The better part of the previous console generation has been dominated by the first-person shooter. Call of Duty and Battlefield have raged a war over the wallets of players, offering two different, yet ultimately similar experiences. Vince Zampella and the team at Respawn Entertainment helped fuel the fires and ignited the dominance of the first-person shooter while working at Infinity Ward with the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. After leaving Infinity Ward and forming Respawn, these first-person shooter veterans gained much attention at E3 2013, announcing their first release, Titanfall. Titanfall may not revolutionize the first-person shooter, but is a reimagining of the genre, using an addictive gameplay loop and break-neck pacing to give players a multiplayer experience they will not soon forget.
When you start the game for the first time, a suggested history is played out, starting with grainy, black-and-white footage of man’s first adventure into space, culminating in the exposition for Titanfall’s conflict. As man has ventured through space, new planets have been found, rich with natural resources. These planets are mined by the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation, usually referred to as the IMC. The IMC may be a simple mining and manufacturing corporation, but to survive on these new planets, often referred to as The Frontier, they have created an army of mercenary soldiers. Who these soldiers are and what brought them to this far-from-home conflict is never explained, but much like previous frontiers – the Wild West or the Ocean, blue – it is not hard to imagine what these motivations may be. Where you find riches, you find war, and the IMC have incurred the wrath of an upstart group of insurgents, dubbed The Militia.
While Titanfall offers interesting material to explore, it never really dives into the ideas it presents. The campaign offers a series of animated and voiced-over vignettes, building an uninteresting story about a lost IMC commander who defects to the Militia. There’s a David vs. Goliath notion to the conflict, but it is quickly dismissed. In fact, the whole campaign is a rather quick affair, clocking in at about two hours. After you start a campaign mission, one of the main characters comes over a loudspeaker to explain the mission objective. These objectives seem elaborate at first, escorting people of interest out of hotspots or providing distractions for covert operations, but once the fighting starts the objectives are simplified to kill everyone, or hold these specific points on the map. Winning or losing has no real effect on the story, instead it simply funnels you along to the next firefight with slightly altered dialogue.
The campaign comes off as a half-baked effort. The little scenes providing exposition, but not really giving context to the world. Someone explains where you’re going and what you’re doing, but it has all the excitement of a middle-school history lesson. The biggest disappointment is how after the exposition scene, there’s no difference between the campaign modes and the standard multiplayer. The game goes out of its way to point out the vicious wildlife and strange locations, but the wildlife never attacks, the environments, while gorgeously imagined, are painfully static. If Titanfall is going to go out of its way to have something they denote as “Campaign Mode” it should offer a decently different experience. There are times when Respawn shows what they are capable of. One scene starts with you leaving a space-based carrier, warping to a planet, crashing into another ship, then waking up with a commanding officer landing in front of you, rallying the troops to fight for their lives. It is exhilarating, it is enthralling, it only happens once. Titanfall’s campaign could use more of these exciting moments to make its campaign feel substantial.
After you get through the campaign, or skip the campaign, and jump into the multiplayer Titanfall shows its teeth. The team at Respawn have created a multiplayer experience that grab you by the heart and drags you through bombastic explosions, daring acrobatics, and intelligent map design. In multiplayer, you start the match by jumping down from your drop ship, drum-heavy music rising in the background, building tension and a feeling of grandiose action. There are many ways to traverse the map, those who lack guts or imagination can run around on the ground, like the many multiplayer experiences before, but Titanfall offers many more options, including wall-running and jet packs that give your jumps an extra boost. This changes Titanfall’s dynamic by making most maps vertically imaginative. You can get anywhere you want, hide anywhere you want, and get the drop on those below you. Adding these elements makes the game more inventive and challenging. You are no longer watching your 12 and 6, you are looking above you and below you. Firefights become more interesting as you are forced to try and snipe someone who is wall-running or jetpack-jumping. Running from enemies becomes a demonstration of the game’s acrobatics.
The game’s selection of weapons isn’t much different from your standard military shooter, there’s the assault rifle, the sniper rifle; the only difference is the wonky Smart Pistol, which has a timed targeting system. While the weapon selection is not expansive or creative, there seems to always be a gun suited to your play-style. Some people will never leave their beloved carbine, others will enjoy sniping from miles away, yet others will like the mid-ranged SMG. Different maps and different modes are tailored for different weapons, capturing the flag in a claustrophobic map is the perfect place to use a shotgun, while expansive levels where you are only rewarded for killing other pilots is perfect for a sniper rifle. While this diverse use of weapons is encouraged, most players seemed to find a weapon they liked and stuck with it through thick and thin.
While you are leaping around, firing at opponents, somewhere in space your Titan is being constructed. Killing more opponents speeds up this process, which lasts about 2 minutes, ending when you hear your commander tell you, “Your Titan is ready.” You can then call down your Titan, hop inside, and start wreaking havoc. Balancing the dynamic between running around outside of your Titan, and lumbering about while inside it is the crux of Titanfall’s success. Both play styles feel rewarding and challenge players in unique ways. Outside of your Titan, you have the ability to hide and take enemies by surprise, once you have entered your mechanized weapon, you attract attention but are well equipped to defend yourself. Playing as Titan is the breath of fresh air the first-person shooter has been looking for the last few years. Being faster and more accurate, doesn’t necessarily help you take down these lumbering monsters, you have to use cunning and teamwork. At first I would call down a Titan and start hunting down others with a lone-wolf mentality. The more I played, the more I realized hunting as a pack of Titans is a far smarter tactic. The introduction of the Titan may not revolutionize first-person multiplayer, but it definitely gives the genre a new angle, and provides a bevy of new tactics and scenarios.
What Titanfall does better than any multiplayer shooters before it, is giving you the tools to pull off awesome maneuvers. Aside from your jetpacks and wall running abilities, you will receive a grenade weapon and a special ability – like cloaking. Combing your skills and abilities allow you to attack in ways previously unavailable in the shooter genre. Leaping on enemy Titans and damaging them from the inside is a thrill ride, calling a Titan down on an unsuspecting enemy is rewarding, these are some of the ways Titanfall provides a new experience.
There are still drawbacks to Titanfall, certain elements make it feel like the first step in a larger journey. The biggest issue is some of the matchmaking. Titanfall will occasionally give you some terrible teams, hurting your kill/death ration and making the experience generally frustrating. Whether you are feeling overwhelmed by the skill of others or are fed-up with your teammates, only recourse is to quit and rejoin lobbies, an annoying practice. This issue is specifically problematic in the campaign mode where the matchmaking seemed to load more talented players on the IMC, leaving the Militia consistently on the losing side. It creates a tonal dissonance as you are getting dominated on the scoreboard but your commander says, “Good job, guys! This will be a day the IMC won’t forget!”
Many have pinned Titanfall as the definitive beginning to next-generation gaming – though a port is still coming to the Xbox 360. The gameplay looks great, the environments are beautifully designed and the world is painted with plenty of interesting elements, giving you context for the war you are perpetually fighting. While the design is great, technically Titanfall hits the occasional bump in the road. The stability of the game’s servers has been impressive through the first week of launch, but there are times when the action revs up and the frame rate drops drastically. These spells are brief, but the game relies so heavily on its pace and timing these hiccups stand out all the more. Some of the cutscenes also show a lack of polish, specifically a couple that involve the character James MacAllen, where his animations are rigid. While these issue don’t detract from the experience on the whole, they do standout from time to time.
Titanfall is a great game, it gives new life to a shooter genre in need of new mechanics and fresh ideas. The action is tight, the mechanics are sharp, and the pacing is a thrill ride hard to find anywhere else. Blending mechanized warfare with free-running first-person shooting is a hard act to pull off and Respawn has concocted the perfect formula to make it work. There are issues with certain aspects of the game, the campaign mode is very vanilla and its existence seems unnecessary, there are also technical hiccups, but for a first effort the game is very impressive. If you have an Xbox One, this is the game you have been waiting for, if you are a fan of first-person shooter multiplayer, Titanfall is a can’t miss title. Here’s hoping we have more adventures to the Frontier coming from the talented people at Respawn.
While rough around the edges, Titanfall is a new take on the first-person multiplayer shooter. The thrills of the free-running acrobatics and mechanized combat are unmatched and are a ride everyone should take.