When West and Zampella left Activision and announced they were setting up a new studio called Respawn Entertainment, it’s fair to say that people had certain expectations.
The brains behind Call of Duty: Modern Warfare had a lot to live up to; they needed to make sure that they could repeat the success they’d enjoyed with their previous titles, provide a blockbuster hit, while managing to create a game that wouldn’t be seen as just a clone of their previous work. Many doubted they could do it.
The doubters were wrong.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Titanfall is not perfect – and I’ll explain why later – but what it is, is bloody good fun. Combining the tight first-person shooter gameplay the pair are known for, with the wall-running of Mirror’s Edge and throwing in a dash of Gundam, Respawn has delivered a game that feels both fresh and traditional at the same time.
Unfortunately, that freshness doesn’t extend to the game’s storyline. A shallow tale of two opposing factions, Titanfall sees Respawn aiming for gravitas, but landing somewhere between cliche and boring. The problem isn’t just with the writing though – the narrative is relayed through briefings delivered primarily during multiplayer matches. The issue here is that you’re too concerned with what’s going on on-screen, or defending yourself from attackers, that you have little time to pay attention to what’s being relayed over your comm channel. It doesn’t help that conversations are frequently drowned out by the sound of guns going off, grenades exploding, or Titans being blown to smithereens.
The storyline can be played from the perspective of both sides of the conflict – and you’ll need to, if you wish to unlock certain customization options – but while Respawn promised that the campaign would deliver an interesting dual-perspective on war, it’s a promise that is never delivered. You’ll come away from the campaign wondering what the hell happened, or why you should even care. Thankfully though, it never threatens to sully your enjoyment of the game; you’ll be too busy having fun free-running around levels or stomping around as a Titan to care about why you’re doing it.
Ah yes, the Titans. The Titans are what separates this game from other multiplayer efforts. Your time in each match will be divided between running around on foot as a soldier shooting anything that moves, and stomping around in a giant bipedal robot of death. You start each round on foot – but after a short amount of time, you’re able to call in a Titan to assist you in battle. These mechanized behemoths are dropped into a level from orbit, crashing down with a thunderclap before waiting, prone, for you to run up to them and embark. Do so, and a neat animation sequence sees you being picked up by your vehicle and inserted into the cockpit, upon which you can wreak havoc on the now ant-sized members of the opposite team.
There are three varieties of Titan: the Stryder is fast but vulnerable, the Ogre is durable but slow, and the Atlas is a mix between the two. It’s a fairly standard balance, but thankfully as you accrue XP the more you play, you’ll unlock new equipment that can be used to customize your loadout. Don’t be fooled though – Titanfall never comes close to offering the level of depth on offer by other Mech games such as Armored Core. That said, keeping things streamlined means that it remains approachable, and by cutting down the amount of options, Respawn has managed to deftly balance the variety of build possibilities on offer.
Titans are incredibly effective at dealing out death to players on the ground (though foot soldiers carry an anti-Titan weapon which at least gives them a ghost of a chance to compete), but they are at constant risk of enemy Titans. Watching these metal monstrosities wage war on the battlefield is a frequently compelling sight – an impressive graphics engine ensures that battles throw up billowing smoke, impressive explosions and – on good enough hardware, at least – the textures on display are consistently crisp and detailed. Just don’t get too close to these exchanges of firepower though, or you can find yourself squashed underfoot by the towering robots.
Thankfully, you never feel powerless by not being inside a Titan. Players are equipped with a jetpack allowing them to double-jump, and everyone in the Titanfall universe appears to be an olympic athlete; it seems that in the future, Parkour is not so much a niche craze as it is required learning. Holding down the sprint button and jumping towards a vertical surface allows you to wall-run; jump again, and you can move from surface to surface. Holding down the jump button near a ledge will pull you up. By combining sprints, double jumps and wall-runs in this way, the game presents a level of player agility almost alien to a genre that has become progressively more obsessed with slow movement and long periods of time staring down iron sights.
Levels are designed to take advantage of this agility, offering clear routes that enable you to move from A to B. Maps are expansive – a necessity, considering that they need to be designed to accommodate giant stomping 30-foot-tall robots – but due to the mobility afforded to you, they never feel overly large. The parkour aspect also means that Respawn has been able to go to town with creating maps which expand vertically as much as they do horizontally.
Unfortunately, a couple of complaints can be made about the implementation of free-running. The first is that the controls never quite feel as intuitive as they should. You’ll want to jump from one wall to another, only for the game to decide that you’ve held down the jump button long enough for it decide that you want to climb a ledge instead. The other complaint is that in the heat of battle – and matches are incredibly fast-paced – it can often be difficult to identify routes through the environment. Mirror’s Edge solved this issue through the use of subtle visual cues, painting navigable surfaces in red so that it was easy to identify potential routes through the game. Unfortunately, Titanfall often neglects to do this, meaning that while levels are often filled with options to move between various points on each map, it is frequently difficult to identify them.
Despite this complaint, the game is never less than gorgeous; each map has a distinctive aesthetic – Angel District is a personal favorite – and the amount of effects, such as explosions, smoke, etc., means that Titanfall is a visual feast. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of it’s soundtrack though; while the effects are fine, the music feels a little generic; the soundtrack comes across as though Hans Zimmer took the day off and passed composing duties over to an intern.
Outside of the campaign, there are a number of different multiplayer options, each providing a different set of objectives across the game’s impressive – and attractive – maps. Hardpoint is your usual take-and-hold mode, with both teams racing to secure and dominate three different control points; Capture the Flag should be familiar to anyone used to playing multiplayer FPS games; Attrition, meanwhile, is a race to see which team can reach a certain point threshold the fastest. There is also Last Titan Standing, which sees every player start in a Titan, with victory awarded to the team who manages to survive with a mech intact. They’re all enjoyable, but if I had to pick one, I’d say that Hardpoint is the most enjoyable.
The reason for this decision is that the game also allows you to issue basic commands to your Titan. Once you have summoned it down from orbit, you have a limited window in which to embark; if you choose – or fail – to get into the pilot seat within a certain amount of time, the Titan effectively engages auto-pilot. You can order it to follow you or to stand guard with a tap of the down button the D-pad. This mechanic adds a level of tactical play to the game which necessitates a bit more strategy than the genre is typically known for. In Hardpoint, you can pilot a Titan to one of the control points, disembark, and order it to stand guard in front of the entrance – doing so is a valuable tactic, because the opposing team is immediately alerted to any point that is about to be taken over.
This mechanic has other uses, too. As mentioned, each player is equipped with an anti-Titan weapon. If there’s an enemy Titan that you wish to take out, one option you have to maximize your damage output is to set your Titan to follow you, equip your anti-Titan weapon, and take pot-shots from the ground while the Titans duke it out with each other.
While Titanfall is a multiplayer-only game, it does still retain aspects of design normally only found in singleplayer experiences. Perhaps to make up for the fact that matches are limited to 6 players per team, Respawn has inserted a variety of AI-controlled opponents. Some, like grunts, are mere cannon fodder – simply there to be mowed down. Others, like Specters, can be hacked using your melee weapon – converting them to your side. The AI is surprisingly convincing and acts intelligently; it will take cover behind objects, wall-run, or sneak up behind you and perform a melee kill. Frequently, I performed a kill on an enemy I was convinced was a real player, only to realize that they were, in fact, a computer-controlled foot-soldier.
Titanfall is amazingly good fun. It certainly isn’t perfect, but as the first release from a new studio – albeit one made up of seasoned genre veterans – it’s a bloody good effort. It’s addictive, incredibly attractive, and displays a good awareness of tight mechanics and gameplay balance. It’s a shame that it doesn’t contain a dedicated single-player mode, as such a campaign would have been a better way to show off the narrative that Respawn clearly were at pains to convey; but from a gameplay point of view, it’s a compelling experience that will keep you coming back for more.