"Prepare for Titanfall," a female voice crackles over the in-game mic as I punch a button on the keyboard. I turn my gaze to the heavens and wait, breathlessly. An aircraft screams by overhead and a shape appears, hurtling towards the ground, barrelling through the clouds. It lands with a thud that kicks up a dusty film, fogging my vision for a few milliseconds. I hammer the 'E' button on my keyboard with impunity just as a smouldering enemy Titan stomps around the corner. Its cannon misses me but the red mist signifies a little collateral damage.
It is of little consequence.
Iron walls envelop me, there is a whirr of mechanical activity, blinders slide back to give me a full view of the smoking, but still standing, enemy ahead. But he is reloading, and I have a cannon that fires four rockets at once. Titan Kill, the screen blinks as I blast the mech and its pilot into oblivion. The grin on my face will not fade until hours later.
I'll be honest, I had my reservations about Titanfall. Despite the obvious talents of the developers involved, many of whom followed Jason West and Vince Zampella after their acrimonious departure from Infinity Ward, this industry hardly needs another Call of Duty. As awesome as mechs are, would they really alter the gameplay significantly? Videos so often promise one thing, only for gameplay to shatter dreams and expectations. I deliberately forced myself not to get my hopes up, instead attempting to engineer some sort of detachment.
I'd wondered too where Titanfall might fit into EA's roster. They already have a massive triple-A first-person shooter franchise; two if you count Medal of Honor. But where the latter has found itself swimming around in recent years bereft of personality and desperately searching for an identity, Titanfall seems a perfect addition to EA's stable. The focus here is on short, sharp bursts of intense action. Matches clocked in at under ten minutes, the action never more than a street or two away. You're constantly involved, constantly on the move, always watching, always fearful. After all, around any corner there could be an armoured leviathan spitting mechanical death at you.
There are three classes of Pilots. One is your basic all-rounder, toting an assault rifle, a pistol and a light manual rocket launcher that sacrifices power for rate of fire. The craftier option has you wielding the Smart Pistol, a weapon able to lock onto multiple enemies and deliver execution shots that defy the laws of physics and marksmanship. It takes a little while to get your head around it, but it’s a fantastic little sidearm one you know how to use it. The Tactical class also comes equipped with a Magnetic Grenade Launcher as its anti-Titan weapon, with the glowing explosive rounds homing in on the mechs if you’re within range. Then of course there’s the shotgun-waving beefcake who can deliver a host of explosive payloads to enemy Titans.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that playing as a Pilot would surely pale in comparison to the experience one might have at the controls of a Titan, but you’d be wrong. On the ground, the best course of action is to keep moving, and Respawn have made sure that being a nimble, agile Pilot is a whole heap of fun. With jetpacks strapped to their backs, Pilots are able to double jump with two taps of the SPACE bar, and will automatically wall run if you’re going fast enough. Respawn have deliberately designed levels to take advantage of this focus on verticality, and we were told that it would be perfectly possible to make our way through an entire game without ever touching the ground. Momentum is key, and once you get used to the limitations of your jetpack and the distances you can feasibly jump, there’s a very real fluidity to traversal that’s not only incredibly aesthetically pleasing, but tactically essential.
You see, Titans might well be extremely powerful, but they’re confined to the streets. Let’s say that you find your own Titan under heavy fire. You eject, the explosive hydraulics launching you soaring up into the air even as your Titan is blown to bits below. You see your adversary stalk away from the scene of the crime, and you come back to the battlefield atop an adjacent building. A run and a leap and you’ve clambered onto the back of the enemy Titan and they’re helpless as you drill the mech full of hot lead before double jumping to safety through a nearby second-storey window and delivering a shotgun to the face of a nearby AI drone or four.
Trust me; you’ll feel awesome.
Complete objectives and start racking up the kills, and the timer that ticks down steadily towards Titan availability will speed up, allowing you to call Titans in more frequently if you’re good at what you do. As with the Pilots, there are three types of Titan. One comes with a mega-sized assault rifle, one deliver explosive rounds with a precise, marksman's rifle, and one has a cannon that shoots four rockets at once. That last one is surely the most visually impressive, but a skilled player will probably get more out of the other two, with the explosive rounds proving absolutely lethal in capable hands.
Each Titan also has a shoulder-mounted cluster rocket and special ability. For the all-rounder with the machine gun, you can pluck bullets and debris out of the air before firing them back at your enemies. The other two can conjure up mini electrical storms in the streets, disorienting and stunning enemies for several crucial seconds. The twitch mechanics that underpinned Infinity Ward’s finest COD games are present here, but in Spinal Tap fashion they’re turned up to eleven. The line between survival and death is determined by small margins.
We were playing through a multiplayer mode called Attrition in the midst of an urban-set map titled Angel City. There was a narrative backdrop of sorts, but the brief we were given can be summarised by saying that one team was in town to extract a VIP and the other was there to stop that happening. We were playing 6-on-6, but as well as human players, AI grunts were in play as well. Each kill earned points – grunts humans, and Titans in ascending order of importance and reward. When one team hit the score target the game was over.
Except it totally wasn’t.
Titanfall incorporates an epilogue system into its matches. For the losing team that means trying desperately to make it to an evacuation point. Get there early and you have to hold your ground, but if you’re coming from the other side of the map it becomes a race against time in which you have to use every traversal trick at your disposal and pray you don’t run into enemy forces. If you’re on the winning team, you get a final chance to stick the boot in. The job is simple: destroy the losers one last time and stop them escaping. It’s a forced climax, perhaps, but it’s also really effective. Just when you thought you could breathe, Respawn inject one final dose of adrenaline into proceedings. It’s thrillingly, beautifully frenetic fun.