Reviews

Titanfall In-depth Review – Save Me From The Hype

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Platforms: Xbox One, PC 
Reviewed On: Xbox One
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: EA
Singleplayer: None
Multiplayer: 6v6

Even if it was nothing else Titanfall would be a prime candidate to be used as an example of why the artificially created hype machine is a bitch that elevates games to God-like status, an image that they can never hope to truly live up to. Games like Bioshock: Infinite, GTA V and now Titanfall have all fallen victim to this, as well as countless other titles over the years. Microsoft have spun tales about the power of Cloud while the gaming media has often described Titanfall as some sort of revolutionary leader that will single-handedly change the world of gaming forever, ushering in a golden age. It is unsurprising, then, that Titanfall cannot live up to that hype. That would be impossible. It’s not a revolution or the second coming of Christ, but it is evolution of Respawn’s previous work on Call of Duty, and that’s a good thing.

I know, I know, I’ve ranted against the Call of Duty comparisons before, and for very good reason, but stick with me here. Evolution is how videogames work at their core,  and Titanfall has successfully deconstructed what makes the Call of Duty series work, removing the many bloated mechanics that have plagued it for so long and replacing them with better, slicker systems, building upon its foundations and creating something far better in the process. Respawn have been smart; they’ve partially stuck with what they know for their first outing, studied what made the first Modern Warfare work so well, and then done it all better.

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Abandon the hype and the drivel spilled by magazines and online outlets. And screw your expectations of what Titanfall should be, because I’m here to review the game for what it is, not what the media said it would be or what the hype machine portrayed it as. To try to hold it to those expectations would be idiotic. No, I, and hopefully you, are here to review it as a videogame. And like any game should be, it needs to be reviewed in its own context. Sure, it can’t live up to the hype, but Titanfall is great nonetheless.

Upon initially being dumped into the mutliplayer mayhem of Titanfall you’d certainly be forgiven for assuming that you were playing nothing more than a Call of Duty clone with a sci-fi styling plastered over it. You run around and shoot people in the face with an assortment of generic weapons like an assault rifle, shotgun or sniper rifle, all the while levelling up your character which grants access to shiny new perks and skills. But that’s just at first glance. Shortly after loading it up you’ll be shot by someone who was cloaked, or by some guy who was inexplicably running across a wall. Or a giant fucking robot will come crashing down from orbit and start thundering around the battlefield, punching people, launching missiles and stomping players. Titanfall isn’t Call of Duty, it just happens to share some of its DNA, and that’s fine by me.

Movement is key in Titanfall and your Pilot is an agile person, trained to be the most elite of the elite. Armed with a jump-pack you’re able to to essentially double jump, as well as run along walls, allowing you to perform amazing feats of parkour and opening up a whole new world of verticality and movement, one that we rarely see in first-person shooters. Maps are designed to reflect this, with high rooftops, multi-floor buildings with many windows and plenty of room on the ground creating perfect parkour playgrounds. The more you play the more routes across the battlefield become apparent to you and the better at judging each leap you become, opening up whole new avenues of attack. Meanwhile holding down the left trigger during a wall-run allows you to stick in place, a handy tactic for quite literally getting the drop on passing suckers who’ve forgotten that attack can come from anywhere. Other tricks are also possible, such as reversing direction during a wall-run, or slowing down the speed of your wall-run in order to slide down faster. It’s near impossible to put into words how unbelievably smooth and intuitive the movement feels as well. It’s just wonderful, and also encourages players to stay on the move. Camping is a legitimate tactic thanks to the high vantage points, but is neatly balanced out by the fact that players can literally hit you from any direction, thus you’ll always have to be on your toes. Few sensations while playing a shooter have matched up to  chaining together multiple wall-runs, leaping through a window and kicking an enemy Pilot in the face.

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Stick around on the ground long enough and Respawn’s heritage becomes clearly apparent, the general movement, controls and shooting evoking strong feelings of Call of Duty, yet somehow slicker thanks to some of the most responsive controls I’ve ever had the pleasure of using. This familiarity is by no means necessarily a bad thing, as it largely depends on how you feel about the Call of Duty series. Regardless of personal feeling one cannot deny that  CoD does offer some of the smoothest gunplay around, and that fits quite neatly into Titanfall and how players navigate the world, although I am disappointed to see that the lack of recoil has also carried over. The worst offender is the basic 101c assault rifle, which is quite capable of delivering accurate shots over relatively long distances while the user simply holds down the trigger and barely has to adjust for recoil, making it the only unbalanced weapon in the entire game. While this does make it incredibly smooth to use, and perhaps fits in with the portrayal of futuristic technology, it does remove an element of skill from the core gunplay, which is otherwise great.

However, it should be said that if you spend long enough on the ground for Titanfall to begin to remind you strongly of Call of Duty then you’re rather missing the point. Titanfall is based entirely around it’s wonderfully fluid movement system. You’re supposed to be leaping from rooftops, through windows and running across walls almost all of the time, remaining in near perpetual movement, only stopping to take a long shot or quickly deal with a threat. Certainly Titanfall can be played like Call of Duty, but it’s like obeying all the traffic rules when playing Grand Theft Auto; sure, you can do it, but why?

And then there’s the titular Titans, hulking great mechs that can be summoned forth and taken control of.  On your HUD is a timer, and when it hits zero you can simply aim at any patch of open space and tap down on the D-Pad to initiate Titanfall, at which point your Titan – replete with your choice of weaponry, abilities and one of three chassis – will drop in from orbit, smashing into the ground and killing any sods unlucky to be caught in the impact. Simply get close to your beloved Titan and you can embark, carefully crafted animations used to put you in the hot seat. Approach from behind at a sprint, for example, and your Pilot will slide under the Titan’s legs before a giant, metal hand comes down and carefully plucks you up and places you inside the cockpit, at which point your enveloped inside the Titan and screens fire into life, presenting the battlefield for your pleasure. The entire process of a Titanfall is just one of the coolest things in games at the moment.The way is smashes into the ground is awesome, and the various animations used to place you into the pilot’s seat just feel great. There’s a sensation of power that you draw from the way the interior screens flicker into life and the Titan rises from the ground, ready to stomp forth and blow the shit out of everything. It might sound strange, but you’ll form an odd attachment to your Titan, viewing it as a loyal guardian, which makes the lack of visual customisation something of a disappointment.

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Piloting a Titan shifts the gameplay considerably, forcing you to play and think in a very different way, yet the transition from highly mobile soldier to mech feels smooth, again largely due to intuitive controls.  Obviously when controlling a Titan wall-running is out of the question, yet these aren’t overly slow behemoths that struggle to navigate the map. There’s a fantastic sense of weight and power, but even the heaviest beast, the Ogre class, has a fairly nippy sprint speed, while every type of Titan comes with a Dash move mapped to A, which is obviously useful for dodging missiles and quickly grabbing cover. Depending on the chassis you choose your Titan can have up to three dash slots, with each having to recharge once used. This gives battles between Titan’s an interesting back and forth dynamic, which is further enhanced by such cool abilities such as the Vortex Shield – which can catch enemy bullets and missiles while the button is held down, and fire them back at the foe when its let go – and the Particle Shield, which allows ordinance to pass through from one direction but not the other. Fights between Titans are a series of constant decisions: should I use my remaining dash to grab cover, or to get in close for a melee attack? Does he also have a Vortex Shield, because if so he can lob any missiles I catch with mine right back at me?

At any time you also can set your Titan to either guard an area or follow you around the map, allowing the AI to take over control, and while it’s initially tempting to remain in your machine for as long as possible you’ll quickly discover that working in tandem can be a highly effective strategy. As your Titan engages a foe, for example, you can rodeo the enemy Titan, which means clambering onto its back, ripping off a panel and then firing your gun straight into its innards for heavy damage that bypasses shields. All pilots are also equipped with anti-Titans weapons, so as your Titan battles the opposition you can use the opportunity to offload a couple of missiles. Having your Titan controlled by the onboard AI is especially useful in the Hardpoint game mode which requires you to capture and hold points around the map, because players often focus their efforts way too much on just taking down Titans, and tend to forget about the other Pilots roaming the map, giving you the perfect opportunity to snap some necks. Obviously you can’t expect an AI Titan to claim as many kills as if you had been in direct control, but working together those points quickly rack up.

Titans feel immensely powerful and fun to control, and yet they’re far from invincible, creating a delicate balance between them and the Pilots. While a Titan’s gun is capable of demolishing enemies in mere seconds, Pilots have speed and maneuverability on their side, and a selection of ways to take down Titans. While it’s natural to focus your efforts on an enemy Titan, one can never forget the threat that Pilots pose, and thus moving across the map becomes tense, because you’re constantly scanning the environment for those tiny flesh-bags who can seriously ruin your day. Indeed, someone clambering aboard your Titan can make quick work of it unless you either find a friendly player willing to shoot the enemy off your back or you disembark to try to sort the problem yourself, which could, of course, be a trap. At the heart of Titanfall, then, lies a fascinating dynamic between the Titans and Pilots, and Respawn have done an outstanding job of balancing the action, action that doesn’t even relent when the death of your Titan is imminent as you’re given a last second chance to eject, sending your rocketing into the sky, providing a momentary glimpse of the battle below. It would have been very easy for Titans to become the dominant force on the battlefield, mimicking the overpowered nature of Call of Duty’s Killstreaks, but that’s just not the case here.

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When you’re on foot the maps are filled with places to go, heights to scale and hidey-holes, creating a brilliant game of cat and mouse with other Pilots and enabling you to evade and tackle Titans. Clamber into your mech and the transition is flawless, with larger areas allowing you to stomp around while the maze of doors, windows and elevations suddenly become areas that must be carefully watched, lest a sneaky Pilot be your downfall. It doesn’t feel like the maps are essentially two very different designs laid atop one another, each made specifically for either Pilot or Titan, but rather a single cohesive and fantastic whole. The more I played the more routes and tricks I uncovered, and I’m sure there’s a whole lot more ways of using the environment to my advantage that I’ve yet to figure out. I really can’t praise the maps enough. It’s so easy to focus on the more obvious movement system or Titans and praise them as the best thing in Titanfall, but to be frank the map design is just as important, as without it neither of those things would work as well as they do.

While Respawn have frankly reinvigorated the way an FPS can play in this day and age with fun movement and brilliant interplay between Titan and Pilot, one area in which they seem to have chosen to play it entirely safe is the game modes. At the core lies Attrition, which is essentially Team Deathmatch with points awarded for slaying AI, enemy Pilots and Titans. First team to reach the point limit wins, it’s as simple as that. Hardpoint simply tasks you with capturing and holding three points around the map, while Capture the Flag at least fits in neatly with the parkour. The final two modes don’t sit well with me: Pilot Hunter is a variant of Attrition in which only killing Pilots awards points, while Last Titan Standing starts everyone off with their mech and no respawns, with the first team to lose all their Titan’s losing the game. The reason neither of these modes sit well with me is because they abandon or lessen one of the core tenants that makes Titanfall fun: the interaction between both Pilots and Titans, which is a wonderfully fun, balanced mechanic.

There’s nothing really wrong with including a selection of traditional modes, especially since Attrition is pretty much perfect for Titanfall, but considering Respawn have so clearly stamped their mark on the genre as a whole with their reworking of various systems and neat changes it’s a shame to see that same sense of thinking not applied to the modes. Still, Respawn have already promised more modes are incoming, so it’ll be interesting to see what they produce.

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The AI controlled bots that inhabit each map have been a source of controversy since their announcement, but having actually been playing for a while I’ve become surprisingly supportive of their place within the game, as they essentially take on the role of creepers from MOBA titles, acting as a way for struggling players to contribute and for skilled players to get their Titans quicker. Every AI minion slaughtered contributes a small amount of points to your team’s total, albeit much less than slaying a pilot or Titan, while also reducing the amount of time until your next Titanfall, although for obvious reasons taking down a player offers a far bigger bounty. The balance isn’t quite right just yet, though, I feel, because it seems to easy to merely kill legions of AI and end up on top of the leaderboards.

They also serve as a gentle way of directing the battle, their grouping and gunfire guiding players toward the action subtly. Furthermore they provide an interesting context to your existence. In so many shooters we’re placed in the boots of a one-man army, and the only person who seems capable of actually getting anything done, yet none of the other characters ever seem to be aware of this. In Titanfall AI grunts respond to your presence with awe. They can be heard chatting about how dangerous Pilots are, and will rally to you if you stop long enough to help them out. They’ll call out their thanks if you kill a nearby Titan. They portray you as a superhero, a living legend that. It helps create the sensation that you’re an elite soldier that’s part of a much larger battle than just yourself  and the other players.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that the AI minions are morons of the highest caliber, posing about as much threat to Pilots or Titans as angry bunny rabbits, the one shown in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian being the natural exception to this rule. They’re designed to die in droves, which does help keep the action flowing, but it does rather ruin the illusion of a larger war when they often fail to shoot an enemies or don’t seem to be doing very much. While it’s technically possible for the AI to kill you, it’s an incredibly rare occurrence. You can stand directly in front of a squad of basic enemy grunts and suffer little damage, while even the more powerful Spectres offer minimal danger. While their relative lack of combat skill is a very deliberate design choice, I’d still like to see their damage output and accuracy increased so that they can at least occasionally hinder you, forcing you to consider taking on an enemy Pilot if they’re surrounded by AI support. Respawn have taken a bold step in using AI in such a fashion, but they don’t quite manage to sell the vision just yet.

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Burn Cards are another area in which the Call of Duty DNA can be felt coursing through the game’s veins, offering up a smart and interesting twist on the Perk system. Before a match begins you can select up to three Burn Cards from your deck to take into battle, each offering different upgrades and tricks, such as an amped up weapon that deals more damage or even the ability to automatically take control of AI bots that you pass. Before you spawn you can choose and activate one of these cards, and you’ll gain the listed effect for as long as you remain alive or until the match ends. Die and that card is gone forever, at which point you can choose to activate another one. This encourages you to stay alive as long as you can in order to get the full benefit from each card, and to think about when you want to use them, lest you waste their potential.

Where Titanfall‘s biggest failure lies is within its campaign mode, which takes place across a total of 18 multiplayer matches where you swap between playing as the rebelling Militia and the IMC, or The Good Guys and Stereotypical Evil Empire, to be more exact. Much like what was seen in Brink Respawn have attempted to meld singleplayer and multiplayer into a single, cohesive idea, and have failed miserably to do so with a laughably poor script.

What very little story that exists is largely delivered via voiceover when you and the other players are sitting in the lobby, which isn’t exactly an immersive method for telling a thrilling tale. Character names and various words are bandied around in all manner of combinations that I assume must have been in English, but despite playing through the entirety of both campaigns twice I remain completely oblivious to almost every detail of the plot, unable to remember a single person’s name or even why we were fighting. Indeed, the only thing that truly stands out in my mind are the moments that I created as a player through the gameplay mechanics, not those that the writers tried to deliver. The biggest reason for this is that Respawn attempt to convey the rest of the storyline during the match, with little cutscenes taking place in a small window at the top right of the screen and annoying voices playing over the comm system. But this only leads to one of two outcomes; either you try to pay attention to the story and inevitably get killed over and over by players with considerably less faith in the writing, or you focus on the match itself and therefore never have any idea why you’re doing anything.

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Furthermore your teams actual performance during the match has no effect on the campaign itself. In one particular battle me and my team completely destroyed the opposition by a frankly embarrassing amount, and yet despite technically achieving victory the story declared that we had actually lost, leaving us all feeling rather sad. Why had we even bothered, if the outcome was always going to be the same? There’s a huge missed opportunity here for a branching storyline, which in turn would have also encouraged people to replay the campaign in order to see the various outcomes and changes. But as it stands there’s only one reason to bother playing through the entire campaign, an ordeal which will take you roughly 3 or 4 hours, and that’s to unlock all of the available Titans. That’s right, the game blackmails you by withholding two of the three Titans within the game.

Above all else the story feels like it was created merely to tick a box, for Respawn to fit in with what convention demands that they must. In short it very much feels like the developers felt compelled to conform. The topic of multiplayer only games not being able to charge full price is a heated one at the moment, yet seems absurd in so many ways. If a singleplayer can be criticised for having a tacked on multiplayer, why can’t it work the other way? If we can have singleplayer only games that last less than ten hours and charge full price for it, why can a multiplayer game not do the same, especially when we see gamers sink hundreds of hours into Battlefield, Call of Duty and Halo?

This shallow, hollow, terribly written campaign feels like it was created because that’s what convention demands, and I would much sooner have seen Respawn simply not bother. Resources were poured into something that need not exist, and that ultimately damages the overall product, because I must review what’s there, and what’s there is crap. The brief glimpses of Titanfall‘s lore suggest that there is material for a great, true singleplayer campaign in the future, one built upon the great gameplay mechanics, unless Respawn can somehow figure out a way to truly meld both worlds, though I remain doubtful that it can be done. Terribly written, badly conveyed and lacking in any memorably moments, Titanfall‘s campaign is several hours of idiocy that’s only enjoyable because it sits upon the game’s brilliant multiplayer action.

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Other areas of Titanfall also leave me feeling more than a little surprised, as the game is missing features and options that have become standard in online shooters. There’s no private matches, though these are promised soon, and not even private lobbies, so friends can jump into your party at any time, even when you were saving the slot for someone else. Titan and Pilot custom classes cannot be renamed and there’s absolutely no visual customisation on offer, which is yet another missed opportunity as it would have allowed players to forge a better bond with their Titans. Having fought so many battles with him and relied on him for so much I almost feel like me and my Titan are one and the same, so not being able to adorn him with cool paintwork or even some freaking stickers is a real shame. At least the map count feels pretty solid at sixteen, especially since they’re so well designed.

The lack of a vast armory is something that many may complain about as well, which is understandable given the amount of tools other games grant players, but it does have one benefit: Titanfall is a beautifully balanced game across the board, with no single gun – other than the 101c – ability or Burn Card seeming to offer any unfair advantage over the others. Everything has a role to play, and with each new unlock I was excited to see what possibilities it would offer me on the battlefield, something which I struggle to say when playing most other shooters, as their vast selections of gear tend to be made up of largely pointless stuff.

On the graphical front Titanfall is not the showcase for what the Xbox One can do that many like myself who were hoping for, with a fair amount of screen tearing being one of the stranger problems the game has – it’s 2014, this sort of thing just shouldn’t happen. But it’s certainly not an ugly game by any stretch of the imagination, and the detailed animations of pilots and Titans alike are impressive, lending even more fluidity to a game that’s already astonishingly smooth. The visual style of the game can border on being generic at times, but it’s well executed. 60FPS is the beating heart of the action, and while it doesn’t always manage to maintain that, with the occasional dip into pretty low rates when the action gets seriously intense, which normally occurs in Last Titan Standing with twelve Titans going at it, for the most part the game runs slick. Get in close and you’ll notice some slightly lackluster textures dotted around the place, but then this is a title in which staying still for any length of time is practically a sin. Titanfall looks good in motion, and that’s fine by me. Hopefully a future update can dispose of, or at least minimise, the tearing.

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In Titanfall Respawn have successfully crafted an immensely welcoming game that goes out of its way to make players feel awesome, creating a sense of spectacle that’s normally only found within the singleplayer campaign. Perhaps the biggest complement that I can bestow upon the game is that I rarely left a match without at least one exciting tale that I wanted to tell my friends about.  Huge Titans get into fistfights as you leap over rooftops and bound across walls. Nuclear explosions herald the death of one of the lumbering mechs as the Pilot is catapulted into the sky. There’s the time I hit an enemy Titan with an Arc Grenade as I leapt over it before pulling out my Archer rocket, spinning round, sticking to the wall and finishing it off. Or that time when I was facing an enemy Titan – I dashed around a corner in my Titan and clambered out quickly before leaping over the buildings to come at the enemy from behind before he could realise what I had done, only to discover that my foe had done the same, but was facing away from me, letting me get in close for a brutal execution move before leaping aboard his Titan and gutting it with my gun. Intuitive controls, easy to understand systems and counters are combined with absurdly smooth gameplay to make Titanfall very, very easy to pick up. Even the least skilled players can have fun as grunts let them contribute to their team’s score and Titans are given to everyone. Titanfall wants you to have fun.

But it’s easy to look upon this with disdain and dismiss it as just a game for noobs. Even before its release elitists were declaring it a game for people who couldn’t handle anything else, even doing such stupid things as saying it was people who couldn’t play Call of Duty, Yet hidden beneath this welcoming exterior Titanfall actually boasts a pleasing amount of depth to its gameplay. Complexity is often mistaken for depth, but in truth simple, well made mechanics can often provide the far better experience, as is the case here. The parkour system allows skilled players to outstrip others by using unorthodox movement and lines through the level. Watching a good player battle a Titan as a foot-soldier is a spectacle, as the Titan is unable to keep up with the speed and fluidity that the Pilot has on his side. There’s a minimal selection of guns and abilities, but they’re neatly balanced, each and everyone have a specific place and use. Titan battles can become back and forth matches, as things like the Vortex Shield and Dash create neat counter-counterplay systems. By no means is this a game in which you’ll still be discovering new things a year after purchasing it, but there’s enough meat on its bones to satisfy. I’d wager that it sits pretty neatly between Call of Duty and Battlefield in this regard.

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Pick Titanfall apart and you can see the many mechanics that form the whole, and that most of them have been done before. That doesn’t matter. Pick any game apart and you’ll find many, many things that have come before it, even in the most innovative and original of titles. Videogames are built on this type of iteration, and there’s no shame in that. Where Titanfall becomes special is how it puts these parts together to form something unique, different and refreshing. Quite simply it plays like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, managing to out Call of Duty Call of Duty in the shooting department, do first-person parkour as well as Mirror’s Edge and mechs that outstomp pretty much everything else. It’s a buttery smooth multiplayer shooter that delights in making everything feel epic and newbies welcome, while still successfully giving enough room in its movement systems and abilities for dedicated players to keep them interested for a while.

It’s also flawed. The attempt at a campaign feels half-arsed with a plot that feels like it was tossed together by a roomful of children, and Respawn either need to take it seriously for the next entry in the series or simply not bother trying to fit in with convention and focus entirely on the multiplayer action. Ultimately as a multiplayer focused game the thoroughly lacking campaign isn’t a flaw that detracts from the overall experience too badly, though. It’s missing a few options that should be in there, and as a showcase for the raw power for the Xbox One it’s lacking utterly.

But above all else Titanfall is the most fun I’ve had in a multiplayer shooter in a very, very long time, topping even the many delights of my time with Halo: Reach, which was played with a group of dedicated and possibly mentally unstable friends. Screw the hype and the pointless comparisons, it’s fun. End of. How long will it remain fun? That’s hard to say as matches will doubtless blend together after a while, but for now I’m finishing every match with my face nearly pressed against the screen and my tongue sticking out the side of my mouth in a cartoon imitation of concentration while my hands gripping the controller so hard it may just break. I’m happy with that.

The Good:
+ Absurdly smooth.
+ Everything feels awesome.
+ Welcoming for all players.

The Bad:
– Bloody useless campaign that blackmails you with Titans.
– Matches can become somewhat repetitive.
- Can’t we have just a little recoil?

The Verdict: 4/5
A thrilling evolution of the first-person shooter genre, Titanfall makes a few missteps along the way, but is ultimately brilliant fun.

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