In the late 90s shooters were fast. Tribes was fast, Quake was fast, Counter-Strike was fast. If you couldn't bunny hop or ski you weren't moving fast enough to be competitive at most LANs. Then for a while they slowed down. Call Of Duty 4 and Battlefield 2 grounded things in a world of modern warfare, where it was all boots on the ground and eyes in the sky. Some shooters didn't even allow jumping, like some perversion of the little town from Footloose. Map knowledge gave way to the information war, rocket jumping was replaced by no-scoping and weapon pick-ups became loadouts.
Then around 2010 Activision and the bulk of Infinity Ward parted ways, Respawn Entertainment was formed and the team which created one of the most critically important shooters ever started work on Titanfall. And it was out there. The elevator pitch is an easy sell--a fast-paced Mechwarrior where you spend as much time out of the robot as you do in--but there were a lot of little things which added up to big risks.
They weren't shipping with a singleplayer campaign, for example. They were including a card system in the place of Perks (a rewards system they'd essentially invented in the first place). Titans had the potential to be huge balance issues. Pilots could wallrun and double jump, so the game was much, much faster than most other games on the market. There was a big chance that people wouldn't want to play this--and looking at the way the game dropped off after its launch, that might have been the case.
But the impact it had is obvious. At the time that Titanfall released, the Call of Duty series had just launched Ghosts, which (on top of its many other problems) was probably the slowest Call of Duty since 3. Post-Titanfall Call of Duty games, on the other hand, feature Wall-running, Double Jumping and Power Sliding as if the CoD teams still took their cues from Vince Zampella and Jason West. Once again, the team who changed the landscape of shooters with COD4 did so again--this time, with mobility.
It's clear Respawn Entertainment is capable of making massive, game-changing risks. So why does Titanfall 2 play it so safe?
The singleplayer campaign is Titanfall 2 at its riskiest, but even here Respawn is hedging like they're on a mission from the Knights who say Ni. Framed as a story about a young rifleman who wishes to become a pilot, it could have given us deep insight into the life of the pilots, super-soldiers powered by drugs and technology. Instead, it wastes very little time in giving you all the pilot abilities--at best, your pilot training is a drawn out tutorial sequence as you get to grips with your wall-running and double jumping abilities.
Once you have your full pilot kit, you make friends with BT-7274--your mentor's Titan--and you are a pilot. It's weird to think that the team behind Call of Duty--a series which thrived on reminding you that you were a small part of a much larger war--would blow this opportunity to make you feel extremely small as a rifleman before giving you the opportunity to be a Pilot. But the safe option is to give players the power fantasy as soon as possible, and so what we get is barely 5 minutes as a rifleman before we're
The campaign is full of sarcastic, self-deprecating humour, which is right up my alley. The dialogue is actually 100% on point in this regard. Early on BT suggests a few shortcuts which turn into desperate fights for survival, and not taking shortcuts becomes a running joke. The humour gives the relationship between the Jack Cooper and BT a feel similar to John Connor and T-800 in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
The story itself is paint-by-numbers stuff--except for the fact that you implicitly trust BT because he's bound by a series of laws hard-coded into himself. Think Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, except there's a loophole where the Titans are allowed to kill as many humans as they like (provided they're not the pilot). The Titan directives are repeated over and over like a mantra, but they're never really explored any further. If anything, they're used to take advantage of a sort of pseudo-imposter syndrome--you do whatever BT says, because he knows more about being a pilot than you do.
As the campaign carries on you take a tour of some of your sector of the universe's most interesting locations, and Titanfall 2 even comes dangerously close to being interesting. At one point you make your way to through some sort of massive manufacturing facility in a sequence which forces you into creative platforming. This is Titanfall 2 at its best, as platforms move, change orientation and flip ahead of you, and you do your best to find something solid to keep beneath your feet. It reminded me of the best moments in Destiny--where the platforming is less complex but no less challenging--and forced me to think on my toes to survive. The ending of the level is a proper mind-bender, too.
Another level gives you extremely brief access to time travel, allowing you to switch instantly between the same location in two separate timelines. You flit between a pristine laboratory and its ruined remains, wall-running and power sliding past obstacles and switching timelines when one becomes too unsafe. The entire level is fantastic, reminding me of the game Singularity (except good), and I was unbelievably disappointed when it ended and I was returned to the humdrum life of piloting a giant robot.
Both of these ideas could have been turned into so much more. I'd play the time-travel game as a standalone concept for hours. The platforming opportunities alone are staggering--multiple times you're prevented with obstacles in both timelines you need to overcome by staccato fire switching between worlds, and it feels absolutely amazing when you solve the puzzles. But just as you begin to really think in the language of the puzzles, the game breaks your time-travelling device and you move on. That's playing it safe to me. Make me a time-travel game. If it has to have giant robots to fulfill your contractual obligations for the Titanfall series, so be it, but don't give me a taster of something brilliant and then take it away from me. Outside of the two levels I spoke of Titanfall 2 is disappointingly generic. You already know what will happen because you've done it all before. You go somewhere, you mow down a few hundred soldiers, you go somewhere else and fight a boss, you rinse and repeat. They build out the world of Titanfall more, but it's still pretty light on the details.
The multiplayer plays it even safer. There are three team deathmatch variants in Titanfall 2. There shouldn't even be one, but Respawn Entertainment is so keen to try to please everyone that they've added a third to the two already existing TDM variants. Pilot vs Pilot removes the Titans from the game, pitting player against player without the robot helpers. Skirmish removes the AI grunts from the game, making it the new Pilot Hunter, and Attrition has players and AI duke it out, with more lethal AI robots showing up as the round progresses.
Team deathmatch is a bad mode. Kills should not be the primary objective of a game mode, and good games aren't ever designed around team deathmatch as the focus--and yet so many games put this selfish hero-chasing bullshit front and centre for people to play. Can you think of a single map which has been designed with team deathmatch as the focus? No such thing exists. Not even in the glorious days of arena shooters did level designers think 'this will create some great team deathmatch experiences', because there aren't great team deathmatch experiences.
And Titanfall 2 has three versions of this same shitty mode. It's such a safe play. TDM playlists are always populated, even into the tail end of an unpopulated game. And Respawn Entertainment--despite what I thought was a pretty good effort otherwise--knows a thing or two about an unpopulated game. It speaks volumes about their philosophy with Titanfall 2 though--they took some risks last time, and now they're making a safer game. They tried to force players to play the objectives in the Tech Test Alpha--making it so your Titanfall cooldown only built when you completed objectives or got kills--and people whined, so they reverted back to the Titan as a medal for participation.
And it's a shame, because I enjoy Titanfall 2's multiplayer (when I'm not playing the TDM variants). The wall-running and double jumping was already nailed in the first game, and so the primary focus went to the level design. And while the ziplines, which I loved in Titanfall, are absent in the sequel, the parkour platforming is by-and-large better than ever. The players who can leap from wall-to-wall are the ones who wind up on top of the leaderboards, because mastery of movement in Titanfall 2 leads to a massive advantage. Movement skills (almost) always lead to a higher skill ceiling in a game because mastering movement means mastering map knowledge and aiming at speed.
The problem is that I just don't see a standout mode, a standout map. Last Titan Standing involves probably the most teamwork, but it's not something you'll want to play in a public server. Capture The Flag is rejuvenated thanks to the traversal systems, but kids these days never want to play it. Bounty Hunter, where kills earn you cash, and you need to bank that cash before you're killed (because then your killer gets half of it) has to share mindspace with three god damn TDM variants. Amped Hardpoint--essentially Domination--is the mode I'd play the most of, but there are too many other modes which will dilute its population. There's Coliseum, which is the Titanfall 2 spin on the old school rocket arena--I could play quite a bit of this if it didn't cost 10 in-game credits per go.
I think Titanfall 2 is worth playing, but it's not a must-play game right now. The two levels that I think will influence game design for years to come--they'll still be there next year. But therein lies the rub--with a playerbase split over multiple pointless variants of team deathmatch and a handful of other standard multiplayer modes, the population might not be there next year when you get it.
EA provided flights and accommodation to a review event in LA. Having played the game on the live servers I am happy to commit to the score as presented. I also corrected an error where I claimed that Titanfall 1 featured power-sliding.