It’s impossible to discuss Titanfall without dealing with the massive amount of hype that proceeded Respawn’s re-entry as it were, into the first person shooter genre. Created by the original team that created Call of Duty and redefined what it means to be a multi-player shooter with the COD4:Modern Warfare, Titanfall was hyped as though it was the awakening of the Cthulhu, and R’lyeh itself was rising out of the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
I am going to save you some time and tell you that it is not harkening the return of the Elder Gods. What should come as no surprise though is that Respawn delivered a tightly designed, beautifully rendered shooter experience that’s both fun and engaging. And fun.
Set in a future where humanity has taken to the stars, Titanfall‘s story is pretty familiar to anyone into any kind of science fiction. It’s the future, so there’s a massive corporation that runs everything. Those not into that kind of dominance form into a militia and begin “freeing” colonies, which leads to war. This war, just to make it a little different, is fought with mechanized war suits called Titans. Picture a Panzer Tank with legs and the ability to leap forward while firing a massive caliber machine gun, and you have a pretty good idea of what a Titan is and what it does to the field of battle.
The game itself covers a portion of this all out, Titan dropping bonanza, and though I would like to tell you more, that’s really all I was able to gleam from what Titanfall calls it’s campaign. Made up of 9 missions for each side of the conflict, the offering is actually just 9 mulitplayer maps with some scripted scenes at the beginning, and a whole bunch of diablog it’s almost impossible to pay attention to while you are busy delivering justice through the business end of your firearm or the metal foot of your Titan.
Some highlights: People fight because reasons. People die because guns and reasons. At one point, Abbie Heppe, Respawn’s community manager and the voice of Sarah, the Militia’s Titan coordinator, snaps some dude’s neck on your little heads up camera. More fighting. More Titans. Credits.
I am going to be honest and tell you that I was a bit bummed by the lack “substance” contained with in the campaign. It wasn’t because I missed the utter ridiculousness that normally comes with a FPS campaign, it was that I actually dug what few things I was able to pick up from the fiction. Any concept that combines things like parkour and giant f’n robots immediately has my attention, but there feels like there was a lot of time put into making everything feel authentic, and by not allowing themselves to dig into that, I think Respawn has done themselves a bit of a disservice.
That being said, the game that is here celebrates at full volume the multi-player experience that they themselves created so many years ago. I thought up a rather clever reference to describe the feel, and it was grand in the way it joined the jumping of Halo, with aiming down the sights accuracy of Call of Duty, all of which rides on the shoulders of everything Brink was supposed to be. However, saying that out loud as I write it, I feel like I am still robbing you of what Titanfall actually accomplishes through its mechanics.
Mobility and robots. While it’s slightly dumbing it down, those two words form the basis of everything that makes Titanfall feel fresh, when you are, in essence, still running around a map gunning down your fellow man with mad abandon. Mobility allows Pilots, the players avatar in game, to run on walls and double jump across gaps, making Titanfall far more focused on verticality and movement then short sprints between camping points. In fact, while camping is a tactical decision one can make, it’s more often then not met with the sound of a snapped neck, as the Pilot you didn’t think could possibly get behind you, got behind you.
The Titans themselves are the real game changer, in that they serve as Titanfall‘s titular carrot. Everything you do, from killing Pilots, to taking out the AI bots that litter the battlefield, all serves to lower the countdown timer to your first Titan. That timer is a common equalizer, because no matter how badly you play, or how many times you get killed, you are assured to a Titan drop.
The first time you call one, in the relative safety of the in game tutorial, the robotic voice guiding your experience beckons you to look up to the sky. I am willing to go on record as saying that there is nothing quite like a Titan rocketing into the hard earth, a blue hued force field covering and protecting its now vulnerable body like an egg shell protects a still unborn chick. If left alone, the Titan lies dormant for a few moments, before rising, weapon in hand, AI routine ready and able to combat whatever might seek to cause you arm.
If that’s not enough, you can take control of your Titan yourself. The act of entering a Titan is another thing that simply refuses to get old, as Respawn has animated a number of different entrances, from the giant hand of your mechanical guardian placing you into it’s chest, to port hole on top that opens as you jump in. Each entrance, whether simple or extravagant, transforms you from Pilot to mobile tank seamlessly.
While you might feel indestructible wrapped in this weaponized, metal cocoon, the true beauty of Titanfall lies in the delicate balance between the lumbering hulk and agile Pilot. Strong enough to kill a Pilot simply by walking over him, a Titan is also vulnerable to the machinations of their swift controllers. Armed with a mix of different anti-Titan weapons, Pilots have a number of options to battle the brutes from afar. However, for the adventurous few, the nimble Pilots can “rodeo” a Titan, leaping on to it’s back, striking through the behemoth’s shields by firing directly into an exposed engine. It’s a carefully constructed balance, and one that never leaves you feeling underpowered and without a choice.
Seeing the level of care that was put into the mechanics of Titanfall, I am left more then a little amazed at the shortsightedness of its online only design, especially when it comes to their campaign. Having already expressed my disappointment in its lack of a “story” component, the campaign is already one of compromised design. Having one admits that something like that is needed for narrative conceits, but making it a series of multiplayer matches lessens its impact. Simply left at that, it easily could have been considered a throw away mode.
Instead, Respawn made the campaign a necessity to complete, as powering through all 9 maps for both sides of the conflict unlocks 2 of 3 Titan variants available in the game. So where is the design flaw? Well, a campaign match only starts when there are three or more actual people on both sides of the conflict. If it can’t find them, you will never get into a campaign map. With the game only having just come out, you would think warm bodies would not be at a premium, but even on launch day I experienced wait times of between 5-10 minutes to get into a couple of those campaign maps. As time goes on, and less new people make their way onto the servers, it’s quite possible that, even with the need to unlock those Titan variants, there could conceivably be no one there to start that match.
It’s an odd feeling looking at a modern game and imagining a countdown timer, glimpsing with every passing second a game that will one day be unplayable, rendered moot by either then next big thing, or just the passing of time.
Despite the portents of doom, I do find myself looking forward to “one more match.” The joys of calling down a Titan, of tearing across the map, leaping from wall to wall, over rooftops and across gaps, outweigh those sad portents. This is not the second coming, and despite the trumpets blowing, they herald not that which would save us from the rest of First Person Shooter-dom. We find instead, quite simply, a damn fine game and one hell of a good time. And for my money, that’s enough.