Titanfall tries to be a lot of things. It tries to be a hardcore action shooter with a lightning fast engine, ironsight weapons, and a focus on map control. It tries to be attractive to casual players with quick respawns, easy bot kills, and Call of Duty-style progression. It tries to emphasize teamwork, but still remain conducive to lone-wolf play. It tries to dole out XP and unlocks quickly, but it also tries to balance between newbies and high-level players. It’s got a lot of balls in the air and it’s easy to think that at any moment, the whole crazy juggling act will come crashing down.
“Here,” Titanfall says. “Have a giant robot tank with a humongous machine gun.” What was I talking about again?
After the jump, will this shooter mech your day?
Since Titanfall is an online-only multiplayer experience, let’s get this out of the way first: online performance is rock-solid. It’s sad that I even have to mention that, but this is Electronic Arts we’re talking about. This is the same company that borked up Simcity and Battlefield 4. I’ve had no problems with Titanfall since the midnight launch. Getting into games was a matter of waiting a few seconds. The heavily modified Source engine base serves up smooth framerates and responsive controls. A nice touch is that you can instantly handicap yourself by plugging in a 360 controller and Titanfall will recognize it and supply the correct on-screen prompts.
So it’s the future and humanity has spread to numerous planets something something war against two factions with generally the same technology something else big mechs called Titans. Then they fight over some locations on different maps and rack up points by killing the other guys. That’s it. I’m sure there’s a story here, but I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. But you know what? It doesn’t matter because you’ll be too busy running up the sides of buildings, double-jumping over enemy titans, and shooting people in the face. A nine-mission multiplayer story campaign runs through a tale of some gruff guys yelling as mechs shoot at each other, but who cares? You’ll play through it twice, once as the corporate IMC and once as the ragtag militia, just to unlock two titans for full multiplayer customization. But you won’t remember much of it other than the chaos you created by sliding around a city street in a titan.
Playing the campaign as both sides isn’t without merit. It only takes about two hours and by the time you’re done, you’ll have unlocked some nifty toys to use in regular matches. Some of the scripted bits are neat to see, but for the most part it’s all a bunch of window-dressing for the normal multiplayer. It makes for some odd times such as the level in which someone coughed out a dramatic soliloquy as he sacrificed himself to do something, but I couldn’t really hear his transmission over the sound of my titan blasting away at an enemy. Developer Respawn Entertainment knew enough to not give us another tired corridor shooter campaign, but it still seems like a lost opportunity. The story matters so little that it doesn’t even make a difference if you win or lose. The campaign will just barrel forward anyway.
The core game is built around six-on-six multiplayer battles. That sounds small, but Respawn has done something bold to make matches seem more epic: they’ve filled the maps with AI-controlled soldiers. These guys are slow, dumb as rocks, and won’t do much to contribute to winning a match. Like the creeps in a game of League of Legends, these grunts supply a steady stream of kills that you can use to gain XP and shorten the time it takes to call down your titan from orbit. In the attrition game mode, they’re a serious liability because the enemy can increase their score by harvesting the easy kills. But putting them in the levels serves double-duty. They keep the large maps lively and they give everyone, even less skilled players, something to kill.
One of the first weapons the game gives you is a smart pistol that can quickly lock onto the NPC grunts. Wait for the red lines to appear and pull the trigger. Blam! Three bad guys down. Human-controlled Pilots take a few precious seconds to get a full lock, but once that happens you can let ‘er rip and score a kill. It’s a great weapon to ease new players into the hectic matches, but the need to keep a lock on for a longer time against human opponents keeps it wonderfully balanced.
The rest of the pilot weaponry is pretty standard. There’s a handful of battle rifles, a shotgun, a couple of SMGs, and sniper rifles. They’re a little ho-hum, but the gunplay is solid and satisfying. Instead of offering incremental differences between ten flavors of assault rifle, Respawn chose to make pilots more distinctive through loadouts. Any veteran of Call of Duty will feel right at home in the Titanfall loadout screen. You have your primary weapon, a sidearm, a tactical ability that gives you an activated power like a short cloak or enhanced movement, a couple of passive abilities that spice things up, and an anti-titan heavy weapon that can take on one of the big boys. The choices are all valid and nothing feels overpowered. Once you max out to level 50, you can “regen” (think Call of Duty’s prestige) to start over with accelerated XP boosts and unlock all your stuff again.
The titans have a loadout screen as well. You can choose between a heavy mech with more armor, a nimble light mech, or a middle-of-the-road option that serves as everyone’s starter titan. There’s a selection of titan-sized firearms to kit them with, and titans can have a recharging power too. You’ll come to recognize the blue shimmer of the temporary shield that can gather and deflect ordnance, or the crackle of the arc smoke that can disrupt electronics and kill ground troops in the open.
Burn cards are Titanfall’s answer to Call of Duty’s perk system. By fulfilling challenges and winning matches you’ll collect cards that can be activated for special powers that can give wild one-time-use effects. They range from “amped” versions of guns that deal more damage or a game-changer like a permanent cloak. Burn card effects last until the end of a match, or until you get killed. So normally about 20 seconds. They’re a fun consumable resource that keeps the action flexible.
Let’s talk about that action. The secret of Titanfall is that it’s not all about the titans. The pilots are speedy, environment-hopping, mech-killers. They can scale buildings, jump over obstacles, hang off walls, and blast through windows. Their ability to hold points, rack up attrition kills, and zip around the maps is unmatched even by the titans. You’ll never want to be stuck on the ground again. The smooth wall-running and leaping turns what could have been boring levels into parkour playgrounds. Consider the spectacle of titans stomping through the streets and firing salvos of spiraling rockets. Marvel at the explosion as a titan’s power core goes nuclear. Dance along the fine balance between a naked pilot and a pilot encased in a giant armored battlesuit. Wallow in the satisfaction of killing a titan by jumping on it rodeo-style and shooting it in the brain circuitry. Now thrill to the panicked run to an extraction point as the clock ticks down at the end of a match. Titanfall takes that familiar Call of Duty run-and-gun and turns it on its ear by mixing in MOBA farming, big robots, and vertical foot movement. It’s an impressive feat that will make it difficult to go back to regular multiplayer shooters.
Even with all the distractions surrounding its release, like Microsoft’s cloud power, platform exclusivity, always-online servers, and the drama of Respawn’s split with Activision, Titanfall has managed to deliver. It may not be the next-gen benchmark that marketing execs would have you believe, but it’s something better: a tight and engrossing multiplayer shooter that offers fresh experiences in an increasingly tired genre. Press E to embark.