Titanfall 2.0: You can advance
We’ve become very use to iterative changes in our shooters. The annual release schedule of the biggest series combined with the typically risk averse nature of major studios means we’re generally treated to small changes in every sequel. A new game mode here, a slightly different mechanic there, the disappearance and reappearance of dolphin diving, and so on.
Titanfall 2 doesn’t deal in half-measures and iterative improvements. For better and for worse, Titanfall 2 represents a major change of direction for the series. Yes, the basics are still the same — it’s still all about super-mobile soldiers hopping in and out of giant robots dropped in from orbit — but there isn’t an element of the game that hasn’t been tweaked, scrapped, or rebuilt from scratch. The result is a completely fresh experience that makes the original Titanfall feel like an extended proof of concept for what is a much more complete and refined game.
Titanfall2 (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Released: October 28, 2016
MSRP: $59.99 Standard Edition, $75.99 Deluxe Edition
The biggest change from the original Titanfall is the inclusion of a full single-player campaign. The story revolves around militia rookie Pilot Jack Cooper and his Titan buddy BT-7274. Stranded after an IMC (a typical Weyland Yutani-esq evil mega-corp) ambush, the two chance upon the trail of a new super-weapon that will spell doom for the resistance movement if the IMC manages to deploy it. The two chase after it like a hat caught by the wind; every time they get close, it escapes their clutches and leads them a little further down the road.
Along the way they encounter gruff resistance heroes, colorful enemy aces, and exchange some painfully generic dialog while becoming buddies. Narratively, it’s very standard sci-fi war movie stuff. None of it is terrible, but it’s all by the numbers with few surprises.
Thankfully, the real star of the campaign is the level design and gameplay. While the plot is bog standard, where it takes place is anything but. The insane sci-fi world of Titanfall shines in a series of increasingly lavish and ridiculous set-pieces. From automated assembly lines, to sheer vertical surfaces, to the deck of a spaceship skimming the top of a forest range, there is no shortage of wild and bizarre locations to enjoy. One particularly imaginative level involves an unexpected puzzle element that feels closer to Portal with jetpacks and laser shotguns than anything else.
Taking full advantage of the high-flying, wall-running mobility of Titanfall’s multiplayer, the majority of the campaign takes place in large, interesting areas that encourage free-movement. Instead of being funneled down corridors and constantly diving behind conveniently placed waist-high cover, there are wide open areas, tricky scaffoldings, and death-defying leaps at every turn.
Fights are frantic and exhilarating. Using the Pilot’s jet-pack and ability to defy physics lets you menace enemy troops with abandon. It almost feels slightly unfair how much more capable you are than the enemy when you storm their position by leaping over a pit and running along the wall to shoot them in the back, or effortlessly slide away from a grenade to uppercut murder some nameless goon. It all feels fantastic and fluid in a way that makes other campaign shooters feel small and listless in comparison.
That’s not to say the campaign is perfect though. Clocking in at a disappointingly scant five hours, the game ends just when it feels like it’s really coming into its own. While the emotional core of the story is supposed to be the bond that develops between Cooper and BT, the short runtime doesn’t give them the chance they need to grow into the relationship naturally. There are some sincere scenes between the two, but most of the big payoff moments fail to land like they should, playing on pathos that is never fully earned.
Of course, the multiplayer is where the game finds its real lifespan. On that front, Titanfall 2 is more than solid. Smart changes to both core gameplay mechanics and the shinny bling surrounding them ensure plenty of hours of robot fighting action to come.
While Titanfall 1 was popular on release, it failed to retain a large playerbase in the long run. Complaints about a lack of long-term goals and a quickly cemented meta-game plagued any discussion about the game. Respawn’s response to these criticisms is not subtle. Titanfall 2 is filled to the brim with long-term progression goals, unlockables, and sticky hooks designed to rope players in for the long haul.
Similar to Call of Duty, each weapon and Titan now has its own progression system to climb, with several weapons being gated behind an overall player level you need to reach before unlocking them. While the few attachments and kit options in the original Titanfall were tied to challenges, they are now earned either through directly leveling them up, or by unlocking them early with credits.
Cosmetic options abound for players who want to look stylish while stomping foot soldiers into a gooey paste. There are paint and camo options to unlock not only for your Pilot and Titans, but for every single gun in the game. Some of these designs are directly tied to levels, some can only be bought with credits, and some can only be unlocked through Advocate Gifts (random items drops).
Credits accrue at a slow but consistent rate. They’re limited enough to make each purchase feel weighty and considered, but not so valuable that you’ll never want to part with them. On the upside, items and camo that are unlocked with credits are permanently unlocked, so you don’t need to re-earn them after regenerating (Titanfall’s answer to prestiging). As of now at least, there is a refreshing lack of any kind of microtransactions to buy credits with or otherwise short circuit the process. If you want something, you have to earn it the old fashion way: by killing people with a two-story tall robot.
There are so many changes to the multiplayer that as a returning veteran I was initially a little shell-shocked. The basic flow of the game is very different from the original, focusing more intently on player performance and tactical choices. Titans are still earned naturally over time, but at a much slower rate. If you want to get a Titan fast, you’ll need to be putting some work in. This feels great when you’re dominating, and not so great when you’re the one being styled on. Matches tend to snowball one way or the other more than before.
Titans no longer come equipped with regenerating shields, meaning all the damage you take is permanent. You can earn a temporary shield by having a Pilot hop onto an enemy mech, rip a battery out of its back and install it in your Titan, but in practice this rarely happens. This is a major change to Titan combat, one I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, it prevents crafty players from sitting on the edge of battle and keeping their Titan alive all game by milking the shield. On the other, I really enjoyed the tension of ducking in and out of combat to extend my Titan’s lifespan. Now, one bad break can waste one of your precious Titan drops with little recourse.
In one of the biggest changes to the battlefield, players can no longer individually choose their Titan’s loadout and weaponry. While in the original you could pick a chassis and sling any gun, shield, or rocket type you wanted on it, loadouts are now locked to specific mechs with a unique arsenal and skills. There are different perks to dabble to spin your playstyle a certain way, but by and large, the Titans now feel more like class picks than anything else.
This makes sense given the new mechanics. To compensate for the lack of customization, the new machines have way more interesting abilities and options than the original three. Instead of choosing between the “fast one,” the “good one,” and the “slow one no one uses,” you now choose between mechs that can fly, or erect walls of fire, or phase out of existence and backstab a robot with a giant electrified sword, and so on. Titan core abilities function more like ultimates from a MOBA than a generic buff, with increased damage or dashing replaced with massive missile barrages, auto-tracking miniguns, and absolutely devastating laser blasts.
Stepping away from complete customization feels like a necessary change to make Titan combat deeper and more interesting. Each class brings something different to the table, with advantages and counters built into the mix. Being able to tell exactly what your opponent is packing based on their silhouette is very important when sizing up a battle. Despite being less flexible in terms of individual customization, the meta-game feels more lively and nuanced than before.
Out of the mech, Pilots, surprisingly, feel slightly slower than before. That’s not to say the game is any less intense though. While bunny hopping and skimming the map like a stone skipped across a pond isn’t as effective as it used to be, Pilots have a wealth of new options to keep their enemies on their toes. The new knee-slide move dramatically changes the feel of Pilot duels. A good slide can give a player just the sudden boost of speed they need to chase down a foe, or to scoot under a low obstacle and escape. New gear like grappling hooks, gravity bombs, and SONAR-emitting throwing knives add completely new layers to Pilot movement and combat. While it isn’t as flat-out fast as it used to be, it’s a whole lot more complicated and strategic, requiring more mental plate spinning and mind games to stay on top of the competition.
Along with the utility items, there are of course weapons aplenty to choose from. In addition to the familiar anti-Titan arsenal, a whole new class of grenadier weapons let you bring serious heat to the battlefield in place of a normal gun if you want to concentrate on taking down Titans and other hard targets. Meanwhile the options for different assault rifles, SMGs, and pistols have been greatly expanded, each offering distinct advantages and tradeoffs. Did I mention there is a laser shotgun? Because there’s a freaking laser shotgun.
Disappointingly, Titanfall 2 moves away from the NPC fodder enemies in multiplayer that made the original so distinct. Only two game modes feature A.I.-controlled soldiers, the returning Attrition mode, and the new Bounty Hunt mode. Attrition works similar to before (but with more variety in A.I. troops) while Bounty Hunt ups the ante with a deeper strategic layer and adds NPC Titans to the mix. Bounty Hunt rewards cold hard cash for kills that can be stolen by enemy players and between NPC waves, players need to deposit their earned cash at banks to lock it in. Needless to say, banks become hotly contested kill-zones when it’s time to pay the piper.
I think it’s a shame that Respawn backed off of what was one of Titanfall’s most interesting design choices. Even in Attrition and Bounty Hunt, battles rarely achieve the epic flair of the original that made pounding through the enemy ranks with a Titan so satisfying. The contrast between landlocked and clumsy Grunts compared to the soaring majesty of the player Pilots made the players look fearsome and heroic. They stood out in a world of rank-and-file troopers. With their absence, the Pilots seem less special.
Competitive favorites Capture the Flag and Hardpoint are back, and while the new kit options shake up the basic tactics used, they still feel empty and generic compared to what they could be if the game embraced its slightly MOBA leanings. The Titan-less Pilot vs. Pilot mode and an inane 12-man Free For All mode seem to completely miss the point. Jumping around as a Pilot tossing out grenades in every direction feels like half a game without the mechs to balance out the breakneck chaos of Pilot fights or an objective to direct the flow of a match. I have about zero interest in a generic deathmatch at this point.
Fortunately, Last Titan Standing is also back and is better than ever given the changes to Titan combat. Featuring two teams of five players, each team starts in their Titans and dukes it out until the titular condition is met. In my opinion, this is the underrated gem of the game, requiring excellent team coordination, strategy, and flexibility to succeed. (Also, you get to spend more time in a giant robot. Always a plus in my book).
While I don’t love every change Respawn has made in Titanfall 2, at the end of the day the positives more than outweigh the negatives. It’s hard to sulk about the lack of A.I. grunts in most of the multiplayer matches when you’re unloading a red hot chest laser into a mech that is hovering 50 feet above ground pelting you with missiles. There isn’t a shooter on the market that can compare with Titanfall 2 when it comes to imagination, inventiveness, and flat-out spectacle.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]