It’s no secret that first-person shooters have lost some of their swagger since 2007.The genre has stagnated since the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and every big-budget title has pretty much been built around the same thing. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: you’ll play as a soldier, usually in a modern or near future setting, fighting against Russians, or the Chinese, or terrorists, or maybe Russian and Chinese terrorists if the game feels really fancy.
The game will send you and your squad of badass soldiermen all over the globe, as you battle for the glory of the motherland (usually ‘Murica) and defeat the evil foreigners, for reasons that usually have something to do with nukes. The campaign is usually short and incredibly scripted, but no one really cares about all that. The real draw is the multiplayer, which is just as predictable.
You’ll create a class, choose a weapon, its attachments and a few perks, and sprint around a bunch of maps searching for enemies to kill, all while earning experience points by performing basic actions and completing challenges. Earn enough experience, and you’ll level up, which allows access to new perks, weapons, attachments, and abilities. Rinse and repeat ad nauseam until you hit level cap, and then you can prestige, and do it again and again and again. Carrot, meet stick.
"The game does run you through a quick tutorial that does a good job of showing you the basics, but learning the intricacies of the system and the options you have available to you at any given time are up to you. Ultimately, what you can do is only limited by your imagination and skill."
So when Respawn Entertainment, which was founded by former members of Infinity Ward, and EA announced Titanfall, a futuristic shooter that revolves around giant robots and their pilots, many wrote the game off as little more than “Call of Duty with mechs,” myself included. In many ways, we were right. Like Call of Duty, Titanfall is a multiplayer-focused, create-a-class first-person shooter that revolves around leveling up and unlocking new weapons, perks, and attachments. Dismissing Titanfall as Call of Duty with mechs, however, is to do the game a disservice. No matter how familiar many of these elements are, Titanfall always feels like a unique experience and a breath of fresh air in a genre that seems content to rehash the same ideas again and again.
The biggest difference is the level of mobility available to pilots. Pilots are equipped with jump jets, and can run, jump, double jump, climb, hang, and wall run around the map. Of these, the wall run and the double jump are the most important. The latter is pretty self-explanatory, and allows you to clear tall obstacles and leap into second story windows. The former, however, is the meat and potatoes of Titanfall’s movement, and what makes the game something truly special.
Simply jumping at all a wall head on won’t get you very far, and you’ll be stuck trying to make your way to a window, or pull yourself up onto a roof or ledge if you want to make progress. Approach that same wall from an angle, however, and you’ll start running across it horizontally. Planting your feet anywhere, including a wall, resets your jump jets, and once you realize that, your movement capabilities increase significantly.
Want to cross a courtyard? Wall run across a wall, double jump to a nearby billboard, wall run across that, and then double jump to the roof of a building. Trying to get the top of a certain building from an alley? Just bounce between them until you get enough height to double jump to the roof. Getting shot? Double jump to a nearby wall and wall run behind him. These are just a few of the combinations you can perform, and the more you experiment, the more you’ll discover. The game does run you through a quick tutorial that does a good job of showing you the basics, but learning the intricacies of the system and the options you have available to you at any given time are up to you. Ultimately, what you can do is only limited by your imagination and skill.
"Of course, movement isn’t the only tool a pilot has at his or her advantage. They also have tactical abilities. One allows you to see through walls, while another speeds up your movement and health regen. The final, and perhaps most useful, is a tactical cloak that makes you all but invisible to titans."
Titanfall’s freedom of movement means that you’ll have to throw a lot of your ideas about shooters out the window. Each of the game’s fifteen maps features a number of billboards, buildings, ziplines, and streets to navigate, and the maps themselves are extremely varied. Some might take place in the middle of a futuristic city, while another might take place in the ruins of an old outpost or an industrial complex.
You can enter pretty much every structure you see, which means you’ll find yourself popping in and out of windows fairly often, and changing elevation almost constantly. Most shooters require that you learn their maps if you hope to be successful, but Titanfall takes that logic a step further by requiring you to discover all of the ways you can use your expanded mobility in those maps as well. Verticality is important in Titanfall, and the best players will be the ones who excel at every level of the map and transition between them as fluidly as possible.
This level of mobility also means that your enemies can, and will, attack from any direction or height. As a result, things that are standard fare in shooters, such as natural choke points, are not present in Titanfall. Instead, you’re constantly moving, flanking, and pursuing your enemies. For all their mobility, pilots are pretty fragile, and can be taken out with a few well-placed shots, so you always have to be aware of your surroundings. That said, however, your mobility means that you’re never at a disadvantage, unless an enemy is directly behind you, and even then, you can still escape and even kill him, if you play your cards right.
Of course, movement isn’t the only tool a pilot has at his or her advantage. They also have tactical abilities. One allows you to see through walls, while another speeds up your movement and health regen. The final, and perhaps most useful, is a tactical cloak that makes you all but invisible to titans. It isn’t nearly as effective against human opponents, but it can get you out of a tight scrape and does allow you to sneak around if you use it properly. None of these things are particularly new in and of themselves, as each has been done to some extent in other games, but they take on new aspects when combined with your pilot’s incredible movement abilities.
"The game’s single-shot and burst fire rifles are good all-around choices, and the snipers are there for those who prefer their murder to be of the ranged variety. Naturally, pilots also have a number of side arms to choose from, as well. All in all, most of them feel familiar and most people will find a number of guns that fit their playstyle."
The game’s weapons are much the same. Unlike many military shooters, Titanfall features only one or two takes on most weapon types, and each gun fills are role. The assault rifle, for example, is almost unmatched in mid-range combat, while the SMGS and shotgun rules the roost up close. The game’s single-shot and burst fire rifles are good all-around choices, and the snipers are there for those who prefer their murder to be of the ranged variety. Naturally, pilots also have a number of side arms to choose from, as well. All in all, most of them feel familiar and most people will find a number of guns that fit their playstyle.
The one exception is the smart pistol, a primary weapon that will lock on to enemies as long as you keep them within its targeting reticule. Killing a pilot is as simple as allowing the weapon to lock on three times and pulling the trigger, which will fire all three shots. The downside, however, is that acquiring all three locks takes a decent amount of time, and it’s easy for a pilot to kill you or get out of range before the gun is ready to fire. It’s a risky weapon, but it really shines when it comes to killing grunts and spectres.
Titanfall is primarily 6 on 6 game, but you’re not just fighting other players: there are a number of AI controlled soldiers that deploy over the course of the match, as well, known as grunts and spectres. Grunts are relatively weak human enemies, and spectres are slightly stronger robotic soldiers that can be hacked by the player.
They’re mostly there to add a sense of realism and scale to the game, and in many ways, they’re like minions from a MOBA: they’re not really a threat to a pilot unless that pilot is already wounded or is facing a large group, and they spend most of their time fighting other grunts and spectres and helping to secure buildings and objectives. But just as in a MOBA, it’s important to pay attention to them, as killing them gives you points, unlocks attachments and modifications, and even lessens the time it takes to call down your titan, a giant mech that only you can pilot.
"Put simply, titans are awesome. They come in three classes – light, medium, and heavy – and can be equipped with a variety of weapons, ranging from chainguns and 40 millimeter cannons to rail guns and shock cannons, as well as shoulder mounted rocket launchers. Just one of them, piloted well, can spell the difference between victory and defeat for a team."
Put simply, titans are awesome. They come in three classes – light, medium, and heavy – and can be equipped with a variety of weapons, ranging from chainguns and 40 millimeter cannons to rail guns and shock cannons, as well as shoulder mounted rocket launchers. Just one of them, piloted well, can spell the difference between victory and defeat for a team.
Like pilots, their weapons are complimented by special abilities, which include a shield that can catch rockets before throwing them back at the titan that fired them, a cloud of smoke that is harmful to pilots, and a shield wall that will absorb enemy fire. Titans also have the ability to dash, which allows them to perform tactical maneuvers in combat, and can perform a powerful melee attack that deals heavy damage to other titans and instantly kills any pilot unlucky enough to be in its way.
Titan skirmishes are among the best parts of the game, as they’re very tactical affairs that demand accuracy, precision, and good judgment, and losing one can come down to something as simple as using your shield too early or incorrectly timing a dash. Of course, pilots and titans don’t fight independently of one another, either. As you’d expect, titans are a natural threat to pilots, but pilots can fight back, too. Each pilot comes equipped with an anti-titan weapon, ranging from a rocket launcher to a rail gun.
In addition, a pilot can “rodeo” a titan by jumping onto its back, ripping off some protective shielding, and firing his weapon into some delicate machinery. Titans who have the smoke ability equipped won’t have much trouble with this sort of thing, but everyone else will have to get out of their mechanical behemoth and deal with the other pilot personally. Even without its pilot, a titan is no pushover, and will be piloted by an AI that can be commanded to either follow the pilot around or hold a position.
"For all of its unique gameplay, however, Titanfall’s modes are pretty standard. Attrition is basically team deathmatch, but you earn points for killing grunts, spectres, and titans, in addition to pilots. Pilot hunter is more traditional, and focuses entirely on killing pilots."
As you can imagine, all of this makes Titanfall a very dynamic game. You might be pursuing a pilot in your titan only to have him sprint around a corner into his own, and engage you on more equal ground. Likewise, you might time your titanfall so that your titan crashes atop an enemies’ titan and kills it instantly, or you might be fighting a titan only to have your titan’s health deplete to zero.
When this happens, titans explode after a brief countdown, taking their pilots with them unless they quickly eject. Equip the nuclear ejection perk, however, and your titan turns into a walking bomb, which might allow you to take out the other guy before you’re shot to safety. Of course, you also have to make sure that your opponent doesn’t execute you with a melee attack when you enter the danger state, which kills both you and your titan. And really, there’s nothing like rodeo-killing a titan when it’s at full health, or winning a duel because of a perfect dash.
For all of its unique gameplay, however, Titanfall’s modes are pretty standard. Attrition is basically team deathmatch, but you earn points for killing grunts, spectres, and titans, in addition to pilots. Pilot hunter is more traditional, and focuses entirely on killing pilots. Hardpoint is a territories mode that tasks you with capturing and holding specific areas to earn points, and capture the flag is exactly what it sounds like.
The only mode that is somewhat unique is last titan standing, in which everyone spawns in a titan. As the title implies, the team with the last titan standing wins the round, though it should be noted that players can continue to play as a pilot if they escape from their titan before it explodes. It’s a fun mode that requires a lot of strategy and teamwork, and the most unique take on what Titanfall has to offer.
Between each match, players can equip up to three burn cards, which are single use items that give an advantage in battle. One might allow you to call a titan at the beginning of the match, while another might spawn you with an enhanced weapon or grant you a special perk. This may sound unbalanced, but it’s not. Activating a burn card is risky, as its effects only last until you die, and it’s entirely possible to activate one without ever getting a chance to use it.
"The game never quite feels as unique as I’d like - it always seems like it’s missing a game mode or just one more idea that is distinctly its own - and the campaign feels tacked on at best. Still, it’s hard to deny how well Titanfall comes together, and how unique much of its gameplay is, especially in an industry overcrowded with “me-too” games."
There’s a campaign, too, but it’s little more than multiplayer matches bookended by audio-only mission briefings and the odd cutscene. You’ll occasionally get some in-game dialogue or video, but it’s usually hard to pay attention to both the match and the story segments at the same time. The story itself is pretty simple, and follows a group of freedom fighters as they rebel against the government that seeks to control them, but it feels so tacked on and threadbare that it’s difficult to care about the plot or any of the characters.
You can play both sides of the conflict, but the missions remain the same no matter which side you’re on, and only ever ask you to play attrition and hardpoint. The whole affair doesn’t add much to the game, and it would be easy to skip over the “campaign” entirely if the game didn’t force you to complete it twice, once on each side, to acquire the light and heavy titan chassis.
Much has been made about the game’s graphical performance on the Xbox One, but I’m happy to report that, by and large, Titanfall looks good and runs well on the platform. Sure, there’s the occasional framerate drop and the game occasionally tears a screen or two, but those sequences were fairly uncommon and I rarely noticed them. The game’s resolution has also come under fire, but I doubt that most players will notice it. Everything looks crisp and clear, and the game’s art design more than makes up for any of the game’s visual shortcomings. In addition, the sound design is top notch: weapons are loud and pack a punch, while titans feel bulky and powerful thanks to the loud booming of their footsteps and the crash of metal on metal in close combat.
Ultimately, Titanfall is a mixture of the old and new. The game modes, weapons, character customization, perks, level system, and much more are lifted almost wholesale from Call of Duty 4 and other military shooters, which isn’t surprising considering Respawn’s history. If it weren’t for Titanfall’s additions – the way you move, the titans, and the map design – it would be easy to write the game off. But those things are there, and everything just feels right.
It has its problems, to be sure. The game never quite feels as unique as I’d like – it always seems like it’s missing a game mode or just one more idea that is distinctly its own – and the campaign feels tacked on at best. Still, it’s hard to deny how well Titanfall comes together, and how unique much of its gameplay is, especially in an industry overcrowded with “me-too” games. Let me be clear: it’s not the next big thing, and it isn’t the revolution that Call of Duty 4 was. In that regard, it doesn’t live up to the hype. But it does give the first-person shooter its swagger back. If that’s not a victory, I don’t know what is.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Incredible freedom of movement. Titans are a lot of fun to pilot. Titan and pilot combat work together perfectly. Fantastic map design. Strong visual presentation and sound design.
No truly unique modes. The campaign feels tacked on. You have to play the campaign twice to unlock all of the titan chassis. The occasional framerate drops and torn screens.
Titanfall is a great game that balances new ideas with tried and true genre staples to create one of the most fun multiplayer games in years. There’s no single-player content to speak of, but fans of mechs, freedom of movement, and multiplayer games should definitely check this one out.
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