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'Titanfall' may rule whether shooters need to show character

The giant robots and ’splosions are nice, but where’s the heart?

EA

The giant robots and ’splosions are nice, but where’s the heart?

The system seller the Xbox One has needed is here, with the release Tuesday of Respawn's Titanfall. Whether or not the FPS turns out to be a turning point in software design is still a question mark.

The PC- and Xbox (360 and One)-exclusive release is a resounding success, but in an industry obsessed on tentpole releases driving the system, so to speak, it'll take some time to find out if this new franchise has legs.

The big difference about Titanfall is that it has been released without a solo campaign, long a staple in even the most mundane shooter. Titanfall's is a short, derivative version of multiplayer, requiring online interaction and only barely managing to scrape by on its own virtues. The argument goes that most FPS players only buy for the multiplayer anyway, so why pretend to offer it when that's all the gamers want? I find fault with that thinking, because like it or not, the campaigns are what make a series, both in terms of gameplay and as a draw for audiences.

I'm not talking about games focusing on ever more implausible scenarios for players to chew through to unlock zombie mode or customer skins or new weapons (and Titanfall's campaign does do that). I mean the heavy hitters of the past and present, which staked their claim on giving gamers someone to root for and, should players admit it or not, identify with.

Forbes' Paul Tassi wrote a great piece about this on release day, posing the question I was already thinking:

"Even if recent Call of Duty games have produced particularly unspectacular campaigns, would the series really be better off if we never met characters like Captain Price or Soap McTavish? Would the series be quite as memorable without Modern Warfare's "No Russian" massacre level, or Black Ops's head-warping twist ending? Would we have Halo without Master Chief and Cortana? Gears of War without Marcus Fenix and Dom? The list goes on, and I think the answer to all of these is no."

Tassi points out that Titanfall, while fun and a testament to the potential workability of Microsoft's grand plan to eventually create a download-only console, lacks a certain something that makes playing the game an empathetic experience. There's no face of the franchise, which in the long run may hurt its brand identity.

Halo may never have become the juggernaut it is without its solo campaign to go with its novel multiplayer, which at the time required a LAN connection. Would interest in the series have reached its current zenith without an enigmatic Spartan and his sassy hologram sidekick to make gamers feel like they were pursuing something more than a kill count? Considering the second half of the 2001 game's campaign is basically the first half in reverse order, character development sure seemed to keep people happy enough to play to the end.

Omitting a strong playable character hasn't hurt some franchises. Halo: Reach achieved this by making the NPCs compelling, even if Noble Six was near-mute. Killzone only had the same character for a couple titles. The Resistance series changed characters entirely for its trilogy finale.

So maybe Titanfall will be fine. Maybe it will live on through the support of gamers who don't care, as long as they have a BFG to use. Time will tell. Meanwhile, Bungie's new project Destiny is already running commercials ahead of its Sept. 9 release.

And we know Bungie can make a franchise last.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games for tbt*. Challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

'Titanfall' may rule whether shooters need to show character 03/11/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 4:53pm]

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