17 January 2022

Military Sci-Fi Oddities: The TITANFALL Franchise


On April 8th, 2014, Respawn Entertainment released a online-only mecha-based first person shooter infused with the DNA from the Call of Duty franchise via some of the talent behind Infinity Ward. While it was cause for celebration by us fans of military science fiction and mecha, it soon twisted to ash and broken promises via a series of oddities. So, why is TITANFALL listed under the Oddities series instead of the Broken Promises or even the Forgotten Classics serials...well, because the entire history of the TITANFALL franchise and its current status is all just odd and I think it needs to be discussed in that light and lens.

Before We Begin...My POV on TITANFALL 1 & 2
So, I have to admit that despite my best efforts to stay neutral about the TITANFALL games and their franchise, I have noticed that I am writing this article more from my own opinion, colored by my own experience with T1 and T2. I was very much let down by T2 and it has been hard for me to see the love and worship that is paid to TITANFALL 2 given how disappointed I was by it. Anyway, your mileage may vary from my own.  
Why Did Respawn Make a Mecha Shooter Game in 2014?
Since the rise of the Giant Robot genre in Japan during the 1960’s and its importation into the Western market in the late 1970’s (2nd Wave of Anime), there has been a certain romantic about robotic war-machines in tales of future wars. For years, creators have been inserting combat and work mecha into all media types, however, money and technological limitations have plagued the inclusion of mecha into live-action and video game productions. At the time that Respawn Entertainment was formed from ex-Infinity Ward employees, the graphical and processing technology existed for the next evolutionary step for video game mecha combat games. 
With their collective experience with the chaos and gunplay of the Call of Duty franchise, the concept of adding a future war setting combined with mecha seemed like a winning combination…but, what did Respawn Entertainment  decide to undertake a mecha combat game in 2010? When the studio was founded, the first game to be created was placed under the name “R1” and there were several concepts floated, like urban warfare against dragons, (which sounds like Reign of Fire to me), then it moved to demons. By late 2010 and early 2011, the first hints of the Titans began. 
The Mechs that became Titans were influenced by the powered armor from Iron Man with artist Joel Emslie designing the Titans. One of the original concepts for the game, was for the mechs to defends a downed and being repaired starships against hostile native wildlife threats to the ship...sounds like Avatar. This would have been called Redeye after the ship. During this, there were lawsuits, fistfights, and loss of direction with their first game. Finally, in 2011, the R1 demo with pilots, infantry, and the Titan mechs were shown to EA, and thus, the rest is history. 

The Historical Context of TITANFALL 
TITANFALL and its studio was forged in the fires of Call of Duty and the world that gaming empire built. With that sematic change in the world of video games, TITANFALL would be of the world it was born into, one dominated by the DNA of Call of Duty and the world of online combat. At the time that the first TITANFALL game was released during the 8th Generation of home video game consoles was launched with the PS4 and the Xbox One. On these systems was games like Destiny, HALO: The Master Chief Edition, ALIEN Isolation, and Wolfenstein New Order. At the time, there was not really any mech based combat games on the 8th Generation and TITANFALL represented that genre-within-a-genre. This is at a time when the "always online" model was being basically forced on players and when more and more shooter based games were abandoning the single-player campaign. Just four years after the release of the first TITANFALL game, Call of Duty would release a campaign-less game: Black Ops IV. This is also a time when Call of Duty would push further into the future with COD: Advanced Warfare in 2014 after the COD universe had gone into the future with Black Ops II.    

Why is the TITANFALL Franchise an Oddity?

The Origins of the Studio
It is well known that the origins of Respawn Entertainment was firmly rooted in the world of Call of Duty and this fact made the gaming public and fans of mecha downright thirsty for their take on mecha combat with COD DNA infused. Behind the scenes, it was a bloody mess with lawsuits, counter lawsuits, and even rumors of email hacking. The founders of Respawn are Jason West and Vince Zampella were originally employed by Infinity Ward and were on the development of COD: Modern Warfare. With the massive success and new contract talks undergoing, West & Zampella pushed for more money and control over MW2. If the pair were fired, the control of the sequel would go back to Activision. In March of 2010, that happened and this was around the time that there was discussions of getting Infinity Ward out of the shadow of Activision. After the pair were fired for debated reasons, they established Respawn Entertainment while dueling lawsuits were being filed. Shortly after the founding of Respawn, West left (he would later join Epic) due to family issues and it was just Zampella in the driver seat. In 2017, Respawn bought by EA for nearly $500 million, and then they became more of the masters than the founder. 

The lack of a campaign in TITANFALL 1
In 2020, Respawn Design Director Jason McCord released about 90 seconds of prototype footage of a single-player campaign for the original TITANFALL game on his Twitter. The T1 single-player campaign was being worked on around 2012 before it was scrapped to focus completely on the multiplayer, which was designing a limitation into the game automatically like a limited lifespan similar to the NEXUS-6 models. In addition, Respawn Vince Zampella shared that one reason for the lack of T1 SPC was that most players, in their experience, do not finish the campaign and it is a waste of resources. He mentioned that the development of a single-player and a multiplayer splits the studio and team in half and sets them apart from one another. Of course, if there had been an off-line multiplayer and/or a campaign, the original TITANFALL could outlive this if and when the servers are shut down. Sadly, this not that much of oddity in modern gaming.  
The story campaign of T2
I was surprised when I finally engaged with T2’s story campaign and the division between my own opinion and those of the gaming journalism public. I found the central story of a foot soldier taking on the role of the pilot when he discovers a wounded rebel Titan mech called “BT” to be lackluster and not that engaging to the point that I never finished the campaign and moved on. The story was much more about separating BT and the pilot from one another and while the time travel element was cool, the wall running and jumping was bullshit. There was a lack of mech combat and I never felt as powerful in BT as I have in other mechs. To me, the story of combat on off-world colonies using these Titans would have been fine as it was in the old Xbox Mech Assault games.  

Gamers Forgot about the PS4 T2 Release 
One of the reasons often given behind T2 lacking performance is that unlike the first game, the sequel was released on both the Xbox One and the PS4. With the first game being a much bragged on Xbox exclusive, it make some sense that the game buying community did not know that the sequel would be on both for the major home video game consoles. It seems that marketing failed that one. And it directly impacted the longevity and sales of the sequel. To be honest, I am in this group as well, I completely forgot until writing this article that TITANFALL 2 came to the Sony brand. 

The Disconnect between Reviews and Sales
Overall. T2 is a vast improvement to T1 and the game was a bright spot during its window of release garnering very positive reviews. However, that did not translate into increase hard sales that the EA overlords demand over the original game. From the limited data, it is believed that the gap between T1 and T2 was nearly five million units. Up until Respawn pulled T1 from being sold, it had moved 10 million units and the sequel moved around four million. We do not know if the sales were to the retailors or to the hands of the gamer. If you listen the gaming review public, TITANFALL 2 was a game worthy of taking the crown off John-117 and teabagging as they took the mantle of military sci-fi shooters. Of course, that did not happen, but to this day, T2 is still spoken about with hallowed reverence and the faithful still await the 3rd game.

The Other Media Ventures that didn’t Happen
During the success of the first game and the assumed success of the 2nd game, there was much effort put into transforming TITANFALL into a multi-media empire like HALO. Unlike HALO, the TITANFALL universe was going to the small-screen first with a realistic Military Sci-Fi television series via Lionsgate with Respawn’s Jesse Stern. This announcement broke in early 2016 and there has not been any traction on developing the series since. During an interview with Stern in 2016, he discussed the massive expense of a TITANFALL live-action series. Some mention during the interview was made of animation series as well. Stern was going to frame the series in the light of the American Civil War and the American Revolution. Despite the interest and a live-action trailer, the series has not happened and given the current status of TITANFALL, it will likely not happen. During the apex of TITANFALL’s popularity, there were rumors of comic books and even books…both never happened if they were even officially planned.  

The Current Status of the TITANFALL Franchise
During the course of this article, I've added or changed this portion of the article three times based on new developments of the TITANFALL franchise. Simply put, it is firmly believed by the fans of the franchise that there will be 3rd game. However, the reality is...different? Despite the piles of praise, millions of sales, and being the foundation for Apex Legends, the 3rd game in the TITANFALL series is…what? Still alive? In deep cold status, dead, missing on that island where LOST takes place? In the 8th dimension? Honestly, for years there has been a few statements by Respawn and EA saying how important TITANFALL is and how there will be more TITANFALL EA has publicly in October 2019 said how they committed to the TITANFALL and “won’t forget about TITANFALL 3”, but it seems that EA was more focused on Apex Legends and Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order to generate profits and fans that those games are making. 
Between the lines, this means that those games grow fans and made money, and T2 did not. Given the relationship between EA and Respawn, there has been tension about the 3rd game and this was shown during an interview with Glixel, EA and Respawn CEO Vince Zampella, the EA publicist.  During the interview, EA stated that they were “committed to the franchise” and Zampella came back with: “So, whatever the fuck that means”. To most of the TITANFALL fanbase, this was sad news, because it means limbo. That is what it means, and it could be years or never when TITANFALL 3 drops and by then it will be too late. Adding to the possible death of the TITANFALL franchise is that first game was pulled from online retailers. This may have been a good thing, as DDOS hack attacks had made the original TITANFALL unplayable and it seems that Respawn did nothing about it. Recently, hacks have targeted TITANFALL 2 and Apex Legends as well.

The Impact of the TITANFAL Franchise
While the original TITANFALL did not usher into creation more mech-based shooter games, it did show that the gaming community is still interested in their games having a single-player campaign and that that the DNA of TITANFALL warranted a sequel. When that sequel dropped, one of the levels in the game, “Cause-and-Effect”, generated ripples in the waters of the gaming community. The use of time travel is certainly not new in the realm of video games, but “Cause-and-Effect” was something special and allowed the player to attack the targets via the present or the past and it was a masterclass in level design. While I was not a fan of T2, I was massively impressed by that level and it was something original in the world of shooters. To me, the greatest impact could be seen in a both a micro and macro level. On the micro level, TITANFALL was a beloved game to the fan base and for some, it was an introduction to mech combat and likely served as a gateway drug for some players to move on to the Battletech universe. On the macro level, the impact of TITANFALL shows a promising concept can fail despite being a solid game and how give the wrong release date can impact its sales success. Another impact of TITANFALL on the larger scale is that the Call of Duty DNA can be successful injected into shooter game formats and work successful by refreshing a long-established genre (mecha games). Time will tell more about the more long-term impact.    

My Thoughts on the TITANFALL Games
I am into mecha like Sir Mix-a-Lot is into...well...anyways, I love mecha and mecha based video games have been a passion of mine since the first time I played FASA's CityTech back in the mid-1980s. When the original TITANFALL was announced for the Xbox One, I was hooked. Since I could not afford the system yet, I played my brother's with the TITANFALL game. I very much enjoyed the game and the mech-on-mech combat was sweet. Since my exposure was short, I did not experience the issues with matchmaking and such. When I thought about buying it for my Xbox One, I learned about it being an online only shooter and I avoided it. It pissed me off that the lifespan of the game would be shorter than a NEXUS-6 and it would be a dead property within two years. My hopes were up when the second game was announced with a single-player campaign...and then I played it. From the reviews, TITANFALL 2 was one of the best military science fiction shooters of this generation of home video game consoles, and I fully expected to be amazed and I was not much liking HALO 5. 
To put it in some perspective, I enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda much more than TITANFALL 2, and on my recent replay of the game for this article, was still left pissed off by the experience and I sold it for Shadow of the Tomb Raider. In short, the story is a mess, you do not spend enough time with BT and the wall-running is a bullshit feature....I mean, is this Mirror's Edge or is it a mech combat game?! Certain elements of the beginning were fine and the time travel level was ingenious, resulting in one of the innovative selections of a shooters in years. However, it was ruined by the terrible wall-running feature and mechanics as well as that the game tried everything to make you get out of BT and hoof it solo. Then there is the technological level of the IMC. I know that the time travel equipment is alien in origin, but, the massive production plant is just too much. While I enjoyed the weapons and the Call of Duty like gameplay and handling, it was just off and I was left feeling that the game could have been so much better. It is an oddity to me how much I disliked TITANFALL 2 and how much the gaming review community loves it.    

The Other Oddity: the TITANFALL Toys
Given the setting of the TITANFALL universe, it seems a natural production for being transformed into a very cool toyline, especially, if there was a live-action TV show or movie. However, because this TITANFALL, the actually produced toylines were odd to say the least. For the original 2014 game, Respawn Entertainment partnered with K'Nex to bring a line of building sets based on TITANFALL first game. So, who is K'Nex? I had never heard of them until the TITANFALL sets came out and my nephew got the ORGE set for Christmas. K'Nex was founded by Joel Glickman in 1992 . Unlike plastic block construction sets, K'Nex used rods and connectors along with wheels and pulleys. While the idea was turned down by the major companies, Toys R Us partnered with K'Nex to become a vendor for the new toys. While originally K'Nex did not partner with license brands, that changed in 2001 when they released Battletech/MechWarrior themed sets. From there, K'Nex would release Mario Cart themed sets as well as Plants vs. Zombies. In 2014, Respawn and K'Nex partnered to bring the world of TITANFALL. This was odd in the way that it was pretty small building toy company that got the rights to a major up-and-coming property much like Joyride Studios with HALO. In addition, these were construction set toys, not traditional action figures and vehicles. Both of these were odd...but at least K'Nex had experience with mech-based toys. Why didn't Lego or Mega Bloks get the license? I know that Lego maintains that they do not built "military sets", which is bullshit considering that Lego has a highly successful Star Wars line...intergalactic civil war anyone? The line did not make much of impact and it still reasonable to pick today. It was a bold idea and I celebrate the concept...but it was lacking. 
For the sequel, that was planned by everyone to be a massive affair, Respawn turned to the plastic wizard surgeons at McFarlane Toys, In late 2016 and throughout 2017, MacFarlane Toys released TITANFALL 2 "toys" to the market. The line would be composed of several highly-detailed seven inch figures that included Pilot Jack and Jester along with a large BT figure that is the most rare and expense of the line. Coming in a 10inches, BT-7274 is armed with his X016-A2 weapon and a three-inch Jack Cooper figure. It is actually quite stunning in person and today, it sells for over $400. While it is not odd that Macfarlane made the toys for TITANFALL 2, it is odd that no more Titans were made and the figures hung around the stores for sometime after. 
Then, there was the Funko Pop! TITANFALL 2 line....because, of course there was! Around the time of the release of the game in October of 2017, Funko Pop! released three Titans and their pilots as deluxe figures. While the Funko Pop! figures are odd in of themselves (I have a WH40K Blood Angel one), it is odd how awesome these are in real life. I saw one out of the box at a local Dallas resale shop and it was stunning. There were four Titans released: BT & Jack,  MOB-1316 and Sarah, Blisk and Legion, and the GameStop exclusive figure: Atlas and Pilot. These were hard to come by back when released and they are very expense today, with the price matching close to the holy relic quality of the Square Enix Play Arts Kai Atlas Action Figure. Still, owning all four of the Funko Pop! TITANFALL 2 figures and the helmet from the Collector's Edition would be a nice display... 

Next Time on FWS...
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.” -Sun tzu, The Art of War.
In some ways, military camouflage is just that, deception. In the next installment of FWS, we will exploring and explaining the world, the history, and the future of military camo. Please be patient with this one...it is going to be a long one...