Titanfall Review (Xbox One)
Through the electrified smoke, corpses of militia grunts and pilots can be seen strewn across the rubble of the crumbling building. At one time, it was a majestic piece of architecture. Now, all that remains is the husk of life once lived. We've managed to push back and defend the fueling depot, but the militia is still trying to escape. The dropship's location pops up on the heads-up display inside the Ogre mech, and we begin rushing towards the extraction point. Titans of the proud Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC) lie in wait for the remaining living militia forces. Another fight breaks out, threatening to collapse what remains of another once palatial fragile estate. Rockets and bullets fly across the battlefield with reckless abandon, with few finding actual targets. The dropship reaches escape velocity before we can take it down, and thus the battle rages on to another destination. We've won the battle, but the war just never seems to end.
Raging across worlds as vast and varied as our own solar system, Titanfall pits players against each other in one of the longest, most expensive wars we've ever seen. The IMC has been mining whole planets for resources to continue crafting more and more Titans so they can continue mining more and more planets. The militia, consisting of some former members of the IMC, but mostly people from the far reaches tired of corporate expansion, have been fighting back, but there's no end to the conflict in sight. Even across the brief campaign, which does a rudimentary job of explaining the who, what, when and where of the conflict, there's little resolution to the fight across the next frontier. But that's okay. Resolution isn't what Respawn is after. The developer just wanted to create the foundation for the war. The real meat of Titanfall lies in the fighting itself, and it is glorious.
Titanfall is all about multiplayer. Not because the multiplayer is the main draw, as it is with games developed by many of Respawn's contemporaries, but because there literally is nothing else to do but play multiplayer matches in Titanfall. In addition to the adequate team deathmatch and capture the flag modes, you'll find Pilot Hunter (where only human kills add to the score) and Last Titan Standing (rather self-explanatory, don't you think?) spice up the standard fare. Even the shorthanded campaign is nothing but multiplayer matches with the window dressing of a narrative thrown in. It takes a bit of time to get acclimated to the big differences between Titanfall and the endless other shooters you've been playing for years. The core concept remains the same (winning), but the formula for success is quite different from what you've been applying elsewhere.
Mostly, Titanfall is fast. Each match has a frenetic pace that's tough to keep up with initially. There's a lot of verticality to deal with, and understanding level geometry goes well beyond learning choke points and kill boxes. Staying still is death. Titanfall's combat pushes you to stay agile to stay alive, and sightlines aren't limited to a single plane. It's not until you've been in the trenches for a handful of battles that Titanfall's combat begins to make sense, and suddenly you're seeing things like Neo in 'The Matrix.' That shell of a car that you thought was merely set dressing before is now a platform for you to jump higher. Buildings stacked close together now become a wannabe parkour expert's dream instead of a poor city planning decision. Every inch of the map matters, and scaling it faster and cleaner than your enemies gives you all the advantage you'll need.
There will be instances where not everything goes as well as you'd hoped, even after playing Titanfall for a dozen hours. Sometimes the creativity of the maps gets in the way, and you'll spend an extra few precious seconds trying to escape out that window before being gunned down. Other times, objects that look 100 percent scalable feature no grappling points, and you end up jumping around like an idiot, easy pickings for the opposition. It doesn't happen often enough to ruin the experience, but the longer you play, the more you begin to question whether making the 15 maps so populated with detritus was really the best idea.
Of course, this is just as a pilot. In addition to the freewheeling wall-running, the grounded combat is majorly important. However, Respawn has put its own twist on the traditional flat-footed action by implementing giant mechs called Titans. Every player has access to Titans immediately from the start, though you'll have to earn additional models beyond the Atlas by completing the story for both the IMC and the militia. Titans are locked away from the battle on a timer, and you can accelerate the waiting period through your performance in a given match. Kills, flag captures, hardpoint holds, hacking and more player actions cut time from the countdown. Basically, the better you're playing, the faster you'll get one, but you'll still get at least one even if you've been barely skating by.
Unlike the player characters, which all perform basically the same and rely on human skill to push to the limits, the three different Titan classes all offer something different for players. The Atlas is the well-rounded mech, and offers moderate speed, armor and strength. The Ogre is the tank of the fleet, and is a hulking beast that trudges through a stage even when sprinting. What it lacks in mobility it makes up for in sheer raw power. Dropping an Ogre on a hardpoint to defend is the equivalent of hiring a bouncer who weighs 350lbs. for your exclusive nightclub. Then there's the Stryder. Its insect-like appearance delivers performance you would expect, being both incredibly agile and weak. These pesky Titans are tough to catch, and can really frustrate you with the right pilot behind the wheel. Still, dropping your own Titan on one should end its life rather quickly, and happens to be supremely satisfying to boot.
Once Titans do start dropping, and they do start dropping with regularity once the first few land, the open expanses of the field of battle become congested. This is another reason why so much verticality was built into Titanfall's maps--the Titans just take up so much space. When there are a half-dozen Titans battling it out on the streets or desert wastes, you don't want to get caught under foot when you're sans mech. If you did call yours down, you can choose to pilot it or leave it on auto-pilot to follow you around. Depending on the match type, either strategy is completely viable. In fact, newcomers may find it easier to let the Titans do much of the heavy lifting under the guide of the AI early on, while players focus on learning the maps and how to combat those other pesky human enemies.
You do have some tools at your disposal to take Titans on as a soldier, but it takes a concentrated effort to bring one down, regardless of whether it's piloted by a human or not. Player weapons are strong at the start, but new and better (read: different) armaments unlock the more proficient you become. You'll also have special abilities like temporary cloaking, speed bursts, electrified smoke screens and more to tie to your pilot and Titan. Unlocks are tied to leveling, but you might catch a glimpse of a stronger weapon or ability with the right draw in the random Burn Cards.
There are no micro-transactions in Titanfall, but nearly every match you play will earn you a handful of Burn Cards. These are temporary perks that last the length of one life, and grant you stronger weapons, unique abilities or even cut down the wait time for a Titan. There are dozens to collect, and you can bring up to three with you into any given match (once you've leveled up enough anyway). It's a interesting way to give players cool abilities, and since the draw is mostly random, you never feel outmatched by another player's perks. It can suck tremendously to activate a card only to get stomped immediately, and thus lose that ability, but that's part of the risk of using Burn Cards. Hoarding doesn't serve any real purpose, and the cards replenish quite quickly, so using them frequently is a great strategy even if you're still learning the ropes. Take any advantage you can get.
While much has been made of Titanfall's 6v6 player limit, the matches never feel outmatched by the map. Regardless of which mode you're playing, there will be dozens of AI soldiers on either side contesting the map right alongside the human players. The AI isn't exactly teeming with brilliance when it comes to the foot soldiers, which is odd given how intelligently Titans play when left to their own devices, but they do help populate the arenas with more life. They can also help unfamiliar players ease into Titanfall's rapid fire combat by providing "easy" targets for those not yet as formidable as their other human teammates. It feels nice to be contributing to the war effort even if you're taking out a majority of AI opponents. There's always some sense of accomplishment, and that's important when trying to establish a new franchise with a new approach to the way an FPS is played on a new console.
Though Titanfall doesn't add much new to the first-person shooter formula, its unique features do help it stand out quite a bit. The rush of running across rooftops, snagging kill after kill, while massive mechs rumble on the terrain below, is like no other. That said, the immeasurable amount of hype behind Titanfall was impossible to meet. It's definitely one of the most entertaining multiplayer shooters we've ever played, but it's still too rough around the edges to truly challenge any of the incumbents right now. Still, Titanfall stands on the cusp of this new generation, ready to blaze its own path to greatness. Titanfall is not a perfect game, but it sure is fun. Sometimes, that's all you need.
This review was completed with a purchased retail copy of Titanfall for the Xbox One.