From Power Rangers to Pacific Rim, sci-fi has long been fascinated with the idea of tiny, fleshy humans controlling gigantic, heavily armed robots, using these metal leviathans to stomp and shoot the living crap of whatever might stand in their way.
Maybe that’s why the first time you summon your own cybernetic colossus onto the battlefield in the shoot-em-up video game Titanfall, it’s a weirdly intoxicating experience. As if some part of your geek-lizard brain had been waiting for this moment ever since you discovered Mobile Suit Gundam cartoons through your nerdiest friend in grade school.
Titanfall, by many of the original creators of the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty franchise, arrives next week exclusively on the Xbox One, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows platforms. Since its unveiling last year at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, it’s been one the most talked-about and eagerly anticipated games in ages.
But high expectations, especially in the unforgiving medium of video games, can be more dangerous than no expectations at all.
“Before, we didn’t have that level of hype and expectation to live up to,” says Vince Zampella, co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based game development studio Respawn Entertainment, the makers of Titanfall.
“Now we do. The hype and expectation are through the roof. And we have to deliver.”
Titanfall is set in a far-flung future, one that imagines a greedy mining corporation looking for new planets to exploit, pitted against a well-organized militia protecting the colonists of these worlds. Both sides are equipped with lots of soldiers, guns and robots.
When these bipedal war machines – called Titans – plummet into battle from orbit and your nimble foot soldier clambers inside, suddenly it’s not David versus Goliath anymore. It’s David becoming Goliath. Which might be a conveniently apt metaphor for Respawn itself.
The development studio, named after the gamer term for coming back to life after being killed, was founded in 2010 after Zampella and partner Jason West were abruptly fired from Infinity Ward, the studio that created 2003’s original Call of Duty and several of its sequels, including the immensely popular Modern Warfare games.
The split was a bitter one, with lawsuits flying back and forth between the men and their former publisher, Activision. (West left Respawn last year, reportedly due to family issues.)
Now, Zampella and Respawn, with the backing of game publishing giant – and Activision’s chief rival – Electronic Arts, are in the novel position of being superpowered underdogs. At 80-something employees, they’re dwarfed by megastudios like Ubisoft Montreal, with its 2,400 souls. But their lineage includes the most successful shooter series of all time.
And Titanfall will ultimately go up against Call of Duty, the reigning king of shooters. Which, for Zampella, is sort of like putting his children at each other’s throats.
“Call of Duty is something that I built,” says Zampella. “I’m proud of what we did, and I don’t have any hatred for it. Obviously there were issues we had with Activision and some of its management, but Call of Duty is a juggernaut that I am directly responsible for putting together. So I’m not going to kill my kid just because he’s a lawyer and I don’t like lawyers.”
Titanfall is an online-only multiplayer game, with up to six competitors per side controlling high-tech foot soldiers equipped with jet packs and gravity-defying parkour skills. In most of Titanfall’s game modes, these so-called Pilots do battle with one another until they’re given the go-ahead to bring down a Titan. With a simple yet oddly thrilling declaration from on high – “Standby for Titanfall” – a hydraulic Hercules comes crashing to earth. And then things start to get really interesting.
This delicately balanced gameplay trinity – Pilots versus Pilots, Pilots versus Titans and Titans versus Titans – works astonishingly well. But Titanfall’s unique formula only materialized after many other ideas were rejected.
“It was a lot of arguing, fighting, prototyping, testing, calling people stupid, calling people brilliant... and we finally got to a point where (the Titanfall) idea was out there,” says Zampella. “Our lead artist built a model, about two feet tall, of the Titan. I think everyone just looked at that and knew instantly, ‘OK, that’s kind of cool.’ ”
Players seem to think so, too. A beta test version of the game, offered as a free download to Xbox One and PC owners, drew more than two million players over a five-day period last month, whipping gamers into a fresh frenzy of anticipation.
And Microsoft seems to be pinning its Xbox One console’s fortunes to Titanfall, hoping it will do for their next-gen games machine what Halo did for the original Xbox in 2001. With Xbox One sales trailing substantially behind rival Sony’s PlayStation 4, Microsoft is offering a free copy of the game in a special Titanfall-themed Xbox One bundle, going on sale Tuesday alongside the game itself.
“Not to add any more pressure to the mix, right?” Zampella says of Microsoft’s hopes for Titanfall. “Right now it’s a good symbiotic relationship.”
As the game draws closer to release, Zampella and company are excited yet apprehensive. Maybe it will be a monstrous hit. Or maybe it will be a flash in the pan that players tire of in a few weeks. Maybe it will set a new standard for seamless, trouble-free online gaming. Or maybe Microsoft’s servers will crumble under the massive crush of gamers jumping online to play.
If all goes well, Titanfall’s future could be long and lucrative: downloadable add-ons, maybe sequels, possibly comic books and toys and even films. Zampella isn’t looking that far down the road just yet, though. “If this game doesn’t do well, there’s no need to think about what happens two years from now.”
One way or another, Titanfall is coming in loud, fast and very, very hard. Standby.