I want to talk about one of my favourite games of 2016, Titanfall 2: a first-person shooter that alongside the return of DOOM, heralds a new era for the genre. Both games excel in one critical area: they act as a correction and refinement of that which has preceded them and truly innovate by returning to their roots.
What’s interesting for me in my love for these games is that they are diametrically opposed. DOOM is a critique and correction on the state of 21st century shooting games while Titanfall is the epitome of many of the genre’s contemporary design choices. But if anything Titanfall 2 is a major step forward in a journey that has ailed first-person shooter design for almost 10 years: to find the first, true successor to the Call of Duty franchise — a series of games that hit its creative peak many years ago.
Now those are rather big shoes to fill, but I want to talk about how Titanfall achieves this, and to do so I need to talk about first person shooter mechanics, the evolution of Call of Duty’s design, its loss of identity and the issue of player empowerment.
Player Empowerment & Combat Games
Player empowerment is critical to action games in order to reinforce how well actions are executed: reinforcing your sense of agency over the world of the game. A sense of manifest destiny if you will. To enable that empowerment is rather straight forward but balancing it is incredibly difficult. Players need not only a sense of challenge to emanate from the game they are playing, but to know the mechanics provided, combined with a refinement of their own skill, will allow them to overcome whatever is presented in front of them. We typically empower players through a games mechanics and then frame that empowerment within the narrative. For example, Elder Scrolls frames its narrative around you as a hero of legend, while Assassin’s Creed implies that the power and strength you desire is not only within you, but is a latent aspect of your genetic history.
While a difficult balancing act, it’s arguably easiest to implement in action games given the definitive and absolute consequences of your actions. Destroying or killing enemy opponents in a zero-sum game is an incredibly simple mechanism for bolstering a players confidence: you kill enough enemies, you win, you don’t, you lose. This mixture of mechanics and challenge is a crock pot for interesting design concepts: such as the speed and fury of DOOM, the close quarter and ranged attacks of Skyrim to the combo-infused maelstrom of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.
Call of Duty and Player Empowerment
Now consider how this empowerment fantasy is delivered in Call of Duty. The original Call of Duty games foster a sense of belonging and unity in the face of certain doom. It’s mechanics are built around survival: holding out in intense set pieces where players are assaulted relentlessly by Nazi forces. Hiding behind cover, aiming down the sight and picking off foes one by one. One of the most critical and controversial additions to this list, the regenerative health system from Call of Duty 2 is less a knock-off from the already popular Halo series, but a reaction to repetitive backtracking for health packs that pulls you away from the core experience. The rush of feeling trapped under heavy fire, the inability to move for aid, popping up periodically to take out distant foes, all so that you and you NPC allies could make that small push forward. Empowerment came not from the ability to wipe out swathes of enemies, but to hold ground and make it to the next mission.
What’s interesting, is the need for building intelligent, reactive non-player characters not only for the Nazi forces, but also for the allies in order to provide the narrative framing. Something that at the time was still not a fully realised concept: with many friendly NPCs in shooting games either static and heavily-scripted. Friendly AI would provide cover fire and rush enemy positions, often running headlong to their death. This push for immersion was driven even further by the battle chatter system introduced in Call of Duty 2, with over 20,000 lines of dialogue recorded to identify target locations, give context to combat and respond to player actions. While we look back now on the likes of Call of Duty 2 and it seems rather formulaic, but it’s important to recognise this is a paradigm shift for friendly NPCs at the same time games such as Half Life 2, Halo 2 and F.E.A.R revolutionised enemy AI behaviour.
The idea of working alongside non-player characters as part of larger whole is critical to Call of Duty’s success: it’s empowerment comes from surviving against the odds alongside your NPC buddies when in the thick of it, even when the sheer military might of that which you faced felt overwhelming. It’s a trick that was subsequently polished for Call of Duty 4.
Arguably the pinnacle of the series: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare transposes the concept of large opposing, albeit transposed onto a modern narrative. Resulting in a war on several fronts against Russian separatist and middle-eastern forces. These fronts allow for a switch-up between the large scale conflicts to low-intensity battles that Call of Duty is known for.
CoD4 epitomises the Infinity Ward approach to gameplay by repeatedly inverting the manner in which player empowerment is delivered: with defensive and stealthy segments with SAS rookie Soap MacTavish followed by bombastic assault sequences as part of the United States Marine Corps. What is consistent however, is that each mission exhibits three core aspects that makes Infinity Ward campaigns, and especially Modern Warfare’s so memorable:
- The framing of players ability and story around their NPC comrades.
- The empowerment of the player through their actions.
- The reliance on technology to support that bond when the opposing force is overwhelming.
Modern Warfare’s NPCs elevate this experience through use of scripted and motion captured sequences where required in conjunction with the high NPC and continued use of battle chatter results in a game where players feel part of a larger whole. In which your actions contribute to the success of the team. Sometimes it’s ok to leave NPCs to fight it out on the street, allowing the player to either resolve an objective set by the game or — more importantly — make a strategic decision that will help overcome the current obstacle. This is Modern Warfare’s greatest strength: it’s NPCs shepherd players into interesting decision points where their actions will influence how the game plays out and — sometimes — whether NPCs will actually survive key battles. If you make the right decision, then that empowerment, that feel-good factor will reach an all-time high. The epitome of this relationship between players and their AI-driven allies can be seen in the infamous ‘All Ghillied Up’ — a stealth sequence in which the player is guided by their NPC companion MacMillan through enemy territory. MacMillan shepherds you to pivotal strategic decisions that will result either in an invisible incursion of their base of operations or a messy and sloppy break for your objective, depending on how well you play it out.
All of this is then juxtaposed by your collective weakness against technology-driven force. Players must respect both the power and access to such mechanics given they are often provided so infrequently, with much of the campaign placing the player in situations where they are at a serious disadvantage due to enemy technology. Two missions that exhibit this principle well are ‘War Pig’: where Marine Corps troops need to both guide a tank through hostile territory while relying on it to provide fire support. Meanwhile ‘Safehouse’ tasks the SAS with clearing several buildings but allows the player to call in an attack helicopter to help eliminate defending enemies. But it’s not just the wielding of such technology that empowers players, but also the capacity to defeat it when it’s applied against you, with missions such as ‘Heat’ that tasks the SAS with defending their extraction point from mortar fire, helicopters and T-72 tanks. And of course the closing mission ‘Game Over’ in which you face off against trucks of Zakhaev’s troops as well as attack helicopters.
All of this is carefully balanced and orchestrated within the narrative and allows the player to respect their place within the three-tier hierarchy: with NPCs supporting the player, heavy weaponry elevating the players capabilities and the player firmly in the middle. It’s these elements, effectively balanced across each mission of the game, with small character moments throughout that ensure the campaign proves memorable 10 years later.
But it’s success is problematic, given the desire to replicate it often results in a failure to understand it. Many players will remember the key battles, but fail to recognise the three-tier system in play and see it simply as missions where the player is front and centre. It doesn’t help that in the narrative, it’s really the SAS who stop the catastrophe from taking place — one which the US forces both help to stop but also in some respects cause. While a great campaign, it establishes the root of Call of Duty’s identity problem: rather than frame the players empowerment as one of many agents of change, you are the sole agent responsible for saving the world. This is compounded by the Modern Warfare multiplayer, which is in many respects a completely different game: breeding a sense of alpha-dominance that ties with this notion of control and mastery of our surroundings. CoD Multiplayer celebrates the actions of the individual, with Modern warfare pushing the franchise farther into this power fantasy through continued rewards for successful action. Kill-streaks, winning killcams, kill:death ratios, accolades and challenges for skillful play and long-term success. While players are in teams for the majority of game modes this is merely a formality of the scoring systems. The sense of unity that is a key part of Call of Duty eroded at the same rate the players sense of prominence grew. It’s perhaps fitting that Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment was forged not long after the release of Modern Warfare 2, the point where this issue reaches a boiling point.
Modern Warfare 2
2009’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is the breaking point not just for Infinity Ward’s philosophy but the franchise as a whole: a cacophony of action similar to the films of Michael Bay and Zak Snyder. Players empowerment is cranked up to 11: with mechanics such as quick melee kills and aiming down the scope being embellishing with throwing knives and clear and breach slow-mo’s. Reinforcing the attitude that you are a bad-ass. This in-turn distances the player from Call of Duty’s principle of strength through unity and how it delivered that empowerment fantasy. The narrative framing fails compounds this problem: as players play as part of a Spec-Ops task force with increasingly more ridiculous set pieces in missions that are the sole means to affect positive change in the fight against invading Russian separatist forces. Meanwhile what limited time we spent with US forces fails to bring the same balance of NPCs and technical warfare seen in the original, with players often provided excessive firepower either directly or indirectly in an effort to give more excitement to proceedings.
The identity problem of Call of Duty was now fully realised, it’s identity stripped by the iteration of its mechanics. In an effort to up the ante, the campaign became a twisted reflection of the multiplayer. What was once a story of unity, brotherhood and survival at its core, was now a justification of alpha-dominance. This was always true of how the game is played, but not in how it was designed: the empowerment framework has shifted from the army, to the soldier. This was subsequently embellished in the marketing campaigns for Call of Duty: advocating that “there’s a soldier in all of us” as each commercial focusses on self aggrandising pursuits.
In recent years Call of Duty has struggled to retain its influence and affluence within the gaming sphere: existing largely as a post-ironic parody of itself that its own creators fail to recognise. Struggling to reconcile its identity crisis in subsequent releases as it continues to embellish the empowerment of the player. Despite it’s popularity, the Black Ops series and it’s offshoot-cousin Advanced Warfare suffer from this more than most with their adoption of exo-suits and cybernetic enhancements. By merging the technology component of the design framework with the player’s mechanics and narrative and having already shifted the empowerment from the army to the soldier, it now gives the soldier the strength of an army.
The player’s empowerment is readily evident, but the campaigns fail to give it substance: set pieces seldom utilise embellished mechanics in an interesting way and thus diminishes their value. This combined with the lack of any real focus on framing your experience around your NPC comrades results in a lacklustre experience. Ultimately, we remember stuff like the Avatar guy, House of Cards and “Train Go Boom!”, but the rest of these campaigns are not particularly memorable. There is no real innovation in how missions are built, with many adhering to the tried and true ‘exploding corridor’ formula that Call of Duty has cemented, but without realising how reliant that level design is upon balancing its player agency. But conversely these games continue to prove popular in the multiplayer arena — especially Black Ops — given these mechanics really deliver that alpha-dominance that modes such as Team Deathmatch thrive upon. Making the player a super soldier works fine in multiplayer, but the campaigns can’t figure out how to capitalise on it.
And it’s with this in mind, we take a look at Titanfall: a game that is for all intents and purposes trying to have its cake and eat it. By addressing both the balance of campaigns alongside the an empowering set of mechanics. It’s trying to solve both problems at the same time, but didn’t solve it right away.
2014’s Titanfall was launched by Respawn Entertainment following the turmoil within Infinity Ward after Modern Warfare 2. It attacks head-on the identity crisis that Call of Duty currently faces in their own futuristic space-aged narrative. Respawn try to strike a balance of the players empowerment in-line with the scope of the narrative: re-building that 3-tier gameplay system [of NPCs, players and technology]. The first Titanfall does so in a multiplayer game — one of the root causes of how it collapsed in the first place — to mixed success.
Titanfall embeds the three-tier structure in its core premise: with the freedom fighter Militia and the conglomerate IMC fighting it out for control of territory. Each match can result in over 50 soldiers being deployed in battle at the same time, some human, some AI and the game moves quickly to distinguish the player from the of the pack. Players are designated as Pilots: specialists with advanced weaponry, stealth cloaking, tactical vision and capable of extreme parkour through use of a jetpack. All of this before the third tier from which Titanfall merits its name: the ability to call down and control a 20 foot tall combat exoskeleton or ‘Titan’. Once Titans are on the field, they become the true authority on the battlefield and pilots need to respond in kind. The same three-tier system of Call of Duty campaigns is being embedded in a multiplayer match: not just in player agency but it also makes efforts to justifying this power fantasy in the context of its narrative. Multiplayer matches reinforce this repeatedly in how it distinguishes human-controlled pilots from AI-driven grunts. Pilots are addressed directly by operational command, whereas grunts appear left to their own devices. Grunts smash to ground in orbital drop pods, while pilots confidently jump from dropships at the behest of their commanding officer. Players and their opposing pilots are the focus of the conflict and the game never lets you forget it, with grunts and titans using a battle chatter system similar to that of Call of Duty to focus on player activity.
Interestingly, this approach both enhances and diminishes its ambition given how you interact with grunt soldiers. New players can be overwhelmed by the skill and dexterity of their fellow pilots and so opposing grunts train players to respond to the world around them and reward their performance, even while still struggling to kill enemy players. Defeating grunts and spectres counts towards the overall team score in game modes such as attrition — making your contribution still valuable to your team — but more importantly, counts towards your Titan drop counter: ensuring new players will still get to enjoy the games most satisfying mechanic: the orbital drop of your very own Titan.
Despite this, NPCs and their lower-rung of the relationship is somewhat abused. Once you have had the time to build your skills, NPC become fodder: either opposing grunts for point scoring, or allied NPCs to lure out opposing players. It reinforces a disconnect between pilots and their fellow soldiers. And it’s with this in mind, we consider the Titanfall 2 campaign.
Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign follows the events of the multiplayer narrative from the original: with the IMC stranded in the frontier, but still a highly lethal force. Players assume the role of Jack Cooper: an infantry grunt as part of the militia with aspirations of becoming a pilot. While the opening tutorial level plays through a simulation to train you on how to use the games many abilities, it subsequently strips you of them for the campaign proper. With the opening mission starting with the player acting as one of the many grunts we’ve come to expect as part of the games design. The opening mission on Typhon proves to be a disaster, you and your allies are wiped out on a massive scale as you are overwhelmed by a spectres and enemy Titans. The crew of the MacAllan missing, presumed dead. Your survive thanks to the efforts of your superior officer Captain Lastimosa who fights off the Apex predators in his Titan, only to fall in combat. In his final moments, he entrusts you with the survival of the mission and his trusted Titan BT 7274.
This relationship between BT and player — so quickly established after the nightmare of the opening chapter — frames the player in a circumstance akin to the original Call of Duty games. Despite this power being bestowed upon you, it does not bestow overwhelming strength. Your position in the three-tier structure of NPCs, players and titans is at risk, as you continually face off against numerous grunts and spectres, that can prove either empowering or overwhelming depending on whether your titan is on hand to provide support. But then BT is not the only Titan on the field, as enemy titan’s and their commanding officers reinforce to you that you are not in control of this situation. Your back is against the wall and you need to find a way out.
Your skills and abilities slowly mature and take greater shape the longer the game is played. This is courtesy of a campaign that is designed to challenge the mastery of your mechanics, both on foot and in your titan. The wall running segments of the opening hour that test your competence without punishing you followed by the first true test of Titan mastery in ‘Blood and Rust’. Each mission balanced to require you to learn every aspect of the players faculties and gradually reinforce specific mechanics: with your jump timing challenged in ‘Into the Abyss’, wall jumping in ‘Effect and Cause’ until you are ready to be given more open and explorative gameplay sequences in ‘The Beacon’, ‘Trial by Fire’ and ‘The Ark’. By this point your understanding of the player and the technology within its framework is established, you now not only need to learn how to work alongside other characters, but prove yourself in the context of the narrative.
BT 7274 has operational command of the mission. You are doing what it tells you to do, either on foot or as his pilot and gradually getting better at it with every passing mission.
But putting all the boom and bluster aside, the framing of the players value and worth is achieved more subtly through your interactions with BT. Your Titan has operational command of the mission, you are doing what BT tells you to do, either on foot or as his pilot and gradually getting better at it with every passing mission. When players are forced to disembark and hit the ground to complete your objectives, you feel exposed and vulnerable, but BT gives guidance and support either through strategic information or by providing covering fire.
And it’s only towards the end of the campaign do you truly feel like you have earned your place, Commander Briggs is at first unconvinced of your worth but changes her mind over time. The 6–4 respect your prowess on the battlefield. Wiping our the Marauder Corps even earns Blisk’s respect, sparing you in some weird principle of honour. But even this sense of self worth ignores the true secret that elevates the empowerment framework of Titanfall 2: you’re not the hero, you were merely its conduit. BT 7274 is the true agent of change in Titanfall 2: your supporting ally, your operational command and your method of sheer force and firepower. BT cements your place firmly in the middle of that hierarchy but in doing so fosters a relationship with the player. You respect BT not just as a game mechanic, but as an ally who supports you: truly elevating what classic Call of Duty so well established. The hierarchy becomes a self-fulfilling loop, with you caught firmly in the middle of its arc: content in your skill and ability but not the sole agent of change. You recognise early in the campaign the power and force on display and slowly evolve your place within that framework. You cannot survive without BT, and BT is entrusted with keeping you alive. Black Ops turned you into a weapon, but Titanfall makes you the soul of it instead. A subtle distinction that is executed with care.
You don’t put that helmet on for pride and glory, but as an acknowledgement of your responsibility. Your back against the wall and the odds stacked against you, you push forward not just for survival, but for the greater good of others. You answer the call of duty and stand by for titanfall.