It’s been hyped beyond belief, pitched as the saviour of the Xbox One and the start of a new multiplayer phenomenon to rival the Call of Duty franchise from which many of Respawn’s team came, but does their pilot episode deliver the goods?
Titanfall is, quite simply, a new blend of familiar game mechanics, carefully chosen and combined in such a way that they complement each other perfectly.
The manner in which you can traverse a map is endlessly rewarding. The double jump of the jet pack combines with clever level design to create a mini game out of leaping from one rooftop to another, timing your second burst of upward momentum at just the right moment. Then there are the walls and boards to run off, carefully placed in such a way so that you need almost never touch the ground.
But it’s not just about keeping you in motion, because the jet pack truly adds a third dimension to the gameplay. If you run around as you have done in countless other first person shooters, you will die. Using the high ground to your advantage and knowing how to quickly get there is paramount. Especially when you take on a Titan.
Titanfall so often features this particular game of cat and mouse. Hopping into a Titan, with the endlessly delightful animations, changes the game completely. You lose that mobility, the ability to leave the ground behind you on a whim, but you gain much heavier armour and more imposing tools of destruction.
Even when automated, a Titan can kill a Pilot in a split second, whether by gun, missile or just stomping on them, but a Pilot can hide, evade and whittle away at his or her opponent’s defences with the Anti-Titan weapons. I love to turn to the cloaking device and Ark Grenades to disrupt their vision, before leaping on their back to lure the pilot out for a more even fight.
Though it’s just six Pilots on each team, the map is filled with AI soldiers and the robotic Spectres. They don’t provide you with a meaningful challenge in a fight – though get too cocky and they might occasionally kill you – and generally feel very dumb, but the AI provides colour to the battlefields.
It also gives you more ways to play the game. I found myself setting my Titan to follow mode, for example, as a way of keeping enemy titans distracted. Meanwhile, killing Grunts and Spectres will add to your team’s tally in the Team Deathmatch-like Attrition, so that even if you’re having a bad round, you can still contribute to a victory.
The Smart Pistol excels at this style of gameplay, requiring a single lock on for an AI kill but three for a Pilot. It removes the need for precision and absolute reflexes, but isn’t overpowering. Played in a specific manner, you can easily rack up the points, but going head on with a more traditional automatic weapon will see you die a quick death. There’s a degree of thought required to use it.
It lives amidst an array of customisable options that you would expect to see. Though not as endless a list as you will see in other games, you have everything from futuristic SMGs to sniper rifles, three Titan chassis which trade speed for armour, abilities and so on.
In a match, Burn Cards come into play, single shot power ups which last a single life. You can pick three before heading into battle, but they’re awarded much faster than I use them, for completing certain feats in a game or specific challenges. They can lend you more powerful weapons, double your XP, give you an infinitely long cloaking device and more, but there’s always that risk and reward of using them because you never know how long your next life is going to last.
Though Titanfall does break many of the ties to other predominantly online shooters, in that it has no single player campaign or offline modes, it does feature a story-based multiplayer campaign.
It plays out a story across nine multiplayer matches, letting you go through from both the IMC and Militia sides of the war. It’s an interesting way of wrapping a story around multiplayer and actually does a good job with presenting two different perspectives on the battles and detailing the future. The matches all have a small introductory cinematic before dropping you into the field of battle, with small moments of NPC dialogue developing events as you play and between matches.
While an interesting diversion or introduction to the game – when successfully matched with other rookies – it fails to fulfil the potential of online storytelling. Instead of a branching story based on your successes or failures, it follows a predetermined route and simply alters the dialogue slightly. It also falls into the trap of telling rather than showing, as you are never truly a part of the main events that take place, as a consequence of alternating between Attrition and Hardpoint game modes.
Strangely, it only uses two of the modes available, but these are quite limited. Capture The Flag and Hardpoint Domination are about as self-explanatory as they can be, while Pilot Hunter is a direct parallel to Team Deathmatch. Attrition manages to stand apart from TDM, with points being awarded for AI and Titan kills, but is a variation on a theme, and the same can be said of Last Titan Standing’s Elimination-like mode which, thanks to the greater health of the Titans and the ability to eject and still contribute to the fight, has a very different feeling to similar modes in other shooters.
The unique twist within several modes is the epilogue at the end of each match. It sees the losers trying to evacuate to a dropship as the winners try to hunt them down. As victory or defeat is signalled, thoughts turn from fight to flight in an instant, and a headlong rush to the extraction zone adds an extra chance for redemption or glory with a final life.
With so relatively few game modes and so little variation from that core experience, there is a nagging question in my mind about the longevity of the game. Respawn will need to deliver on their plans to expand the range of modes on offer to keep things feeling fresh, but it’s pleasantly offset by a collection of maps that extends beyond the nine that are used in the campaign, with some lovely new locations to see.
But, with the focus placed firmly on attaining 60 frames per second and a game built around the ageing Source engine, Titanfall fails to wow graphically. The rough edges are visible in many places, whether on PC or Xbox One, if you stop for a few moments you’ll notice harsh geometry and poor textures, but graphical fidelity was very much a secondary concern to gameplay and a stable frame rate.
Respawn’s first game is a bold push to create that new must-have multiplayer game, and in so many ways they succeed. It fails to deliver on the potential of an online campaign, almost falling into the same trap that befalls their single player-laden competitors, and doesn’t really attempt to create new and interesting game modes.
What it does is lay the foundations for a series of games with a rich mixture of ideas, with that compelling juxtaposition of the agile Pilots and the imposing might of the Titans at its core.
Versions tested: PC, Xbox One