Few tales in the games business can boast the kind of melodrama served up by the departure of Vince Zampella and Jason West from Activision. On March 1, 2010, the co-creators of the world conquering Call of Duty 4 were summarily dismissed and escorted from Infinity Ward’s Los Angeles campus. Confused tweets from Infinity Ward staffers described a workplace besieged by contracted security guards, who refused to explain their presence to the geeks. Within the day, the world would learn that West and Zampella had been terminated for “breaches of contract and insubordination”.

Initially, much was made of the fact that the two developers had been let go just weeks before they were to be contractually endowed with huge royalty payments for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Activision quickly countered that it had evidence that these “self-serving schemers” were in secret negotiations to defect to the publisher’s biggest competitor, Electronic Arts. Zampella, West, and then-EA CEO John Riccitiello did themselves few favours in the public court of opinion by announcing just such an agreement remarkably shortly thereafter.

Titanfall hands-on

What actually happened will probably never be fully disclosed as EA, Activision, West, and Zampella settled out of court. Unfettered, Call of Duty continued its total dominance of the entertainment industry, and West and Zampella began to take front row seats at EA’s E3 press events, where Riccitiello would briefly introduce them like a pair of young new trophy wives, and leave the assembled media to wonder just what are they working on?

Only in the middle of last year did EA pull back the cover with a flourish to reveal the fruits of all that upheaval: Titanfall, an innovative multiplayer sci-fi shooter that brings new dynamics to the staid first-person shooter genre by punctuating double-jumping, wall-running gameplay with frenetic mech combat. It’s a far cry from the often bulky dynamics of the ubiquitous modern military shooter that has oversaturated the market in recent years.

Gameplanet went hands-on over a local area network with the upcoming Titanfall beta in Los Angeles last week. The beta includes two levels and three game modes. The two maps, Angel City and Fracture, demonstrate that Zampella, West and company’s nous for clever map design has not waned. Both feature the tight corridors and verticality that makes the agile on-foot play like the child of Quake and Call of Duty. These elaborate warrens are divided by the larger open areas in which Titans bring their terrible arsenals to bear on one another. It’s as if, when transitioning from foot to Titan, the game changes maps.

That shouldn’t suggest that there’s no interaction between to the two types of play. Exposed pilots are often stomped or blasted into a fine mist, and pilots are fully equipped with lock-on missiles to return fire in part. The most audacious can even scramble up the backs of unsuspecting Titans, rip off critical panels and shoot dangerously exposed cores. For a true coup de tête, call down a Titan on the heads of unsuspecting foes of all sizes for an instant kill.

Titanfall hands-on
Titanfall hands-on
Titanfall hands-on

Pilots will be in and out of Titans several times throughout any round. Titans are on a lock-out timer, reduced by killing enemy pilots and NPC fodder, and by achieving objectives. The influence of Call of Duty killstreaks is abundantly clear, even if the payoff is a little less dynamic.

Also straight outta Call of Duty is an insistence on 60 frames-per-second, and a levelling and customisation system that rewards micro-achievements. Once players hit level five, they are able to begin customising the load-outs most aspects of their pilots and Titans along anti-personnel and anti-mech lines.

Smarter still is a new Burn Card system; single-use perks that are earned by achieving different challenges, exhausted once the pilot has died. Collecting these cards and choosing when to use them adds an exciting dynamic to the first-person shooter.

Some abilities, such as the Ogre class Titan’s ability to absorb massive damage, are clearly intended for different game modes. There are three included in the beta: Attrition: a ticket-based team deathmatch; Hardpoint Domination: a team-based King of the Hill or Conquest-style mode; Last Titan Standing: a limited-lives Titan-only affair that is useful for training for Titan-on-Titan combat and testing load-outs, but which ultimately has less long-term appeal than the other modes on offer.

All modes are six on six, and the map sizes are tuned perfectly to this number of players. Titans are imposing figures and when they’re in full assault, and their weaponry can cause a dazzling array of effects that already pollute visibility for anyone nearby. Any more would certainly impact performance, and bury on-foot players in particle soup.

Titanfall hands-on

Played on Xbox One, the beta appears to be a graphical half step up from old-gen to new-gen. It’s supremely smooth and the textures on the pilots and Titans are especially impressive. More impressive still are the boarding animations. Automated Titans will grab pilots and slam them into their chest cavities. When meleeing a doomed Titan for a prestige kill, Titans can rip other pilots from their cockpits and toss them aside like a half-eaten hot dog.

More pressing for local players is the question of latency, which no one was prepared to talk in absolutes about. Titanfall does not support peer to peer matchmaking, and will most likely run on Microsoft’s Azure servers, of which there are currently none in the territory. Respawn tells Gameplanet that EA Australia has not reported any significant latency, but of course EA Australia has skin in the game. We’ll know ourselves when the closed beta goes live tomorrow.

However, played with no latency, Titanfall delights and its beta marks the first genuinely exciting triple-A experience on new-gen hardware. Its dynamically shifting gameplay and new progression systems promise to fling open new doors and dispel the ennui that has sunk into the shooter playerbase. Prepare for a new first-person shooter dynasty.

Titanfall is coming to Xbox One and PC on March 14.

The Xbox 360 version is being developed by Bluepoint Games and will be released on March 28.

Respawn Entertainment and EA are inviting gamers to sign up and register at the game’s official site for a chance to be a part of the beta, commencing on February 14