Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Titanfall: Day One Impressions and General Thoughts

After a year plus of waiting and a fun demo experience, the full retail release of Titanfall is finally upon us. Having experienced a decent vertical slice of the game, how does the final version stack up against my beta-heightened expectations?

Short version: Its still very good. Very, very good.

Longer version: Most of my impressions from the beta still hold true. The game is a fast, fluid experience that makes the player feel dynamic and powerful; all things that one would want when indulging in escapism gaming. The graphics look great to me, though I'm definitely not picky in that regard, and the developers have said they're looking into increasing resolution post-release which will be nice if it happens.

Some things are different than what I experienced in beta, and pretty much all of those differences are improvements:

The Titans feel better balanced. I can't tell if it's because we finally have the full suite of chassis to play with or if the Atlas was just oddly tuned in the beta, but the Titans feel like they hit a good spot between vulnerability and toughness. In the beta, Titans felt like they took a ton of punishment to take down; anything short of another Titan wasn't much of a threat and even then it took some serious fighting for one to put the other down. That put Titans at a premium, and a team that was able to keep their Titans in fighting shape (either by getting them all at once, or playing cagey) was able to set up a slow roll of the enemy team that was hard to escape.

Under the current tuning, Titans do very respectable damage to one another with their weapons (so Titan v. Titan fights feel faster and more dangerous,) and the anti-Titan weapons carried by the Pilots feel like they do a lot more than just irritate the Titans (which felt like the case in beta.) It feels like the rodeo maneuver has been changed to compensate for this damage hike a bit: during the beta the rodeo maneuver was (at least in my experience) the fastest and easiest way to take down a Titan. This was very fun, but also felt kind of odd because jumping on the back of a Titan and shooting it to death should be more of a "last resort" tactic than "Plan A (and B)." I can't say for sure, but it feels like the damage you do to a Titan via rodeo shooting has been dialed back a decent bit; it's a good way to soften up a Titan for others to kill or finish off a wounded on, but you're not nearly as likely to take a Titan from fresh to dying with a single, quick rodeo.

I haven't played long enough to unlock full customization options, but out of the few pre-set configurations I've played with the options all seem compelling. The weapons all have enough kick to feel like they're dangerous, and they each have their own niche that makes them compelling (rifles are better at mid-long range, shotguns for close fighting, etc.) Even the Titan weapons have interesting balances between them, though I need to try out the different chassis more to see which one I like the most. I made a beeline for the Ogre as soon as I could because I value durability and punch (literal in this case) most times, but I want to try more games with the Atlas and the Stryder to see how each of them handle.

I also haven't had a chance to try out Campaign mode yet, though since that's just a slightly different take on normal multiplayer I'm not chomping at the bit to play it right away. I'll definitely go through it at some point (probably more than once, since there are delicious cheevos to tempt you back in,) but it's more of a concession to not having a proper story mode than a full alternate way to play the game, as I understand it. Which is just fine, because I'm having a damn good time playing regular 'ol multiplayer (Attrition for now, though I'll try all the modes eventually.)

Titanfall is kind of funny to me because one thing I've read in a number of reviews is that it isn't that big of a departure from the FPS we've been getting for years, although it is a really well done take on it. I partly agree with that - it's still a military shooter and those all share visual and mechanical DNA - but I mostly feel the exact opposite. Titanfall feels extremely fresh, even if it isn't breaking a lot of new ground in some ways.

It's the combination of a lot of little things: the freeform movement, the Titans themselves, the NPC enemies, the (at first experience) well designed levels, the pace of the game, the way it allows you to feel awesome even if your team is losing badly, the extraction phase adding that extra little moment of spite/triumph. All those things combine to make Titanfall a game that feels like a definitive step forward for the "arcade style FPS" genre.

Titanfall represents an evolution of something that started back with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The devs behind that game stepped up the multiplayer in ways that changed the FPS landscape forever, and vaulted competitive FPS play back into the gaming public's eye. Mechanically, Modern Warfare isn't altogether remarkable (though it does play very well,) but the underlying ideas and the pace of combat gave players an experience that most hadn't had before.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was an iteration of the ideas put forth in Modern Warfare. The game was faster, crazier, explodier. Player choice was off the charts, the maps were extremely interesting and (mostly) effective, and matches continued to be fast and furious while also having tons of other crazy things going on (so many killstreaks, coming from the sky, to kill you forever.) It was a broken, frustrating mess sometimes, but the developers were clearly trying to push the game as far as they could, and the results were always spectacular even when things went awry.

I think that those developers (who would later go on to form Respawn Entertainment, the development company behind Titanfall) realized something we've all been experiencing for the past 5 years or so: there's only so far you can push the "modern/semi-modern military shooter." At some point you have to: scale back your ambition (Call of Duty with it's continued iterations with very minor changes year by year,) scale up and take the associated risks (Battlefield with it's in game imbalances and recent server woes,) or move onto a new sandbox and do something familiar but different (Titanfall.)

Titanfall does feel like a military shooter, which makes perfect sense as it's brought to us by the people responsible for the template most modern military shooters adhere to. But in just as many ways as Modern Warfare was, Titanfall represents a big step forward for the FPS genre as a whole: it gives players an experience as fast and crisp as the best Modern Warfare games in a more dynamic, open environment that lets players feel much more empowered and connected to the action (a la Halo or Unreal Tournament at their best.) It may not be absolutely revolutionary, but I'll be surprised if it doesn't have a big impact. I know I can't imagine going back and playing something like Call of Duty or Battlefield after Titanfall.

All of these impressions are day one, so who knows what will change. Modern Warfare 2 was a fantastic game, but it was also fantastic mess that drove me more than a little crazy with its many bugs and exploits. Titanfall feels like it's wound tighter than that game was, but it's impossible to say for sure. I'm hoping that if/when such issues are discovered the devs handle them quickly and efficiently; the worst part about Modern Warfare 2's issues was that they could have been relatively easily fixed via patches, but those patches came very infrequently.

Regardless of how things may turn out, I'm very excited to play more Titanfall and see how it holds up long term. It's one of the very rare games that has met or exceeded my expectations once it finally showed up, and I'm looking forward to enjoying that for as long as I can.

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