Titanfall Preview - Multiplayer Beta
We join the hectic mech and soldier combat
Even though EA continues to be stymied by the difference between a Beta and a Demo, there was a playable version of Titanfall available this week for the general public, and I was able to get hold of a key and spend some time with the PC version. There is no denying that the game offers up an enticing blend of high-paced on-foot action and slower more deliberate Mech combat, and that there are moments of unadulterated glee as you whiz around environments, dodging Titans and jumping off walls. What surprised me is how light weight and accessible of an experience Titanfall is, despite the apparent complexity associated with combined arms and parkour movement. Everything feels intuitive, fast, fluid and fun, but also just a little bit flat.
Titanfall presents a fairly unique blend of competitive FPS multiplayer, Mech games and Mobas ( ie. Dota 2 and League of Legends). In two of the three game modes available in the beta, you start out as a soldier in a drop ship, who must sprint about the map killing things in Attrition or capturing objectives in Hardpoint, which is essentially just Domination from Call of Duty. Initially, you will be killing enemy pilots, the name given to on-foot player controlled soldiers, and AI-controlled fodder who wander around waiting to be filled with bullets. Each player starts with a short timer that can be accelerated by killing things. When the timer hits zero, you can call in your own personal Titan which can be used kill even more Pilots and AI fodder.
In any Attrition or Hard Point match, it won't be long before the map is cluttered with Titans stomping around and flinging death in all directions. While the infantry combat feels fast and fluid thanks to the well implemented parkour movement that lets you double jump, bounce off walls and wall-run, the Titans feel slow and heavy. The three types of Titans in the beta all have a different primary weapon, a secondary weapon and defensive ability. When you call one in, you are generally surrounded by explosions, flashing lights and a calm female voice informing you that you should probably get the hell out of your current position. However the relative lack of mobility in the Titans had me wishing I could climb, jet-pack over or punch my way through the low, flimsy walls which often resulted in my doom as I would get cornered by enemy Titans and pilots who all carry anti-Titan weapons.
The role of AI soldiers in all this is somewhat bewildering, as they don't pose a threat to pilots or Titans at all. They kind of just wander around, occasionally firing at enemy AI soldiers, but generally don't have any direct impact on the outcome of a battle. Running into a room populated by both pilots and AI can be confusing as you figure out which targets to prioritize. They do make battles feel faster paced and more hectic, which could be their purpose as a mask for the low player count. Raising the player count might seem like a valid option, but the number of Titans roaming the battlefield on the relatively small maps already makes things rather chaotic with the existing 6 vs. 6 player count since every player has access to a Titan every few minutes regardless of their skill.
The third mode on offer, Last Titan Standing, highlights the cramped nature of matches that are heavily populated by Titans. In this mode, each player starts the game in a Titan, with the victory condition being that you destroy all of the Titans on the opposing team. These tend to feel claustrophobic as players get caught up on each other trying to back away from enemy fire, highlighting the often frustrating lack of mobility of the Titans. Fortunately your armored shell also serve as a sort of second life, since you rarely go down with the ship. Once you have sustained enough damage, you can eject high into the sky, granting you the opportunity to continue fighting on foot. This means you essentially get two lives every time you get in a Titan, something that helps keep frustration to a minimum.
The PC version of the Beta seems to be in reasonably good shape. I was able to get very smooth performance once I turned off Vsync, which caused a bit of stuttering. The matchmaking is less impressive, often placing me in servers with high ping and stacking teams with relative veterans going against players who were just trying the game for the first time. Even in low-ping games, brief server-disconnect messages popped up occasionally, breaking the flow of matches. Games tend to end very quickly, with the longest reaching maybe ten or twelve minutes. You are then forced to wait a agonizing eighty seconds before the next match begins. You can tweak your pilot and Titan loadout during this time, but you will often find yourself twiddling your thumbs wishing for a way to speed up the timer.
While Titanfall's gunplay might feel a bit simplistic with low-recoil weapons, and the Titan gameplay is not as robust as something like Hawken or Mechwarrior Online, the fact that both types of combat occur on the same battlefield makes for some interesting situations. Titanfall is easy to pick up and fun to play, and those who typically get frustrated in online games will likely find it very appealing thanks to the AI soldiers and 'second life' granted when using Titans. There is even a 'smart pistol' which locks on to enemies, negating the need to aim at all. If you are a seasoned multiplayer FPS veteran, the AI fodder, flat gunplay and simplistic game modes might turn you off. What remains to be seen is if the final product will have enough content to justify the hefty price tag.
Titanfall will be released on March 11th, 2014 for Xbox One and PC, and on March 25th for Xbox 360.