If you’re like me it takes a special kind of first person shooter to hold your attention. So much of what makes many current shooters popular — twitch gameplay, adversarial online multiplayer, crafting loadouts from unlocked items and perks — appeals to me in a way, but really needs something else behind it to keep me motivated. So it was with some trepidation that I began playing the Titanfall beta last week, and I spent quite a lot of time playing it until yesterday when it closed.

So often this game has been compared to and contrasted against Call of Duty. I was never sure whether this meant it out-CoDed CoD, or whether it meant it took the genre and made it something I would actually enjoy. Since I’ve only ever played online Call of Duty in short bursts I won’t insult fans by attempt to make an in-depth comparison, but I can report that I had much more fun in the week of Titanfall beta than I ever did in a CoD game post Modern Warfare. Here’s my impressions on what you might find in Titanfall that isn’t prevalent in many other competitive shooters :

A little platforming goes a long way

The control scheme for Titanfall is completely unremarkable, and that’s a great thing to say about such a fast-paced game. As somebody who played a lot of Halo 4 I found every action from reloading to grenade-tossing to sprinting to switching weapons was already burned into my muscle memory, meaning I avoided one of the main pitfalls of trying to learn a new game while playing competitively: accidentally throwing a grenade over somebody’s head when I actually meant to melee attack them.

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Something that is remarkable though, and the most pointed-to difference between TitanFall and its competition when it comes to running and gunning, is the added mobility and traversal options you have when on foot. Every pilot (i.e. every human player) is a certified parkour expert and augments their abilities with a booster back and the ability to sprint endlessly. The ability to wall-run and double-jump gives the on-foot soldier the ability to espace the hulking Titans that would overwise chase them down and convert them immediately into a fine mist, and it also makes level traversal pretty fun.

When you play a map for the first time you’re going to want to ignore the battle for a bit and explore the nooks and crannies well. As with every shooter knowing the maps inside and out is key to success, only with Titanfall the process of learning this is actually a little more enjoyable owing to the fact that every structure in every level is designed with parkour in mind. That corridor that everybody funnels through on their way to one of the main arena areas? Might turn out if you start wall-running at the top of the stairs you can climb through the ruined roof of the building to a spot covered from ground fire but with a vantage straight down into the building. Having a shoot-out with a guy who takes shelter in an apartment building lobby? Double-jump to the second story window and come at him from up top.

Somebody who’s only playing the game casually is never going to perform as well in a match as somebody who lives it. But with an emphasis on moving and platforming as well as headshots, gamers experienced in other genres may find their skills and strategies carry over to Titanfall a little better than they might in some other FPS games.

 

Murdering minions

It’s been a matter of some ill-feeling that Titanfall supports only a maximum of 6 players on each team. Shooter players are used to taking part in much larger battles than that, although in the case of Titanfall I think it’s fair to say the limit is a matter of balancing. That each player be able to summon and control his or her Titan as they please is clearly a core aspect of the game, and frankly a game where 6 or 7 people are in their mechs at once has a tendency to get a little messy, so I imagine it would be nigh on unmanageable with many more.

Still, twelve people isn’t quite enough to fill the large spaces of the maps, and so on their mission the pilots are joined by squads of AI controlled ‘minions’. These meat baskets drop in pods from the sky and run aimlessly about until a passing pilot plugs the lot of them with a smart pistol or a falling titan crushes them all in one fell swoop. To be killed by one of these bots is both extremely rare and incredibly embarrassing, as they are so dumb and ineffectually as to often run right into the face of an enemy pilot and then turn their back.

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For all their uselessness in battle though the minions do add some enjoyable qualities to each match. For example when you drop your titan or activate a powerful ability it’s entirely possible your six opponents will be hiding or on the other side of the field, and it’s nice to always have a supply of enemy bodies flailing around that you can mow down and feel like a badass. There’s an interesting ‘living’ feel given to the maps with so many characters around too, as the minions will constantly chatter and remark upon how much cooler you are than they. Occasionally you’ll come across a scripted sequence between two or more minions as well, maybe enemies having a knife fight or a guy pulling his injured squadmate to cover. These instances are really weird in the beta, but could make for a cool touch. The system overall feels like something not too removed from an MMO or one of the more recent always-online titles (like Need for Speed Rivals), where the world is populated with regular characters and badies, but then there are the human-controlled elite that will actually put up a decent fight.

 

Prepare for Titanfall

Of course the big draw for this game is that every pilot gets access to their own customisable mech which drops from the sky at their command. Once you’re on the ground you have a certain amount of time before your Titan begins construction, and when it’s ready you can summon it at will. Killing and otherwise scoring points can speed up the construction process. While piloting a mech obviously gives you access to much more firepower while slowing you down considerably and inhibiting your traversal abilities, I was surprised to find how versatile the mech play could be.

Once the Titan drops it’s surrounded by a forcefield until you arrive. However if you like you can remotely set it to guard mode (where it will stand its ground and defend itself against enemies) or follow mode (where it will seek you out and stick close) before you get in the machine at all. This makes for many opportunities to drop your Titan strategically in amongst a group of enemy pilots and set it loose as you make your way over to pilot it. If you’ve no interest in piloting the mech they also make great diversions in guard mode. What’s more you can exit the machine at any time if you need to and have it follow you along. The game is very friendly to beginner players in making sure they get their fair go at piloting Titans, as the machine will stick around if you die before you get to it, ready for you to find it and jump in. Conversely if you die before you’ve called for the Titan at all you can choose to spawn inside as it drops.

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Having Titans fight other Titans was sometimes a little less fun than it could be, as it tended to be two people unloading as much firepower as possible at close range until one of the mechs was ‘doomed’ and the pilot is forced to eject, although if you can pull it off executing a melee attack to finish the machine off will result in your mech breaking its foe apart and pulling the pilot out like a ragdoll, which is probably the most satisfying maneuver in the whole game. Keeping your distance and playing smart can be fun and rewarding though, and if you are ganked and have to eject you can aim to land on the enemy robot’s cabin and start plasting it with impunity, forcing the pilot outside.

 

In between massacres

Although the beta was a fairly barebones multiplayer affair with none of the variety or narrative elements promised in the full game, there was a decent look at how upgrades, abilities and loadouts will work. Titanfall takes a page from a well-worn (and proven) handbook, offering new unlocks and options with every level you gain, the levels of course taking longer and longer to surmount as you go. While to start off you’re given access to some pretty standard loadout sets, it isn’t long before you unlock custom loadouts and from there each new level brings something you can choose to incorporate into your own personal play-style.

Sniper rifles, shotguns, assault rifles and sub machine guns are all represented for primary weapons, as well as a particularly cool smart pistol that is deadly but needs a few seconds to look on. Perfect for the player who likes to stalk. To complement that choice, you might go with the pilot ability that allows you to become nearly invisible, plus the arc grenades for taking on Titans if you need to. Your decisions dictate the aesthetics of your character, which is a nice touch (it would have lessened the effect of team-based military action if each soldier could completely customise the look of their outfit), and you can choose between male or female gender models for each loadout.

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You can also grant yourself temporary abilities through the use of burn cards. These contain upgrades including boosts to speed or the replacement of your stock weapon with a much more powerful one. Burn cards are awarded after each the round’s over and you can take a select few from your deck with at a time. Overall It seems like most play-styles will be accounted for, and you can augment your loadouts with your customisable Titan, for example by given its shields a longer duration or making sure it auto-ejects you before it explodes. Balancing might be a bit of an issue if you’re a lower-level player, as it’s always annoying to be killed and then see your assailant has abilities you haven’t unlocked yet and was using a burn card that gave them a souped-up uber rifle, but I guess that also acts as incentive for you to keep plugging away.

Titanfall releases for Xbox One and PC March 11 for North America, March 13 for Europe and Australia, March 14 for UK and New Zealand

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