Sharp-eyed players of the upcoming Xbox blockbuster Titanfall might recognize that it contains the DNA of a classic cartoon. While it's ostensibly a science-fiction-themed first-person shooter that pits giant mech robots against bazooka-wielding infantry, it's really a lot like playing an episode of Tom and Jerry.
"That was the key concept – we went through many iterations of cat-and-mouse," says game director Steve Fukuda. "We had all these magnets on a whiteboard and even did stop-motion animation [with models] to get it right."
After playing several hours of demos at a recent preview event in Los Angeles, it's easy to catch his meaning. The giant Titans are akin to the ever-hungry cartoon cat Tom, while the tiny infantry foils – known as Pilots – are the veritable Jerrys. The only way for the fleshy little guys to survive against their huge, armoured opponents is to dart in and out of buildings and tunnels, the figurative mouse holes of salvation. If they get caught out in the open, they're effectively dinner.
The chase-and-catch concept is an interesting one to hang a hat on, but that's exactly what several of the biggest names in gaming are doing with Titanfall, which hits the Xbox One and PC on March 11, and the Xbox 360 two weeks later. Microsoft is hoping the game proves to be the second coming of Halo – the one title that gamers want badly enough that they go out and buy its new next-generation console. It's the company's biggest exclusive weapon yet against rival Sony's PlayStation 4.
Publisher Electronic Arts is hoping the game will help turn the tide in its battle with chief rival Activision, which dominates the first-person shooter market with its Call of Duty franchise. Titanfall is, not coincidentally, being developed a studio formed by Call of Duty veterans: Vince Zampella and Jason West formed California-based Respawn Entertainment after their falling out with Activision in 2010.
But Titanfall 's journey to market hasn't been without controversy. Respawn made waves last year when it announced the game will be multiplayer only. Citing his experience with Call of Duty, Zampella explained that creating big, expensive single-player campaigns for a first-person shooter was a waste of resources since relatively few people even bothered with them.
Whatever the case, there is a lot of pressure for Titanfall to be a huge success.
Fukuda believes the game will live or die based on its balance between Titans and Pilots. If one side is too heavily skewed against the other, the game simply won't work, which is why the studio has spent nearly four years working on the fundamentals.
"We developed on [Titans] exclusively and structured the levels around them, since they were the more unknown experience. The pilots shooting at each other with firearms, we kind of know what that's like," he says. "It's where the two have to juxtapose – that's where it got complicated. We had to re-evaluate how the levels are structured."
That's where the mouse holes came in. Buildings, tunnels and lots of cover were added to the arenas, while the Pilots have jumping and wall-running abilities – anything that can help them scurry away quickly. They also get one other addition – the ability to hop aboard the Titans and sabotage them from up close.
This "rodeo-riding" feature proved to be insidious in the demos that I played. The only way to counter it, at least initially, is to eject from your Titan and then try to manually shoot the opponent off. It's not a terribly effective defence because it also exposes your Pilot.
Fortunately, Respawn's developers have enough experience with FPS games to understand that every capability needs an equally effective counter in order to achieve that all important balance. Both Pilots and Titans have unlockable weapons, gear and abilities, which are gained through experience points. While I didn't see any anti-rodeo-riding tools during the limited demos, Fukuda assures me they are in the game.
More to the point, the Titans can actually be quite vulnerable if not used correctly. There are the equally deadly opponent Titans to worry about, but there are also all those bazooka-armed mice running around. Without some form of strategy, you can easily find your mech destroyed seconds after jumping into it.
"A lot of times games are all about attack, attack, attack. There's no sense of wariness or extending situational awareness, like riding a motorcycle on a freeway," Fukuda says. "As you master it, you learn that awareness. There's a bit of martial arts feeling, or jet fighter pilot mentality of, 'Where are they, am I too close or too far?' "
Titans can also be used as a sort of strategic turret thanks to their built-in artificial intelligence. While the player's natural inclination might be to never leave the mech once it's acquired, hopping out may actually be the smarter play at times. During capture-the-flag domination games, for example, an AI-controlled Titan can be used to divert opponents' attention while the player sneaks around behind them on foot as a Pilot.
AI plays a big role overall, since games can host only six human players at a time. But, after AI infantry and Titans are added in, battles will often ratchet up to 48 participants. The low six-player figure was another controversial announcement, but Respawn defends it by saying it's a number that was arrived at after copious testing.
"There have been a lot of attempts [with first-person shooters] to keep cloning each other and what I call number wars – how many weapons do you have, how many levels do you have?" Fukuda says. "It's a bad trend and we pretty much ignored those concerns."
The AI infantry also serves to provide fodder for lesser-skilled players, as well as little bits of cinematic experiences that human participants generally don't supply. In the demos, for example, I'd pop into a building to find my AI teammates tending to their wounded comrades. If I happened to save one of them from an enemy, they'd thank me and provide a chuckle by commenting on my awesome fighting skills.
Rounding out the cinematic experience is a sort of epilogue to each battle, where the losing side gets a chance at escaping the battlefield via a dropship. The losers get a short time frame to make it to the evacuation zone, while it's the winners' job to try and prevent the escape. Anyone who makes it out get a small experience bonus – a consolation prize, as Fukuda calls it.
"You don't feel as burned for losing," he says.