Titanfall 2 review

Game Info
Platform Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Electronic Arts
Developer Respawn Entertainment
Release Date Oct 28, 2016

Titanfall 2 is Respawn's first real test as a studio.

Yes, it's a sequel, and Titanfall 2 isn't as groundbreaking or wildly inventive as the original game, but still. With Titanfall, Respawn basked in the popular excitement borne of the studio's inauspicious beginnings as a sort of refugee nation state of developers who created Call of Duty before exiting their studio Infinity Ward with prejudice.

Titanfall was great, but people also wanted to be excited for it. They wanted to root for the little guys, enough to forgive the absence of a singleplayer campaign and a $60 price tag for a multiplayer only experience.

Respawn understood that it wouldn't be able to launch so minimally a second time around, and so this new Titanfall game has a full campaign component in addition to a revised multiplayer game with the kind of progression systems whose absence players lamented in the original. On paper, Titanfall 2 is what it's supposed to be. But in practice, it feels like a less focused exercise.

Narratively, Titanfall 2 presumes a bewildering amount of pre-supposition

As Titanfall 2's new-to-the-series campaign opens, you assume the role of Jack Cooper, a grunt with aspirations to pilot-dom. In the world of Titanfall, pilots are the ultimate badasses — special ops soldiers with special abilities and jump packs that allow them to double jump and run along walls, shooting all the way. Then, of course, there are their Titans — massive, AI-enabled walking tanks that operate via a neural link with their pilots, or autonomously. After a mission on a previously undiscovered world goes catastrophically badly, Jack is stranded away from militia forces along with another pilot's Titan, BT-7274. The two are forced to "link" when BT's pilot is killed, and away they go, stumbling through a conspiracy to destroy their rebellion once and for all.

I would go into more detail about the story, save that the narrative doesn't really work all that well. Titanfall 2's campaign assumes a level of familiarity with the fiction that I struggled to bring to bear, even as a fan of the original game. I sort of remembered the conflict from the original game, but even then, I felt a bit adrift as I tried to figure out exactly what I was fighting for. I think that the civil war from the first game continued for another decade, with the Militia, who are, ostensibly, the good guys, slowly taking back their part of the galaxy from the IMC and its enigmatic leader.

There's a strange amount of pre-supposition happening in Titanfall 2, that its lore and story are well known and iconic enough that the player might actually remember much about it from the first game. But the original Titanfall's story was told in fits and starts through voice-over during its experimental "campaign multiplayer" mode. I did play that mode when I reviewed the last game, but I would be hard-pressed to give much in the way of big-picture synopsis other than "IMC bad, Militia good (and those worker robots are adorable)." And Titanfall 2 never really gives any big picture information about its world either.

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Instead, Respawn sketches around the edges of its war, how it happened, why it continues, and the developer picks some strange spots for detail work. It doesn't help that characters are routinely saddled with distractingly corny names — Blisk, General Marder (he's a bad guy, in case you couldn't tell), a mercenary group called, and gosh, this feels embarrassing just to type, The Apex Predators — and the voice acting and performances are almost uniformly middling to bad.

There are a few bright spots. One of the Apex Predators, Ash, might just be the most interesting, spooky bad guy in the entire game, and the user-selectable banter between Jack and BT can occasionally be downright charming. Respawn leans heavily on the "relationship" between Jack and BT in the campaign, and honestly, it's probably the smartest narrative call the game makes. It's not particularly inventive, and the emotional beats are extremely predictable, even manipulative, but they work. I liked BT, I liked hearing what he had to say, and his quirky sense of humor lightened things up considerably.

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Titanfall 2 is very obviously hoping for competent meat and potatoes rather than a bold recipe that you haven't seen before. This feels like the case in the campaign's gameplay and level design. And, like the game's narrative, Titanfall 2's success in its play is just as uneven.

I’ll immediately undercut myself a bit here by saying that Titanfall 2 has, without a doubt, the smoothest, best controlling player movement in a shooter that I’ve ever laid hands on. The abstraction layer between what I was doing on my controller and what I felt and saw on the screen felt paper thin. This is impressive — as it was in the original game — in part because of everything you can do.

Pilots can double jump, run along walls, slide, mount enemy titans, and use a host of sub abilities, a wealth of options that dwarfs moment-to-moment player capability in other games. But somehow, it's almost never confusing. Movement in Titanfall 2 is organic and fast and, at times, even beautiful, especially when Respawn provides the appropriate playground to push your abilities the hardest. And, if you'll pardon the gross over-reduction, shooting in Titanfall 2 feels as close to liquid motion as I've played in an action game.

"Feel" is a maddeningly vague adjective for a video game, but it’s the only thing I can really use to explain how Titanfall 2’s basic mechanics click together. The easiest comparison is Call of Duty, which would be lazy if not for the fact that the two series share an enormous amount of DNA — so much so that Titanfall 2 at times feel like a what-if for where the pre-eminent FPS might have gone if not for the machinations and fallout that chased Respawn’s founders out of the company they founded. It has the same mix of audio and visual indicators when you score a hit on an enemy, the ones that you can almost feel in your bones.

There's a definite distinction between Jack and BT in this regard. When you're piloting a titan, things feel floatier, a little heavy, in a way that feels deliberate. It's not that moving back and forth between titan and person is confusing or disorienting, but it's noticeable, which contributes to a sense of immersion. Taking your place inside BT's cockpit is an intentional, distinctive thing.

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And somehow, with all of that going for it Titanfall 2's campaign is often a demoralizing slog to play. Enemy AI is idiotic, and encounters feel haphazard. Spaces are often too large to feel designed around pilot combat, even when BT is not an offensive option. When you're fighting through rooms and corridors, enemies are slow to react and often feel like target dummies, whether human, monster, robot or enemy titan.

Most of the time, Titanfall 2 feels like a set of mechanics in search of a game. To be fair, occasionally it finds one. There's a few points in the game — such as a level demanding platforming through a series of rotating landscapes being "assembled" for a maniacal robot's combat trials, or navigating through the bowels of a communications facility that wasn't designed for human interaction — where it finds its footing, no pun intended. It might be surprising to hear that Titanfall 2 is the most fun when you're doing the least shooting — when Respawn lets it feel more more like, say Portal, it's considerably more fun.

But when Titanfall 2 most resembles a standard shooter campaign, it's at its least tolerable. There's at least some lip service to in-game progression as you slowly find new kits for BT that give you access to new titan weapons and abilities, though many seem ill-equipped for the demands of the game's campaign.

Instead, this seems designed to introduce dynamics of Titanfall 2's multiplayer component, which, I'm happy to say, features much more satisfying scenarios for the game's otherwise excellent combat mechanics.

At its most basic, Titanfall 2's multiplayer resembles the last game. By default, you'll start as a pilot, equipped based on a variety of loadout options, and, over time, you'll earn the ability to call in an orbitally-dropped titan — the titular Titanfall. This, in addition to every pilot's basic traversal abilities, is where Titanfall 2 differentiates itself from other online shooters.

The most clear change in Titanfall 2 is the broadening of pilot and titan abilities, which in part feels aimed at complaints at a lack of progression in the previous game. Now there are a host of different pilot abilities ranging from cloaking to a grappling hook that can attach to buildings and even titans, and each titan model has four specializations. This leads to more overall variety in tactical options and problems to deal with, though, some just feel cheap — especially the active cloaking, which indulges in the worst sniper camping behavior I’ve seen in a shooter in ages.

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That said, the new loadout options available across pilots and titans allows for a newfound sense of personalization and specificity that was missing in Titanfall, and in that regard feels like a direct response to complaints about the longevity of the first game. It’s a move that makes sense — in a sequel, developers try to fix their mistakes.

But Titanfall 2’s other big changes feel like attempts to fix what wasn’t broken.

There are two particular choices that feel at odds with what Titanfall 2 does well. The first seems like a small change, at first: Titans in multiplayer no longer have an overshield and a health bar, and their health doesn't regenerate. Respawn provides a way to refill a friendly titan’s health, as you can rodeo-ride an enemy titan and pull out their battery, which can in turn be loaded into your robot companion, or that of a teammate. In practice, this rarely felt like a meaningful bit of assistance (or deterrence).

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In effect, this greatly reduces the ability for players to engage more than one enemy titan at all, and even one titan fight is likely enough to leave your robotic tank in bad shape. Pilot effectiveness against titans also feels greatly reduced, as anti-titan weapons seem far less potent here than they did in the first game. This has the effect of making lopsided matches even more so — if one team has just a couple more titans than the other, it frequently leads to snowballing matches that spiral out of control.

This feels further exacerbated on a number of maps that are far more restricted and confined than the previous game. Verticality seems like less of a priority, but more frustratingly, several maps have large tunnel like sections that make them downright claustrophobic. Feeling trapped seems counter to what Titanfall does well.

Titanfall 2’s multiplayer is fun despite that — Bounty Hunt mode takes the enemy AI component of Attrition from Titanfall and adds a great active element to scoring that leads to exciting matches with the potential for big turnarounds. But the tight focus of the original game led to a level of consistency and accessibility that Titanfall 2 never quite captures.

Wrap Up:

Titanfall 2 has the basics down, but loses much of the focus

Consistency is a problem for Titanfall 2 in general, and it's a game that seems to struggle with a confident direction for its changes. The end result is a collection of fantastic mechanics across its campaign and its multiplayer that often feel hamstrung by difficult to understand design choices. There's clearly more here than before, and the package is offering something more "complete" by today's standards. But Titanfall 2 throws the series' dynamics off enough to make for something that just doesn't quite click together as well as it did before.

Titanfall 2 was reviewed in part at a review event held in Hollywood, CA on October 10 and 11, 2016. The campaign was played to completion using non-final "debug" Xbox One S and PlayStation 4 versions. Multiplayer was played on PC against press and developers. Additional time with Titanfall 2's campaign was spent with a "retail" Xbox One download code. This review will remain provisional until such time as Polygon staff can ascertain the launch state of Titanfall 2 in a retail environment. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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