In the middle of E3 earlier this month, the creators of the new game Titanfall posed for a photo in front of a massive statue of one of the giant exo-skeletons -- don't call them mechs -- featured in their game. "For me, that was the moment," the team's boss, Respawn Entertainment's Vince Zampella, recently told Kotaku. He sounded like a man who had survived a gauntlet. Because he was. He did.
Zampella's team took a rough three-year journey to their group photo. In the process, they made what would become the buzz game of the biggest gaming show of the year.
Three years ago, Zampella was still co-running the Activision-owned studio Infinity Ward and turning out top-selling Call of Duty games every other year. Three years later, Zampella's new team at Respawn -- much of which is composed of his old team at Infinity Ward -- has survived a lawsuit from Activision and the departure of some top-level staffers, and is now making one of the premiere XboxOne/Xbox360/PC exclusives (read: not for PlayStation, not for Nintendo) that's on the horizon. It's being backed by Activision's rival, EA.
"It’s been a rough few years, more than just for me but for the whole team," Zampella said. "To see that pay off is really big."
At E3, Respawn's whole time finally got their chance to exhale and pose...
And E3 attendees got to see an impressive game...
Titanfall is built on Valve's source engine, an old graphics engine, although you'd hardly know, given that the game looks sharp and thoroughly modern. It's a first-person shooter and is multiplayer-focused.
The game doesn't have a singleplayer campaign. Part of the reason why is that Respawn isn't that big. Maybe 80 people, which sounds grand but isn't quite enough to do it all, it seems. And, from his Call of Duty experience, Zampella knows that solo campaigns aren't the most popular parts of modern first-person shooters.
A shooter's multiplayer is what people care most about, Zampella reasons, so his team aims to make theirs look more alive and dramatic and part of some grand saga than what you experience in your standard competitive maps. "That’s what people spend hundreds of hours on," Zampella said. "People will run through a single-player level as fast as they can just to get to the end of it. Multiplayer is: 'I’m going to spend hundreds of hours on it. I’m going to be in this world all the time.' So why is this world more barren? Why is it stripped down? Let’s put that cool stuff there. Put it where people will see it. Put it where people are going to be."
Titanfall is a first-person shooter in which you're a pilot -- a person with a gun and a jeptack, a person who can shoot, double-jump and wall-run.
Titanfall was, perhaps, only going to be a game about regular-sized people running around and shooting each other.
But this guy....
...he thought up the big exoskeletons that Pilots can get in and drive.
"Joel had the idea of these Titans," Zampella said. "And he made one and everyone just loved it." Game development isn't quite that simple, but the creation of the Titan was the pivot that put Respawn on track to make what they hope will feel like two games -- happening at two scales simultaneously -- in one.
Every player in the game is a Pilot and runs around the map shooting at other Pilots or at Titans. These Davids can take down the Goliaths. The Pilot loadout, conveniently, includes an anti-Pilot weapon like, say, this...
...and an anti-Titan weapon that can do this...
That's key. Don't get that wrong. Pilots can take down Titans. Titans can take down Pilots. They both have effective guns. Titans have the heaviest, most devastating ones, of course. But they're also massive and have to trade the ability to crush enemies in the more open parts of the game's maps with their inability to fight in smaller indoor spaces.
"There’s areas where only Pilots can go," Zampella said. "There’s areas where Titans kind of dominate a little more. So it’s kind of almost two levels interwoven and balanced well. That relationship between the Pilot and the Titan and how well they balance each other -- that was the core."
Of course, only Titans can catch bullets...
And toss them back...
Only Titans can punch other Titans and pull their Pilot drivers out of them...
See, this is the key to the game. Each Pilot can drive a Titan. From the start of a mission, a timer starts counting down for an opportunity to call in a drop of your own personal Titan. (No other player can jack your Titan and drive it, I was told.)
The better you play, the more quickly you can call that Titan down. And once that timer is finished, you call it down and board it...
...and start doing all that bullet-catching, cannon-shooting and Titan-punching.
In a match I watched at E3, the number of Titans in the battlefield changed constantly. Players were calling them down, using them in combat, jumping out of them to secure capture points in the map, or getting blown up while in them.
If you're piloting a Titan and it is close to exploding, you can bail out...
You can also land on enemy Titans and "rodeo" them...which is sort of a combo of Chewbacca getting on an AT-ST in Return of the Jedi and Luke Skywalker blowing up an AT-ST in Empire Strikes Back.
Since this game is a descendant from the gameplay style developed by Zampella's crew at Infinity Ward, players will earn lots of points for various actions in each multiplayer match. You've seen some of those point indicators in the images in this story, which are mostly captured from a video of the game's E3 presentation. You get points for kills and assists. You get bigger scores for special moves like, as a Pilot, rodeoing a Titan or for riding atop an ally's Titan and picking off enemies from there. You also get points for killing the enemy grunts in the game.
As part of making this multiplayer game feel more dramatic than the standard competitive shooters, Respawn is populating their levels with computer-controlled militia troops who behave like grunt enemies in single-player games. These guys will be easier pickings for less skilled players. And those on your side will help you capture points on the map.
Here are some AI-controlled militia grunts. These guys were friendlies.
The computer-controlled characters in the game's always-online multiplayer will run in concert with an active connection to Microsoft's cloud computers for the Xbox One version of the game that Respawn is making (and for the PC version and outsourced Xbox 360 versions, too). The cloud computers will also serve as the game's dedicated servers, eliminating issues of lag and letting players' local hardware devote its muscle to 60 frames-per-second graphics, gameplay, audio and player physics.
Without a single-player campaign, it might be harder for Respawn to tell Titanfall's story, but they're aiming to in the game's multiplayer. Multiplayer maps will be sequenced into a series of events, the outcome of one part of the sequence affecting the next. This might stitch two or three mulitplayer scenes together, Zampella explained. Each will unfold in some way that follows the outcome of the previous one. Playing it on different sides and seeing different outcomes will reveal more of the story. "The story isn’t a knock-you-over-the-head, here’s-a-script narrative," he said. "It’s a backdrop to the universe."
If you don't care about even light story stuff, you can skip the connected narrative sequences and just jump into a single map for team deathmatch. To be clear, though, there's no big 10-level campaign in this one, multiplayer or not. The team also isn't saying yet whether you could play the whole thing offline with bots. Probably not, given the use of the cloud to run the grunts.
Zampella said his team at Resapwn set out to make a game that was "something new, something fresh." He said he wanted his crew to "keep it something that’s close to us but push beyond." That's what Titanfall appears to be. It's a game that shows its Infinity Ward and Call of Duty pedigree, a game that emerges from other attempts to this kind of multiplayer war shooter with giant robots, but that just might play well enough, strike the right balance and have the right support from an exclusive console backer and a hungry publisher to make it a hit.
Titanfall is slated for release in the second quarter of 2014 on Xbox One, PC and Xbox 360. It will be four years of ups and downs since Call of Duty by then. And if the game impresses regular gamers as much as it did attendees at E3, it may well have been worth it.
This preview is partially based on a live hands-off 10-minute preview of the same level seen in the video in this post.