The last thing in the world I would ever classify myself as now is an “online multiplayer enthusiast,” especially in regards to shooters. Which is odd, because, for the longest time, they were the only games I played.
Rewind the world back to the autumn of 2007. I was, well, where I am now, in an inconspicuous little town in Illinois, in an inconspicuous blue room, staring into a computer screen with the dashboard of the Xbox 360 on in the background. It was probably just as cold outside then, the single digit Fahrenheit temperatures giving me just as much a reason to sit inside and do little of import then as it does now.
Little things are changed; I’m taller now. I’m fearing the coming of adulthood as opposed to cheering on its inexorable advance. The color of the room has faded, yet also come a little more alive. The President is black. The dashboard of the Xbox 360 is a bit cleaner, maybe a couple more advertisements for movies than there used to be. I suppose the game sitting in the drive has changed, too. Instead of taunting me with the prospect of BioShock Infinite, it used to taunt me with the prospect of a box canyon, flags, and rocket launchers. The dull glow of the screen holds a different image as well. Now, the pale whites of WordPress and the text of this article, but back then, it would have been a trailer for a shooter.
I had, you could say, limited tastes back then. And the autumn of 2007 was feeding that taste just fine. That fall was the duel of titans, two franchises with long, storied legacies, roots deep in the frost of shooter legacy releasing their biggest installments ever within a month and half of each other. They were, of course, Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. I’ll spare you the explanation of the two; statistically speaking, I’m pretty sure the odds are better that you get struck by lightning than you never hearing of the great rivalry that arose between them.
That rivalry was the first time I was ever exposed to the insane fanboy culture surrounding multiplayer shooters, of the intense competition between the rival franchises. I would know; like the terrible young child that I was, I absolutely took part in it. My choice of side, Halo 3, was purely based on the fact that I didn’t have the money to purchase Modern Warfare, and so my brain jumped through hoops of logic to justify my choice, inventing a thousand reasons why one was objectively better than the other. Through all of that mess, through all the over-analyzing and long arguments with strangers on the Internet (seriously, I was the worst), I started figuring out little details of how and why elements of these games work, and why others don’t. All that time spent inside my own head with these two games really impacted the way I analyze games today, and sort of gave the spark that made we want to do, well, this.
It also killed my enthusiasm for multiplayer shooters.
That’s not a dig at the quality of those two games, absolutely not. They are marvels of their genre, and have earned their place as two of the defining games of last generation. I had more fun in the Forge of Halo 3 and in the frantic firefights of Modern Warfare than I’ve had in many games since. Unfortunately, that includes their successors. As time went by, the fast paced multiplayer matches of old blurred into malaise. Distinctions between the biggest multiplayer shooters, between Call of Duty and Battlefield, and even Halo, became harder to find. The death of my love for the fight was slow, and agonizing; the longer I tried to keep it alive the worse it got. Eventually, I just went away from it entirely, and grew towards something else. Only multiplayer experiences cooperative in nature could hold my eyes. Things that built stories and memories, not just abject numbers on a win counter, were what held my interest. That endless stream of selfish battling over franchise superiority jaded me away from the rush of combat, and the strange brand of friendship those battles engendered. I was finding it elsewhere. I started finding it in stories, in the solo sojourns.
All of this to say that playing Titanfall this weekend was a bit like stepping into a time machine.
I played exactly four matches of Titanfall: two standard affairs of team deathmatch, or as standard as Titanfall can make them be, and two matches of Last Titan Standing, where everyone dresses up in a fancy suit and goes to town with a lover on their arm. It is a shooter that wears the legacy of its ex-Infinity Ward makers on its sleeve. However, calling it “another post-Call of Duty shooter” is a drastic underselling of all that Titanfall is. Titanfall, on its most basic level, nails everything it has to nail to be a polished and fun shooter. The guns are balanced yet powerful. The infantry combat is fast paced and frantic (and certainly aided by the emphasis on verticality, something sorely missing from shooters). And that whole player count controversy is quickly seen to be a mute point; six v. six feels crowded enough.
But there’s something else Titanfall just nails: the feeling of an event. It’s indelible, really, but the pretentious term I’ve come to use for it is “emergent narrative.” There feels like something greater at work than just the score on the board at the end of the match. Every piece of Titanfall is dedicated to inducing this feeling; the A.I.’s reactions to you in battle empower you, and their scampering around the battlefield gives the levels a sense of life and happenings beyond just you. The ends of matches imply a larger universe with greater stakes, with the dropships hauling the losing team up into the stars and into safety from the threat below. And the eponymous Titanfalls? They are the piece that binds the whole things together, and give the battles of Titanfall a sense of purpose like no other. It is the perfect blend of multiplayer combat and a sense of purpose, and that sense of purpose gives way to what makes Titanfall so exciting.
It gives people things to talk about, stories to tell to their friends, and memories to hang onto. That sense of playing a part in events on a much larger scale grants players a sense of accomplishment and gratification that seems long since lost in shooters. This was what Halo 3 and Modern Warfare did so well, growing these stories, but it was such a minor element of the design then. Now, Titanfall has done something that feels, for the first time, truly next-gen; it makes those stories the true currency, the true experience points, the most crucial part of the design without which nothing else would work. If the beta is any indication, the full game will be a truly remarkable multiplayer experience that understands it’s the moments, not the numbers, that keep players coming back. And isn’t it the damnedest thing that Bungie, the developer of the other titan of 2007, is releasing Destiny later this year, a game which seems to make this emergent narrative, the sense of being a piece of the whole, the entire narrative experience?
Hell, its enough to get me excited about online shooters again. The fire has been reignited, and I am ready to return to war a wiser soldier than before.