As hard as the Titans come crashing into the earth from above in Titanfall, a moment of clarity is likely to hit even harder. Somewhere between sliding under your mechanical behemoth and up into its canopy and riding an enemy Titan straight to hell, you’ll pause: this is a good game. And then you’ll punch a dude out of his ambulatory carapace and think, “No, this is a great game.”
If none of this is ringing a bell (and I can’t imagine who hasn’t heard of Titanfall by now; my retired “get off my lawn” neighbor asked me about it today), then let me catch you up: Infinity Ward and its founders had a fall—no, too far. Backed by the original creatives behind the mammoth-sized franchise Call of Duty, Titanfall is an online-only first-person shooter that pits six players against six other players and mixes in building-sized mechs for added shenanigans.
There isn’t a singleplayer component (not in terms of a traditional campaign, anyways), but there is at least some semblance of a story. Humanity has expanded to space, but those on the frontier are tired of bowing down to some out-of-touch, corporate government. It’s a real “history repeats itself” situation—consider the American Revolution, et al.—but it’s serviceable, which is to say it’s a bevy of sci-fi staples that support a massive, Titan-sized multiplayer design.
For the most part, it is a very familiar design, too. The controls are almost identical to any modern shooter you’ve played including moving around, reloading, aiming, and firing. But it helps the differences easier to intuit. For instance, you take your basic understanding of platforming in games like Mirror’s Edge and reduce it to the simple scheme of Titanfall. Double jumps, wall runs, and mantling are as simple as pointing and going. The freedom of movement and its responsiveness is overwhelming at first, but soon becomes comforting and liberating.
There is a somewhat MOBA-ish slant to the game. In the standard game mode, you start out as just the human pilot half of the mechanized terror. At any given time, there could be a few dozen dudes out on the field to shoot at and with, but only 12 of them will be actual human players. The rest are grunts, and each one you kill will give you points, but more importantly, take time off your Titan timer, turning them into a mineable resource instead of a nuisance.
It’s an incredible addition because it makes you feel like you’re always doing something important. Granted, many of these AI foes are complete dummies (you can often walk up to them and shoot them in the face with little recourse), but when the necessary steps to get from where you are to where your opponent is involves running up a wall and jumping 20 feet down onto a rooftop, it feels cool. And then you are precious seconds closer to your Titan.
And once you have your Titan, your options expand even further. You can order it to stand its ground, operating like a traditional turret. Or you can order it to follow you, effectively doubling your firepower at any given time. And, of course, you can clamber inside and do your dirt with your own two hands.
You would think that being in a three-story tall robot armed with missiles and machine guns would be an unfair advantage, but Respawn Entertainment has masterfully balanced the experience. I actually prefer to be a pilot most of the time, but the Titan affords you the ability to shield up and rebound incoming armaments or crush other players under your armored feet or simply shoot big fucking rockets at other Titans.
The true joy comes in once you begin to mix the two experiences. When you call your Titan and spend your few seconds of pre-fall ascending a roof to take out a pesky player and then jumping down to take solace in the landing shields of your robot buddy as another mechanized foe appears. Then you dart out into a building where it can’t hound you, order your Titan to fight it out, and ascend once more.
Dropping out of the sky, you rodeo this enemy until it blows, launching you into the sky, only to have your Titan catch you and load you up into its cozy cabin. It’s remarkable how often these “holy shit, did you see that?!” moments occur in Titanfall. Coming out of the beta and past preview events, my primary concern was that these moments would eventually run dry or wear out their welcome.
Erroneously concerned, I would say now. It feels like the entire game was based around the idea that people never stop talking about the amazing things that serendipitously happen in Call of Duty and Halo like cone deaths and cross-map knife throws and instead decided to ease the creation of those moments. The minutia included is incredible. You can board your Titan from any angle, your speed only seems to accelerate as you freerun around the level, and a selection of auto-aim weapons facilitates your badassery.
I’m not a terribly good player when it comes to first-person shooters, though I’m also far from the worst. There are just a lot of twitch-attuned people out there that have a knack for moving fast and killing faster. And taking that into account, I still managed to have more fun in Titanfall than in any other online multiplayer game in recent years. These auto-aim weapons can help pro players pull off crazy moves like headshots midair between walls and less skilled pilots with simply landing contributing hits to zippy enemies.
There are just so many little touches that complete the feel of the game. The animation of the HUD loading up once you board a Titan, for instance, is one of the best things I’ve seen. It’s just so god damn pleasing. And the way the ground shakes when you stomp around and how grunts call out enemy pilots. It congeals into a tight, cohesive package that reminds you of how it felt when you first played Modern Warfare.
This leads to a sensation that the lack of variety in parts of the game is purposeful. That are scant few weapons, but they operate so uniquely that they cover everything you’d want anyways, ignoring the growing concern of other shooters over additional six-inch spread of a shotgun at 20 meters or something. And the three gameplay modes would seem to leave you wanting, but the traditional deathmatch and capture the flag modes are good enough on their own and Last Titan Standing and Pilot Hunter really lean into the uniqueness of Titanfall as a whole.
Last Titan Standing puts everyone in a mech from the beginning with no respawns, turning the fast-paced shooter into a fast-paced game of cat-and-mouse. It’s incredibly tense when you play with people that understand the utility and inherent risk of being in and out of a Titan. And Pilot Hunter is just like deathmatch but where only kills on other pilots count, so it becomes a constant assessment of absorbing errant shots from grunts and opening up a window for a meaningful kill.
Variety is also built into the game from its character customization setup. As you play the game, you’ll collect Burn Cards. These are one-use items that you can equip in your loadout (think Call of Duty for that part) and you can activate them during the match, each one giving you some temporary advantage. This can be anything from causing your Titan to blow up, like, real good upon death or moving faster or even permanently cloaking your character.
They seem only kind of useful at first, but they add an important wrinkle: whereas without them, you know how every pilot and every Titan moves and is capable of, but with such a wide swath of Burn Cards available, you always have to approach any given situation with at least a modicum of vigilance.
And then you throw caution to the wind and dive head first, because Titanfall is largely about going for, doing the bombastic because you know you are fully capable of it. There are, of course, problems, like an occasionally unstable framerate or rampant server outages (and given EA’s track record with Battlefield 4 and SimCity, this could lead to more problems down the road), but Titanfall does so much and so much well, you’ll be having too much fun to notice or care.
+ Incredibly accessible but varied control scheme and gameplay
+ Complex but intuitive balance between pilots and Titans
+ Wide range of capabilities in and out and around the Titans and level
+ Impressive mobility that turns a tired, flat genre into a textured, multilevel experience
– Lacking traditional (read: expected) features of online games like spectator mode and customization
Final Score: 9 out of 10
Game Review: Titanfall
Release: March 11, 2014
Genre: First-person shooter
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Players: Singleplayer (ehhh kind of), 12 online