When Titanfall was first revealed, it came with a hefty, hype-filled promise. Respawn and EA told us it would be the next generation of online multiplayer. Now, while those cynical among the community (myself included) were wary of such promises, I can’t help but feel disappointed at Respawn’s final product. With some basic features such as private matchmaking being absent, and an unclear idea of how long the community could hold up, I held off giving the game a proper review until it was clearer what the situation truly was for Titanfall.
I’m sorry to say that at least on PC, the prospects are not great. Not only does the game itself feel surprisingly sparse in terms of content, but the community also seems to be on a degrading curve that will see it dwindle further. At first this doesn’t really make sense, as the core gameplay is impressively solid, showing the kind of dedicated polish and innovative thinking Respawn had been fighting for since the Infinity Ward-alums started pushing for a new IP back at their old studio years back. Unfortunately, it’s a lack of originality in the game’s world, and very limited gameplay options that hold the game back from being what it could have been.
In Titanfall, you play as both the mining/colonization corporation/PMC known as the IMC (see that subtle letter change?) and the Frontier Militia (basically the Rebel Alliance as portrayed by C-list actors). Why are they fighting? Your guess is about as good as mine. I played through the campaign twice on both sides of the fight and I still cannot tell you why this war started. It seems more like a twelve year-old hastily explaining why his action figures are fighting than a real narrative.
There is an allusion to some previous conflict called “The Titan Wars”, but then you have a double take. Isn’t the very war happening right now centering on Titans? What was different about that war that made it -the- Titan Wars? What importance does that have in the current battle? Why does everyone talk as if we have an encyclopedia of the world on file to dig into whenever we need it. None of your questions gets answered, and the rest of the story is relegated to a sub-par radio drama that even Ben Stein could liven up.
What’s particularly confusing is how annoying all the supposed heroes of the conflict are. Militia hacker “Bish” complains about the battle and bugs you over the radio constantly, sometimes even when you’re winning. Newly minted Militia Commander “Sarah” seems to be there for nothing other than questioning people, being annoyed, and to tell you your titan is ready for deployment. “McAlan” is so ham-fisted as the, “retired war hero coming back for one last fight”, that even his voice actor seems to hardly care about sounding genuine.
Thankfully these characters are primarily relegated to only having large speaking roles in the campaign mode, although you will be forced to play it as that is the only way to unlock the Ogre and Stryder chassis for your Titan. Bear in mind that even when I played during the Free Weekend of Titanfall on Origin, I couldn’t play the campaign end to end without repeatedly playing the same previous missions because there were not enough players to keep proceeding. This is less than five total months since the game released, and the multiplayer campaign is running notably low on players. Granted, sometimes teams are split up for no reason by the nonsensical matchmaking system( that frequently crashed), so perhaps that is why everyone seems to be playing the same four missions over and over again.
It’s good that the gameplay holds up in spite of these problems. Navigating levels as a jet boosting pilot will brings back good memories from games like Quake and Mirror’s Edge. The fluid navigation system is so promising and inventive the game could have simply been built around fast paced parkour gunfights and held up. The shooting is solid and feels like a mix of arena shooting and twitch based iron sights snapping. The more detailed levels like Angel City that let you sneak inside buildings also gives an element of stealth when you’re battling enemy Titans. On the other hand, Titans feel like an evolution and response to games like the original Halo, utilizing a similar health bar/shield combo while carrying just as much heft and weight as a tank in Battlefield. The Titan controls feel great, and the combat is incredibly satisfying, especially in the Last Titan Standing mode. When it’s just six-on-six Titans with one life each, the gameplay almost evokes a MechWarrior-lite feel to it as you see a vastly better sense of coordination between yourself and teammates.
Outside of Last Titan Standing though, Titans are almost like a power-up or a special tactical option instead of your life source. From Capture the Flag to Pilot Hunter to Hardpoint (Battlefield’s Conquest mode but with only three points), you can and will frequently lose your Titans. As a result, you value them less, and on a few occasions, I just left my Titan on auto-guard mode around a critical objective while I ran off to do more jetpack parkour. Two modes, Attrition and Pilot Hunt, don’t even seem to be built with Titans as key aspects in mind, leaving them as an awkward hang-on that may or may not benefit the battle.
This lack of full integration with Titans into all the game’s modes is a symptom of a bigger problem: there is no risk taken with the game’s design. It’s like an artist intentionally trying to paint in a new style, but then making it the exact same subject matter as they usually paint and only making certain parts of the painting show the new style. Titanfall seems so scared of actually taking a chance to really push the new possibilities that it stifles itself. In comparison to other games on the market, the loadout options pale in comparison to both old and new titles.
There are ten primary guns and three side arms total. Three Titan chassis, and six guns total for any Titan loadout. In less than two days, I had nearly every gun unlocked. Save for a few statistical variations on the assault rifle/SMG class, every one of those is the only gun in its class, depending upon a choice of one out of a handful of weapon mods to make up the difference. Titan weapons are all single variants, although at least their unlockable mods seriously tweak their use in battle. For some this decrease in options over games like Battlefield 4’s sea of guns will make it easier to divine what your preferred playstyle is and make the game’s rules clearer. For anyone who intends to get their money’s worth out of the game and has experience with online shooters, it will be severely disappointing for goal seekers. One player I met even admitted that the only reason he kept prestiging in Titanfall was so that he had something to do. He had prestiged nine times since he had bought the game because there was nothing else to do to keep him there. He was working towards his tenth when I was playing alongside him.
Focusing on a polished experience with technical expertise is something a lot of developers fail at when making a new IP, so Respawn should be applauded for their efforts. That said, they focused so much on fine-tuning the core aspects and polishing up everything besides the campaign mode that the very life essence of the game is stifled. That urge to come back, that hook of just not even caring if you’ve played the same map twenty times because it still feels fresh and new, is not there. I put Titanfall down and couldn’t remember why I spent so much time with it. There was fun to be had for sure, but there was no need to receive more of it. There was nothing making me want to go back to it.
A perfect example of this self-stifling is the game’s Burn Card system. Forgoing killstreaks you could unlock so long as you got enough kills, Burn Cards are available to everyone and last only one life before expiring. Except, these range from major perks such as permanent invisibility and the ability to automatically have an area of effect hack of enemy NPCs, all the way to just giving you a slightly more powerful version of a gun you may or may not have unlocked.
Due to the nature of the game supposedly supporting months of play time, you don’t want to spend the more useful cards randomly. Weaker cards also sometimes seem pointless, like giving specified experience point bonuses for damaging Titans or the enemy’s NPC forces. Slight percentage bonuses don’t seem that important when I ascended rank after rank after rank in a mere few hours on my own. It would have been better if you could craft more powerful cards from weaker cards, letting players feel they could rebuild their preferred decks over time. The lack of such a system doesn’t help abate the feeling that the game was not built with a clear roadmap for after launch.
Post-launch support has been underwhelming. At launch, the game lacked even the ability to group with players outside of lobbies, let alone make private matches. The first downloadable content drop just includes three new maps, with private matchmaking still in beta. You can finally form parties with friends, but other features such as customizing the look of your Titan are in a limbo of uncertainty. Two new modes are also set to release. One is a two-man version of Last Titan Standing and the other is called Marked for Death. Those of you who played Killzone 2 and Killzone 3 will recognize that this is very similar to that series’ Assasination mode, where you have to hunt down a specific VIP player on the opposing team while protecting your own.
There’s been no word on new Titans or even just sub-classes of the same chassis. Even new guns seem to be avoided by Respawn, favoring the game’s current balance over rocking the boat. Except that’s precisely what a multiplayer game like this needs. The game is stagnating on PC, and there is the distinct possibility the Xbox One following will decrease by the time Halo: Master Chief Collection releases later this year. It is entirely possible Respawn will or already has given into demand and will finally increase the variety of combat options, but they could also stick to their guns and hold out any major improvements for the already confirmed sequel.
Another knock against longevity is the game’s lack of any sort of offline play. Titanfall is competitive online multiplayer, but a number of online games that lack a true single-player campaign at least has an offline training mode. Save for the initial tutorial, everything in Titanfall requires a steady internet connection to go along with that $60 price tag. In my experience, regular matchmaking and play is fine so long as you have at least around 0.75/1 MB/s of download and upload speed, but the game still crashed around half a dozen times on me due to some internal error. There weren’t any other notable bugs at least.
You may be wondering why I haven’t brought up the game’s actual visual aesthetics. That’s because they are highly underwhelming. Respawn seems to be going for a World War II meets Firefly theme, and it leads to some great designs for the Titans and some of the levels, but that’s about all there is to mention. Characters are rendered in a more realistic style; there are an awful lot of grays, blues, and oranges like in a fair number of other recent shooters published by EA; and pilots themselves feel like riffs on the clone trooper designs in Star Wars. This isn’t to say you can’t make gritty aesthetics feel fresh — Syndicate took the Mirror’s Edge palette and used the grime covered slums to contrast the hyper contrast in the rich cities above — but there’s nothing desperately new here.
Much like the gameplay and story, Respawn is on the cusp of something great with its visual direction. The Atlas Titan chassis looks like a real piece of military hardware. The weapons are pragmatic but still futuristic enough to feel like something distinctively from this setting. The soundtrack also does a great job of melding a bombastic Wild West guitar with some songs that will remind you of the best music from Two Steps from H***. All the pieces are here for a great sci-fi/western with a strong lore to back it; they just need to be properly utilized. Until they do, Respawn’s just spinning their creative wheels when they could go all out. Maybe being conservative for the first game was part of the plan, and if that’s the case, here’s hoping the sequel does this IP justice. You’ve got some great ideas Respawn. Push them as far as you can.
On the topic of approachability…
If you’ve been following the press reports since Titanfall’s announcement, one thing you probably noticed was claims that it was more accessible as an online shooter to non-multiplayer fans. Personally, I actually would have to say Titanfall is a little bit more complex than your average first person shooter, although the inclusion of NPC ground troops who fill the battle does give new players some easy target practice. Most players I encountered ignored them though, as did I roughly half my matches, and it didn’t really change my time in the game either way. There is the intriguing ability to hack NPC robot troops to fight for you, but it has no impact on the battle. Taking out the NPCs is only really rewarded in the Attrition game mode though, so if you just wanted to fight against some bots in a sci-fi shooter, there are cheaper options. The six player count does however make it easier for friends to (now) party up and go at it as a team, so if you have friends who already own the game on Xbox One, Xbox 360, or PC, then it may be easier.
What does your purchase net you?
The game is selling for $59.99 or your regional equivalent on Origin, Xbox Live, and at local retailers. You can keep yourself entertained for at least twenty or so hours before it grows old, but by that point you’re practically paying three dollars per hour. Whatever further longevity you get out of the game will be based on personal enjoyment and whether you have friends who you can play it with. Party up and maybe you’ll get your money’s worth, but the current price tag is a bit steep. Wait for a sale at around $29.99 to $19.99 if you can. You can use the prestige Generations system to let you go through the game’s leveling progression again as well. DLC is also weighing in at a hefty $9.99 for three maps, and for the map packs still to come, you can purchase the Season Pass for $24.99. Origin also offers a Deluxe Edition for $79.99 that includes both the game and the Season Pass.
Titanfall is a game I really want to recommend. If they’d just taken a few more risks and pushed a little harder to make certain elements really key to playing the game right, it would be a far better game. As it is, while there are some distinct differences, some people really are just going to look at it and say, “it’s Call of Duty with giant robots”, and they aren’t entirely wrong in being disappointed. Nothing could have lived up to the hype of Titanfall, but the current offering is just not enough. The shooting is fine, but you’ve seen it before. If you’re on the fence and planning to play it on 360 or PC, wait for the sequel. Xbox One gamers have a more limited library selection, but still weigh your options.
Moment of Artistry
When it feels exactly like something that could only happen in Titanfall. Dropping your Titan on an enemy pilot or their Titan and watching it get crushed never stops being satisfying. Doing a smart pistol duel in a ruined out building full of twisting turns feels like you’re in a John Woo film. These moments are fantastic and make me believe that Respawn can make the game they promised, they just haven’t made it yet.
+Solid combat built upon good ideas
+Solid soundtrack evokes the perfect tones at the right moments
+Jetpack parkour is fantastic
+Last Titan Standing is a standout mode on its own and the highlight of the game
+Basic features like private matches and partying with friends have been added
-Lacks ambition to truly go the distance
-Replay value is fairly low for a multiplayer game
-Not really any more accessible than any other online experience
-Art direction lacks a certain amount of life
-Campaign mode is a completely wasted effort
-Severely lackluster introduction to the universe’s lore and storyline