While Artificial Intelligence in first-person shooters is an area explored previously on AIandGames.com, one area their application is seldom found is within online multiplayer modes: a segment of play that is largely the core experience in many modern titles. Given the focus on player vs player competition, we wouldn’t expect an online shooter to be discussed here, but in an effort to innovate on an already popular formula, we see it adopted not only to enrich the core experience, but to ensure it maintains excitement for players while acting as a strategic asset.
Command authenticated: stand by for Titanfall.
A game built around a singular moment. The booming, cracking sound heralds the arrival of the Titan: a mech-like behemoth that slams into the ground. It’s shield enabled, a brief window of opportunity is provided. The player launches themselves toward it, lunging inside the cockpit as the controls and visual are enabled. You are now in control of your own personal killing machine. But your newfound empowerment is limited as the opposing factions Titans land on the horizon; control is transferred to enemy pilots. Conflict is imminent.
Titanfall is a first-person shooter developed by Respawn Entertainment: a company whose legacy is found within the highly popular Call of Duty series, with many of Respawn’s founding members former developers of the Modern Warfare games at Infinity Ward. As a result, Titanfall inherits much of the fast-paced and energetic gameplay from its forefathers: with smooth frame-rate, fast and responsive weaponry and a multi-faceted gameplay experience that encourages players to experiment with different weapon and tactical ability configurations. This allows for a range of skill sets to be accommodated: from stealthy approaches using cloaks and silenced weapons, to snipers who see their targets through walls. [pullquote]Navigating the map without touching the ground or stopping for breath is as exciting as it is satisfying.[/pullquote]Beyond this, the agility of players has increased significantly from that of the Call of Duty series, with double jumps and wall running adding a new layer of strategy to gameplay and increasing the pace beyond anything contemporaries such as Call of Duty or Battlefield accomplish. It is undoubtedly what brings me back to playing the back routinely: it’s fast, it’s slick and empowers you almost from the get-go. Navigating from one side of a map to the other without touching the ground or stopping for breath is as exciting as it is satisfying.
This change in agility is largely a response to the increased map size to accommodate ‘Titans’: large mech-style robots that are piloted by players. One of the biggest strengths of Titanfall is the distinct shift in agency and subsequently the strategies afforded by being in the drivers seat. Players effectively play a different game while commanding their Titan, introducing tactics that would otherwise be impossible without their mechanical friends. Suddenly the size of these maps makes even more sense: given the increased stature of Titans it both neutralises the verticality of the maps; pilots must place more emphasis on their agility mechanics to ensure they keep one step ahead. Meanwhile Titans not only give players an increased arsenal to tackle their opponents, but subsequently increases the range of weaponry and sightlines, allowing for the neutralisation of foes you otherwise would not have the opportunity to. Of course this is subsequently balanced out by pilots carrying a range of anti-titan weaponry that, if left unchecked, can reduce your beloved mechanical companion to scrap if given the chance. Nonetheless, unleashing your Titan on an unsuspecting map is fun experience that continues to excite: as the massive hunk of metal is heralded by the crack in the atmosphere as it comes crashing down to the ground.
While your agency and robotic buddies are the most obvious innovations to the FPS template, there is a significant body of AI found within this game that helps to enhance the overall experience. We take a moment to briefly summarise these features and what they bring to the gameplay.
AI on the Battlefield
The introduction of AI to the core Titanfall experience introduces a number of interesting gameplay elements, but arguably the core principle is enhancing the scale of conflict taking place throughout the battlefield. These are combat zones with human-driven robots storming through military facilities and city streets. As such, you want these battles to feel engrossing, exciting and – for lack of a better word – epic! It is through the use of non-player character AI, something you would typically see used in offline single-player campaigns, that this is enhanced throughout.
In each multiplayer match, players are accompanied by infantry – human ‘grunts’ as well as robot ‘spectre’ units – who fight alongside you. These non-player characters (NPCs) typically move towards combat zones in the map; often resulting in artificially-crafted combat scenarios between units of infantry throughout the match. While they are typically focussed on one another, they will attack human players should they be in proximity. While not terribly deadly, they can still do a lot of damage when in large numbers. This can result in the awkward situations where you can be killed by AI grunts, which can prove to be rather embarrassing. Naturally, you can retaliate and eliminate them from the field, but the game does an effective job of repopulating the map frequently, with airdrops of both friendly enemy troops occurring frequently throughout the battle. There are a number of interesting things happening here as a result of their inclusion in the match, both from a technical and game design perspective which enhance the overall experience.
For me the most interesting aspect from a game design perspective is the emphasis on world-building as grunts fill these large and otherwise empty maps with movement and activity. More interestingly, AI infantry frequently add commentary, either through action or dialogue, to each battle; providing useful information about the current game state. [pullquote]AI infantry frequently commentate each battle; providing useful information about the current game state.[/pullquote]A subtle touch of player empowerment is hidden in the fact that grunts speak highly of the player and will often spout dialogue celebrating your arrival or acknowledging your accomplishments. While subtle, it helps to establish how important and vital you are in each battle compared to the AI offerings. Beyond acting as a catalyst for inflating your ego, grunts often provide useful strategic information: spotting enemy players or announcing the gain/loss of tactical locations. Their panicked radio chatter is often an indication of nearby enemy activity and players can zone in on this to catch their opponent unaware. Of course, while they provide a large amount of tactical information, they’re also prone to chatting about otherwise inane and pointless topics. Outside of dialogue, the game will frequently place pre-scripted events such as grunts dragging away injured buddies or one-on-one battles taking place inside buildings or on side streets. These add little to the overall game, but help enrich the world these matches take place within.
Given the significant change in both the pace and scale of combat once Titan’s are introduced to the fight, the grunts and spectres help ground this within the fictional universe. Unlike enemy Titans and indeed their pilots, grunts will flee in the face of an enemy Titan and will seldom attack head on. Commands to retreat to areas inaccessible to a titan – such as a cavern or a building – are given to nearby troops to avoid being crushed under robotic feet. Furthermore, grunts and spectres continued to be deployed throughout each battle, as orbital drop pods and dropships enter the conflict zone and deploy fresh troops for each side. An unspoken truth behind this is the use of a director which is maintaining the population of NPCs on the field at any point in time. Often deploying fresh troops to the battle in areas which are not seeing large amounts of conflict. This then helps maintain an active battle by having pockets of NPCs spread across the field and will subsequently engage with either human players, or indeed opposing NPCs in due course.
While this is all rather interesting, if it only acts as scenery in each match then it would prove to be more of a hindrance than of any real value. What elevates the inclusion of NPCs from a fun additional to an element of strategic value is how players can interact with infantry in order to gain the advantage in a fight.
Firstly, killing enemy infantry has an impact upon your progression in combat. Each player upon landing into the map has a cooldown timer active that prevents the deployment of their Titan on the battlefield. On match start, this timer sits at around 4 minutes. However the countdown can be accelerated by the killing of pilots, the capture of hardpoint locations and eliminating enemy infantry. Suddenly, the window dressing of the combat zone becomes a valuable strategic asset: allowing you to speed up Titan deployment by killing off squads of enemy infantry.
Furthermore, game modes such as Attrition count the deaths of enemy NPCs towards the total score count for each team. This allows you to focus specifically on infantry when you feel it necessary and it still carries the potential to be a game changer: either by deploying a Titan at a time you need it most or stealing the win in the dying moments by grunt-farming rather than chasing enemy pilots. There is also another advantage hidden within this design that encourages and rewards novice players. The aforementioned agility mechanics can not only prove rather daunting for novice players to get to grips with, but also prove to be a source of frustration when learning to fight against enemy pilots. As a result, novices can still genuinely contribute to the progress of their team by taking out the enemy infantry, which has the knock-on effect of ensuring they achieve their Titan sooner. It’s a rather subtle touch that is often overlooked, but I applaud Respawn for attempting something different that rewards new players in a manner conducive to the development of their skills.
The one aspect we haven’t even discussed is the Titans themselves: which carry their own basic AI behaviours either to guard areas designated by players or to follow their pilot across the map. While not a groundbreaking innovation, it nonetheless places an impetus on players to use Titans effectively at points when piloting them is not pragmatic. Given the nature of gameplay, restricting a Titans movements to only be when a pilot is in control of it would be wasteful, with idle Titans strewn across the battlefield at times where it is not practical for the player to use it. This is particularly the case in certain objective-based game modes such as Hardpoint Domination or Capture the Flag, where we spend a lot of time not being in our Titan if we are focussed on the objective, given hardpoint locations are often in buildings and flag carriers cannot carry the flag while piloting their titan. In addition, Titans are useful given they attract the attention of other players and indeed NPC infantry. In certain contexts not being in your Titan is more practical, given it allows you to conduct an offensive against a particular strategic point while your enemies are distracted.
While it perhaps failed to excite the FPS market as it should have, Titanfall is by no means a failure. It still has an active community of players who continue to engage on what is a fun and unique experience in the current landscape of first-person shooters. It’s well worth checking out before the inevitable sequel makes its way to a bevy of games platforms. It is still a rare example of AI deployment and especially for the use of NPCs in online FPS gaming. I would hope that in future, this practice is explored further. But for now, I have an excuse to play more Titanfall.