I don’t think there is anyone in the world that can reasonably argue that Call of Duty isn’t the biggest shooter franchise on the market right now. Its solid foundation of twitch-based combat, powerful killstreak rewards and variety of weapons makes a go-to series for competitive FPS players. However, as the years have gone by, the annualized franchise has begun to show its age and challengers such as Battlefield have really begun to offer alternatives for those looking for a different experience. Titanfall, the first product from the newly formed Respawn Entertainment, hopes to fit that bill.
Born from a dispute with publisher Activision over bonus payouts after the release of Modern Warfare 2, Respawn, created by Infinity Ward founders Jason West and Vince Zampalla alongside a quarter of the core IW team, has stuck to their roots in creating a twitch-based FPS while bringing combat out of the modern setting and into a scifi, almost Firefly-esque, future battlefield. With Call of Duty behind them and, ironically, their biggest competitor, does Titanfall have what it takes to change the way we think about the competitive shooter?
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release date: March 11, 2014
Platform(s): 360, PC, Xbox One (reviewed)
You Can’t Take the Sky From Me
Centuries after humanity has spread to the stars, our species has found itself settling on two sets of planets: the Core systems, the first life-bearing bodies we found, and the Frontier, a newer set of systems full of untapped resources that we are still attempting to colonize. Between the two lies a vast expanse of space for which nothing exists. From the Core systems, the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation, a commercial empire that controls the vast majority of the shipping lanes and planetary contracts, rules the Frontier, imposing their will as they see fit and legally backing up their claims with armed incursions. Opposed to them are the Militia, a mishmash of homesteads, colonies, mercenaries and more that aim to kick the IMC out of the Frontier.
Titanfall stands as a multiplayer-only game from the outset though the setup for the game’s universe that you just read is still applicable thanks to the inclusion of Campaign Multiplayer. As one of the primary gameplay settings, Campaign Multiplayer takes you on a narrative-focused playthrough of a series of nine maps from both the Militia and IMC perspectives. Each map begins with a scripted intro sequence for which you are introduced to the battlefield you are about to engage the enemy in as well as multiple in-game events that occur at set moments as the match progresses.
Sadly, apart from the intro cutscenes, very little of the game makes an effort to draw you into the story, let alone make you feel for the characters on either side of the conflict. We are not given a proper introduction to pretty much anyone nor do you receive any in-game information as to why this war is happening. Respawn has clearly put a lot of time and effort into this game over its three year development stretch but it doesn’t seem as if they’ve made that strong an effort in making the universe one that the player should care about. At no point throughout either side of the campaign did I feel any emotions for the game’s characters and that’s strange to me considering that Respawn clearly wants to build a franchise.
What’s even stranger is just how the campaign for the game is formatted in terms of gameplay. Apart from only playing two of the five different gameplay modes, the win/loss conditions of each match have almost no impact on the outcome of the narrative save for how the characters address the results of the battle. Instead, the storyline never changes or adapts to what the player has accomplished with, spoiler alert, the good guys winning and the bad guys ending up on the run. This could have been an excellent opportunity for Respawn to introduce gameplay elements such as branching narrative design, story-focused sub-mission objectives and progressively changing mission conditions. Based on the outcome of a match, why couldn’t the follow-up match include bonus conditions for each team? If the winning team earned a sizeable percentage of points over the losers, why can’t they, for example, receive an extra compliment of AI companions in the next match? Or, for that matter, why not take a page out of Black Ops 2’s branching narrative design and craft us a custom-made story based on player actions? All of this can, of course, be chalked up to a small development team with a finite amount of resources at their disposal but even so, this feels like a lost opportunity.
Despite the road not taken with the overall design of the narrative elements, Respawn has stayed true to their origins in creating setpiece moments throughout the match. Both the skybox as well as various places on the map will show off in-game events that, for the most part, are out of the player’s control and demonstrate an almost living, breathing battlefield. One such map can feature an aerial battle between several capital ships while another features “dragons” that can attack AI grunts. Two memorable matches include a D-day-esque storming of the beaches moment as an AI Titan leads you and your troops into battle while yet another features gigantic, lumbering dinosaurs just outside the walls of your map. Yes, you read that right: Titanfall has dinosaurs in it. And that’s awesome.
All in all, though Titanfall lacks punch in the delivery of their core narrative and universe build-up, the campaign’s definitely fun to playthrough for at least the first time. It should be noted however that the player does not gain access to two of the game’s three Titan models, the Strider and the Ogre, unless they complete the campaign as both the Militia and the IMC. Don’t worry about it taking too long though since it only takes about an hour and a half to complete a campaign through to the end thanks to just how fast the game’s matches go. It’s a fun romp while it lasts though one would hope that the game’s upcoming DLC will address the issues I’ve mentioned above.
Look Out Below
Though Titanfall’s attempt at introducing narrative into a multiplayer game ends up being about on par with what Splash Damage’s 2011 title Brink did, Titanfall succeeds in the gameplay department in strides. Beyond just the story, the comparison I just mentioned is a necessity when one brings up the game’s parkour movement system and unlike the lackluster attempt Brink brought to the table, Respawn’s title is quite the feat. Nay, I say, it’s one of the best parts of Titanfall.
Built on the same foundation as any other shooter, Titanfall harkens back to the olden days of yore when Quake and Unreal Tournament were the biggest names in competitive gaming by giving the player a jetpack for which the player, at any time during a jump, can induce a double jump that aids both vertically and horizontally. This is combined with the ability to, while in the air, run along walls by simply pushing up against one. Running along a wall yields a faster rate of movement than traveling on foot, encouraging this behavior. This is all well and good but the real ticket comes when you take notice that the jetpack resets its boost every time your feet hit a surface. This means that, if one is careful, they can chain wall runs almost infinitely so long as they can maintain the necessary momentum to initiate one. The end result is tremendous fun and while it has some very negative consequences to your ability to aim your weapon, it will end up being the best Titanfall players’ method of choice for getting around the map.
The movement system wouldn’t be strong however unless Respawn emphasized complimentary map design and, for the most part, Titanfall’s initial offering of 15 maps makes parkour exceptionally satisfying to do. Though not every single one of them does so, the selection at hand does a very nice job of both encouraging extended wall running and parkour thanks to corridors and well placed geometry while offering larges spaces by which titans can engage in mass combat. One excellent example is Rise, a pit-esque map with tall, rising walls and interconnected hallways. Rise seems to be the ultimate example of the game’s parkour possibilities as you can stream wall runs so long that you can actually climb high enough to get out of the map.
The omega to the wall running system’s alpha are the Titans, the titular object of both everyone’s desire and bane throughout the Titanfall experience. These 20ft tall mechs are illustriously exciting to utilize at times and an essential tool for combat throughout the game. Unlike the typical killstreak or power up you get in most other twitch-based shooters, players are all given a Titan after a certain amount of time as indicated on your HUD. This timer can be cut down significantly if the player is able to damage or kill enemies with the most cut time rewarded for killing opposing players. This system ensures that even the most novice of players will still earn a Titan at least once through the course of a match, something that players in games like Call of Duty may find trouble with especially later in the game’s lifecycle. Skilled players will be able to earn upwards of four or five Titans during a match but it is a very fair system and is a most welcoming inclusion to the formula.
Titans come in one of three flavors though you only have access to one of them unless you complete the campaign as both the IMC and the Militia. The Ogre is your heavy mech that is able to hold its own in most fights while the Strider is light weight and won’t though it is uniquely suited to Capture The Flag. In the middle stands the Atlas, the standard Titan everyone has access to and an excellent balance to these two polar opposites. Titanfall inclusion of only three models to choose from may be a tad disappointing to some but I find myself questioning what else Respawn could have included outside of support and defense-focused Titans.
What isn’t disappointing is how a Titan handles as they work almost exactly like a standard player in the game. The weapon selection is fine and runs the gambit for what you would typically expect from a MechWarrior title, albeit no lasers are onboard. Players can utilize melee attacks in addition to weapons fire to whittle a Titan down to its doomed state which will cause it to soon explode during which, if a player times a melee attack just right during this state, they can rip the pilot out of their Titan and laughably toss them across the map. It’s quite a bit of fun and easily one of the most enjoyable things about piloting a Titan. Should players decide to stay on foot rather than climb into their Titan, the unit will enter AI mode in which it will fight on your behalf and either guard one particular spot or follow you around on the map. This is infinitely useful in Hardpoint Domination matches in which you have to capture select points on a map but the accuracy of the AI is nowhere near as strong as what the player can bring to the table.
Combat between Titans and engagements between pilots are fairly balanced but it is easy to suspect that Titan on pilot fights would be heavily one sided. Not so, my good friend, as I’m happy to report that both sides have an equal chance of defeating the other. Pilots can easily out maneuver a Titan thanks to both the map design as well as the parkour abilities mentioned earlier. Pilots can also engage in the act of “rodeoing” in which they climb onto the back of the Titan, tear open a panel and can deal massive amounts of damage directly without having to take its shield down. All pilots are also given a tertiary weapon slot devoted to anti-Titan weaponry which can really damage or even take down a Titan if the pilot gets the drop on it.
I’m also glad to report that Titanfall’s weapon variety, though lacking in number in comparison to most modern military shooters on the markey, each weapon handles great and feels unique. Though you’ll mostly run into players utilizing the R-101C assault rifle, each and every weapon feels unique and interesting, not to mention powerful. Each weapon is also designed to fit into a specific trope of firearm as well, whether it be an assault rifle, SMG, semi-automatic, three round burst, shotgun or sniper rifle so it can become quite easy to pick a favorite. The EVA-8 shotgun is powerful but slow, the C.A.R. SMG fires rapidly but lacks accuracy and damage while the Longbow-DMR sniper rifle is tremendously deadly and fires as fast as you can pull the trigger but requires that lead time be calculated at anything over 30ft away and has a low magazine count. One especially unique weapon, the Smart Pistol, can be a bit unwieldy but can lock onto and fire bullets accurately at multiple targets. During my time with Titanfall I’ve enjoyed every single weapon the game has had to offer and have even overcome personal prejudices against certain types of rifles such as the three round burst Hemlock BF-R. It seems that Respawn wants you to learn to appreciate all models of weapons in Titanfall rather than falling into a crutch and they’ve done a fine job of that.
Titanfall comes loaded with the standard allotment of gameplay modes without much of a twist but that’s just fine in my opinion. Players can engage in Attrition, a point-based take on Team Deathmatch, the previously mentioned Hardpoint Domination and Capture The Flag, Last Titan Standing in which players fight each other until the last Titan on the opposing team is destroyed and, finally, Pilot Hunter which strictly specifies player-only kills. Everything is fine across the board and the selection of maps that ship with Titanfall work just fine with all variants though I feel that the game could use a bit more variety. Introduction of a King of the Hill mode focused on capturing Titans would be exciting and a race mode focused on utilizing the parkour capabilities of a pilot would be enticing but, sadly, they don’t exist. Odds are that the majority of the Titanfall will end up playing Attrition as it helps to sell that map narrative focus Respawn is going with the game as well as the fact that it helps less skilled players contribute thanks to the ability to kills AI for points. Still though, you probably won’t find yourself bored on any mode or map in the game.
One final element I feel must be mentioned is the game’s inclusion of an epilogue to each match. Rather than have the match end once one side meets the victory conditions, instead the losing team calls in for extraction via drop ship. The losing team must make it to their drop ship and either board or defend it before it evacuates while the winning team must attempt them from escaping. During this sequence, each player is relegated to only one life so if they die they must watch on was a spectator as everything plays out. It’s not a necessary part of any one match and is really only meant to give the player some point bonuses while fulfilling the map narrative aspect of the game, but it’s still fun for both sides, whether you board the drop ship just seconds before the hatch seals or you manage to get the final shot that destroys it before it can warp out. It’s a nice addition though I would hope that future DLC will offer the losing team an alternate way out.
We’re Too Pretty to Die
Titanfall is a good looking game, to be sure. While it doesn’t have the visual fidelity of a game like Killzone Shadow Fall or Infamous: Second Son, the game does have a fair amount of prettiness to it and that’s quite surprising considering what’s under the hood. Rather than run on a contemporary beefy engine like Unreal 3 or Cry Engine or something particularly next gen, Respawn chose to build Titanfall on Source, Valve’s creation that stands a decade old at this point and built well prior to the start of the last generation of consoles. Despite this, the game looks nice with a fine amount of detail put into texture work, character faces and particle effects, surprising for something that was arriving on the market when I was just entering college. It seems that Respawn chose the Source engine from an ease-of-use as well as cost-effective standpoint as most new startups can barely afford to pay the licensing fees associated with the big engines they have to work with, let alone actually supplying their employees with a proper paycheck. Not a bad choice there, Respawn, though I hope that you decide to switch to something else (Source 2, maybe?) once it’s time to start talking about the sequel.
While it looks good, Titanfall does suffer from some issues. The Xbox One version can suffer from considerable screen-tearing at times unfortunately but, more importantly, the game has trouble with its framerate at times. Though Titanfall is designed to run at the full 60fps most come to expect from a twitch-based shooter, the game struggles at times to maintain it depending on the context of what’s going on around the player. Several times throughout my experience I noticed the game chug, dropping to almost single digits due in no small part to a fountain of particle effects going off. Despite this, it doesn’t cripple the experience at all and usually picks back up fairly quickly.
Despite some issues with the visual design, Titanfall sports a rather top-notch sound suite. The game sports a strong soundtrack by Stephen Barton though it seems that most of the pieces are variations on the core themes of the Militia and IMC. Weapon sound design is very well done as all the weapons can clearly be identified by their fire signature. The same can be said for Titans, both in terms of their weapons as well as just conveying the size, weight and strength of these walking one-man tanks. The only part that is a bit weak is the voicework which for the most part is fine but lacks some significant punch, though this can easily be attributed to the game’s writing.
In terms of network performance, I’m glad I can report that the first third party title to test Microsoft’s dedicated server farms works very smoothly. I personally have never been disconnected from a match and the game makes a strong effort to put you in lobbies, not in-progress matches. I only ever experienced one soft crash of the game but I was back in and playing the game in seconds. So far everything looks good for Titanfall’s networking future and if this is any indication of how the servers will work for all games that take advantage of them then we’re in for some good times online.
I’m Free, Freefallin’
Titanfall has the mixed pleasure of being one of the biggest releases on the new Xbox One as it has to both demonstrate the capabilities of Respawn Entertainment as well as the as well as mark a strong starting point for Microsoft’s 2014 lineup and beyond. Though it does have some flaws to it in the narrative and visual departments, it’s an exceptionally fun shooter that stands as a bridge between the classic, fast-paced competitive shooters of yore while containing the solid action and visual presentations of today’s bulletfests. Considering that this game was made by less than 100 people though and on aging resources though I’m more than willing to give them a pass.
Titanfall is a fantastic experience to be had and deserves the attention of everyone who enjoys playing the virtual soldier. It’s rewarding action and unique gameplay makes it a challenger for one of the best shooters of 2014.
Final Score: 8/10
80-89%: Great - Only very minor issues get in the way of greatness.