Titans and Pilots do glorious battle in Respawn's audacious new FPS but is it worth your pennies? Find out in our Titanfall review
When Infinity Ward released Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare seven years ago, the studio permanently altered the FPS battlefield, spawning a franchise juggernaut that has dominated the genre ever since...
Since then, the shadow cast by CoD has had a stagnating effect on the FPS genre. The ground broken by Call of Duty 4 has become a template, adhered to slavishly by the majority of its sequels and competitors. Although many FPS games have succeeded in making money by following the roadmap laid out by Infinity Ward, there's been as distinct lack of innovation as a result.
One thing did change though. In 2010, Vince Zampella and Jason West - two of Infinity Ward's chief creators - left the company and started anew in the form of Respawn Entertainment. This week sees the release of their first game, Titanfall, an FPS that promises to redefine the genre once again.
And with Xbox dropping the price of the Xbox One to coincide with Titanfall's launch date, it seems Microsoft are going all in with Respawn on this one. Can Titanfall make Xbox One an essential purchase where Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome and Dead Rising 3 have failed? Lets find out.
As you'd expect from the minds behind the Call of Duty multiplayer behemoth - and indeed a game that attempts to mix giant mechs and jet-pack infantry in bloody battle - balance is crucial. And it becomes clear within a few hours that Titanfall is not only incredibly deep tactically, but also beautifully balanced.
The immediate thought where giant mechs and puny humans are involved, would be that the mech is the all-powerful end-game that everyone is playing towards. In actual fact, Pilots are just as potentially deadly to Titans as vice versa. A good Pilot can make short work of a Titan with the right position and equipment.
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A multiplayer game consists of six Pilots on each side, and a constantly respawning army of grunts (essentially AI controlled infantry). But rather than trying to build competent AI players, Titanfall uses grunts in the way MOBAs like League of Legends do - they're there to create battle lines, to farm, and to make you feel like a bit of a badass.
Killing the opposing teams grunts will lower the countdown for your Titan, making them important targets in the early going in the first race to Titanfall. But killing grunts can also reveal your position to enemy pilots, and this dynamic creates a cat and mouse game among Pilots that forms the basis of Titanfall's run-and-gun style.
They do some other nifty things too. Bust your way into a building and you might find two grunts wrestling it out, like the knife scene from Saving Private Ryan. Sometimes you'll see them dragging the bodies of fallen comrades across a street, climbing walls like a toddler on a bid for freedom, or simply taking up firing positions. They're made almost hilariously rubbish, to emphasise their purpose within the game.
Titanfall is refreshing in so many ways. Avoidance of death at all costs has created an online FPS culture of stat preservation and camping that turns many people away from online shooters.
But Titanfall embraces new ideas that make it accessible to anyone. Novice players can pick off grunts and still contribute to their team, receiving their Titan in due course. The lock-on smart pistol means that even those who struggle with dual-thumbsticks will be SWAT-ing people left right and centre.
When your Titan dies, you can eject and live on, or choose to go down fighting. If you die as a Pilot, you will respawn with the opportunity to use a Burn Card - a power-up for your next life, which could be anything from an overpowered version of a weapon, to unlimited cloak, to an instant Titan drop.
There's a reason for this. As you will quickly realise, death is an unavoidable part of the fun in Titanfall. The aforementioned stat preservationists will struggle to find a spot where there aren't at least 5 places they could be attacked from. That's the nature of the game, run or die. And it's brilliant.
Multiplayer is where this game will live or die. And based on what we've seen, Titanfall is due to stick around for a long time yet. In early testing on live servers, ping rates can be a little high at times. The game plays extremely fast, so if you're in a game with a couple of bad connections, players can jolt around the map from time to time. On the whole though games are fairly smooth, and they'll only get smoother as Respawn and EA get to grips with the servers and the online traffic the game is generating.
Capture the Flag and Hardpoint Domination are FPS favourites that work well in Titanfall's unique battleground, with Titans providing interesting new tactics when it comes to escorting flags and defending capture points.
Attrition and Pilot Hunter provide new takes on the typical deathmatch experience. The former is Titanfall's bread and butter - players get attrition points for killing grunts, and auto-titans as well as Pilots.
Conversely, Pilot Hunter mode rewards you with Pilot kills only, so whilst killing grunts will get you a Titan more quickly, the key is remaining hidden and finding Pilots as covertly as possible.
Finally, there's the self-explanatory Last Titan Standing mode, where two teams go at each other in Titans until one meets their demise. Pilots can be extremely efficient Titan-killers, so there's nothing stopping you from hiding your Titan early on and heading out on foot.
This mode feels a little like a bonus compared to the others, it's an excellent change of pace from the high-octane action of other game modes.
Titanfall has that same addictive quality that all good multiplayer games have. In rewarding you regularly with new things to play with, new burn cards, new loadout options, the game keeps you coming back for more. And when a single game rarely takes more than 15 minutes, there's always time for one more.
Titanfall's campaign immediately sets a marker for what the game is trying to achieve. Recent efforts from Call of Duty Ghosts and Battlefield 4 have been playable, but their efforts feel tired and lacklustre, held back by the same Call of Duty blueprint that has shackled FPS campaigns for years.
Titanfall dares to be different. Your campaign mode is online, and missions consist of the same 6 vs. 6 gameplay that you expect from multiplayer. Essentially, when you jump into the campaign mission, you are joining a multiplayer game (either Attrition or Hardpoint Domination) with additional scripted events.
The idea is at the very least, a breath of fresh air, even though the mode fails to deliver quite what we'd hoped. In essence, the games are exactly the same as multiplayer games, but with additional bits of plot that feel disjointed and incongruous. Unless you're achievement hunting, there's no real reason to play Campaign instead of Classic (multiplayer).
That said, the idea of an online PvP campaign with Battlefield-esque levolution moments as scripted events is mouth-watering. That's the kind of thing we could get on board with.
Despite all the talk about Titanfall not running at 1080p, the game still looks great. Light flares through alleyways and off buildings, and the maps and environments are clean looking. This isn't Forza, but it's still perfectly good.
More impressive is the speed and smoothness that Titanfall plays with. Only when on screen action is at is most manic and you're jumping into your Titan did we ever notice a drop in frame-rate, and we're talking the very slightest of drops. The fast-paced action simply would not work without consistently excellent graphical performance, and Titanfall passes this test with flying colours.
Titanfall is the perfect storm of gargantuan ideas and tiny details. The spectacle never fails to impress, with clanking Titans and nimble Pilots mixing beautifully in the game's swirling maelstrom.
But it's the small things that bring a smile to our faces. The way your Titan catches you in mid-air and plonks you into it's chest when you mount-up. The ease with which you navigate the map, with thruster-jolts and horizontal sprints. And don't even get us started on Titans punching the balls out of each other - we defy you not to cheer wildly the first time you wrench a Pilot from his doomed Titan, and toss his ragdoll body away like used napkin.
Respawn's work here is indicative of a studio that desperately wanted to build something fresh. Titanfall shreds the blueprints, breaks the shackles that Call of Duty 4 created seven years ago, and revels in a playground full of new toys. That all these new ideas work together with such synchronicity is pretty amazing, and makes Titanfall an instant game of the year candidate, and the Xbox One a considerably more enticing purchase.
If we're lucky, this could mark the beginning of a new wave of innovation in the next generation of first person shooters. In the mean time, Titanfall will do very nicely indeed.
Titanfall release date: 14 March 2014 (UK)
Titanfall price: £40