Shot-tober | How Respawn Entertainment Shook Up the Meta

To fill the time between the Modern Warfare beta weekend and its release on October 25th, I’ll be running a series on first person shooters. Forget ‘Stoptober’, this month shall henceforth be known as ‘Shot-tober’! Please forgive the name, it was the best I could do…

Up until the middle part of this decade, if big-budget online military shooters were your thing, chances are you either played Call of Duty or Battlefield. Both series represented the flagship franchises of their respective publishers, selling millions of copies with each annual iteration. Players had their reasons for picking one over the other; Battlefield offered larger scale warfare with bigger maps, more players, vehicular combat etc. Whereas Call of Duty was a much easier ‘pick-up-and-play’ experience, catering to the more casual crowd, despite offering plenty of carrots on sticks to keep more dedicated players grinding their way to prestige.

In 2014, along came Respawn Entertainment with Titanfall. The studio was founded back in 2010 after Jason West and Vince Zampella were fired from Call of Duty developers Infinity Ward, a company the two men had themselves founded back in 2002 and with whom they had gone on to create one of the most successful franchises in gaming history.

A pretty major falling out with parent company Activision led West and Zampella to take half the Infinity Ward development staff with them, and at 2011’s E3 it was announced that the new studio’s maiden project would be some sort of ‘sci-fi shooter’. Two years later at E3 2013, Titanfall was unveiled to an expectant crowd. It went on to scoop a host of best-in-show awards and was released the following spring to an overwhelmingly positive reaction from critics and players alike.

Titanfall set itself apart from its competitors by offering new concepts, executed with precision and confidence, framed within a vibrant sci-fi aesthetic. While Respawn didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, they certainly refined it and made it go faster. The wall running, double jumping pilots that zipped around the battlefield at breakneck pace exhilarated players that up until then had been bogged down with more plodding, dreary shooters.

Industry leading FPS games of the time would pride themselves on their immersive, story driven campaigns. Campaigns that were invariably awash with shades of brown and grey to hammer home the ‘gritty realism’ of it all. With their colourful new IP,  Respawn decided to drop the single player mode altogether. Some felt this represented a glaring lack of content that prevented a good game from becoming great, while others praised Respawn for being bold enough to cut to the chase, focusing on where players really spent most of their time.

That was, until the sequel arrived. 2016’s Titanfall 2 and brought with it much of the same as far as multiplayer went, with one noticeable addition: a single player campaign.

One of the surprise hits of the year, Respawn's effort to flesh out its world with human stories worked, for me at least, on multiple levels. While the story itself was pretty standard sci-fi fare; derivative, even, if you were being particularly discriminating (I figured out about halfway through that the plot had basically been lifted beat for beat from Star Wars: A New Hope), the environmental design and puzzle aspects made for a much more engaging experience than you might initially expect from this type of game.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship
While of course there were sections of certain missions reserved exclusively for shooting dudes and blowing things up, it was the quieter periods between the action that stood out. Devices that enabled central character Jack Cooper to navigate the same space at different times, combined with the wall running that made the first game’s multiplayer such a hit invoked memories of games like Portal and Mirror’s Edge, games that are credited with breaking the mould when it comes to first-person.

Despite the somewhat by-the-numbers plot, central characters Cooper and his trusty Titan BT-7274 portrayed a compelling relationship. Where the narrative fell down, the dialogue shone. Again, it wasn’t the big set-pieces that were the most effective, but moments of conversation between the action that made for some genuinely touching moments between pilot and machine.The single player mode was a pleasant surprise for players that were already on board with Respawn’s brand of military-meets-sci-fi modern shooter, but it served as merely an appetiser to the main course.

Diving back into Titanfall 2 in 2019 has its ups and downs. What with Respawn’s latest offering, Apex Legends enjoying tremendous popularity since its release (we will get to that shortly), queue times can be a tad longer than they once were, and the people that are still playing tend to be very good. Very, very good. Getting 360 no scoped by an enemy pilot, only for them to call down a Titan that looks like Xzibit just brought it back from West Coast Customs can be a little frustrating.

Despite the futility of persisting with a multiplayer mode that the collective gaming consciousness has largely moved on from (as I type this, Titanfall 2 currently has a total of 17 viewers on Twitch) it’s still a tremendous amount of fun once you find your rhythm and get into a match. There’s just nothing else like it. The way it implements NPC enemies, or creeps, if you want to use MOBA terminology, along with fast paced PvP combat, punctuated by occasionally getting to pilot lumbering, yet devastating Titans around beautifully rendered, rich environments is as enjoyable as it was at launch.

Where Respawn continues to innovate is with its ability to subvert genre expectations and build upon what we already know to create entirely new experiences.

Apex Legends was released in February of this year without fanfare, yet despite zero marketing prior to its launch, became an overnight sensation.

Taking the tactile, realistic gun-play from Titanfall and implementing it into a hero-led, loot-driven, squad-based battle royale set within the same universe was the right game at the right time. With a few popular streamers given a financial nudge by EA to show off their new game on their streams, buzz surrounding Apex Legends began to skyrocket. Within a week of its release it had reached 25 million players.

There is a reason it’s so popular. In the same way that the original Dota mod took influence from other games before it, blended various elements together to single-handedly invent a new genre, so to has Apex Legends redefined what a modern FPS can be.

You can see the hallmarks of other games written into the DNA of Apex. The team coordination and ability-focused heroes are reminiscent of Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 before it. The emphasis on looting is torn from the pages of Borderlands, or even Action RPGs such as Diablo. The gunplay holds its own against Call of Duty and Battlefield, as Titanfall has since its release. This is all tied together within a classic battle royale framework, made popular by Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and of course, the insanely popular Fortnite.

Respawn are no magpies however, just taking pieces of this, and ideas from that, smashing them together in the hope that something works as a result. Rather, it feels like the natural evolution of a genre threatening to go stale. While Call of Duty and Battlefield both included battle royale modes in their latest titles, they felt like a hurried inclusion, crowbarred in to capitalise on the growing trend of the format (Battlefield developer DICE even outsourced their mode to Criterion Games).

World's Edge was unveiled as an entirely new map for the launch of Season 3

Apex Legends has just begun its third season. It is amongst the most watched games on Twitch, and shows no signs of slowing down as it approaches its first anniversary. While not without its share of outcry after the Iron Crown loot box debacle - I guess there has to be a trade-off of expectations after Respawn’s acquisition by EA in 2017. With great power comes great responsibility, and unfortunately, with great financial backing, comes great... microtransactions? We can only hope that EAs corporate impact is continued to be tempered by what is at heart, a passionate development team.

As Respawn looks forward to 2020, it has been given the mammoth task of tackling the Star Wars licence with new third-person adventure Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order which is due for release in just over a month’s time. The Medal of Honor franchise is also being brought back from the dead after flat-lining sometime after the release of Warfighter in 2012 as a VR title next year. How Respawn handle these third-party IPs remains to be seen. What I’m more intrigued by is how Apex Legends grows and changes over the next 12 months. This universe has given us more than just a first-person shooter with robots. It has shown that with some creative design, even an ageing Source engine can help shape the course of the industry.

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