In 2007, Vince Zampella and his team at game developer Infinity Ward left a permanent stamp on the first-person-shooter (FPS) genre with "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," a game that brought the military FPS franchise to more living rooms than ever before, thanks to its robust suite of wildly addictive multiplayer options.
Now heading Respawn Entertainment, Zampella is once again out to inject fresh blood into the genre with "Titanfall" ($59.99 for Xbox One and PC), a science-fiction shooter that combines familiar FPS elements with parkour-style movements and the ability to do battle as a towering mechanical robot.
The end product is a game that's more accessible and original than other titles in its category, and one that still packs plenty of depth for competitive players. Is this iron giant the true "Call of Duty" killer?
"Titanfall" is a multiplayer-only first-person shooter that lets you fight for one of two warring factions in a dystopian future. You'll play as both a nimble foot soldier (simply called the "pilot") and a towering "Titan" mech — a human-guided robot — during your battles, with each side possessing its own distinct advantages in the war zone.
"Call of Duty" and "Battlefield" vets will feel right at home as a pilot, as common first-person-shooter functions — such as holding down the left thumbstick to sprint, and pressing the left trigger to aim — perform the same way they do in those genre staples.
For a title with a giant robot slapped on its front cover, playing as a humble pilot nevertheless provides some of the game's most unforgettable moments.
While the average on-foot FPS relegates the player to running, jumping and shooting within the constraints of gravity, the pilots of "Titanfall" are futuristic acrobats who can double-jump and wall-run across the game's environments using a combination of slick parkour and stylish tech.
It won't take you long to master the art of pilot combat; running along a wall is as simple as jumping toward it and moving your character forward. Your pilot's high-flying abilities allow you to stand a chance against the game's brutish Titans, as the right combination of well-timed jumps and wall runs will put you right behind an enemy robot for an ambush attack (more on those later). After a few rounds of playing as a pilot, each map starts to feel like a playground where no area is truly inaccessible.
The pilot's arsenal is filled with common first-person-shooter fare, including assault rifles, small machine guns and shotguns, depending on your prematch preferences. You'll enter each battle with one of several grenade types, as well as tactical abilities, such as a cloak for temporary invisibility. All pilots pack a knife for melee attacks, which can kill an opponent instantly if performed from behind.
"Titanfall" levels the playing field for FPS newbies, with the pilot's Smart Pistol being one of the most glaring examples. This weapon automatically locks on to an A.I. or human opponent for a guaranteed kill, though you'll have to leave yourself vulnerable for a few seconds while your weapon marks its target. It takes the Smart Pistol longer to lock on to a human player than it does for an A.I., so you’ll have a good amount of time to fight back if you’ve been tagged by one.
Speaking of A.I., the computer-controlled characters in "Titanfall" are another means of having some fun if you're not the most seasoned shooter. These nonhuman combatants are sprinkled throughout each fight and are relatively easy to kill, giving even the most unskilled assassin the chance to rack up some points.
Controlling the Titan
Of course, "Titanfall" wouldn't be "Titanfall" without, well, Titans, which become available to all players after a few minutes in battle (or more quickly if you play well). The game's titular hulking robots are controlled pretty similarly to their pilot counterparts, though you have much less mobility and far more firepower. Titans move slowly and can't jump, but can quickly step out of the way of enemy fire with a tap of the A button.
Each Titan has a few special abilities to complement its core arm-mounted weapon, such as a spray of rockets that you can unleash on a horde of helpless foot soldiers. Our personal favorite is the Vortex Shield, which absorbs enemy projectiles before hurling them right back at the opponent.
As a Titan, you'll still have access to melee attacks, which are infinitely more satisfying when you have a giant robot arm.
David and Goliath
Both the pilots and their trusty Titans are tons of fun to play individually, but the real magic of "Titanfall" is the amount of memorable moments that occur when two player types clash.
As a pilot, you'll sometimes experience the euphoria of "rodeo-ing" an enemy Titan, which consists of sneakily leaping behind the mech's head and ripping apart its inner workings with your weapon. As a Titan, you can relish in crushing unprepared pilots with your feet.
You don't necessarily need to hop into your Titan to make good use of it. Once your personal mech has been dropped onto the battlefield, you can assign it to Auto-Titan mode if you want it to operate on its own while you battle on foot. You can also piggyback a friendly Titan, creating a much more militant version of the man-machine relationship found in "The Iron Giant."
Some of our favorite "Titanfall" moments came when we had to exit our Titans after taking too much damage. With the "Nuclear Ejection" power-up enabled, your Titan will become a seismic ball of flames, damaging nearby enemies and thrusting you into the skies for a stunning bird's-eye view of the action.
We got a real kick out of this game when an enemy Titan ripped our robot's arm off and proceeded to beat us with it. It's a good thing that the Xbox One and PC can both record gameplay, as "Titanfall" provides tons of similarly wild incidents that you'll want to show your friends.
"Titanfall" allows you to choose between three preset pilot and Titan load-outs, each of which consists of a primary weapon, secondary weapon, anti-Titan weapon and a variety of add-ons that bolster your skills mid-battle.
Newcomer pilots might opt for the Rifleman, with his well-rounded assault rifle and extra grenades, while sneaky shooters will find lots to like about the Assassin's Smart Pistol and the ability to take out A.I. minions from across the map. More aggressive players could take the role of a close-quarters fighter and go guns-blazing with the EVA-8 shotgun and enhanced parkour skills.
Each pilot enters the war zone with his or her own anti-Titan weapon, including the auto-homing Archer Heavy Rocket and rapid-fire Sidewinder.
As far as Titans go, there's the Artillery load-out if you want a quad rocket launcher and durable exterior, as well as the Assault preset if you want a chain gun and auto-eject. The appropriately titled Tank load-out gives you a semi-auto 40mm cannon, as well as the ability to go nuclear when you leave the cockpit.
Once you pass level five, you can mix and match all of these abilities with your own custom load-outs. You'll eventually gain access to more powerful weapons, including the Spitfire light machine gun and Longbow-DMR sniper rifle.
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Burn Cards and Personalization
Completing kill-based and movement-based challenges will net you Burn Cards, which are one-time-use power-ups that give you a slight advantage in the midst of battle.
Overall, "Titanfall" offers some decent player customization options, including the ability to play as either a male or female. ("Call of Duty" only recently embraced female avatars.)
However, we would have liked the ability to stand out in the field with more aesthetic options — something that Microsoft's "Halo 4" offers up in droves.
If you like to play alone, this isn't the game for you. Unlike popular shooters like "Halo 4" and "Call of Duty: Ghosts," "Titanfall" has no cinematic single-player campaign to complement the multiplayer mayhem. Your only true solo time with the game comes from the tutorial, which walks you through the title's core movement and combat mechanics in about 20 minutes.
Despite the lack of a single-player mode, there is a small slice of story to explain why a bunch of men and women are blowing each other up via giant robots.
The game takes place in a dystopian sector of space called The Frontier. This region is inhabited by the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC), a large industrial corporation that robs the resources of various human colonies across space. Naturally, the locals aren't happy about this, and have formed a far-reaching militia to fight back against corporate forces. It's a classic Rebel Alliance vs. Galactic Empire struggle, with a dash of "Pacific Rim" thrown in for good measure.
You'll randomly be assigned to either the IMC or Militia at the beginning of each match. Both sides use the same weapons and tech, though your faction dictates which type of nonplayer characters show up on your communications feed mid-battle. The IMC consists of proper soldiers and artificial-intelligence droids, while the Militia is a rag-tag group of former civilians forced into war.
"Titanfall" packs a handful of gameplay modes, all of which consist of each team racing to reach a higher score by racking up kills and completing objectives. "Attrition" is your classic Team Deathmatch mode, in which kills equal points, while "Hardpoint" has each team fighting for control over three designated points on the map.
Genre mainstay "Capture the Flag" tasks players with bringing the enemy flag back to their base, and "Pilot Hunter" puts the focus on the little guys by only giving you points for pilot kills. Finally, "Last Titan Standing" starts every player off in a Titan with only one life, resulting in some extratense mech-on-mech action.
You can play "Titanfall" in Classic mode if you want to experience all these different gameplay types at will. If you're dying for some semblance of a narrative, the alternative Campaign mode provides a predetermined list of maps and modes, with small helpings of radio chatter from your allies sprinkled in between each multiplayer battle.
Graphics and Sound
"Titanfall" may lack cutscenes and a proper single-player experience, but the game's war-ravaged maps tell a story all their own. Galactic spaceship battles loom over spacious, highly foliated arenas such as "Fracture," while tightly crammed urban areas, such as Angel City, sport Wanted ads for prominent members of the Militia.
Arenas like Outpost 207 are a sight to behold, as you'll be battling on a moonlike surface while the blue glow of a neighboring planet hovers above. Thanks to these small touches, "Titanfall" bouts feel less like isolated incidents and more like part of a wide intergalactic conflict.
There's a fair amount of aesthetic diversity in "Titanfall," as the desolate sand dunes of "Rise" make a nice counterpoint to the eerily clean streets of Corporate, the latter of which serves as the home base for IMC Titan dealer Hammond Robotics.
"Titanfall" isn't the absolute prettiest Xbox One game we've played so far, but the game's gritty locales are loaded with sharp detail. The title runs at 792p on Microsoft's console, but the game's steady 60-fps frame rate somewhat makes up for the lack of full 1080p.
Audio-wise, "Titanfall" is filled with enough sharp gunfire and thunderous explosions to make the action satisfying. The lumbering legs of each Titan make an appropriately creaky sound, giving you enough heads-up if you're about to get stomped. Each round's mid-game chatter adds some context to the combat, as you'll hear one of your faction's leaders keeping you up-to-date on how well your team is performing.
As an online-only title, the server performance of "Titanfall" is key to its lasting success. We experienced mostly smooth matches when playing in our New York office during the game's launch week, though a few late-afternoon battles were marred by lag. We'll keep you updated on the game's netcode performance over time, as its online community is likely to grow over the next few months.
"Titanfall" is a special type of shooter that exhilarates on two fronts. Fighting on foot is a familiar FPS experience bolstered by some exciting abilities, while playing as the titular Titan allows you to live out every mech combat fantasy you've ever had.
Many multiplayer shooters make you grind away to access their coolest features, but "Titanfall" lets you punch giant robots in the face from the get-go. Features like the Smart Pistol make novice shooters feel powerful, while there's no shortage of intricacies for competitive players to master.
If competition isn't your thing, however, you might want to steer clear of this game. "Titanfall" lacks a true single-player mode, as Respawn Entertainment clearly focused all of its efforts on developing a polished multiplayer experience that tells a story through its environments.
We think that compromise paid off, but you'll have to decide what type of shooter you want before you drop into Respawn's beautifully ravished war zone.