titan Standing being my mode of choice. It's fun, it works well as a game mode, and the strong focus on Titan-on-Titan combat rather than running around on foot makes it feel less like Call of Duty. And that's a good thing.

After-Action Report #5

Mode: Hardpoint Domination
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Assault
Map: Fracture
Victory: Us

As much as I liked Last Titan Standing, I don't want to burn myself out on it too early, so I thought I'd try Hardpoint Domination again. Given that the majority of promotional footage and coverage of Titanfall seemingly revolved around this mode, I get the distinct impression that this, of all the modes that will be available in the final game, is the one that Respawn feels is how it is "supposed" to be played.

One thing that did cross my mind during this match was the fact that the whole 6v6 thing that certain quarters of the Internet had been complaining about is a complete non-issue. With the maps in the beta, both of which are of a reasonable size and include multiple layers to explore, 12 players tops feels like a good number. While Respawn's protestations that they chose this number of players was in order to be "the most fun" and not at all because of technical limitations may be little more than marketing spin, having played a few matches now there is a certain ring of truth about it. I don't feel overwhelmed by the number of players, and I feel like I can make a meaningful contribution to the team.

In fact, here's an interesting point; I am absolutely terrible at modern PC-centric multiplayer shooters like, well, anything by Valve. But in Titanfall -- much like I found with Call of Duty -- I find myself placing pretty well in each round's rankings. I don't think I've topped my team's leaderboards as yet, but certainly in this game I was ranked second for the number of times I successfully captured and defended Hardpoints. It's nice to feel like anyone has the ability to be your team's MVP, and that scoring is about more than just who can get the most headshots.

After-Action Report #6

Mode: Hardpoint Domination
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Tank
Map: Angel City
Victory: Them… just (398-400)

This was an enjoyably close match -- our teams seemed pretty evenly matched in terms of ability, so there was a lot of back-and-forth in terms of taking and holding the Hardpoints around the map. Even though communication was still non-existent, my team this time around certainly seemed to understand the value of not just charging off as soon as we took a Hardpoint and instead sticking around to defend it. With the design of the Angel City map, it's possible to poke your head out of buildings' windows to take potshots at passing Titans stomping down the street outside. Calling down my own Titan and then supporting its AI with some anti-Titan weaponry on foot from a well-placed window seemed to work quite well.

I'm warming to Hardpoint Domination, but it's still very derivative of every other shooter I've played in the last few years. There's not enough unique about it -- and about Titanfall in general -- to make me want to play this any longer than necessary right now. Four games left for it to change my mind. My enthusiasm is waning, but I said ten games, so ten it will be.

After-Action Report #7

Mode: Last Titan Standing
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Assault
Map: Fracture
Victory: Us

I thought I'd give Last Titan Standing another go, and indeed it was quite enjoyable, though the Fracture map doesn't feel quite so fun to stomp around as Angel City where I played last time. I'm starting to feel that familiar "shooter fatigue" I get if I try and play Call of Duty or its ilk for more than an hour at a time; a match or two can be pretty fun, but any more than that and the inherent repetitiveness of the whole experience just starts to grate. And with just two maps on the rotation in the Titanfall beta, I'm starting to feel this particularly keenly -- though it should be added that running around Fracture on foot and being largely confined to a Titan does make it feel more like two quite different maps than I originally gave it credit for.

The trouble I'm having is that the Titans just don't feel all that satisfying to use. I know having a slow-to-turn, lumbering walking tank like in MechWarrior would be both unbalanced to play and probably not all that much of a reward for players, but as it stands -- particularly with the quick response of mouse aiming -- piloting a Titan doesn't really feel like you're in control of tons of heavy machinery, and Titan-on-Titan combat seems to occasionally descend into bouts of who can dash at the opponent and melee attack the fastest. It's also a shame there's no environmental damage -- I'd expect big metal beasties like Titans to take big chunks out of the scenery, but there's nothing like that here. Boo.

After-Action Report #8

Mode: Attrition
Pilot class: Rifleman
Titan class: Tank
Map: Angel City
Victory: Us

Now I've got a firmer grasp of how the game works, I thought I'd try Attrition again to see if it was any more fun. It wasn't. Every action I took felt largely meaningless. I hacked one of the enemy "Spectre" AI-controlled units in this match, and I have no idea what it achieved. It followed me around a bit, but didn't seem to do very much, then got obliterated when an enemy Titan stepped on it. So that was fun.

After-Action Report #9

Mode: Hardpoint Domination
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Assault
Map: Angel City
Victory: Them

Within five seconds of spawning into this match, which was only about a minute in when I joined, I was killed by a player called "SheepViolator." I'm not sure I can take much more of this.

After-Action Report #10

Mode: Last Titan Standing
Pilot class: Assassin
Titan class: Assault
Map: Fracture
Victory: Us

...Yeah, I'm done.

Did It Win Me Over?

As you may have gleaned from my waning enthusiasm towards the end… no. That said, I can appreciate that it's an enjoyable enough game that those who already enjoy competitive shooters will get a kick out of, and several of the modes -- Last Titan Standing in particular -- are very e-sports friendly. So I don't doubt that it will find a market, and I don't doubt that it will sell a whole bunch -- though whether it proves to be sufficient temptation for those who have been on the fence about picking up an Xbox One remains to be seen. For all of Titanfall's "next-gen poster child" status, the PC version on its highest settings neither taxed my modest rig all that much nor particularly impressed me visually, so those expecting it to be an Xbox One showcase may find themselves a little disappointed.

For me personally, after finishing those ten games, I quit out of Titanfall, uninstalled the beta and now have no intention of ever playing it again. It just doesn't feel like a game for me. The supposedly "new" stuff over and above what Call of Duty offers just doesn't feel fresh and interesting enough, and the remainder of what's in there feels like Call of Duty: Future Warfare more than anything else. And that's not something I want to play.

I tried, though. I really did. And now I know. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go and play something with hit points and relationship values in it.

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