E3 used to be all about the big reveals… until the last few years, when pre-E3 leaks undermined all that. 2013 is like the good old days: Obviously with a new generation of consoles in the works, everyone has lots of new hardware and software to get punters (and media) excited. Titanfall was a new IP announced at the EA press conference (though leaked early), and it looks very impressive. Put simply, it seems to be a new addition to the “giant metal robots” genre combined with a state-of-the-art shooter. It is being developed by Respawn Entertainment, the company built by Infinity Ward co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella, who helped create the Call of Duty franchise.
We don’t actually know much about the game itself, unfortunately, other than that it is set in a near/distant future riven by conflict based on rebellion. We can expect this to be subsistence warfare: A character in the demo mentioned that all their ships are all flying on fumes. However, this is not a human versus technology scenario: Rather, the technology is the tool for the establishment to wield power and for the rebels to resist it. We do have a hint of a human story of suffering and vengeance, with a protagonist delivering a monologue over a grave, so we can expect a narrative-driven experience.
What we know much more about is how it looks and appears to play. The environments we saw in the hands-off demonstration were shattered buildings in a kind of urban wasteland: The perfect setting for the type of combat that is central to the game design. The walls are all scalable and the holes in the buildings allow for quick escapes. I was forced to wonder at how destructible the enviornment would be, as this impinges on gameplay significantly.
The two main styles of gameplay are those of titans and pilots. Titans, as you might guess, are the large, human-piloted robots designed for power delivered through heavy weapons. They are delivered from orbit and plummet to the ground like steel saviours: hence the title, Titanfall. Pilots are human (and therefore much more vulnerable), but highly agile and mobile, using wall-running and double jumps via jetpacks to evade their much heavier foes. There is a sense of frailty and vulenrability in their small forms, especially as the duck and weave the heavy attacks of the titans. It is this negotation between the two main players in the dreama that will bring the interest of this game.
The gameplay for pilots is very highly paced, and a pleasure just to watch. It follows a somewhat familiar shooter format: But this is the shooter gameplay of Vanquish rather than Gears of War. Cover is less useful than dynamically traversing the environment, and this is absolutely necessary against the titans. The usual melee executions appear, and weapons pack a punch: we have seen the usual assault weapons for use against humans, but a multiple rocket launcher is also surprisingly effective against titans, meaning that with good strategy or tactics a team of two (or even an individual) can take out the much larger target. What is particularly exhilarating is seeing a pilot grab onto, climb, and “rodeo” a titan in order to empty rounds into its circuitry and bring it down much faster. This variety of approaches suggests all kinds of possibilities for multiplayer and team-based combat, and the transition into playing as a titan is very smooth.
Obviously what dominates the battlefield is the titans themselves. They are towering enemies, and they carry the brute force to crush their opposition. We saw a heavy cannon weapon and an electrocution effect, and we can also expect more weapons to be revealed through the development. What is particularly interesting is the dynamic gameplay still offered by the titans. Of course they are slower but they can still get around: they are more Armored Core than Mechwarrior. They are capable of melee attacks, and a particularly spectacular pilot execution attack allows a player to physically rip a pilot from an opponent’s titan and send them flying. If a titan is in trouble the pilot can administer an emergency eject, which releases them from an impending caged death very quickly and gets them straight back into the fight. Indeed, it is these transitions and interactions between the pilot and titan gameplay that are so exciting.
Apart from these tantalising details there is not much else to go on, and we are left with mostly questions. We wonder about weapon types, whether different varieties of titans will become available, and whether they are customisable. A point-scoring system suggests some RPG elements with potential character levelling and customisation, and our appetites for the gameworld and narrative were whetted from what we saw. Multiplayer is inevitable and has already been demonstrated, but further details are yet to emerge.
Even the urgency of these questions suggests the appetite for exciting new IP to come out of E3. One thing is for sure: when it releases in Spring 2014, you will have to own an Xbox (360 or One) to get your hands on it.