Platform: PC, Xbox One (Xbox 360 release scheduled for April 8)
More than any other FPS in recent memory, Titanfall is a game that seems designed to produce jaw-dropping moments every single match. Playing the game for an hour might include sniping an opponent while hanging from a wall, climbing inside your titan and stomping on your foes, killing three enemies at once with the Smart Pistol, hacking a squad of spectres, and shooting an opponent out of the air while they flee for their lives after their team has lost a match.
Poised as it is as the Xbox One’s “killer app,” it was natural that Titanfall would be polarizing even before it was released. Each new detail that came out about the game caused comment sections and message boards to explode. You could have read a thousand different reasons why 6 vs. 6 matches were a terrible idea, or why it was inevitable that Electronic Arts would botch the launch of the game. Now that the game is a reality, it’s clear that most of the doubts that people had didn’t materialize. The game is a success, the design choices seem inspired, and the launch was smooth.
Titanfall is here, and it’s spectacular.
So many new ideas
Titanfall sounds like a game dreamed up by a ten-year-old boy, in the best possible way. Giant robots! Jet packs! A gun that aims for you! Dragons, for some reason! It’s crazy, it’s wild, it’s innovative, and it’s fun.
Titanfall includes such exhilarating freedom of movement as a pilot that it seems remarkable that so few FPS games have ever attempted anything like it before. Your sense of agility as a pilot encourages an almost reckless bravado, since it’s such a joy just to run up walls and double-jump through windows. During my time with the game I actually had a lot of success remaining still and guarding strategic areas, since I knew it wouldn’t be long before an enemy came bouncing down the hallway, running and jumping like a madman. It’s going to be tough to go back to playing “normal” shooters after spending time with Titanfall.
The inclusion of AI grunts and spectres to fill out each team is another design choice that seems like it could become the new standard for FPS games in the future. “Farming” your AI opponents, Dota 2-style, is a viable strategic option that allows relatively weak players to contribute and to get a taste of that rush that comes along with mutliplayer FPS success. For competent FPS players killing grunts can feel a bit cheap, since their pathetic aim and damage means they are rarely a threat even in large groups, but it’s a fantastic way to get familiar with new weapons and game tactics.
For Titanfall to work the titans need to work, and oh boy do they ever. You can pilot them, ride them, shoot rockets at them, run around their feet, or just use them to guard your base. For most players, especially early on, having your titan on autopilot is probably the best bet, since the AI does a great job controlling your robot for you. Eventually though, you won’t be able to resist the lure of climbing inside your metal friend and doing some serious damage yourself — though after the speed and agility you have as a pilot being stuck inside the lumbering titan can feel like just a bit of a drag. What you lack in freedom of movement you gain in sheer toughness and offensive power, and going on a killing spree as a titan gave me a feeling of power that very few games have ever been able to match.
A pointless story mode
From a marketing standpoint it was probably necessary for Titanfall to include some kind of thing to call a “story mode,” but in practice the campaign mode feels so tacked on and unnecessary it’s just silly. The “story” amounts to little more than dudes with accents yammering at you before matches and then shouting nonsense as the match goes along. I’ve completed both sides of the campaign but only have the vaguest of ideas what the heck was going on with the war at the heart of the story. Was I actually expected to pay attention to whatever was being discussed in my ear while I was fighting for my life? The game certainly didn’t seem to care how invested I was, since it didn’t matter to the story whether my side won or lost the match.
On several occasions during my first week with the game, I found myself unable to make any progress in the campaign mode, apparently because the game couldn’t match me up with enough people who were on the same level. If this problem had prevented me from enjoying an actual fully-fledged story mode it would have been infuriating — but since Titanfall’s campaign mode is so pointless I didn’t really care, and just went to play some classic multiplayer instead.
In the end, Titanfall’s story mode isn’t awful, it’s just totally forgettable. It’s also not a factor in my overall review score, because the fun you have in Titanfall is completely divorced from the vague story driving the campaign.
Shooting and the worlds in which you shoot
In the world of Titanfall it seems as though military scientists have spent most of their resources working on titans and spectres, rather than designing any new futuristic weapons. That’s a bit of a shame, since the one gun that really feels special, the Smart Pistol, is such a great success. Its auto-targeting is powerful in a whole new way, and Respawn managed to make it strange and challenging to use, wonderfully effective in the right hands, and limited enough to not feel overpowered.
I found myself wishing that the Smart Pistol was accompanied by more guns that felt new and futuristic, rather than existing as a lone standout among a small collection of standard machine guns, pistols, and rifles. The guns look and sound great and cover the basics in terms of different strengths and weaknesses, but I can’t imagine people ever saying that they LOVE the Titanfall SMG, for example.
The maps are well-designed, which must have been a monumental challenge given the freedom of movement for pilots and the size of the titans, but several of them come across feeling a bit too similar to each other. The map called “Boneyard” is the standout here, a wonderful alien desert world with giant bones dotting the landscape and dragon-like creatures flying around. Running around Boneyard feels like exploring one of the wild worlds of Ratchet & Clank, but most of the rest of the maps blur together into a mishmash of factories, buildings, and ruined landscapes. The maps are well-textured with strategic opportunities and work well whether you’re moving around as a pilot or titan, but it really would have been nice to have a bit more variety in the scenery.
Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Titanfall:
#1 Fun – 10/10
All things considered, Titanfall is insanely fun. After all the hand-wringing about odd visual resolutions, a 6 on 6 cap, and being little more than “Call of Duty with robots,” it turns out that playing Titanfall is an absolute blast.
#2 Guns and Maps – 7/10
Aside from the controversial Smart Pistol there aren’t really any guns in Titanfall that stand out, though the various machine guns and rifles that are present are fine, if a bit generic. The maps suffer from a similar problem.
#3 Strategic Depth – 10/10
There is an incredible depth of strategy in Titanfall, all of which branches out from the core question of the best way to use your titan. It’s going to be fascinating to watch the game evolve and to see if players ever settle on the “best” way to play the game, given all the various options.
#4 Innovation – 9/10
There are several individual elements of Titanfall that would have been fun and refreshing if they had been in a new shooter all on their own, and the fact that Titanfall brings so many new things together and it all works is a stunning achievement.
#5 Graphics – 9/10
Giant robots stomping around ruined space cities have never looked this good before.
Not considered: The “story”
The campaign mode is a poor imitation of a story mode, and seems like it was included only as an obligatory hand-wave towards more traditional single-player experience. In the end, they didn’t need to bother.
Overall score: 9/10