Titanfall is not the game I was expecting.
It was billed as a shot in the arm for the multiplayer first-person shooter - specifically Call of Duty and games created in its image - but that just felt like hype to me. It's the same guys making it! The mechs looked nice, but I figured it would all boil down to the usual questions: How do we handle perks? How many guns do we carry? When's the DLC coming out?
I couldn't have been more wrong. This clearly will be a game with strong opinions on all those old questions, but you sense they were things Respawn had a good idea about before they even had desks. The thing that really grabs you about the PC and Xbox One beta is that it isn't all just iteration and refinement. It's a game about new ideas, and they all feel so natural from the moment you start playing.
Take the way you move around. This is a fast-paced, team-based shooter, except now you can run on walls and double-jump using a jetpack. But that perfect inertia you feel when you catch yourself with the thrusters is no accident, and nor are the rules that govern how you chain wall-runs together. You and I see a simple system that feels just right every time we take a step forward, but if we looked back we'd see a mess of overflowing wastepaper baskets, knackered whiteboards and abandoned prototypes that helped define every phase of these processes we're invited to take for granted.
So much is like this. The eponymous titans are the same. Huge, robotic exoskeletons that you stomp around in, they're new and entertaining by default, but they're also full of little touches that have been obsessed over. The way you strap into a titan has already had its fair share of eulogies, but I love the way it changes depending on the angle you arrive - from in front, behind, above. Sometimes the titan grabs you out of the air to haul you inside. Once you're in there, you see the whole level differently and realise that, as tight and coherent as it felt at ground level, it's also been made just for you at this scale too. No double-jump here, though - instead you have a thruster-powered double dash.
"It's a game about new ideas, and they all feel so natural from the moment you start playing"
It's another fine detail, and there's an attention to those details at work here that can't be ignored. It speaks to a studio looking forwards, not backwards, eager to break the chains of the blockbuster it created. The titans are a great example of this, too, because everyone gets a go. You don't have to play well to unlock one; there's a countdown running for each player, and playing well just shaves time off the clock. Hiding your game's best toys behind kill-streaks suddenly feels very antiquated.
Respawn makes big stuff like this look so effortless, even as your titans dance around the corpses of all those sacred FPS cows that were still ripe for milking, and after a while there's a swagger to this game that might seem arrogant if you couldn't sense just how hard it has been to earn. Having spent years working on a series where people send you death threats when you rebalance the weapons, Respawn gives players a gun that locks on for headshots? But hey, screw the haters. When they stop using the smart pistol, the rest of us can climb around rooftops killing them with it as they fumble with their sniper scopes.
Titanfall's attitude to death and loss are just as refreshing. Titan on the way out? Eject and live to fight another day. Team lost? Let's have a mad race to the extraction point, during which you can reap a little revenge. The game modes still have a ring of familiarity to them, but once you hit the battlefield you'd struggle to trace the same outline in any of the games Titanfall is challenging. Where else are the windows suddenly the most dangerous entry points, because who's going to use the door when they can fly through a window?
The lingering question is whether all the things that Titanfall makes easy and accessible are backed up by other things that can keep it interesting over the days and months that follow, but I feel optimistic about that. For one thing, a beta with this many good ideas, executed this well, which makes old dogs like me perform new tricks with such ease, is made by people who have done a lot of heavy lifting in the three years they've been working on it. I doubt they didn't think about what happens after the first dozen hours.
But I suspect the key to Titanfall's longevity will be the way you always have more options than you can hope to explore in the same match, and the way the systems clash to create memorable and unpredictable spectacle. I'm used to playing FPS games where everyone does the same thing spawn after spawn, but in Titanfall I never know where I'm going to go. If I can't make it up that street, I might go over it, or spawn in my titan, or play that burn card to change my rules for this round, or just go in a totally different direction. If there's a pilot dancing around my titan, maybe I'll squash him, or maybe I'll jump out, stick the titan in guard mode and pull on my cloak to cap him with the pistol while he runs for cover.
I get the sense that Respawn favours breadth and variety over giving you tall columns of skill to ascend by running down ever-narrowing alleyways, and that gives me confidence that I'll still be playing Titanfall long after we stop standing by. I wasn't expecting that at all.