When Jason West and Vince Zampella set up Respawn Entertainment in 2010, they had one ambition: to produce a new first-person shooter that would have as massive an impact on the genre as their previous creation: the Call of Duty series.
It was a big ask, but when Titanfall arrived three years later, the game was certainly a brilliant attempt. The sci-fi shooter boasted an innovative mechanic allowing players to summon a giant robot into the arena, and an incredibly fluid, free-running movement style – all combined into a set of blisteringly loud and detailed map designs.
But one thing many players said about Titanfall was that, beyond the raw speed and inarguable thrill of the highly vertical, highly acrobatic gameplay, there was little in the way of tactical depth. It’s something the team says it wants to address.
“We learned a lot from the community,” says producer Drew McCoy. “We were constantly on Reddit, on forums, on Twitter and everything – we had a lot of data coming in from the matches being played. We had to analyse that and decide what we wanted to respond to.
“The key message we got was that people loved the core of the game – they just wanted more of it. We wanted that, too. We wanted to make a game that didn’t just add breadth, but also depth – a game where you felt there were multiple levels of mastery, where, no matter what avenue you choose, it’s something you can go deep on and get good at. It’s more of the game, but it’s also a deeper game.”
On the surface, Titanfall 2 offers the same combination of giant robots and parkour pilots, but there are plenty of obvious updates and improvements. First, we’re getting six entirely new titans to stomp around in. For its E3 demo, Respawn was only showing off two: Ion has a bunch of powerful laser attacks as well as a fully automatic Splitter Rifle that fires deadly energy bolts in quick succession; Scorch is, as its name may suggest, an incendiary specialist, wielding the monstrous T-203 Thermite Launcher, which turns areas of the map into flaming hell zones.
Respawn’s aim wasn’t just to come up with some interesting new weapons and tactical abilities, though, it was to broaden the tactical nature of titan v titan combat. One part of that is to make the machines much more visually distinct this time round. “In the previous game, when you went up against a titan you didn’t necessarily know what its load out was and what the fight was going to be until it started,” says producer McCoy. “Titanfall 2 has more of a Street Fighter kind of feel – if you see Scorch, you know who he is and how to approach the combat. The fights are more strategic and therefore more meaningful.”
Co-founder Zampella concurs: “Titan fights would often devolve into Rock Em Sock Em Robots,” he says. “My initial thing was, we wanted the game to have deep mechanics – so we designed the new titans around that. You play with one for a month and feel like you still have things to improve on.”
Pilots, meanwhile, are split into three classes. Front Riflemen are the forward infantry, carrying a familiar R-201 Carbine assault rifle, which essentially updates the 101C from the first title. They also get a magnetic grenade launcher, as in Titanfall but, more importantly, a hugely useful grappling hook, which can be employed to help with wall runs or to gain access to higher areas. Shoot one at an enemy titan, and you’re rappelled straight onto its back.
“It’s a mechanic designed to fit the motion and fluidity of the game,” says McCoy. “We’re always looking for ways to make the game more intuitive and some players weren’t always able to hit their wall runs just right – so we thought a hook would be a good solution. If you want to start, you can fire it then run on to the wall – it’s very fluid. If you don’t quite make a jump, you can fire it in the last 10 feet and you’re there.”
In practice, leaping and sprinting across the game’s Boom Town map, it’s a really fun, fluid addition. It’s not just about adding a few more feet to jumps, it also lets you leap blindly from a raised platform then quickly spot a promising vantage point before blasting the hook toward it. You can be a little bit more expressive and improvisational with mid-air movement. It also makes titan attacks a little slicker, although, to compensate, Respawn has changed that whole mechanic. Now, when you climb on top an enemy robot, you don’t lob a grenade in, you steal a battery that can be used to power or repair titans on your own team. This takes a chunk of health from your target but doesn’t destroy it, so the whole interaction is more subtle and geared toward team play.
Elsewhere, the Hard Tracker class gets a Pulse Blade, a sort of sonic knife that momentarily reveals the locations of nearby enemies; and they have the L-Star a sort of super-powered futuristic shotgun that McCoy says is modelled on the Doom plasma rifle and features a mechanic where keeping the button pressed charges the shot, but doing it for two long overheats the weapon initiating a lengthy battery change animation. The CounterSniper gets a Holo Pilot tactical ability that lets you create a holographic clone of your avatar – like in Total Recall. The D-2 Double Take is the monstrous new sniper rifle, basically a futuristic take on the Barrett M82.
At E3, Respawn was showing off just one multiplayer mode, named Bounty Hunt. It’s basically team deathmatch but at key points a certain member of the opposing side is designated as a specific bounty target and they become the key focus of your attack. It remains a turbo-charged, sense-pummelling experience; pilots darting and leaping all over the map, explosions rocking the screen, titans strafing buildings with massive weapons fire.
This time though, Respawn is trying to build more subtly into the player’s ability to read the mass of audio/visual information. “One of the things we really set out to improve was your situational awareness from an auditory stand point,” says McCoy. “There’s actually a dynamic mix going on to help you pick out the most immediate threats and we dull down the sounds that aren’t as important. The problem was, the original game had so much going on that it became a wall of sound - players couldn’t figure out that, say, the guy on the roof over there was the biggest threat at that moment. Now, you can really focus on him.”
As for the single-player mode, Respawn isn’t saying much yet, apart from that it’ll be a significant campaign and not just a reskin of the multiplayer with AIs replacing human participants. The story follows a young Militia rifleman who harbours dreams of becoming a titan pilot and gets the chance when involved in a dramatic battle. Respawn has said it wants to explore the relationship between the pilot and the titan – a timely tale of human-AI interactions.
McCoy says that it was important to capture the frenzied, action-packed feel of the multiplayer experience in narrative form. “We knew early on that we weren’t going to punt on that,” he says. “We had to embrace the mobility, intensity and freedom that the player has in multiplayer, rather than trying to limit them by saying: ‘Well, this is the corridor of awesome explosions we’ve made, you have to see it.’
“Early on in development, the designers spent months prototyping in really small chunks what could be fun in a single-player Titanfall. In most games, you start with single-player and you add a multiplayer component – so you have this base of someone playing alone and you just say, okay let’s put 10 of these people together. We had a different problem: a whole bunch of players in an arena who can do anything. How do we string that out into a single-player narrative? So we started taking the mechanics and putting them into little bite-sized pieces; we made hundreds of these little 30-second moments of gameplay to find out what makes a fun Titanfall single-player.”
According to Zampella, one element that helped in the design process was the availability of robust artificial intelligence code from the first title. In Titanfall, the battle zones are populated not just by human players, but by small squadrons of AI droids and soldiers who take a part in the conflict, providing easier targets for new participants. But Respawn realised it could make use of these combatants in the campaign mode.
“AI in single-player games can often be broken,” says Zampella. “If you sprint by too fast, they don’t know where you are, you can easily find the flaws. However, because Titanfall is a multiplayer game, the AI had to be able to react to anything that happened, no matter where you were. As a result of that, we had a robust AI that we could take into single-player environment and the player is free to do whatever they do in the multiplayer game.”
On the subject of AI, that element has also been expanded for Titanfall 2’s multiplayer. “There are some new types,” says McCoy. “You don’t just have grunts and titans now – there’s a middle class, which is in one of the trailers. We’ve also done some work on their readability, and how they react to the player – we had a little bit of a problem before where they wouldn’t recognise the fact that the player is a killing machine; they didn’t respond as much as we wanted them to. Now they’ll dash for cover, some will get brave, come out swinging then hide again. We’ve done a lot to make them feel more alive.”
More information will no doubt emerge at Gamescom later this year. The big task will be to add something really innovative to the single-player campaign – a task that Call of Duty has been attempting for the past three years with little headway. At the same time, Respawn says it will be tweaking every aspect of the game until the launch day – and probably beyond.
“We’re always tuning,” says McCoy. “We do these big playtests with the whole company. We have studio tools that let you take a screenshot with a quick button combo and that initiates a bug report – you can say: ‘I don’t know what was happening here but I got hit,’ and it’s up to the designers to figure it out. It’s really iterative, you have animators, audio guys, artists, all working on this together.
“It takes a full game development cycle to get this stuff right.”
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th July 2016 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010