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Titanfall beta first impressions: remote control robots aren’t what mechs it special

Titanfall PC beta impressions

Titanfall has landed; here’s our Titanfall review.

Titanfall has been a problem. There’s nothing the internet likes more than having opinions – but what do you base those on when the big new EA shooter has no number in its title? Is it Battlefield with mechs? No. Hawken with people? Nope. Call of Duty with guns? Doesn’t make sense. Hrrrm.

We parked a spaceship dangerously high above a ruined future city, and pushed a crack team of Nicks, Matts, Jeremys and Frasers out the door into parkour warfare to retrieve opinions. They’ve returned, trampled and mostly transparent, with their top thoughts on Titanfall – which turns out to be not quite like anything else, and certainly not like CoD.

First off: when you first heard about Titanfall, did you honestly think you’d enjoy it? Does the Call of Duty heritage excite you at all?

Fraser: I must have been in one of my semi-annual “shooters are guff” phases, because when I first heard about Titanfall I couldn’t have been any less interested. Ex-Call of Duty developers? Multiplayer only? All that focus on Xbox One? No thanks, mate. Then I saw Titans punching each other in the face. I was a bit more on board after that.

Matt: Oh god yes. Admittedly I’m easily excited by these kind of things, but a game with big rocket-boosted mechs and men with jetpacks? This totally had me sold. I’m one of a seemingly rare breed of people who doesn’t hate Call of Duty, so the developer background didn’t bother me at all. The pace of a Call of Duty game mixed with the vehicular action of Battlefield sounded terrific, especially if the vehicles dropped down from space and had legs.

Nick: I haven’t touched a Call of Duty game since Black Ops. My enjoyment of the franchise had been diminished; it all just felt very grounded and lethargic. Naturally I kept a close eye on Respawn after their existence was known, and when they revealed Titanfall I couldn’t help but feel a bit numb. But overtime my head began to tilt to the side as more information and trailers were released, until one day I found myself drooling.

Jeremy: I guess you could say I like Call of Duty by proxy – for some reason I’ve been taken in only by the games in its peripheral, and will appear in this year’s Guinness Book of Records Gaming Edition as the only Englishman to enjoy Warface.

Generally speaking, though, I’m sold on any multiplayer shooter that doesn’t use ‘balance’ as an excuse for identical gingerbread shooty-men. ‘Asymmetrical’ is a magic word, and while Titanfall isn’t that as such, it at least promised shooty-men of dramatically varying sizes and abilities. It felt fresh, like Vince Zampella had given all his preview quotes through a mouthful of softmints.

So: first impressions? How did it feel to play your first match? Can you remember what map/mode you played?

Matt: Despite applying for a PC beta code, I ended up with an Xbox One key. Amazingly I have one of those, so I tried it out there. First impressions weren’t good. I’ll point you to Tim’s article, which explains every problem I had with it. I was pretty deflated. Thankfully the PC beta was opened up and I got to try it again on the correct platform. A completely different experience: Attrition on Fracture was exhilarating, explosive, entertaining. I probably spent a little too long watching titans brawl in the open field and getting shot because I wasn’t paying attention.

Nick: Gotta go fast! The very first thing that hit was the the sheer fluidarity of the movement. I’m running, up a building, through a window, wall-running over a billboard and then jumping on top of a titan. It was effortless. Saying that though, I can see some players taking it to the next level by learning the maps and stringing together acrobatic feats that could easily make your jaw drop.

I spent my first match playing Hard Point on Fracture. I had been watching streams on Twitch avidly until I got a chance to play it myself, so I was pre-equipped with some useful tips and tricks. It’s a fairly big map with great open spaces. The majority of the indoor action takes place in tunnels and buildings which lay under the map. It honestly makes you feel like mice scurrying around, as colossus Gods (titans) wage war above.

Fraser: I cut my teeth on Attrition, Angel City. I was awful. It was great. I think I was trying to play it like Mirror’s Edge, running and jumping like a blooming maniac. But then I remembered there were chaps with guns below me, and they didn’t even know I was leaping around above them. Those first few kills from above, punctuated by wall-running and fleeing, made me eager for more. But I didn’t have time for more parkour, as my Titan had arrived.

I would have honestly been happier had I not jumped into my lumbering behemoth. The Titan combat is rather rote compared to the pilot’s antics. There’s so much to enjoy about the mobility of the latter, that switching to the former is a bit of a let down. I did grow fond of that Vortex Shield, though. Nothing quite like turning enemy rockets and slugs back on my foes.

Jeremy: Fraser’s right about that verticality. Playing my first match on Angel City I found that in one respect other players were just as ignorant as me: they haven’t yet learned to look up. Didn’t manage to shoot anyone, mind – but I managed not to be shot for a bit by keeping to the rooftops, timing my double jumps just so.

I didn’t dare go near a Titan; not mine, nor anyone else’s. Instead, I practiced my parkour until somebody shot at me – at which point I stood stock still and shot back, like a lummox. Never do that.

Let’s concentrate on the on-foot stuff for a bit. Have you found a particular build or strategy that works for you?

Matt: On-foot is where I feel most liberated in Titanfall. I adore the mechs, but I found my true calling in being a titan hunter.

It’s hilarious to see players try to take on titans in the streets head-on. You may be packing an rapid-fire rocket launcher, but a titan can squash you before you’ve blown through its shield. Use your jetpack to leap up to a rooftop. From the rafters you can bombard titans with ease, missiles locking on from greater distances without walls blocking their path. Titans get worried when they’re hit and start desperately firing through windows in search of you. They don’t check the skyline though, and within seconds you can get another rocket homing in to shatter his armour and send his nuclear core into meltdown. Not heroic enough for you? Try leaping from the building onto a titan’s shoulders and start unloading clips into its wiring for the ultimate takedown.

Nick: I stuck with the carbine until I unlocked the SMG. It’s super accurate and dominates at close-mid range combat with a high fire rate. I stuck with a standard pistol as a secondary weapon, but I found I rarely had a need for it. My anti-titan weapon of choice was the lock-on rocket launcher. Not only did it pack a punch, but it was great for baiting out a titan’s vortex shield: a nasty barrier which can reflect projectiles. Supplementing this was a slew of perks: I had combat stims for a burst of increased movement speed, an enhanced parkour kit to allow for increased wall run and wall hang times, and finally a minion detector to keep track of all enemy and ally Grunts and Spectres on the map.

Jeremy: Gosh, that lock-on rocket launcher’s good, isn’t it? I found that if I had an exit route planned and my ‘Q’ finger ready to activate temporary camo, I could routinely bamboozle a titan long enough to drink up half their yellow straw of health. Then I’d remember that they were actual human beings in there, and laugh and laugh.

I’ve built a loadout that combines one of those with a semi-automatic, semi-accurate pistol for taking potshots off buildings, and a lovely great shotgun for when I start panicking in close quarters. Which is always. I haven’t played with the perks yet – mainly because I don’t want to lose my camo, which is essential for crossing the open plains regularly ploughed by the titans (though be warned: a kill’s a kill even if they trample you unawares).

The only thing I’m not allowed that way is the smart pistol. Which is a worry, because I think it’s going to be Titanfall’s signature weapon.

Fraser: Like Jeremy, I became quite infatuated with the camo, and really didn’t want to lose it. Builds are a bit dependent on what mode you’re faffing about with. In Hardpoint, which is a capture and hold battle, I favoured the smart pistol and camo. I’d sneak into a building, barely visible, mark the defenders and in a mere second they’d all be dead. It was especially handy for dealing with minions, as they seem to go down in one hit.

Matt mentioned players running around at street level, trying to take on Titans, and that does seem to be common right now, leading to many deaths. The pilot game necessitates always being on the move, always hunting for that route up to the top of building where you can pummel Titans below.

Surprisingly, being a mere human running around the battlefield is a lot more empowering than being encased in a huge steel mech. The sense of accomplishment that comes from downing a truly massive foe when you’re just a flesh and blood soldier is significant. Kills feel more like an achievement when you can’t just step on your foes.

The maps all include grunts and spectres, little minion troops that can be farmed for extra points. Do you like that mechanic?

Nick: I’m on the fence with this. They certainly add to the atmosphere which is more than welcome due to the small team sizes. However I’ve not felt threatened by them, they’re more of a nuisance. I don’t even waste bullets on them, as you’re free to walk up and slay them all with your bare hands unpunished. Grunts often enter the battlefield and immediately follow pre-determined paths, often engaging in almost pantomime-like battles with the enemy AI. No one is ever winning or losing: it looks like one big charade.

Until of course a player controlled pilot comes in and dispatches every single one.

Spectres on the other hand are a bit more of an inconvenience. They’re equipped with rocket launchers that can deal considerable damage to titans, and so need to be dispatched. You can also hack enemy Spectres and turn them over to your side, but whenever I did this I didn’t see any points being awarded, and I couldn’t help think I just gave the enemy team another thing to shoot at and gain points.

Matt: They’re kind of like the creep from Dota. I’m quite happy with the idea of that, but they don’t really offer up anything but cannon fodder. They land in drop-pods in squads of four or five, and take so long to get out and start doing anything that you can just hurl in a grenade and be done with them. If they do make it out the pod, they spend most of their time crouching and meandering around the battlefield. They’re easy targets for quick points and quite successfully disguise the 6v6 player count, but their automaton nature doesn’t quite create the intense war atmosphere that I think they’re intended to.

Jeremy: Titanfall’s prospective community did a lot of shouting when Respawn announced their maximum 6v6 headcount, and it’s funny to realise that I’ve lived through the same thought process since I started playing. Titanfall maps feel packed – they’re filled with noise and bodies. Huge metal machines swoop and yawn up above, while buzzing humanoids with red text above their heads fall to your shotgun blasts below.

It was only on the post-match pages that I realised the majority of players I’d killed weren’t in fact anything of the sort. They were bots. That’s testament to Respawn’s fictional sleight-of-hand, but I do wonder if it’ll erode that giddy sense of mano-a-mano at the core of every multiplayer FPS: that dude I killed was a real person with a keyboard and mouse and everything.

Fraser: It’s all smoke and mirrors. While the abundance of AI controlled troops initially makes the battlefields seem busy, the minions quickly reveal themselves to be, as Nick said, just a nuisance. They pose very little threat. I found myself capturing a location and unbeknownst to me, there was a minion standing just across the room for me. I had time to light a cigarette and have something to drink before I noticed it and put a bullet in its skull.

My main concern is that they simply don’t seem to be well integrated. They jump out of dropships, bugger off to their scripted objective and basically play their own little game. Where at first I’d shoot at them and then become extremely disappointed when I realised I’d killed a useless bot instead of another player, I now spot them pretty quickly and just ignore them.

There are two maps in the beta. How are you finding them to play with?

Nick: I’m sat here trying to think of my favourite map, but I’m actually stumped. Angel City is exactly that, a city. It has a ton of rooftops for players to traverse and gain a good advantage on the towering titans. In a moments notice you can reach the skies with some crafty use of the jet pack and wall running. Those same buildings however have windows, and titans love windows. Nothing is more satisfying than peering into a heavily populated house, and then jamming your oversized 40m canon in and pulling the trigger.

Fracture on the other hand has its own unique feel. It has a great deal of open space and little built up houses, the majority of it actually underground. Fighting out in the open is usually instant death to a sniper or titan, unless you’re packing the cloaking ability. You’re encouraged to play a much more passive game, navigating the map until you’re in a position of advantage on the enemy.

Jeremy: It’s tough to get a feel for the spectrum of map types from a total of two, but I think both subtly encourage different maneuvers and murder techniques. On Fracture, the wide-open spaces provide plenty of sprinting room for Titans – but make them more compelling targets for rocket launchings. Angel City is an urban, largely indoor affair – and that favours players capable of snap decisions and proper parkour. That’s not me, but it’s who I’d like to be – so I like Angel City better.

Fraser: They both do a good job at showcasing Titanfall’s dual experiences: as a Titan and as a pilot. Angel City has quickly become my favourite, as it’s densely packed with buildings, making it a free-running haven of sorts. Like the other gents have pointed out, Fracture is more of a Titan playground. Large, open spaces are perfect for the behemoths to saunter around blowing everything up. I didn’t like Fracture much when I first played it, but it’s already started to grow on me. Playing on foot more, I really had to crank my spatial awareness up to 11, as death could come from distant roofs or from wandering Titans the moment I left the confines of a building.

Matt: I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy Angel City due to its cramped, funneled steets nature, but it turns out it’s the perfect jetpack training ground. You begin to view the environment through different eyes, and you can immediately identify touch points to zig-zag between on your ascent to the rooftops. A large amount of buildings have interiors with multiple entry and exit points, making them labyrinths to lose pursuers in. It’s a bit of a naff map for titans though, since they can’t really go anywhere but the roads. Get ambushed there and you’re only good for the scrap yard.

Fracture’s open fields are where you want to be when at the controls of a titan. They’re essentially wrestling rings for robots, but the audience members are all armed with homing missiles. It’s here that you can try appreciate the dodge boost of the titan, dancing in a hail of explosives. Like Jeremy said, Angel City offers some wonderful moment-to-moment snap decisions and that makes it my most preferred of the two, but Fracture is the place to see chaos in widescreen.

How do you find controlling the Titans? Any complaints?

Nick: None whatsoever actually. The beta build was admittedly pretty lackluster in diversity when it came down to titans as we were only allowed to pilot one model. This could be circumvented if you were lucky enough to earn a burn card: which gave you an instant Ogre/Stryder class titan for one life. I’m positive though that this will be eliminated come launch day.

Suggestions though, I have plenty. Being able to edit the aesthetics of your titan would provide a bit of personality to the hunks of metal, and also serve as some sort of team/clan recognition. It could’ve been something as simple as an customisable emblem. A melee specialised titan would have been fun too, but maybe I’ve watched too much Gundam.

Jeremy: You miss the jumping first – a tap of the spacebar sends your Titan skidding in whatever direction you happen to be heading. And then, once you get hammered with rockets and the cockpit alarms start screaming, you miss the hiding in coves and peeking out of windows.

Respawn have sought to make their mechs more like men – which means they sprint with their guns held to their metal chests, and manually change the chambers in their oversized assault rifles. They even crouch – which means you can sneak inside some of Fracture’s hangar-like buildings and flail at pedestrians like C3PO in Lilliput.

I worry that similarity to their lither pilot counterparts only serves to highlight their limitations. I preferred for the most part for my Titan to trail behind me like a honeytrap made of guns. The autotitan AI is convincing and sensible, and draws the fire of similarly-sized opponents. Being inside the machine yourself is loud and fleetingly fun – but it’s telling that my favourite moments came while ejecting myself from it before the fireballs came. Wheee.

I’m sure I’ll come to prove myself wrong in time.

Matt: I’m surprised at how fluid they are. The whole sci-fi thing about being “one with the machine” is very applicable here, they are basically just big men.

I do love how all their weaponry is easily fired off without having to cycle through an inventory. When you’re reloading that great chaingun it’s rather brilliant to be able to unleash a salvo of missiles from your shoulder to ensure there’s no break in your fire.

The more nimble pilot does feel the more satisfying option though. They may not have the sheer amount of ordinance available, but they still feel like they have more options on the battlefield. I’m hoping this is just the limitation of the beta; I’ve not had opportunity to try out the Ogre or Stryder class titans yet, nor unlock much gear for the Atlas. Perhaps with further customisation, I may develop more love for walking military hardware.

Fraser: The Titans are what you expect to like the most, but really they aren’t what makes Titanfall special. They are a doddle to control, but I missed the freedom of the pilot whenever I got crammed inside them. I think I’ve been spoiled by Hawken, frankly. It’s got so much variety, with massive, slow brutes similar to Titanfall’s, but also plenty of nimble machines or cloaked snipers.

As enemies, however, they are a delight. Terrifying machines that can step on you and crush your bones into a fine dust; they are monsters on the battlefield. Sprinting between their legs, desperate to find some cover or some high ground so you can launch a barrage of rockets at their faces – those are some of the best moments of the game.

Have you tried the Titan only last-team standing mode?

Nick: Once, but never again unless I’m backed up with a team of friends. If you’re against a team with even the littlest bit of coordination, it’s going to be hard to beat. You’ll be flanked, pincered, cornered and systematically picked off. I really hope the matchmaking detects full premade parties and pairs them with the enemy equivalent, otherwise it will be a mess.

Matt: I took it for a spin, but it doesn’t really suit the way I’ve been playing. I think there will be an audience for it though: titan-on-titan combat is a bit of an art, and playing tennis with each others’ ammunition using the vortex shield is a neat tactic. It’s the mode where the 6v6 is most apparent since you can’t disguise yourself among the minions, so you’re constantly a target. It’s arguably the mode that requires most combat thought, but it doesn’t have the fun factor of the other games. I’m not likely going to revisit.

Fraser: Like Nick, I found it to be a bit of a mess thanks to a lack of communication. I only played it once, and unless I’m in a group on Skype I doubt I’ll play it again. And I desperately missed playing as a pilot.

How’s it running on your PC?

Jeremy: The default, medium textures around the tutorial pod looked stretched and smudged on my Alienware X51 (GTX 660, i7-3770), so I’ve since upped them to the max level, with smart results. It’s led to a sometimes choppy framerate when starting a match – but the waters tend to calm after that. Those who run Quake as a brown cardboard box factory will want to stick to middle settings, though, I’m sure.

Nick: It’s difficult to say. I ran the tutorial with everything set to max, and it ran between 50-60 FPS. There’s an “Insane” setting which supposedly requires 3GB of GPU memory, which is hard to believe. However I entered the online multiplayer and started to stutter like crazy. The thing is, this could’ve been a server issue rather than my hardware since Respawn were purposefully stressing their servers. I decided to play it safe and swapped the “Insane” setting for high, turned the anti-aliasing down to 4X and turned the shadows down from high to medium.

I’ll definitely give it a good tinkering around when I grab it on launch day, hopefully with the aid of some Titanfall specific drivers from Nvidia. The system I’m running is an i7-2600k at 4.6 GHZ, an MSI 580 GTX Lightning and 8GB of RAM.

Fraser: I also noticed some stuttering, though it wasn’t persistent. I played on my Intel i5-3570K @3.40 GHz, 8 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 670 and bumped everything up to max without any other issues. It’s not a particularly demanding game, nor does it boast high graphical fidelity. The textures, most notably, are sometimes downright hideous, especially inside the Titan.

This is balanced by the cracking visual design, though. Ships speed around the skies, massive carriers float ominously above the battlefields, and both the maps looked appropriately war-torn.

Matt: It’s a Source engine game, so the PC is in its DNA. I found nothing to complain about running the game at almost full-blown specs on my PC, which is running an i7 3770k, AMD 7970, and 16GB of RAM under the hood. Then again, like Fraser points out, Titanfall doesn’t look ‘next gen’. It’s not a demanding game, but due to the pace of the action it does need to run buttery smooth. Thankfully there doesn’t seem to be an issue there on our decent variety of machine builds.

Are you going to buy it when it’s released?

Jeremy: Only if it comes with beta access to the next CoD. I kid: it’s the strangest FPS since maybe Red Orchestra 2, and Natural Selection before that – and it just so happens to be the most-funded and best-promoted one out this year. Everyone’s going to play it, and if you claim it’s pap they’ll know you’re lying. So, yep: I’ll be in early on.

Nick: Yep, but not from Origin. £45 for a digital, multiplayer-only PC game is nigh on illogical. Look elsewhere.

Matt: Absolutely. It’s not very often you can say a shooter is genuinely interesting. Titanfall is, and I’ve not left it alone during this beta period. I can’t wait to jump into the full experience. I’m also really interested to see how it handles its narrative campaign element. Brink tried this to dismal effect, but I think the idea has potential. Hopefully Titanfall proves me right.

Fraser: I’m flip-flopping a little bit. I enjoyed the beta a great deal, but my game library is filled with online games I enjoy a great deal. In the end, I suspect I’ll end up grabbing it because I know everyone else is going to be playing it, so I’m guaranteed plenty of entertaining matches with pals. I’m with Nick on the price though.