One shall stand, one shall fall
The first-person shooter business knows its audience. Year after year there are military shooters that are stuck in the "newer" era of shooters, offering up realistic experiences and killstreaks galore, which gamers eat up annually.
Lost is the art of the arena or twitch shooter, which are usually just relegated to downloadable titles or the PC platform, and scant see the light of day as a true wide console release. Enter Titanfall -- a game that seeks to shake up the genre with elements of twitch shooters of old, and of course, giant hulking robots.
Titanfall doesn't really break the mold or offer up many things we haven't seen before -- but that doesn't mean it isn't fun to play.
Titanfall (PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: March 11, 2014 (PC, Xbox One) / March 25 (Xbox 360)
After the months of nebulous hype, buzz words, and a beta, some people still don't know what Titanfall really is -- so I'll tell you. In short, it's a mixture of some elements of both the old and news schools of the FPS genre. It's that simple. It's not too old school though, as the gameplay isn't so fast that it will alienate fans who aren't accustomed to twitch play. This is by design, to ease in as many people as possible to Titanfall.
One thing Respawn has done in particular that goes against the grain is the fact that they've completely knocked out a solo campaign in favor of tying in the story with multiplayer. You'll embark upon two "campaigns" for both warring factions, learning a bit about Titfanfall's lore in the process. Before each campaign fight, you'll have a tiny audio monologue to listen to in the lobby, and a small in-game event setup before each map. Conveniently, you can "continue" your progress at any time.
I actually like this approach personally, as it trims the fat in favor of an expansive multiplayer component, which is what most people are going to play anyways for months down the line. Having said that, Respawn hasn't presented anything here lore-wise that really draws me in or makes me care about the Titanfall universe in the slightest. The story works because it's fun to play, but it failed to captivate me in any way. It helps that the game is visually striking from a technical standpoint, but the designs themselves don't really differentiate themselves from any space marine or mech-heavy franchise out there.
Speaking of multiplayer, Titanfall really doesn't offer any gametypes that you haven't seen before outside of one in particular. There's Attrition (team deathmatch), Capture the Flag, Hardpoint (Domination), Pilot Hunter (modified team deathmatch), and Last Titan Standing. Other than the latter mode (which I'll get to later) you've played them since Unreal Tournament launched in 1999.
Thankfully, the core gameplay elevates Titanfall above these "been there, done that" game modes.
Titanfall is all about freedom of movement -- a concept that it achieves with great success. Initially, I went wild with the parkour wall-running mechanics, as well as the perfectly executed double-jump and climbing abilities. But once you get past the surface and utilize moves like the wall hang, you realize Titanfall's true potential, as you can literally climb almost anywhere you can see. It's an invigorating feeling that not only has a point gameplay wise, but emotionally -- as you always feel like you're in control to some degree. Maps are meant to be explored, not just looked at, and that's an accomplishment.
Outside of the gameplay you'll start to see the "new school" shooter influence seep in -- specifically Call of Duty. The loadout and perk screens are very familiar, and some abilities are even carbon copies of those offered up in Respawn's past work (as Infinity Ward). "Burn Cards" seek to innovate the perk system even further with disposable powers that last one life -- but they're mostly forgettable. The problem with the Burn Card system is that it feels like a nuisance, since you have to "queue up" cards before a battle and then manually use them before a round or after a death.
The whole card UI is really clunky, so I found myself just wanting to get back into the action as soon as possible rather than bother with them. The good news is they don't really go overboard since there are limited options, which allows for a decent amount of balance to the proceedings. It's a bit disappointing that there aren't more kits available for Titans, though.
Speaking of Titans, they're easily the most fun part of the game. After a certain time has passed, you have the ability to press down on the d-pad and call down a giant robot that you can crawl into to wreck shop with. It's very similar to calling down a care package in Call of Duty, but instead of everyone else taking your prize, you're the only one who can pilot or control it. It fits seamlessly into the gameplay and it's a great "cool factor" to constantly keep you engaged. To make things more interesting, the better you do in a game, the faster you can call down your Titan -- it's a huge rush to try to get the "first fall" bonus in every match.
Titans themselves are also very different in terms of their feel, as they're a bit clunkier, they can dash, and they have heavy weapons at their disposal. One of the core abilities is your vortex shield (you can change this out to something else eventually), which you can use to "catch" bullets in mid-air and fling them back at your opponents. It adds a layer of tactical depth to playing as a Titan, and since you're so large, you're a huge target -- so it feels balanced.
There's one aspect in particular that I'm generally not a fan of when it comes to day to day operations -- the AI. Respawn's philosophy is that by injecting lesser AI characters into the mix, it helps you "stay in the action" more, instead of breaking the pace and always hunting for players. It's a neat concept at first, but I quickly realized that Titanfall has plenty of action without them, and over time, they just felt like they were getting in the way.
It would be one thing if the AI troops were formidable, but they're not -- often times I just see them standing still or doing absolutely nothing at all, making for easy cannon fodder (or points, in some modes.) I wish there was an option to turn them off, but there's not -- so you just have to deal with it. Even in the Pilot Hunter mode where the AI doesn't actually count towards the score, they're still there. I hope Respawn considers an AI-less "arena" type mode in the future for longevity's sake.
Having said that, I'm pleased to report that Titanfall has the map front fully covered, with 16 sprawling locations on offer at launch. These aren't just hollow shells either, as most of them either have intricate buildings with multiple entry points, or tons of variety in tow from a visual standpoint. The great thing about the designs is that they feel huge, but they aren't so huge that you can't always find something to do or someone to kill. Because of the gigantic stature of the Titans, you can almost always see something going on.
But even with all of those positive elements in play, I found myself wanting more modes like Last Titan Standing, which is easily my favorite of the bunch. In this mode players, start the match in a Titan, and once you lose your life as a pilot, you'll wait until the match is over. In essence, I was getting flashbacks of Mech Assault heavy class battles, which is a really good thing. I kind of wish Titanfall went a little more in-depth with their mechs in general with a few more robot centered modes, and more upgrades, as the pilot is the clear-cut focus in the current iteration of the game -- to a fault.
Since we waited until after the game officially launched to publish our review, we had a chance to test out the game's server quality, and I'm pleased to say that I haven't had any major issues. Respawn has jettisoned all the responsibility to Microsoft this time around with dedicated servers, allowing the company to "flip a switch" and power up more Azure servers to accommodate.
I can see the results first-hand too, as many times I will instantly be put into another game if my matchmaking efforts are unsuccessful for the first time. It's basically a matter of seconds until you're in a game, and although I've had a few spurts of lag (a few seconds every hour or so), I haven't had any disconnects so far, nor have I had any major issues. Xbox Live may have been suffering from some issues on day one, but my Titanfall experience was flawless, server-wise.
Titanfall has all of the pieces to make a very nice FPS puzzle -- a wide variety of well crafted maps, a decent amount of familiar game modes, and a prestige system to hold the interest of veterans. In that sense, it's a very welcoming game that many disenchanted genre fans will enjoy. Just don't expect anything monumentally different, or a worthwhile world to enjoy while you're having fun shooting everything in sight.
Titanfall reviewed by Chris Carter
Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth most people's time and cash.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide