An Atomic Moo Book Review by Numbers
Original Review First Appeared On True Game Truths. Review Published Here with Permission
Thanks to our cousin site Atomicmoo.com and publisher Titan Books, I got my hands on a copy of The Art of Titanfall, a hardcover artbook showcasing concept art and renders from the big-budget videogame from Respawn Entertainment. But is this book as disappointing and wholly unnecessary as the game it exists purely to advertise? Read on and find out.
I have to admit that it is difficult for me to separate the material in this book from its business context. As a game, Titanfall represents much of what is wrong with the “Triple-A” big-budget blockbuster videogame industry, and its underwhelming lack of ambition drips from the pages of this artbook. I’m a big fan of futurism, sci-fi, and mechs, but one of Titanfall’s greatest shortcomings is how it fails to make the most of its setting, its futuristic weaponry, and its bipedal war machines. Weapon and character designs are not futuristic enough, intricately-designed sci-fi locations are lost in fast-paced generic shooting action, and the mech designs are underwhelming. All that being said, let’s look at the artbook, and do our best to separate the business from the pictures contained within the dust jacket – if possible.
The Art of Titanfall opens with a foreword by Lead Artist Joel Emslie and an introduction by Game Director Steve Fukuda, both of which are basically a few pages’ worth of wanking. Emslie draws similarities between Titanfall and plumbing (appropriately enough), and even the sprawling, space-age cityscape pictured in the introduction is tainted by the words above it. Fukuda seriously claims his team’s $60 mod is “something new, fun, and relatable” before mentioning what should have been the game’s strengths. “Wall running ninjas? Check. Giant robots? Check.” Only, if you wanted competent wall-running ninjas, you’d play Warframe, and for good giant-robot action, you’d play HAWKEN, both of which are free and do not require purchasing an overpriced new console and paying for a “membership” to access the industry-wide staple that is multiplayer functionality.
The first section, “Titans & Pilots,” is all about the mechs and those who drive them. I’ll just say it: the mech designs are boring. For the most part, the Titans look like burly dudes in power armour — just the sort of thing we’re used to seeing in big-budget action games. Pockets, ammo pouches, and spare mags hanging off them give the mechs some additional tryhard tacticool flavouring. This isn’t like a spare tire on the back of a jeep or spare treads on a tank. The mechs’ extra mags make them look like modern army dudebros, which should probably appeal to the game’s intended audience. From a design perspective, the mag pouches are neither aesthetically pleasing nor plausible. Look at those tiny mech fingers. How is it going to open those latches and reload under fire? Fourteen pages are spent on the mechs of Titanfall, which might not seem like much in a nearly-200-page artbook about a videogame whose biggest feature is the ability to drive a mech. I would argue the opposite – that the fourteen pages are too many. And here is why: There are only three mechs in the game. Hell, even the Titans could count them all on one hand. Pages are wasted showing multiple views of the same mechs, in different colours. The game’s warring factions don’t even have unique, visually-distinct vehicles, only repainted versions of the same models. So it’s not even three mechs per faction. It’s a whopping three mechs total. The most visually-striking of the trio is the Stryder, which features Extreme Spelling and tries too hard to be an EVA unit. According to Emsile:
[t]he design for [the Atlas Titan] was inspired by current day battle tanks, such as the M1A2 Abrams and a FV4034 Challenger 2,”
which can be felt in the mech’s blocky design and elements including the roof hatch and the rear venting. It still looks like a guy in power armour. The mechs in HAWKEN, on the other hand, look very much inspired by tanks, particularly the upper chassis. They look like tanks that grew legs and moved their cannons to their arms. Titanfall’s, however, do not.
Outfitting the mechs with hand-held weapons really makes them feel bland, boring, and conventional. In Titanfall, the line between man and machine isn’t a line at all, but an Enlarge Tool. Why aren’t the mechs’ weapons systems swappable, attached to hardpoints on the chassis like in MechWarrior and HAWKEN? Or hidden inside their bodies, ready to be deployed, like in Pacific Rim or The Transformers? By making their mechs too similar to humans in terms of appearance and use of hand-held weaponry, Respawn Entertainment has dropped the ball completely. These Titans should be fear-inspiring armoured giants, with missile pods for arms, and physiology that doesn’t line up with that of the flesh and blood that drives them. Instead, the studio created fat blokes in sports gear, holding repainted Nerf guns. The mechs of MechWarrior are giant, slow-moving battle machines that look impressively unnatural, not only due to their size but their shapes. Some are not even humanoid, and those that are tend to be different enough to be off-putting, with weapons where body parts should be, cockpits in unexpected places, and asymmetrical designs. The mechs of HAWKEN proudly display their working-class roots, looking like grease-stained, oil-leaking machines held together by emergency welding and their pilots’ hopes and dreams. The rugged, rough-and-tumble industrial feel of HAWKEN’s lived-in universe is apparent in every one of its walking tanks. Respawn’s Titans just phone it in.
Character designs are the subject of the next chapter, and like the mechs that precede them, their designs are quite bland, albeit understandably so Work clothes and military outfits are the order of the day, but there is far too little futurism in their designs, other than needlessly-complicated helmets. Even worse, the book fails to explain just who these characters are. What is this IMC? What do they want? Why does this Militia not like them? Who the hell is Sarah? The Art of Titanfall hints at backstory, but never outright states what the hell is going on or who the factions and characters are, making it impossible to give a damn about them.
Titanfail is Microsoft’s dick-waving “next-gen” poster child, so why do all of the character, mech, and weapon models have such low-quality textures? Why are the polycounts so disappointing? Where are the lighting and surface effects we’ve been lead to believe are only possible thanks to the power of the Xbone?. Starship designs range from bulky, blocky transports, tankers, and destroyers, to nimble starfighters. Unlike the chapter about mechs, the vehicles section features plenty of hand-drawn concept art and work-in-progress renders of the ships’ various designs. Then again, it might be that most of the ship designs go unused, since the game predominantly takes place planetside, as ground battles between infantry and mechs. There is an odd level of separation between the designs of the larger ships and those of the fighters. Real-world aircraft, including Hind helicopters and MiG jets, have inspired the smaller fighters and drop-ships, but the non-atmospheric starships just look like standard futuristic spacecraft. Most of the flying vehicles look at least somewhat inspired by another somehow-still-popular console-based futuristic shooter series, possibly due to how generic most of the designs are.
Ground vehicles are given an equally futuristic touch, such as construction vehicles, buses, tanks and jeeps. A massive multi-wheeled battle truck evokes Unreal Tournament’s Leviathan vehicle. My complaints regarding the mech designs (too humanoid, no modular construction/hardpoints, etc.) seem to have been addressed… and then cut from the final version of the game. The industrial civilian model of the Atlas Titan, which resembles the Power Loader from Aliens, looks better than its combat-ready cousin. Weapons follow the vehicles, and by that point in the artbook, a common trend becomes painfully obvious. The game’s designs are futuristic, but never quite futuristic enough. There is also a major gap between high-tech sci-fi elements and components that are hardly different from modern-day tech. For example, the soldiers have space-age helmets, but from the neck down are run-of-the-mill modern shooter models, save for an occasional miniaturized jetpack. Boring slug-throwers are the order of the day, with sleek angles to look “futuristic.” Where are all of the creative sci-fi weapons we’ve come to expect from franchises like Quake, Tribes, and Unreal, to name but a few? Where are the infantry pulse rifles? The flak cannons? The creativity?
The book’s longest chapter is dedicated to the locations of the game’s world. What this unfortunately means is that 105 of the artbook’s 192 pages are dedicated to the game’s maps. It is unclear why they would so effortlessly gloss over the sci-fi title’s mechs and other futuristic weapons and equipment to focus so much of the book on Yet Another War-Torn Sci-Fi Battlefield. Other than a few exceptions, none of it really stands out in meaningful or lasting ways: generic ruins in generic environments. Where the Locations chapter excels is presentation. Perhaps due to there being so few of them, each map is given several pages, over which the reader is treated to concept sketches, paintings, explanatory paragraphs revealing content that did not make it into the final game, and in-engine screenshots. The biggest issue is that none of it really stands out. If I’d been told that the art came from Halo: Reach, I would have believed it, mechs notwithstanding. Other than one map built out of the skeleton of a dead land mammal taller than mountains, none of the architecture or environments leave a lasting impression.
A four-page chapter reveals the maquettes made during the game’s development. Physical models of soldiers and mechs were hand-made and scratchbuilt when designing the characters and vehicles, and a life-sized Titan was built for E3. With only four pages to spare, none of the models were examined with any satisfying depth. Respawn Entertainment’s CEO Vince Zampello ensures the book closes as pompously as it opens. In his self-congratulatory Afterword, Zampello pats himself on the back and flat-out lies to the reader, claiming that his team’s Call of Dudbros-esque Source Engine mod doesn’t just “push for the safe bet.” If game development doesn’t work out, at least he pursue a career as a comedian. When Valve called their Half-Life 2 book “Raising the Bar,” the title meant something. That particular volume showcased just how above-and-beyond Valve went, how out-of-the-box they had to think in order to bring their vision to players around the world. Today, an assortment of screenshots can be bound between two hard covers and sold as “art.” As an artbook, The Art of Titanfall is disappointing. It fails to adequately present the game’s universe, neglecting to mention crucial concepts like what the I.M.C. group is, and why the Militia is so determined to oppose it. Most importantly, the “art” printed on its pages largely consists of in-engine renders and screenshots rather than the behind-the-scenes sketches, drawings, and paintings I expected. Furthermore, when seen in detail, up close, the models’ disappointing polycount and texture quality is startling. Existing purely as a product of the blockbuster hit-driven paint-by-numbers boardroom-decided big-budget videogame industry, The Art of Titanfall is without purpose or merit, other than as a marketing tool. Those looking for background information and making-of details will instead find screenshots of maps. Do not buy the game. Do not buy the artbook. But most importantly, do not buy the hype.