Titanfall was one of the first big first-person shooters for current-gen systems, and it carved out a lot of new ground in the FPS space by refining some common genre elements and introducing a couple new ones. So why haven’t games like Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Star Wars: Battlefront seemed to learn from it?
Titanfall is a first-person shooter released in Spring 2014, a fast-paced, arcade-style shooter that lets you double-jump, run on walls, and even added computer-controlled grunt troops to each team, giving you targets other than the other players to attack to gain experience and work towards the team’s goals. Oh, and one other small thing: you can summon giant mechs from the sky for combat. Seriously, you can create a beacon on the ground and watch your Titan fall through the stratosphere, crashing into the battleground like a Gundam meteor that you would then use to decimate the competition. It’s phenomenal. You can check out the video above if you want to see some poorly-played Xbox 360 footage that I put together back in the day (but I’m oddly proud of that video, regardless).
There’s something to be said for originality, I’ll admit. When a player is done with a session, you want them to feel like they played YOUR game, not a clone of someone else’s. That said, sometimes a game just plain “does it right,” and it only makes sense to acknowledge that when creating your own game. Titanfall wasn’t perfect, but its actual combat system and mechanics were pretty spectacular (which makes sense, considering many of the Respawn Entertainment folks came from experience working on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2…but that’s a story for another day).
So, let’s jump forward to present time, to Fall 2015. Two betas (essentially demos of games, but they also signify that the game may change from the demoed state before the game’s release) of upcoming shooters have released: multiplayer for Call of Duty: Black Ops III, and multiplayer alongside a small Survival mode for Star Wars: Battlefront (this open beta just released yesterday, mind you). I’ve now played both, and let me get this out of the way: though I definitely enjoy Battlefront more than Black Ops III, both betas represented what will be quality, enjoyable titles for fans of their respective franchises. I just can’t help that they both could have been stronger titles if they’d just borrowed some Titanfall, and I’m not sure why they didn’t.
Each year’s Call of Duty is released by one of two companies: Infinity Ward (and Sledgehammer Games), or Treyarch Studios. Treyarch works on the Black Ops games, and traditionally creates a slower-paced, more “realistic”-feeling shooter compared to the “Warfare” games (as realistic as cloaking shields, wall-running, and “explosionsexplosionsEXPLOSIONS” can be, anyway). The Black Ops III beta definitely showed the influence that last year’s CoD: Advanced Warfare had on perceptions of the Call of Duty franchise: wall-running is definitely included, as are more high-tech weaponry and accessories. But even with jump jets and the ability to swim underwater, I felt boxed in on the maps they provided for the beta because they didn’t spread out, and they were short in the vertical sense. There were all sorts of virtual walls: buildings I thought I could get to the top of or inside, fences that I should have been able to clear, but I simply couldn’t.
In contrast, one of Titanfall’s best assets is its map design: each of the maps feels open, expansive, ready for exploration even though they inevitably funnel combat into a few key areas. But what makes Titanfall’s map design unique is its vertical design: most buildings have multiple floors, fully-accessible roofs, and because there’s a light, parkour-style element to the movement, it takes almost no effort to go from the ground outside of a building to its roof to set up the perfect sniper position or jump on top of an enemy Titan to disable it. This isn’t to say that Black Ops III needs to have each of its roofs accessible, or that they should have Titans; rather, they should design their maps so the virtual ends of the world are further away from the players: make the buildings taller so it doesn’t look like we can get on top of them, or create barriers at the ends of the stage that naturally look unscalable. It sounds minor, but that caged-in feeling magnifies when you’re dying every 10 seconds as non-pros are apt to do in Call of Duty; it all feels like a trap.
Speaking of “it’s a trap,” Star Wars: Battlefront manages to get around this problem of verticality by spreading the maps wide. All three maps from the beta are in outdoor, wide spaces, and can take some serious effort to get from one side to the other. The Sullust map, used for 8 v 8 “Drop Pod” (essentially a modified capture the flag) is exceptionally wide, while the Survival map on Tattooine is more vertical. Hoth, used for 20 v 20 “Walker Assault” is basically flat, but includes hills and various turrets to jump in and assault from. But what Battlefront does right in map design, it breaks in character mobility. Now, I’m not asking that Stormtroopers suddenly gain the ability to wall-run in their shiny armor, but the game is missing two critical moves: going prone, and sliding.
The ability to lay down flat doesn’t get written in to the Titanfall-inspired list; I’m pretty sure every Call of Duty I’ve played features that. I’m also pretty sure that there were first-person shooters that allowed you to slide before Titanfall, but Titanfall made the maneuver feel suave, cool, and completely necessary. It’s a great dodging tactic, and a great way to position yourself behind cover instead of running up to it while fully standing, then stopping, then hitting the crouch button. Battlefront, on the other hand, doesn’t include the slide, which drastically decreases mobility. Also, being unable to go prone means that when you’re trying to move through a trench on Hoth, you can’t do it without exposing yourself to enemy fire. That’s uncool when you like to keep your head relatively intact.
Again, it’s worth noting that betas acknowledge that both games may change before their final releases. Also, betas only release small portions of the overall game, so it’s totally possible that some of the traits I mentioned are actually in the games that I’m talking about. But if they are, then there’s no reason the developers should have excluded them from the beta; the goal of the beta is to both test functionality AND put the best foot forward to convince players to buy your game. I’m sure there are technical reasons not to do any of the things I just brought up, but it’s not like they can’t be done…even though I’ve enjoyed both betas, the only game I’ve truly been convinved to buy is Titanfall 2 (whenever that comes out).