Titanfall

The Question: Is Titanfall Revolutionary?

Titanfall is long out and I’ve sat down with the game for six hours of play. For some reason, I think a lot of people haven’t quite heard about Titanfall. I almost ignored it myself. Now I’m glad I haven’t. The game consists of two sides, each with six pilots (players.) They fight it out over the map for various objects like any standard FPS. The catch is that a timer counts down for every player, and once it hits zero, the player can summon a Titan, a powerful but disposable mech, from the skies.

My only regret was not naming my Titan "Sloth" and my pilot "Chunk."

My only regret was not naming my Titan “Sloth” and my pilot “Chunk.”

Let’s start with the basics. If you have a PC with minimum specs, you really should upgrade or go for either of the XBox consoles. I have other games with identical minimal requirements and they look great, but I assure you that it’s not true of Titanfall.

When they say minimum, they mean it.

I have a Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT with 512 MB, and that has worked great for a lot of games for several years. With Titanfall, I can get it to run smoothly enough for game play, but the graphics look less than impressive during the shooting and downright horrid during many of the epilogue cut scenes.

We’re on the cusp of a new generation of games.This should be a surprise to no one.

But perhaps there’s something good about that. The 90s and the early years of 2000 were filled with questions about the importance of graphics to a game. Even today, all AAA titles require a warehouse full of artists to make it look great. Without oohing and awwing the visuals, I could only focus on the only thing that really matters. The game itself.

And it is damn good.

Many have made comparisons to other games. Mechwarrior, Call of Duty and Brink tend to be the biggest three I hear, combining elements of all three of these games into one.

From Brink, they took the parkour elements and perfected them. Respawn must have figured that getting this element right would satisfy the worries of fans who were burned by Brink. And it so drastically changes everything you think you know about FPS games. The most skilled players are constantly on the move. Dashing across walls, finding ways to play with your radar. Double jumping their way across rooftops and through buildings. Never before has looking up been so important. Each pilots gets three weapons, an ability and ordinance (explosive). The weapons include an anti-personnel weapon such as a rifle or shotgun, a sidearm (a pistol) and an anti-Titan weapon.

Then there are the mechs.

Rise of the Machines . . .

People make comparisons about the Titans to other fictional mechs. I’ve heard them compared to Landmates from the Appleseed series or good old Gundams. But in my opinion, the closest and most comparable examples have to be from Armored Troopers Votoms or Wanzers from Front Mission with just a dash of Zone of the Enders tossed in.

The Titans themselves are very dangerous, but far from unbeatable. Large, but not gigantic at about two stories tall. No built-in weapons but a hand held gun and an external mounted missile system. They’re fully capable of punching and smashing opponents, and sport up to three varieties of powerful shield systems. A Titan needs but walk over a player to step on them, killing the pilot instantly.

In Soviet Russia, Titan rides you! ... Not even joking.

“In Soviet Russia, Titan rides you!” … It’s only funny until they actually try.

But intriguingly, they’re disposable if they have to be. Sure, it’s not encouraged (or maybe it is, considering you earn a little experience for every Titan dropped… hm.) But it’s not like Zone of the Enders or Mechwarrior where losing your mech meant game over. Hell, Battletech (the name of the extended Mechwarrior universe) has a lore point called the dispossessed who are warriors who have lost their battlemech and are very unlikely to get a new one.

A Focus on What Matters . . .

One point I noticed got me thinking that Respawn is, first and foremost, a company of programmers over artists. Many shooting games have come to reward players with visual options like new outfits. Brink or Space Marine have done so. But as a result many of these games tended to only have male character models to the point of some controversy, and I suspect that having to make options for both men and women would be a large artistic undertaking.

But Titanfall doesn’t bother with it, instead giving you the option to choose between a male and female model for all classes and nothing more. Kudos to Respawn for letting the girls play. And I actually prefer it this way, as although some visual choice is a fine reward, I’d rather the focus and effort be on the game itself.

The jury is still out on the game's "doll collecting" feature aspect. This player, for one, doesn't look to happy about it.

The jury is still out on the game’s “doll collecting” feature. This player, for one, doesn’t look too happy about it.

A recent interview at IGN confirmed that it will be a long, long time before we ever see any new mech designs. Personally, I don’t care. And that’s far from a bad thing. The three Titans we got are very balanced. I never feel like there’s any model I cannot beat, whether suited up or on foot. Adding more models would be either a slight reshuffling of speed and durability, or adding a new feature or ability that risks destroying core game-play. That latter point is something they’ll likely have to do one day, probably in the sequel. For the time being, three is enough.

Psychology has to be the game’s best hallmark. Most of the time, game developers focus on creating a satisfying experience through the single player game, providing that play variety that keeps it from getting boring. Multiplayer games always run that risk of being tedious. But Respawn has made a breakthrough in cracking the play-variety code for multiplayer. What begins as man vs man becomes machine vs machine, and even man vs machine. When the mouse can beat the cat, things get interesting…

The Verdict . . .

I think all this brings us to our final question. Is Titanfall revolutionary? Sort of. In a sense, there’s absolutely nothing about Titanfall that hasn’t been done before. The parkour, the objectives, the story driven multiplayer elements, the mechs. Even the whole rodeoing, or jumping on and riding mechs, occurred in MechAssault 2 almost eight years ago.

Titanfall is a success not because it does anything new or innovative (it doesn’t), but simply takes a huge helping of elements from other games, blends them together and delivers them in a polished and balanced product. We’ve seen parkour and deep maps and mechs before, and on paper the combination sounds both awesome and a technical disaster.

But against the odds, it works wonderfully. Titanfall itself is not a revolution. It’s the murmuring discontent with the authorities, the resulting product of true gamers fatigued with the industry standard. People will play it and enjoy it, and they will compare it with games to come and know that there is something better out there. Titanfall is like the philosopher whose writing foretells a new way of thinking, who makes people less satisfied with the way things are and want more.

No, Titanfall is not a revolution… but it’s sure as hell going to start one.

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Mass Effect Thoughts

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

Because no one ever suspects Richard Nixon Shepard.

I finished Mass Effect 2 last night. Don’t worry. No spoilers in here.

I found the overall structure of the game interesting. Unlike the first game, which paced you along with about five or six major plot arc missions, this one kind of dangled a major challenge in front of you. All the other missions are completely built around this one challenge in the end. There’s little room for side exploration.

And I mean that. One of the things I found myself missing from the first game was the exploration. No, I absolutely do not miss the Mako. But when you went down to the planet surface for some assignment, you go straight into the action. No Mako drop, no drive out there. The game really pushes you along, and if you leave many of these assignments there is no returning. Except for reloading the mission, the game is pretty bad about letting you recheck certain areas.

For every one thing I miss from the first game, there are two things I don’t.

For starters, the inventory system. What your party can and cannot equip has been streamlined, while the upgrades to your gear with a few quick clicks on the research team. This is so much easier than before, where you would have to go through the inventory screen, find the best weapon, equip it then find the best ammo and upgrades and then do this for every weapon slot and armor.

I also really like how each weapon and armor has unique properties with regard to firing rate, damage per shot and ammo capacity. There was no variety with this from the previous game, but having experienced the FPS options you get from Brink, I still feel there wasn’t enough of that firearm variety in this game.

I love how the weapons and armor upgrades are universal and applied everywhere immediately. But not before some tiring planet probing. It was like they had to add a grind in there somewhere so why not here? The mini-game aspect of it isn’t that bad, but after a while of it you get bored. So note to self, if I ever create a game (and I’ve been thinking about one helluva one for sometime), I will:
1) Allow the mini-games to be nicely spaced throughout the main game.
2) Make them completely optional, but considerably rewarding.
3) Find a way to add the character’s personalities to them to spice it up.

The grind isn’t fun, and isn’t as rewarding as regular gameplay. Not many games have figured this out, but in my opinion RPGs should be grindless, like Diablo 2. There’s so much satisfaction derived from slaying monsters in that game, and the loot system is the perfect Pavlovian response to keep you going.

But there are game rewards, and real rewards. Not just things that help you survive but the humor and joking that you get to keep post-game, and sometimes share with the nerds you call friends. When EDI gave me sass for probing Uranus, I laughed so hard. That’s the quips I could use while I play. Like so.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know that these kind of great quirks and scripted moments are not as developmentally scalable as loot or resources (although Team Fortress 2 pushes this out a new gag with every new item they sell). But they make the game unforgettable.

Believe it or not however, I really miss the leveling system. In the previous game, it was kind of like a little reward. The abilities each character has in this game make them more unique and intriguing, but they didn’t reward me fast enough. Choosing your team’s abilities in smaller increments can be quite satisfying. However, I did like how each ability ended in one of two choices to make them more powerful however, adding a nice twist on reaching the top.

Combat was a definite improvement. I feel as though they snatched an idea or two from Dead Space, like having these in game HUD displays for ammo. But I cannot chide them for it: A good idea is a good idea. Anything to reduce UI clutter. The cover system was also greatly improved; I actually used it now, and used it extensively. The clumsiness of the previous game’s fighting is gone, although I was shocked that I have to collect ammo.

Mass Effect 2 was full of interesting changes compared to the original game, and most were improvements. But I kind of worry that the considerable number of changes can risk a game losing sight of what made it so great. Sometimes it’s these tiny details of how the game is played that make it awesome. And if those features are lost with nothing better replacing them, it just feels different and not quite right.

Parkour, Mass Effect and More Writing

Spoooooky...

Spoooooky...

While cruising IGN today, I was surprised by an article that some Mass Effect 3 fans were angry about the ending (no spoilers in the link). I have no idea what their issue is, because I’ve only just finished Mass Effect and have no plans to get the second until I’ve unlocked every achievement. But this news certainly makes me want to step on the gas.

But before I really go crazy on Mass Effect, I want to finish my anthology. The good news is that I’ve gotten positive feedback on my first two stories. One story seems about fine, might need perhaps a few hundred more words to expand the protagonist’s background. The other story could make do with another scene to further expand the antagonist.

But the good news is that both stories require expansion andnot rewriting and story “refactoring.” Writing a plot is like writing code. And like code, if there’s a fundamental flaw in the design, the entire program is doomed to failure. But the news is good and I am feeling confident that the story will turn some heads.

Inspired by Brink, I have added basic parkour to my morning workouts while jogging. I’ve actually been doing this for two months and it is a great way to expand the workout regime. But I’m careful not to do anything that would tick off pedestrians though, nothing crazy like leaping off the wall and pulling myself on the overhanging platform above the theater (despite how often I daydream about it). Just leaping over low fences, rolling in the grass of the park.

But you know that phrase, “Skateboarding is not a crime”? To my knowledge, I’m the only guy in my town who adds parkour to his jog. But if more people start, then accidents and damage can occur. Too many people start parkour and suddenly the local county government will ban it.

Brink and Writing

Safety cop says wear your kevlar, or I'll pistol whip you for your own good!

Safety cop says wear your kevlar, or I'll pistol whip you for your own good!

So a lightning sale put Brink and all the DLC for it onto my Steam cloud.

I’ve coveted Brink since its release, but held back because I purchased Fallout: New Vegas about the time it became available. Mindful of my budget, I decided to wait. Now it’s mine for less than $7.

Of course, I don’t even know if people still play it. The servers could very well be dead.

For those of you who don’t know, Brink is a game set on the Ark, a futuristic city in the ocean that was made to be totally self sustaining. However, the theory of climate change rings true and the sea levels rises, damaging much of the rest of the world. The Ark soon swells with refugees, overburdening the system. Frustrated and angry with their living conditions, a resistance faction brews within the Ark’s slums. The security forces cannot allow cannot allow this resistance to inflict harm on the public. The rest of the game is about that conflict, told on both sides.

I only played a few moments on a single player challenge before I had to head out. The controls weren’t as intuitive as I thought they’d be. I switched crouching/sliding from the C key to left-shift and am still deciding how I’d like to change a few other buttons. I also want to switch the iron-sights to another key and put melee on the mouse-2.

However, I really like the S.M.A.R.T. system, a feature that makes the environment highly interactive. I spent some time running towards boxes and letting my character parkour his way up. A lot of games just don’t make the environment as useful as this, and when they do it’s only for the sake of cover. Although the game isn’t as amazing as this, here’s a video of some of the action so you can at least see the developer’s vision.

But playing the game is only half the reason I wanted Brink.

In truth, ever since I watched the back story to Brink, I saw huge potential for writing. Despite the relatively small scale of Brink‘s world, what struck me was its very fertile background. The setting is in the future, but there are still a lot of modern urban-cultural roots there, even if they’ve blended somewhat. I look at this and say, “I can make a great story with this.”

As I parsed through the customization options for my character, I noticed something. A guy in a creepy, sack cloth mask like the Scarecrow from Batman Begins probably isn’t fighting for justice and freedom. When a character wears tattoos and face paint of skulls, they’re probably looking for a fight. The so called good guys and bad guys aren’t necessarily all on just one side.

On the outside, the Resistance and Security forces probably look like idealistically driven factions with some semblance of honor to their objectives. But on the inside, there has to be tons of infighting and self-absorbed characters, ranging from gangs and posses who are looking out for their own, conflict-strained family relations perhaps caught on both sides, and psychopaths (on both sides) who really just enjoy hurting people.

History might paint civil wars as romantic struggles between opposing philosophies. Reality reminds us that revolutions are the fruits of unhappy people unimpressed with their government, and with a lot of bad blood to spill. But of course, the victors write history.

Brink is, on many levels, ahead of its time. It maybe speculative sci-fi, but it draws its roots from urban culture and struggle, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s S.M.A.R.T. system can revolutionize the FPS genre with more work. And there are fertile grounds for more story to develop. I think it would be great to write a comic series or novel about Brink someday.

Someday soon.