10 Thoughts on… the Titanfall Beta (Microsoft Xbox One)

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past several months, one of the two hot new FPS properties in the next-gen gaming wars (alongside Destiny) is Titanfall, and with good reason. The development team responsible for the game, Respawn Entertainment, is headed up by Jason West and Vince Zampella, formerly of Infinity Ward, a development house best known for developing most of the better Call of Duty games to come out in the past several years. Further, the game combines elements of normal first person shooters with sci-fi elements, meaning that there are all kinds of futuristic weapons and crazy sci-fi possibilities on display here. Oh, there’s also the fact that the big focus of the game is the massive mech suits, dubbed Titans, that you can jump into, allowing you to cause all kinds of havoc on the battlefield, which adds a new dimension to the single player and multiplayer experience. Combine all of this with the announced details surrounding the game, such as the fact that it’ll be an online multiplayer only game with story elements integrated into the game and the odd parkour-style play elements given to human characters and it’s fair to say that Titanfall might very well be Brink, only awesome. Well, the game has entered open beta at this point, at least for Xbox One users, as the development team opted to eschew staged closed betas in favor of stress testing everything up front, meaning that we get an opportunity to jump in and see just how things are coming together.

1.) Before you jump into the beta proper, the game walks you through a multi-stage tutorial to explain how the mechanics work. For the most part, the basics work about as you’d expect; the left stick moves, the right stick aims, the left trigger zooms in and the right trigger fills things full of bullets. The game uses Call of Duty rules for its mechanics, meaning that pressing in the left stick causes your character to dash, pressing in the right stick melees enemies, X reloads your current weapon, and so on. In fact, a lot of the basic mechanics we’ve come to expect from modern FPS titles are here, between limited munition carrying capacity, swapping weapons from downed enemies, regenerating damage and so on are here in full force, as you’d expect. This isn’t at all surprising, given the general trend of FPS progression in the past decade or so and the pedigree of the development team, but it bears noting up-front that a lot of the basic mechanics are things you’ve seen before if you’ve played virtually any FPS in the past few years. They still work as well as you’d expect, mind you, and this shouldn’t be shocking to anyone, but it’s still worth pointing out before we go any further.

2.) The first part of the tutorial focuses on playing as a pilot, and once we get past the basics of normal movement, that’s when the elements that are unique to Titanfall kick in. The first notable thing the tutorial shows off is the “Smart Pistol MK5,” which is, literally, a homing pistol. When you point it at an enemy in range, it will lock onto the enemy as many times as it might take to take them out (up to its maximum lock on count), and pulling the trigger will empty all of your bullets into the target. This is useful for taking out multiple enemies at one time, as it locks onto anything in its field of view, as well as for firing around cover and such, which is offset by its lower damage output in comparison to assault weapons; in other words, it’s powerful but (hypothetically) not game-breaking. The tutorial also shows off cloaking, which allows you to maneuver around without being seen, and the jump kits, which allows for some Brink/Mirror’s Edge style parkour elements, such as double-jumping and wall running. Taken on their own, these elements, along with other enhancements that can be plugged into your character as you progress, would make for an interesting multiplayer FPS, so the fact that they make up only part of the gameplay is interesting in its own right.

3.) The other part of gameplay that’s covered in the tutorial is Titan combat, and it’s here that Titanfall really distinguishes itself from its contemporaries. Playing in a Titan is similar to playing as a pilot, in that many of the controls are more or less identical between the two. However, the Titan mechs cannot run, jump or crouch as pilots can, as compensation for them being armored death machines. Titans can dash, however; by pressing A and a direction, the Titan will rocket dash in that direction, allowing the Titan to quickly close on or create distance between them and an enemy, as well as strafe to avoid projectiles. This consumes one bar from the dash meter that appears at the bottom of the HUD, though this regenerates on its own, making it useful, but not abusable. Titans can also throw up what the game calls a “Vortex Shield” which allows them to stop ballistic weapons in their tracks, then, once the shield is dropped, fling them back at the enemy in payback. The only other notable point about Titans discussed in the demo is the fact that they have two health meters; a recharging shield meter and a non-recharging physical integrity meter. Basically, as you take damage, your shields take the brunt of it until they’re depleted, at which point damage begins hitting your mech directly. Shields will recharge once you stop taking damage for a bit, but physical health is gone once you lose it, and if the Titan drops to zero hull integrity, it self-destructs. You can eject from the Titan as this is happening, launching you into the air to see the battlefield as a whole, giving you a couple seconds to plot out your next move, which is especially helpful if you were wrecked by an enemy Titan, as you’ll need to make some judicious moves quickly to avoid being turned into paste.

4.) You’ll get a good sense of the aesthetics of the game during the tutorial, which only continues onward into the main game itself. Titanfall is an impressive looking game so far, both technically and aesthetically, which is no mean feat given the circumstances. Technically, the game manages to keep the action moving well, without any significant lag or framerate issues, even when multiple Titans are on screen blasting one another into oblivion at one time. Given the scope and scale of the game, as well as its constantly online structure, this is somewhat surprising, and hopefully it’ll continue to stay in its current state into the final build. Artistically, the few maps that are available in the beta look rather nice; there are certainly the standard “browns and grays” one expects, but the maps make good use of color and present environments that feel futuristic without falling in genre stereotypes. The maps are also generally designed in a way that feels sensible, with designs that compliment both pilot and Titan combat, and hopefully the full map package works as well as those in the beta package. The game is also solid aurally, as it features powerful sounding weaponry for both Titans and pilots as well as plenty of random chatter from NPC’s to give the game the sort of feel it really needs. The music is also generally strong, though it’s your standard “swelling orchestral score” that every FPS needs to have at this point; it works, certainly, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before.

5.) Once you jump into a match or ten, you’ll notice that much of the game works about as you’d expect if you’ve spent any time playing online FPS games. The game supports twelve players at one time, generally in 6v6 matchups (so far anyway), and the game modes provided in the beta are more or less what you’d expect from the genre at this point. The core play mode, Attrition, is your basic Team Deathmatch mode, where killing the enemy more than they kill your team wins you the day. For those who are looking for a little more variety, the beta also offers “Hardpoint,” which is basically a King of the Hill mode, “Last Titan Standing,” which is a Last Man Standing variant where everyone spawns in a Titan and respawns are disabled, and the “Beta Variety Pack,” which is something of a party mode. These modes basically all work as you’d expect them to, and give a good sampling of what one can expect from the final game. There will almost certainly be far more modes available than what the beta offers, though what new game types (if any) will be offered up remains to be seen, as what’s here is familiar ground for FPS fans. It’s good and serves as an easy way for genre fans to get into the beta without having to deal with weird mechanics, but it’ll be interesting to see how the final game builds on this and in what way.

6.) That’s not to say that Titanfall doesn’t show off some decidedly unique ideas, as it has a few tricks up its sleeve that make it more than just another standard FPS. One of the more interesting elements that’s on display here is the Titan element, as the introduction of giant walking death machines changes up the dynamics of play, but isn’t as unbalancing as you’d think. Titans start off with a default five minute to drop timer for all players that steadily ticks down, but can be dropped faster by killing opposing forces. Once the timer hits zero, you can either drop your Titan directly into the field at that point or hold onto it until you die, then respawn in it immediately. Now, the mech-on-mech aspect of Titanfall is a lot of fun, all told, as dodging around and pumping other Titans full of ballistics and such is really enjoyable. You’ll find that there can be some really tense moments when you use your opponent’s own ballistics against them to destroy their Titan, bounce ballistics back and forth like a fatal ping pong match, or barely survive a two Titan assault, among other things, and it’s that scale and mechanical difference that makes a lot of the experience as fun as it is. While you’d think the Titan aspect would overshadow the pilot aspect, though, as it turns out, pilots have their own tricks to keep things solidly balanced across the board. All pilots come equipped with an anti-Titan weapon of some type that is fully capable of punching all kinds of holes in Titan armor, allowing them to do serious damage to Titans from relatively safe cover, especially if said Titan is engaged with a more serious threat at the time. Titans also generally have weapons that, while powerful, might not always be ideal for fighting smaller targets, giving pilots a certain amount of breathing room when engaging much larger targets. Pilots can also jump onto opposing Titans directly, allowing them to bash the hell out of a Titan to try and ruin its day if the opportunity allows, and the only way for a Titan pilot to deal with this is to jump out of the Titan and engage the opposing pilot directly, which may not be ideal, especially in the middle of battle. Titans can also act independently of their pilots, so a pilot can summon down a Titan and leave it as something of a massive guard dog in a choke point while they fight independently, or have it follow them around for added firepower in a fight as needed. Finally, once your Titan gets destroyed (and it probably will unless you’re very good), subsequent Titan drops tend to come in much quicker, so this keeps things interesting by constantly varying play every few minutes or so.

7.) Beyond Titan combat, Titanfall also adds grunts into the mix, which are basically AI squaddies that are weaker and dumber than players, allowing for easier kills for even the least skilled player. Grunts essentially act as little more than cannon fodder, and they contribute less than killing players or destroying Titans when counting toward winning scores, but they offer less skilled players a way to contribute to the team and earn experience until they can get used to the mechanics and play. The parkour aspects of gameplay also add a good bit to the experience, as they make it a lot easier to get into good positions to take on pilots and Titans and allow players more tactical advantages than they’d have in similar titles. There are also little things, like allowing players the chance to evacuate (if their team has failed) or chase down stragglers during evacuation (if their team succeeded), that add some nuances to the game you don’t see too often in the genre. These things help to distinguish Titanfall from its contemporaries in a way that’s more involved than “Call of Duty with mechs,” and the game is better for it.

8.)The game uses the standard level up system found in most genre entries at this point, IE, “do stuff to earn experience points and unlock more tools,” deal, and it works about as well as it does anywhere else. As you take out dudes, blow up Titans, accomplish objectives and complete Challenges, you’ll earn experience points, and each time you hit a level up point, you’ll unlock new stuff to play around with. The Challenge system is also pretty standard, for the most part, as it pays off additional experience points when you accomplish various things, such as using a weapon for a set amount of time, playing for a set amount of time, killing a certain number of grunts, destroying a certain number of Titans, and so on. Some Challenges also unlock modifications to your current weapons, giving you additional incentive to excel with those weapons if you want to unlock new add-ons to use with them. It’s all fairly reminiscent of Modern Warfare 2 in structure and design, meaning that players who prefer the advancements such experience systems have seen in the past few years may find this antiquated, but it works well and those who prefer the older style Modern Warfare 2 used should be right at home here.

9.) Finally, to touch on the character customization system a bit, this also works somewhat similar to what you’d expect from the genre. The first couple of levels force you to work with preset loadouts, with two being unlocked immediately and a third being unlocked once you hit a specific level (for pilots, level 2, for Titans, level 3). Once you hit level 5 is when you’ll start seeing the option to create your own pilot loadouts, and the beta allows you three custom slots to work with as you see fit. You can customize any of the slots on the character, so you can choose whatever primary, secondary and anti-Titan weapon is available, though so far, there are only unlockable weapons in the primary slot, which will most likely change once the game goes live. You can also choose your pilot gender for those who would like to play as female pilots, and speaking as someone who felt this thing was praiseworthy in Ghosts, it’s also worth noting here. You won’t get the option to customize your Titan until level 10, though the customization options more or less work identically to how they work with pilots (albeit without the anti-Titan weapon slot), and one can easily expect that there will be a great deal more options available for customization when the final game is released.

10.) So far, Titanfall feels less like Call of Duty with giant mech suits and more like the kind of game that could actually be a fairly unique system seller, if the final product matches the promise shown in the beta. It’s the sort of online FPS that might be able to lure in players who aren’t terribly enamored with the idea of online FPS gaming, through a combination of objectives that are achievable at every skill level, mechanics that are unique enough to be impressive, and giant robots blowing up everything in their path. The player leveling system might be a bit archaic to those who’ve come to appreciate what games like Black Ops 2 and Ghosts have done with the concept, and the beta is only showing off only a small fraction of what’s promised in the final product, so it’s hard to know exactly where the game is going to end up when it finally launches in March. Hopefully the final product matches up to what we’ve seen so far, but we’ll have a better idea when the game launches on March 11th, and we’ll hopefully have more to say about the final product here as well.

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