by Paul Tassi, Contributor
Speed. It’s been missing from the competitive FPS genre since the days of Quake. Call of Duty lets you sprint for mere seconds at a time. Gears of War has you run only when it leads to hiding behind a wall. Halo allows more mobility in the form of a power-armor assisted vertical leap, but often getting from one side of the map to the other is a daunting, plodding journey.
Enter Titanfall, Respawn’s new bit of multiplayer mayhem which puts mobility and speed front and center to the point where it often feels like the reinvention of the genre it’s trying to be. Sprint is unlimited, and far faster than its counterpart in other shooters. A jetpack allows for double jumps, edge grabbing and wallrunning, making nearly every part of every map landmark accessible on foot.
The speed is required, of course, to stay out from underfoot of the massive Titans that make up the other half of gameplay. Kills allow faster access to the machines, and once a pilot is inside, it takes enough firepower to destroy a small country to bring them down.
Titanfall is an Xbox One and PC exclusive from Respawn’s Jason West and Vince Zampella, the minds who brought Call of Duty out of World War II and shaped it into the powerhouse shooter franchise it is today. Now with their new title, Titanfall, they build on the existing concepts of their older games. Gunplay feels similar, but the speed, mech play and scope of Titanfall make it feel like it’s leagues past a simple evolution of Call of Duty.
The game is multiplayer only, for better or worse. It allowed the team to focus on making the most refined multiplayer experience possible, but also means that Titanfall is painfully short on anything like lore, story or iconic heroes. I wondered in a previous post if Titanfall would suffer without its own public face, be it Captain Price, Marcus Fenix, or Master Chief. Is a compelling multiplayer experience be enough to offset a nearly non-existent story? Yes, but it’s still easy to wish there was more mythology to this newly created universe.
The game does attempt to inject at least some bit of story into the game with an almost comically anemic “Campaign” mode. It’s simply a string of predetermined multiplayer matches, the only difference being a sixty second introductory voiceover explaining why exactly we have to hold points A, B and C on a map, and a fifteen second “drop-in” cutscene that’s barely more than what you see in regular multiplayer. Plot-related things actually happen during the match, but it’s impossible to have any idea what’s going on as you attempt to listen to radio communications while in the middle of a never-ending firefight.
It’s a lot like the much-derided Brink’s attempt at a campaign made up entirely of multiplayer levels, but even that game had more cutscenes explaining some vague semblance of story. It wasn’t a good idea then, and it isn’t a good idea now. It seems like the mode only exists so the game doesn’t feel quite so flimsy, but it adds practically nothing to the experience, and I did find myself wishing there was more to learn about the Titanfall universe than what we’re given. Perhaps a traditional, linear campaign isn’t the answer, but the game needed something more than this.
Fortunately, multiplayer is so engaging that the lack of a story will be quickly forgiven by most, especially since a great many players have take to skipping campaigns altogether in recent shooter releases in favor of diving right into deathmatches. Not a practice I partake in, but it is somewhat commonplace.
At long last, we get to see the full scope of the maps in Titanfall, rather than the two many of us played in the beta on repeat for a week. While it will likely take a while to learn them all, there are none that stand out to me as either empirically awful or fan favorites, at least not in these limited first few days of play. There doesn’t seem to be as much of a size disparity in the maps as there is in other games which have both tiny and sprawling levels, namely because no matter what mode you pick, it’s the same amount of players.
Similarly, the design is restricted by the fact that levels have to both accommodate massive Titans and tiny mobile pilots. That means that most levels are a mix of open spaces and smaller, corridored buildings. As a result, your preferred playstyle can work in any map, but it can also make many of them feel a bit too similar to one another.
It’s impressive how Respawn managed to make playing as both a jump-happy pilot and a locked-to-the-ground Titan equally fun modes of play, and entirely different than one another. Being a pilot on foot allows for much more diversity of play as you bound all around the map, killing pilots, AI bots and Titans alike. The shooting isn’t quite as tight as Call of Duty. The guns feel a bit softer in the way the connect with targets and may take some getting used to. There are far less gun and attachment options to choose from than other shooters, but there are many more than the limited selection we saw in the beta. The amount seems to be just right, as at a certain point, nine assault rifle variants with twenty attachments each seems to be a bit excessive. There are enough unlocks to instill a sense of progress, but not so many where the entire game is driven by XP collection.
Controlling a Titan is a different story than sprinting around as a pilot. They are locked into specific open tracks on the map, as jumping isn’t an option. You can swat and blast pilots like flies if your aim is good enough, but mostly you’ll spend your time battling other Titans. Those fights aren’t the twitch reflex “who shoots first” matchups of ground warfare, they’re often battles of attrition and strategy. You should always try to engage with a friend, and if you find yourself outnumbered or without a shield, you probably want to run. Switching between guns, missiles, shields and other abilities means there’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s not overly technical to the point where it’s cumbersome and annoying.
I believe many players will find themselves drawn to one form of combat over the other. Some may love the freedom of freerunning to the point where they’re content to let their Titan roam around in auto-mode, while others may never leave the safety of their metal nest, locked into the mech for as long as humanly possible. The game allows a mix of both, and the most fun moments are found when you hop in and out of your Titan, depending on the landscape and the foes you’re trying to fight.
I prefer Titan combat simply because I appear to be better at it. While I’m lucky if I break half a dozen pilot kills a game, I always rack up 4-5 Titan kills, which are much harder to come by. Many games, after I get my first Titan, I manage fight my way to the end of the match without dying, which is always a gratifying experience.
In general, it’s refreshing to die a lot, lot less in Titanfall than in other multiplayer shooters. While only the elite in other games will die 1-3 times in a match, in Titanfall that can happen frequently even to average players like me. It allows for far less frustration as you almost never get trapped in “spawn death” loops where you live for only a few seconds at a time, and get killed by unseen enemies before you have a chance to do anything. Rather, Titanfall’s universally large levels allow you to spawn a safe distance away from enemies most of the time, and as such you’ll likely only die a handful of times. Lives last minutes, not seconds, and that’s refreshing for the genre.
Of course fewer deaths means less killing. As nice as it is not to die every ten seconds, it comes at the price of a reduced amount of kills. To counter this and give players at least something to shoot at, the game is flooded with AI bots which dramatically outnumber the six players on each team. The bots pepper you with bullets that appear to be made out of Nerf foam, and serve as cannon fodder while you seek out an enemy that can actually fight back. The addition of bots is a mixed bag. It fills up the sprawling levels and creates a proper “battle” atmosphere that enhances the matches. But there’s a little pang of sadness every time you kill an AI thinking it was a human. As I said in the beta, ” I’m not sure it’s even possible for an AI soldier to kill you, and half the time it feels like you’re slaughtering defenseless, dumb animals that just happen to look like humans or warbots.”
The problem is that if all the AI were replaced with humans and we had something like crazy 16 vs. 16 matches, death and kill totals would skyrocket, making Titanfall just like other games in that regard. And since the game can’t handle that many players anyway, removing them would make for some very dull matches. Right now they seem necessary, whether we actually want them there or not.
Burn cards are another interesting aspect of multiplayer, though I’m not quite sure how impactful they are. Each player has three slots a game to use the consumable cards which can do things like shave seconds of a Titan drop, give the player an upgraded weapon, or allow them a special ability like unlimited grenades or invisibility. Most only last until the end of the player’s life, so when you have one active, you want to be especially careful to make the most out of it. In my eyes, they don’t really affect gameplay all that much one way or the other. They’re just fun little additions to make a minute or two of the game more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Perhaps I haven’t seen them all yet and a few could dramatically unbalance the game in some way, but that doesn’t seem to be the case yet.
For as much focus as Respawn devoted to making Titanfall a purely multiplayer title, it’s fairly disappointing that there are only five modes in which to play the game. All of them are 6 vs. 6 with the requisite swarm of bots, and include Attrition (Deathmatch), Hardpoint (Domination), Last Titan Standing, Pilot Hunter and Capture the Flag.
The first two are standard fare for every shooter, so it’s no surprise to see them here. Last Titan Standing should be right up my alley, as it’s a fun bit of search and destroy with Titans, but the matches are exceptionally long and snowball rapidly, making the mode rather unappealing. Pilot Hunter is just a stripped down version of deathmatch where nothing but killing pilots actually scores points. Capture the Flag is probably the most fun non-deathmatch game, as in the world of Titanfall, the action is five times as intense as it normally is for the mode. With Titans guarding flags and wallrunning and jetpack jumping as a means to avoid enemies, it’s easily the most pulse-pounding the game gets. The only problem is that if you’re an active flag pursuer, you’ll tank your overall K/D ratio as during Capture the Flag you canrack up 15-20 deaths rather than the usual 2-5.
But, that’s it. Five modes, most entirely traditional, one seemingly pointless, and all with the exact same player count. It seems like there could have been a lot more done with mode variety, and something like a custom game creator would go a long way. I’m picturing games that use permanent burn cards to shake up the action. Maybe Titans with special weaponry that drop randomly from the sky and can be controlled by both players. A mode where the rarely seen monsters from the variety of planets actually stumble into the map and influence gameplay. And at the very least, they need a ranked mode.
All of this seems possible through future patches, but it does make this initial release of Titanfall feel like something of a blueprint for the future rather than a final product in and of itself. While the multiplayer combat is absolutely excellent, and all Respawn’s hard work shows, the actual content of the game is relatively sparse compared others in the genre, given its almost complete lack of a campaign, an incredibly limited selection of modes, and no “third pillar” of co-op gameplay like Zombies, Firefight, or Spec Ops.
Finally, I have to praise the game from a technical perspective, at least so far. The launch has been flawless from my initial downloading of the game to the fact that I haven’t been booted out of a match due to server issues yet. I’m waiting for players to come home from school and work and start playing to make a final judgement call about stability, however. (Update: Annnnd the game probably killed Xbox Live). And for all the controversy about resolution at launch, the game looks just fine to me. It’s not the most visually impressive title I’ve seen in this new generation, but it didn’t need to be, and there’s certainly nothing to complain about. Besides, further resolution patches are coming, according to Respawn.
Titanfall is a great game and an incredible amount of fun. Combat is creative, exciting and never, ever static. It lacks depth past its core concept however, and hopefully that’s something that can be rectified well ahead of the inevitable Titanfall 2. But right now, this is the game the Xbox One needs, and it’s the first true must-have of the new console generation.
Platform: Xbox One, PC
Released: March 11th, 2014