From Titanfall to Star Wars It Was Respawn’s Decade, We Just Lived In It
Getting a game made is a small miracle. The amount of work, tech and money required to create a game these days is enormous. For as many games that have been made there are just as many that never made it past the idea stage. It’s rare then to find a developer that got not one, two or three unique and almost instantly iconic projects green lit but four. From the ashes of Infinity Ward’s leadership in 2010 Respawn Entertainment rose. Led by Jason West and Vince Zampella Respawn went on to re-conquer the ever-evolving FPS genre all while setting their sights on the biggest IP EA held the rights to.
It’s fair to say that EA have a pretty bad reputation in the gaming industry. That’s not to say that others aren’t trying to beat them out but their gross mismanagement of the many developers and games in their stable has led many to believe that EA put money first and their audience second.
Consider: Anthem, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Star Wars: Battlefront, Star Wars: Battlefront II, Visceral Games, Bullfrog, Pandemic and loot boxes among other controversies within the last two decades. In 2012 after the enormous backlash over Mass Effect 3’s ending and EA’s business practices Consumerist awarded them the title of Worst Company in America. The next year it won the “award” again. So how did Respawn survive where so many other companies fell?
Respawn’s first game, the multiplayer FPS mech game Titanfall, was not a success. It was pretty bare bones to be fair. A multiplayer skeleton does not a game make after all but that was what was important, the bones were there. Titanfall was an example of what was to come. Respawn used their vast experience of creating immaculate first person shooters like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare to build a prototype of what the FPS genre could do in the 2010s and show where it could go. EA knew that West and Zampella had brought a lot of talent and potential with them from Infinity Ward and so despite Titanfall not being a commercial success EA was willing to give Respawn not just a second chance but a third as well.
In 2016 Titanfall 2 came out swinging for the fences. Though it wasn’t the gold mine EA and probably Respawn had hoped it would be it was certainly a showcase for the quality of Respawn’s product. The mechanics of Titanfall 2 were sublime and when matched with the kinetic fury and blistering sci-fi gun play of its single player and multiplayer it made the game a cult classic. Titanfall 2’s multiplayer remains active today which can’t be said for many other multiplayer games outside of CoD or Halo. Much like its predecessor Titanfall 2 would only lead to greater things.
Respawn really came into its own this year. The three year development cycle between Titanfall 2 and 2019 yielded dividends. Respawn book-ended the year with two of 2019’s best games. The battle royale genre has been chugging along since PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds broke new ground in early 2017. Since late 2017 however Fortnite: Battle Royale has overshadowed any and all comers but that all changed in February of this year. Respawn’s surprise release of Apex Legends brought the serious gunfights of PUBG together with Fortnite’s cartoonish sense of fun. Mixed in with those was Respawn’s mastery of FPS mechanics and the kinetic traversal that had made the Titanfall games such a joy to play.
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It helped that Apex Legends had a medium sized roster of well thought out and likable characters. This was, no offense BT, something that both Titanfall games had lacked and it was good to see that Respawn were capable of creating characters with distinct personalities even if they didn’t have a proper story to operate within. There was the cocky Mirage with his decoys and over-confident one liners. Bloodhound was my personal favourite as the androgynous hunter could see through walls and follow an enemies tracks across the battlefield. More important than the characters though was the sheer fun of Apex Legends.
Before Apex Legends there had been no real middle ground in the battle royale genre. PUBG had a high skill ceiling from the jump whereas Fortnite came across as almost too easy. Apex Legends offered a real challenge divorced from both the high skill levels required of PUBG and the risk of being beaten by an alt- right YouTube millionaire on Fortnite.
Of course some YouTube millionaires and members of PUBG’s SEAL Team 6 would make their way to Apex Legends but there was never enough of them to ruin the fun. Kills and victories in Apex Legends felt frenetic and earned with both the desperate close quarter firefights and long range sniper battles requiring deft movements and skillful aiming. Not to say that the other battle royales weren’t fun but Apex Legends had the perfect mix of what made both games great in their own right.
Star Wars was likely always on the minds, to some degree, of Respawn’s developers. Every single game they’ve made so far has been sci-fi oriented. Hell the Titanfall series feels like a space opera waiting to happen. It felt appropriate then that they were announced as the developers of an unnamed Star Wars project in 2016. Two years later it was revealed as Jedi Fallen Order.
After so many years of mediocre or just plain bad games EA were making good on the licence gifted to them. Jedi Fallen Order is the first properly good Star Wars console game since The Force Unleashed. It’s been over a decade since a decent Star Wars game landed on console or PC. We have Respawn to thank for rescuing Star Wars from video game hell.
It’d be easy to say that this decade belongs to From Software or Epic Games or Activision-Blizzard. But there are few other studios that have fought their way up from rock bottom to become one of the most innovative and celebrated companies in the industry. Respawn Entertainment are moving into new arenas, particularly VR, as the decade and current console generation ends but I don’t doubt that they’ll come out of the gate swinging (hopefully with Titanfall 3 close behind).