I’ll get to the point: Titanfall has a lot of elements that will seem really, really good at first glance. It has giant robots, parkour ledge-grabbing, wall running, and explosions. If those sound like things that would appeal to you, then you will probably enjoy Titanfall. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an intriguing storyline, compelling characters, or anything outside of the multiplayer experience, you might want to look elsewhere.
Titanfall is a first-person shooter from Respawn Entertainment that inserts players into a civil war torn vision of the space-faring future. Players take up arms as a member of either the courageous Militia or the nefarious IMC and engage in team battles with six players on each side and numerous AI grunt forces spraying bullets everywhere. The game modes on display are almost all variations on modes that we’ve all seen before in other games. Attrition, Pilot Hunter, and Last Titan Standing are all slightly tweaked versions of classic Team Deathmatch. Capture the Flag is… well, Capture the Flag. And Hardpoint Domination is Titanfall’s version of Capture Point.
While nothing terribly revolutionary seems to be happening in Titanfall’s game modes, the gameplay shines with polish worked into every aspect of the presentation. Matches begin with cinematic airdrops into combat zones along with AI allies, lending every match a sense of scale I’ve rarely felt in other multiplayer games. As soon as players hit the ground, the magic starts to happen. Since Titanfall features unlimited sprint, most players hit the ground running. All players are also equipped with jetpacks that allow for double jumps, wall-running, and ledge-climbing all of which can be linked together for a feeling of flowing movement. This freedom of mobility is largely what makes Titanfall standout. It liberates players from the traditional corridor shooting mindset that governs many of the most popular FPS games on the market. Running through a level becomes just as much fun as actually fighting through it.
One of my favorite aspects of Titanfall is the visual and level design. The maps take into account the vertical capabilities of the players and encourage the use of freerunning maneuvers. Visually, every level feels like it was once a space people inhabited. The debris in the battle zones provide glimpses into the world of Titanfall, into the culture of the Frontier. Some signs in homes are written with Chinese characters, Militia settlements look cobbled together from numerous pieces of used technology, and majestically large aliens stroll the map borders. Unfortunately, the backstory conjured by the minutia scattered throughout each level is more interesting to think about than the actual story told by the campaign, but more on that later.
Players new to Titanfall or FPS games in general are given an advantage to even out the skill disparity between themselves and the hardcore, reflex shooter crowd in the form of the smart pistol, a weapon which auto-locks headshots. While it might seem overpowered, after spending a good chunk of time playing Titanfall, it becomes very apparent that the smart pistol’s lock-on isn’t nearly as fast as someone with a high amount of skill with a shotgun, rifle, or SMG. Skilled players will be able to take down the wielder of a smart pistol before enough headshots are locked. The smart pistol is available right from the start, but new weapons, customizable loadout slots, and titan gear can be unlocked by playing the game and levelling your account with experience earned from playing matches and completing various challenges in-game. Eventually, players will unlock the ability to use burn cards while in matches. Burn cards are a fun meta-game that provide finite, temporary benefits when used in a multiplayer match. These range from a large chunk of seconds shaved from your titan’s cooldown to enhanced versions of weapons in your loadout. They are gone forever after you use them, but you earn plenty of them while playing, so no need to be stingy with them.
Perhaps Titanfall’s biggest accomplishment lies in its balancing. It is a perfectly tuned multiplayer machine, an incredible feat when every player has the ability to call down giant robots from space that shoot gigantic rockets, catch bullets, and can self-destruct with the force of a miniature nuclear bomb. As each match starts, a timer begins counting down to when each player will be able to call down their titan. This timer can be reduced by eliminating enemy players, AI grunts, or titans. This makes the opening minutes of almost every match a frantic scramble to get the first titan of the game and secure an advantage over the enemy team. This doesn’t mean that players on foot are left defenseless. Each character’s loadout includes an anti-titan weapon that can puncture a titan’s armor. Though titans destroy almost everything that comes in contact with them, the anti-titan ordinance, along with the freedom of movement afforded to players, make fighting a titan on foot slightly less suicidal than it might initially seem. Regardless of winning or losing, the end of a match brings a new mini-game. The losing team must retreat to an escape ship and fight for survival, while the winning team is tasked with preventing their escape. I enjoyed the thrill of escaping at the last minute or preventing an adversary from escaping the battlefield.
The majority of Titanfall’s problems appear when it tries to present its campaign. Stemming from laziness, a lack of money, or a misguided design decision, the campaign is little more than multiplayer matches with voice overs slapped over them. That idea has the potential to be interesting, but not the way it appears in Titanfall. The story revolves around the war between the Militia and the IMC. I could look up the synopsis on Wikipedia and regurgitate that for you all, but I think how little I remember of the plot is more telling. The Militia are supposed to be the “good” guys, but I never really understood why we were supposed to be rooting for them other than because of the “underdog rebels fight evil empire” trope. The IMC are bad because they use robots or are trying to take the Militia’s land or something. I also can’t remember any of the characters except for “cool girl” and “guy-who-plays-with-knife.” Things explode and then the campaign ends.
The campaign never becomes detrimental to the rest of the Titanfall experience because it is just more multiplayer matches, but neither is it beneficial in any sense. I found it disappointing that such an interesting world, brimming with so much creative potential wasn’t explored in more depth. I have the sneaking suspicion that, this being Respawn’s first game, they focused their efforts on crafting and balancing the multiplayer experience and when they finished, they didn’t have the means or the time to also create an interesting or meaningful campaign. I don’t blame them for not having a noteworthy story; they did what they had to in order to sell their game. However, since video games are a medium for storytelling as well as for fun I can’t help but see this as a wasted opportunity. Perhaps we’ll see some interesting single-player DLC or a better campaign in Respawn’s next project?
Overall, Titanfall is a thrilling experience and a blast to play with friends. Moments like smashing an enemy who was about to kill you by calling down a death robot from space on top of them are almost magical in how awesome this game can make players feel. While the lazy campaign bothered me as a writer, I doubt it will be a deal breaker if the previous sentence sounded cool to you. I’d urge those who write it off as “Call of Duty with robots” to try it before passing judgment.
Titanfall was reviewed on PC