Like many people, I’ve waited an agonizingly long time for Valve to release a sequel to Half-Life 2 and its pair of episodic follow-ups. Sure, I’d like some closure to the cliffhanger that punctuated Episode Two, but what I’ve really wanted was to check in on the future of Half-Life’s timeline. Where’s Gordon Freeman now? How radically has his world changed? What new toys does he have to play with?
I very fondly remember seeing Half-Life 2’s early innovations — the weird gravity gun and its physic-based puzzles — for the first time. More so than the game’s more traditional firearms, the gravity gun felt dangerous, unpredictable. And even when that game wasn’t successful at pulling off some of its more elaborate physics puzzles, it was clear Valve had latched onto some groundbreaking design ideas, and played with them in thoughtful ways that few other developers had the luxury (or talent) to.
Half-Life 2 had an odd pioneering spirit. It felt fresh and, at times, weirdly experimental. Its levels were memorably compartmentalized, chock full of discrete activities and explorations of Valve’s physics engine.
Surprisingly, Titanfall 2 brought me back to the time of Half-Life 2’s release, thanks to developer Respawn’s approach to designing a single-player campaign made up of what it called “action blocks” — a sort of game jam-style approach to developing fun activities — then stitching them together into a full game.
Comparing Titanfall 2 to a decade-old first-person shooter, even one as revered as Half-Life 2, may read like a backhanded compliment. But Respawn’s focus on gameplay-first set pieces and other design parallels — both games feature likable giant robot buddies and end cathartically by giving the player an extremely overpowered weapon — gave me warm, nostalgic feelings for a different era of shooter.
It helps that your co-star, the Titan named BT-7274 (who sounds just close enough to Peter Cullen’s Optimus Prime to elicit a different breed of warm nostalgia), is such an effective partner and so well-written, that you believe in the bond formed between pilot Jack Cooper and BT.
Titanfall 2’s full of memorable moments, like the housing construction facility where the level’s twisting layout turns floors into walls and conveyor belts into death traps and a massive titan-versus-titan beachhead assault. But Titanfall 2’s “action block” design approach may be at its best in the level “Effects and Cause.” That’s when Cooper gains control of a temporal device I’ll just call the time glove. When Respawn first showed off this mechanic during a preview, I was skeptical; it felt out of place in Titanfall 2, or at least what I knew of it, and I initially determined it to be a red flag.
I’m happy to say I was wrong in my early impressions of the time glove, as it wound up being one of the most enjoyable parts of Titanfall 2’s thrilling, tightly designed campaign. Thanks to that time glove, Titanfall 2 is as memorable as an inventive platformer as it is an excellent first-person shooter.
And, hey, the multiplayer is pretty good, too.