There's a strange serenity to being catapulted 20 feet into the air out of an exploding mech. It's the calm after the storm. Look down and you'll see the bot that killed you, still pouring bullets into your battlesuit's flaming husk. You see fighters swarming through the streets. You see enemies on the rooftops that you didn't even know were there. Then, after a few blissful moments of quiet, gravity reaches up and pulls you back into the chaos.
Respawn's electrifying men-and-mechs multiplayer shooter is full of these sudden changes of pace. It's a short-session team FPS set in a dusty, industrial future full of warring robots and men with jump-jets strapped to their bums. Combat flows in seconds from abandoned interiors to frenzied street fights, and conflict resolves almost instantaneously. Run into a room, right-click to snap up your weapon's ironsights, left-click to put down an enemy with a burst of fire to the head, jetpack out of the window to find another fight.
I played a set of eight-vs-eight skirmishes on a large urban map called Angel City, and could happily have spent the entire time using Titanfall's jetpacks to scout out its most hidden highpoints. Tap the spacebar in mid-air and your jets hop you upwards. Hit a shop façade, billboard, or any angled flat surface and you'll start wallrunning with the aid of your jets. The environments are carefully designed to let you hop, skip and burst between buildings, which means you can bum-jet from one end of the map to the other without touching the ground.
Movement is effortless. If you fall slightly short of a jump your character's arms lash into view and vault you over the edge. Hit a wall and you can hop right back up to your intended location quickly with another double-jump. I was able to instinctively take ambitious routes from the dangerous ground level streets to safer second storey sniping spots after a minute at the controls.
These manoeuvres are useful when you want to escape being pancaked by a mech. Every five minutes or so, you can press a button to drop your own personal Titan into the fight from orbit. A shimmering forcefield guards your dormant machine as you jet the short distance to the cockpit. Hit E within range and your robot tenderly scoops you into its open chest cavity. Its rib plates close around your body, internal monitors flicker to life and suddenly, you're a monster. I felt a maniacal power-rush the first time I leapt into my mech. I turned, opened fire, and watched the humans that had been chasing me flee for cover.
The mechs in the demo came with several loadout choices. I favoured the mid-range assault mech. He's got a giant machinegun on his right arm, and can throw out a magnetised claw to catch and throw back incoming projectiles. Other variants feature anti-mech cannons and a longer range rifle for mech pilots who prefer to stand at the back of a fight – which isn't a bad idea. Titans are huge, stompy, and can rip the pilot out of an enemy mech's chest in close combat, but they're surprisingly fragile too. Every infantry class has an anti-Titan weapon they can use to pepper bots from rooftops. A lone human can land on your bot's neck and start firing into your vital circuitry, and one Titan is often met immediately by another from the enemy team. A skirmish in the street can quickly turn into a multi-bot face-off that sucks in all players in the vicinity.
I was impressed by Titanfall's capacity for sudden escalation of violence, and by the ease with which it carries action from speedy room clearance to heavy-duty rocketry. The emphasis on mobility and massive guns harks back to the spirit of Quake and Unreal Tournament, yet it felt a little constrained by the grounded, nearfuture setting and a desire to be taken seriously. Titanfall brackets its speedy skirmishes with story sequences that NPCs act out in the game world. My team's battle, for instance, opened with a speech from a general in a Titan telling us about an enemy pilot who needed capturing. It felt oddly like I'd wandered into a living museum, and one of the employees had started roleplaying a grizzled veteran mech-pilot to add a bit of colour to the exhibit.
Titanfall's storytelling did make the end of the battle interesting. When a match ends, a short epilogue starts, giving both teams a chance to grab some last-minute kills. Our defeated opponents had to flee to an escape-dropship while we hunted them down, hopping between buildings, dashing over rooftops and hitching rides on friendly mechs along the way. It felt great, but I wasn't sure precisely why it was happening, and the fact that the battles are packed full of NPCs on both sides to add spectacle only added to the confusion. Titanfall looks like it'll be fantastic for a quick, disorganised ruckus, but I'm still wondering if there's any tactical meat behind all that mechanical carnage.