You probably have a mental picture of what a single-player Titanfall campaign would look like: flashy, relentlessly linear and relentlessly scripted. Call of Duty with mechs, basically. But that's more or less the opposite of what Respawn Entertainment is going for with Titanfall 2's campaign, which was revealed via a series of pre-recorded glimpses at an event this month. Hard to believe given that a sizable portion of that team are veterans of Infinity Ward, responsible for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the archetype for the scripted, linear first-person shooter. They have a name for that old Call of Duty format at Respawn, "boots on the ground combat," and they're careful to cast their own approach in stark contrast to it.
"In the single-player demo that we showed here, you'll notice that it was not just pure action all the time, getting pulled through a very linear experience," says Drew McCoy, executive producer of Titanfall 2, which is set for release in October. "You have to stop, soak in the environment, figure out where you have to go, and how you want to attack the situation. So you're actually doing a little bit more thinking and pre-thought before you get into the action."
"Pre-thought" isn't the first thing you'd expect from high-budget, triple-A mech shooter, and especially not Titanfall 2. The first game didn't even have a single-player campaign. It heroically attempted to tell a story through a series of multiplayer matches, and the result was a vast, slightly incoherent "campaign mode" that was a challenge to even experience in the correct order.
Titanfall 2's story takes places after the events in the first game, but according to single-player design lead Mackey McCandlish, you won't need to have played through that "crazy campaign multiplayer mode" to understand what's going on. "This was an opportunity to start from a clean slate and pull from more influences because that expectation of a previous game does not exist for our campaign," McCandlish says.
The influences he cites read almost like a who's who of the anti-Call of Duty canon of first-person shooters: games that favor less-scripted forms of storytelling, like Half-Life and Portal, and games like Far Cry and Halo, that give players more meaningful tactical choices. To hear McCandlish tell it, the process of getting there involved chopping Titanfall's core gameplay up into its constituent mechanical parts, and letting the fun emerge as it will. Early in development, the team gathered weekly and presented "action blocks" – individual gameplay vignettes hyperfocused on these specific bits of Titanfall's mechanical grammar. Through this process, they realized that the expansive mobility that the game affords players should play an equal role to shooting, at least philosophically – it's probably a safe bet that you'll be doing more shooting than jumping and wall-running, minute-for-minute. This is also likely what they're talking about when they say stuff about letting the player "soak in the environment."
"What we found was that players can break down those [mobility] challenges because they 'read' on a single screen and they're an opportunity to think about the world differently," McCandlish says. He's also quick to point out that they had "real, average people" playtest these, acknowledging how easy it is for this sort of gameplay to get really hard, really fast. Enticing as it may be to envision a Titanfall 2 that incorporates exceedingly difficult mobility challenges, McCandlish suspects it'd be a bit much for the majority of us.
"We're really conscious about making a game that isn't trying to get you to quit. We want you to come along, we want you to feel successful," he says.
In spite of all we already know – and the hurricane of comparisons to classic shooters – McCandlish sounds like he believes there's still some mystery to Titanfall 2. "I see on the Internet a lot of, 'Oh, it's going to be like this game or that game,'" he says. "I'm looking forward to what people say after the game comes out because I think it's a bit more creative, a little more willing to let itself breathe. I think that's going to surprise people."