Titanfall review: my buddy

Game Info
Platform 360, xbox one, Win
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer Respawn Entertainment
Release Date 2014-03-11

Titanfall has nine months of hype behind it, but it's got a stale genre's worth of expectations to live up to.

After changing multiplayer gaming forever with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare in 2007, developer Infinity Ward partially imploded with bad blood enough to go around. The staff that left Infinity Ward in 2010 went on to form Respawn Entertainment. In the ensuing years, multiplayer shooters have become predictable exercises in minor updates and more graphical polish.

With Titanfall, Respawn proposes a solution. Taking a page from the playbook it created with Modern Warfare, Respawn has taken elements of action games, the online battle arena genre and more, expertly threading them through a shooter base that stands toe-to-toe with the heaviest hitters around.

(Note: This review involved a two-day review event hosted by Microsoft and EA, playing on Xbox One consoles and "retail servers" on March 3 and 4, as well as time spent playing "retail" downloadable copies prior to launch by multiple Polygon editors. Staff also participated in Titanfall's closed alpha and beta in January and February respectively. This review will be updated to reflect any extended server issues, should they arise. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.)

The premise of Titanfall goes something like this: on the future frontiers of human-occupied space, a revolution's worth of angry colonists has had it with their corporate-funded government. In the resulting struggle, both sides fight using Titans: industrial, weaponized armor that sit in a happy medium somewhere between an Abrams tank and the robotic stars of anime like Macross or Gundam. It's got all the trappings of an epic sci-fi shooter, but if you're looking for a multiple hour-spanning single-player adventure, disabuse yourself: Titanfall is multiplayer only. Eschewing solo play, Respawn deeply hooks this narrative premise into a sophisticated multiplayer shooter.

You start each battle as a Pilot dropped onto the battlefield, and are immediately confronted with much more mobility than games like Call of Duty or Battlefield. Pilots can double jump thanks to a jet pack, and also run along walls, vault over obstacles, hang off ledges and even fly across the map on well-placed ziplines.

Pilots have an enormous amount of mobility

It's an enormous number of mobility options in addition to some very smooth, responsive shooting. But all that complexity is expressed through a streamlined control scheme that doesn't feel complicated. Double jumping is effortless, and wall-running is as easy as jumping toward a wall while running forward. It all comes naturally, and instead of feeling like work, Titanfall feels like a playground.

Each of Titanfall's 15 maps presented a new opportunity to experiment with my environment, to see where I could get to on foot. I found "lines" to take, alternating my wall-runs over extended spaces, making jumps I never thought I would make. Respawn even encourages this behavior — you accelerate as you run along the side of a building, and jumping from one surface to another can build an incredible amount of speed.

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The Campaign

Titanfall is a multiplayer only game, but there is a story presented through what Respawn calls "Campaign multiplayer." Choosing Campaign mode assigns you a side — either IMC or Militia — and locks you to it as you play through a predetermined sequence of nine multiplayer maps. These unfold a little differently than "Classic" multiplayer, with extended audio briefings before each mission starts and a more involved cinematic drop sequence. You'll also get more urgent video briefings during matches from NPC characters based on your progress toward your specific mission objectives. But, win or lose, matches keep going until you finish the campaign with your assigned faction.

On the whole, the campaign is an interesting experiment, and it's as fun to play through as standard multiplayer matches are since they are actual multiplayer matches. But in comparison to more dedicated single-player experiences offered elsewhere, Titanfall never quite drives its narrative or characters home. It's best at developing the universe and fiction.

You'll still need to play it though — each side unlocks a Titan chassis upon completion.

Every nook or ledge presents its own challenge to find how best to make it there. This radically shifts the way that Titanfall's combat unfolds relative to the first-person shooter establishment. Most other multiplayer shooters exist as a flat plane with a few specific points of altitude. Horizontal stalking routes and cover-based shooting don't define Titanfall. Movement is as vertical as it is horizontal, and death could come from any direction at any time.

That death will often be at the hands of two-story tall robotic nightmares. You'll spend around 80 percent of the time on foot. Pilots are the backbone of Titanfall. But Titans are the payoff.

Titans are the payoff

Your Titan is being built on a command ship as you play, a process that can be sped up by completing objectives. Once it's complete, you're given the option to call it down and climb in. Titans aren't slow, lumbering robots. They're fast, powerful weapon platforms that offer a different set of considerations than Pilots. Their guns are cannons, and Pilots caught underfoot will be crushed.

Titans are powerful opponents and are often the drivers of a match's crescendo, but they're always vulnerable. This preserves the delicate balance of power that Titanfall maintains between Pilots and their giant, armored counterparts. The most expedient Titan-killer is almost always a "naked" Pilot. Titans are also the only units that can't access every area — their size effectively locks them out of many spaces. Every map feels distinct and provides unique twists on the relationship between Titans and Pilots.

This underscores the complex web of rock-paper-scissors style relationships throughout the game. Titanfall forces serious considerations of mobility, traversal and your relationship with the environment both in and out of Titans. Respawn has found a remarkable sense of equilibrium predicated on a constantly shifting set of strengths and weaknesses.

Pilot

After dozens of hours of Titanfall, leaping on the back of an enemy Titan to perfom a hostile brain surgery is still a thrill. This is in no small part because, even on the back of a Titan, away from its reach, you're still vulnerable — vulnerable to the Titan's Pilot who can get out and attack you on foot, vulnerable to other Titans and Pilots on the opposing team.

I couldn't find a perfect weapon combination or collection of skills. I was swimming in options all the time. All of those options felt distinct and powerful. But there was always a catch. I wasn't just choosing what gun to hold, I was making decisions about my weaknesses as well. The result of this persistent vulnerability was freedom, strange as that might sound. As soon as I gave up trying to find my perfect loadout, I started exploring the tools offered and enjoying the switch-ups.

It helps that each weapon feels distinctive and suited to a certain kind of play, rather than the endless onslaught of decimal-point differences that define the armories of other shooters. There's only one shotgun — with four different one-at-a-time modifications, mind — and it acts admirably as a video game cannon. It blasts wide and hard and is incredibly fun to use up close, making close-quarters combat satisfying. But when I got tired of its liabilities at a distance, an SMG or rifle was equally fun to learn and use.

Titan weaponry is even more distinctive and situational, though I'll confess, once I found the arc cannon I never left it.

All of this ignores one of Titanfall's most profound achievements: its comparative accessibility.

Titanfall's controls are responsive and weapons feel great, but it doesn't rely heavily on twitchy kill-shot focused dynamics in combat. Positioning and angles of attack are just as important, which leaves the door open for less physically skilled players to have a shot. Other smart touches rooted in the game's fiction help in practical ways. Titans have an AI which assumes control when you're not on board. This can be toggled between guard mode, which leaves the Titan in one place, or follow mode, which, well, you get the idea.

This seemingly minor addition allows for less experienced players or those living without requisite Titan skills to still have fun with Titanfall's biggest payoff. It also allows more experienced players another set of options and considerations during play.

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Modes

Respawn uses Titanfall's unique setup to add some twists to established multiplayer modes. Attrition is the equivalent of Team Deathmatch, with a catch: enemy grunts and spectres also count toward the point total necessary to score a win. Hardpoint Domination is all about capturing and holding points, and kills count to earn Titans faster. There's also Capture the Flag, which is pretty traditional, save for the new dynamics provided by Titanfall's additional mechanics.

More hardcore competitive players will likely gravitate towards the remaining two modes. Last Titan Standing starts all players with a Titan, and the first team to lose them all loses the match. Finally, Pilot Hunter is similar to Attrition, save for an important detail: points are only awarded for kills on Pilots.

Then there's the Smart Pistol, which automatically targets enemies including other players. But the Smart Pistol doesn't represent a "win button" — like the auto-Titan modes, it's a way in for those who aren't devastatingly talented or blessed with all the time in the world to master first-person shooters. And it can't instantly kill other players, as it requires time and several "locks".

Instead, the Smart Pistol is particularly well suited to kill the computer-controlled enemies that fill each match. The enemy AI provide multiple benefits; they're a resource for skilled players to farm for more experience and faster access to Titan drops and special abilities. Beginners can also take out grunts and spectres to help their team out, and almost as important, Respawn uses them to give clues to your environment. Grunts call out the presence of enemy Pilots and shoot at them as well, making them an excellent early warning system.

Matches are full of chances to do something cool

So much of the game's initial appeal depends on the collection of those kinds of small details that make up its presentation. You don't just get into a Titan. You slide underneath and crawl in, or maybe you're like me, taking a running jump so it can snatch you out of the air to tuck you into its belly. Titans rocket down — or, later on with the right Pilot kit, warp in — with thunderous force. When you hack enemy robots, you jam your data knife into them to do it.

These touches, these elements of presentation and experience that are more traditionally rooted in single-player titles lead to a game that's exciting to watch unfold and, honestly, this takes some of the edge off of the moments where you'll inevitably get killed. Call me crazy, but I didn't mind dying so much when an Ogre-class Titan ripped my Atlas's arms off and beat me to the ground with them. Even losing a match doesn't feel like punishment. The opportunity to escape in a drop ship once a match is over is another chance to do something cool. There are rewards and reinforcement everywhere, regardless of play style.

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Burn Cards

Titanfall's progression seems familiar at first blush, though Respawn breaks down the nitty gritty of your performance and goals in an accessible way. Graphs and infographics abound, showing you where you're spending your time, how effective your weapons are and, more importantly, what completing new challenges will give you. Some of these rewards are genre-typical, including new weapons, new abilities, and additional class customization slots.

But fulfilling challenges also rewards you with Burn Cards. Burn Cards are single-use items that you can "play" in game only once before the card is consumed and useless, and each gives a temporary advantage that lasts until your next death. Some of these are mundane enough — 40 seconds off a Titan drop, or a faster, automatic version of the EVA shotgun, for example. But there are some truly powerful cards to play, and I was frequently finding new ones. My personal favorite? Ghost Squad.

If so many elements of Titanfall seem familiar, it's not surprising. There's a willingness here to borrow elements from other game genres, to take a less traditional route. Modern Warfare lifted role-playing games and MMOs for its addictive character persistence online — which returns for Titanfall, along with the seemingly endless challenges also introduced by Respawn in their former lives. Titanfall also appropriates from non-shooter multiplayer games like DOTA and League of Legends with its fodder enemies. Along with its integration of elements more common to single-player campaigns, it leads to an experience that feels distinct and separate.

If there are complaints to be had, I'd point to performance. Titanfall sits at 60 frames per second most of the time, but when three or four Titans are on the screen at once, firing rockets and arc blasts, things take a dive. It's never not playable, but it is noticeable.

I also wanted more "stuff"  — more options and more customization. For starters, Titanfall is begging for a spectator mode and more complex broadcasting options that have appeared in games like the Battlefield series. I also would have liked to see visual customization for Titans. I don't need potleaf emblems, and I appreciate that the more immature bro trappings that have come to pepper the Call of Duty series are absent. But as attached as I grew to my customized loadout — and I did get surprisingly attached to my Titan — it would have been nice to mark some colors on it or customize the chassis even a little.

Wrap Up:

Titanfall has all the makings of the next big thing

Titanfall is the rare game that feels like it came out on top of the few compromises Respawn has had to make. Sliding the spectacle and holy shit moments of an epic campaign among bold, fast multiplayer that steals unlikely elements, Respawn has made them shine like they belonged there all along. Titanfall may not mark the same kind of sea change that Modern Warfare started but the pieces are all there in a game that delivers on its potential as the next big thing.

About Polygon's Reviews
9.0 xbox one
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