Titanfall preview: You say you want a revolution?

A day with Respawn's shooter gets us closer to figuring out whether it can live up to the promise.

As much as I once enjoyed marching to the modern warfare beat, all ghillied up, it's fair to say the fun has long fizzled out. The Total Hours Played tally that could run into the hundreds for Call of Duty 4 has gradually petered out with each series release, and in the case of Ghosts' online mode I barely got to double digits. But for many like myself, Titanfall's interplay between mech and pilot promises a reinvigoration in theme that the console FPS scene desperately needs, direct from the talents who propelled it to centre-stage in the first place.

Titanfall's hype is so far unwarranted, but only when considering how the buzz is mismatched with what we actually know of the final product. The credentials are sound of course, and plenty has been made of Respawn Entertainment's reverence of 60fps gameplay. Early videos also brilliantly show the team's flair for economy in map design hasn't dulled, where cherry blossom stages like Angel City accommodate two wildly differing scales of play. In favour of the pilots there are tilted walls dotted around, making evasion and Titan hijacks more feasible, while the lower levels form a tightly-knit battleground for the steely brutes themselves.

This dynamic is something we've seen quite recently with Killzone 3's own mechs and jetpacks, both of which added a similar sense of scale and verticality, given the right level. But Titanfall builds its design brief wholly around these ideas, marrying them with wall-running, double-jumping and a four-minute wait until a player's first Titan drop. In the place of kill-streaks seen in Call of Duty we now have the allure of being first to take charge of these armoured exoskeletons - where taking down enemy pilots and AI grunts cuts down the wait.

But actually playing Titanfall for the first time bears many early impressions out - for reasons both good and bad. Controls feel spot-on, with wall-runs made simply by holding the stick in the direction of the surface you want to latch on to. It's satisfying, easy to nail on the first attempt, and avoiding the use of face buttons to trigger this was definitely the right call. It's also tricky to master, where a sequence of wall-runs mixed with double-jumps to reach certain heights can take a precise rhythm, something the pros will surely harness to their advantage down the line.

My first game was on the standard Attrition mode across a countryside stage called Fracture - the rural oil depot area first shown at E3 2013. With a total of 12 human players locked in per game, the map still feels suitably busy thanks to small groupings of AI enemies that stick together in packs. These are cannon fodder essentially, there to simply hasten progress to that first Titan drop. The only problem I have with the mechanic is there's no sense of consequence in being cut short; unlike Call of Duty's cadence of kill-streak bonuses, the pay-off is that your Titan will be coming sooner rather than later.

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A whistle-stop tour of Titanfall's back-story known so far: planetary resources are up for grabs, a big corporation fancies a slice but the colonies won't budge, and unfortunately conkers weren't available.

But the advantage to nabbing a Titan quickly is more obvious on Hardpoint Domination mode, which helps get an early foot in the door when capturing three points across Angel City's urban sprawl. It's also just as well that the mech action feels every bit as satisfying as the on-foot action. Gone are the jumps and runs, and in their place you get abilities such as the Vortex Shield, the explosive rocket salvo, and the ability to dash sharply in any direction. Atlas is the standard middle-of-the-road Titan class in the preview build, but it's easy to see how using a bullet-sponge like the Ogre titan might come in handy as while picking up territories - especially when loaded with the Warpfall Transmitter perk to get there faster.

It's this progression system that should ring a bell loudest for long-term Call of Duty fans. What we've seen so far has your hard-earned experience unlock new modes, equipment and Titans by rank - starting you out with three Pilot presets before letting you loose with your own custom profile at rank five. A lot of your options stem from here; for example, the ability to eject from a doomed Titan isn't standard at all, and needs to be equipped over compelling alternatives such as faster health regeneration. Want the Cloak tactical ability for your Pilot? Alas, you'll need to sacrifice the faster movement speeds possible with Stim.

Visually, at least on first glance, Titanfall seems undercharged for a bona fide next-gen game. However, the excellent art direction does help both stages feel distinct, and make their layouts easy to memorise. Animations on loading into a Titan cockpit counts as the biggest stand-out "wow" moment too, and there are enough effects on the go to toe the line with Platinum Games' most frenetic output. But while most of its technical design is built to typically hold at 60fps, it's a little disappointing to find most Titan-on-Titan action gets a bit choppy once the missiles start flying. For those interested, Digital Foundry will be covering this in greater depth in the coming days.

Which leaves us with a question that may well go unanswered until after March 14; is this the next big event in multiplayer shooters? Putting the behind-the-scenes development drama aside, it's a relief to find that Respawn can sell on the merits of great game design. It's perhaps too much to hope that Titanfall's appeal will compare to Infinity Ward's output at its peak, but every franchise needs its start. With controls and map design that are this on-point though, it makes a convincing argument for a long-term plan for the series.

And there are still some unknowns. The final release's map count remains something of a mystery, which could affect the value proposition of what's set to be a full-priced game. I also remain in the dark when it comes to knowing how the promised Multiplayer Campaign mode will fill in the narrative blanks. Given the cookie-cutter sci-fi premise, it's perhaps for the best that the story will unfold mostly in the background of the action. But having played the game at length and seeing the core mechanics unveil themselves, I'm at least confident Respawn knows what it's doing in every other department.

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