Titanfall is the game on the lips of everyone at the moment, and has been since its début at Microsoft's E3 show last year. It's been hailed as the game that could save the Xbox One, the game that could take down Call of Duty, the FPS that will usher in a new age for the genre. So does it live up to the hype?
I've spent the past few days playing the PC beta of the game, and let's get that out the way immediately: No. Absolutely not. Titanfall isn't the saviour some are making it out to be, nor is it really a game changer (and honestly, even with the couple-week delay, I still think it will outsell on Xbox 360 than it will on Xbox One - it definitely doesn't feel like a system seller you'd pay £470/$560 just to play) that will have the same profound impact on the industry that Modern Warfare did in 2007. But the fact that Titanfall may end up as a victim to its own marketing grandeur does not change this: It is an intense, lightning-paced shooter that, once you get to grips with its mechanics, is very fun to play.
Titanfall's greatest asset lies not in its huge mechs, but in its energy - from the speed at which enemies fall, to your increased mobility with parkour and a jet-pack-enabled double jump, and thanks to running at a pretty solid 60FPS, it feels like you are blitzing about at a mile a minute constantly. It almost feels mandatory to be shouting 'GOTTA GO FAST' every other second as you scream across the battlefield. Whilst the game sometimes falters at identifying if you'd like to hang on a surface, mantle over something or grab a ledge (bringing proceedings to a thundering, painful halt as you retry a jump, which can be a bit of a bummer), when it gets it right, and you soar to the top of a building and over the map, your fellow Pilots flailing in the air around you - and flailing is an accurate word choice thanks to a hilarious, brilliantly well done animation that really emphasises the speed at which players are hurling themselves around at - the feeling is indescribably good.
On the other hand, playing as a Titan itself feels less so. For terms of obvious balance, considering their immense firepower advantage over a Pilot on the ground, Titans feel big, bulky and painfully slow in comparison - even with a dash maneuver in their arsenal, to go from the breeze of Pilot parkour to a Titan (something you will do regularly, as the ability to call in a drop pops up every other minute - even quicker if you're performing well and cutting time off your Titan's cooldown by killing opponents and completing objectives) feels like slamming on the breaks. And whilst Titan combat can be fun, I've definitely found more enjoyment on staying on the ground with my anti-Titan weapon out as a Pilot, leaving my Titan on A.I follow mode doing its own thing. Even with the firepower trade off, Titanfall's secret strength really does lie in its speed, and losing that at any point brings the experience down a bit, even when you're getting in a mech.
(Also, as a dude I'd like to say how refreshing it is to be able to play as a Woman in a game like this. Call of Duty Ghosts did it last year, and Halo has long allowed you to select a female voice, but I'd love more shooters to encourage this!)
That said, Titanfall's not a perfect experience, even when you're blasting around at a mile a minute. In order to make the game feel even busier than it is, Titanfall's 6v6 matches are bolstered by the presence of A.I grunts on both teams. To say that they add nothing to the experience is a massive understatement - they might as well be cardboard cutouts. The A.I is abysmal, incapable of posing a threat to a player (who are much more manoeuvrable - Grunts can't perform wallruns or double jumps, allowing you to identify who is human and who's a computer quickly) to the point that you can stand in front of them for a good few seconds before they even notice you, and their gunfire is so laughably ineffective you wonder why they're even there. You can kill them to shave a second off your Titan's spawning cooldown, and you get a minuscule amount of experience from taking them out, but the experience of combat with them is so unsatisfying and pointless (and considering they vastly outweigh the amount of Pilots on the field, you're fighting them more often than not), it's a detriment to the game's combat. A larger player count and no A.I squaddies at all would be vastly preferable to the current system, especially considering how fun Pilot v Pilot shoot outs can be.
That said, it is fun to see a gang of grunts peel around a corner to find a Titan standing there, only to immediately flail and scatter in a comical 'oh shit!' manner.
Another area where Titanfall falters is in the immense lack of weight in its gunplay. The game balances weightiness perfectly in its movement both in and out of a Titan, but when it comes to actually shooting - which, unsurprisingly, you do a lot of - it feels so light and flimsy, even with heavier weapons like the Anti-Titan rocket launchers or with the Titan's own humongous weaponry, that the impact indicator in your reticule to show whether you're hitting a target or not feels essential, as there's no impact or satisfying weight to the actual process of shooting either Pilots or Titans. Players go down incredibly quickly too, even quicker than something like a Call of Duty, further reducing any feeling of weight. Whilst this is advantageous for Titanfall's blistering pace, on the whole it leaves the game feeling a little too light for its own good at times.
Visually, the game doesn't really stand out that much either. The near future Sci-fi aesthetic is a welcome change of pace to the typical modern-day environments we see in FPS games these days, but there's no real spark to it, with a washed-out colour palette and an overwhelming presence of gunmetal greys, from Titans to the environments (at least in the two Beta maps, Angel City and Fracture - who knows what the other maps look like at this point), it never really quite grabs you from a visual standpoint. It's difficult not to draw comparisons to Call of Duty given Respawn's pedigree as ex-Infinity Ward staffers, but it does feel very similar to the Activision-owned behemoth in that respect, even if there are some nice-looking giant robots thumping around. It could really do with some bolder colour to it. The only really impressive area in that respect is in the game's skyboxes set to rival even the masterful work of developers like Bungie, which are incredibly well done, full of animation and detail like dropships flying around and massive fleets teleporting into the atmosphere, to far off cities and mountain ranges - they sell the frenetic and busy nature of the game's conflicts a lot more than the presence of the swarms of dopey A.I grunts on the ground.
On a technical aspect though, Titanfall is surprisingly well optimised on the PC. Whilst there's some rough textures here and there (especially noticeable when you enter a Titan) - there's a wide range of options to fiddle with including PC staples like Vsync, Antialiasing and FOV sliders. Even on my 2 year old, mid ranged PC, I've had little trouble running the game on high settings at 1080p and 60FPS, so it should run on a relatively wide range of PC specifications. It performs better and looks considerably nicer than the Xbox One version too, and with controller support - I've been playing with, of all things, a Dualshock 4, and been performing perfectly fine against mouse and keyboard players, sometimes finding myself at the top of the leaderboards! - even if you do prefer console gaming like I do, I'd recommend the PC version over dishing out the money for a shiny new Xbox One and a copy of the game. There is an Xbox 360 version coming a few weeks after the games Xbox One and PC launch that might fit if you've not got a decent PC to play on or an Xbox One - but it's not being worked on by Respawn and it's not been shown either publicly or to the press, so its quality remains to be seen.
In all, although I don't think it's the monstrously hyped up game changer EA and Microsoft desperately want it to be - even with a few niggling problems like the A.I and sense of weightlessness to the shooting - Titanfall remains a solid and very fun FPS experience. Whether a Multiplayer-only full priced game will capture an audience to rival the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield remains to be seen, but underneath the marketing hype there lies the potential for a great, thoroughly enjoyable franchise here.
The Titanfall Beta will run until later this week, and is currently open-access to all Xbox Live Gold members on Xbox One and to Origin Users who registered interest in Beta access before February 15th 2014 on PC. The full game is out March 11th on PC and Xbox One, and March 25th on the Xbox 360.