This review was conducted using an Xbox One version of the game purchased at retail.
At last year’s E3, Vince Zampella and Respawn Entertainment stunned the press with the first look at the studio’s new project. After leaving Infinity Ward and parent Activision, there was much speculation about what Zampella and former Respawn employee Jason West would do next. It seems only fitting that Respawn’s first game — Titanfall — aims to revolutionize multiplayer shooters to the same degree that Call of Duty 4 did back in 2007, and while not quite all of the studio’s innovative ideas are completely realized, Respawn has still managed to create one of the greatest multiplayer games of all time.
Although Titanfall is a multiplayer-only game, it still features a “campaign” mode, which layers in story and extra cinematics into the standard multiplayer battles. Taking place in a future where humanity has managed to colonize distant planets and extract resources, a conflict has emerged between the IMC — controlled by Hammond, the corporation responsible for much of the military technology in the game’s universe — and the ragtag Militia, led in part by a former IMC combatant who saw the atrocities that the group was committing.
If the narrative sounds simplistic and derivative, that’s because it is, but Titanfall’s campaign still does a solid job of introducing new players to a large chunk of the game’s maps with some context to tie them all together. That context is admittedly pretty stripped down, with a “just go with it” attitude being the best way to enjoy the roughly 3-hour campaign (played from both sides of the war), and a few moments near the end did offer some heart-pounding moments not present in the classic multiplayer mode. That being said, the writing, especially the dialogue and banter between soldiers during battles, is absolutely atrocious. An embarrassing back-and-forth between two main characters about which one is “better” left me with my jaw agape from the cheesiness, and the poor voice work by a few members of the cast certainly doesn’t help to make the cardboard lines any more believable.
Fortunately, the campaign is a very small portion of the Titanfall experience, which is built on its innovative and very satisfying gameplay loop. Each player controls a Pilot, a specially-trained soldier with the ability to run along walls and control giant mechs known as Titans. Matches begin like other fast-paced first-person shooters, with players having access to submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, and an auto-locking Smart Pistol. Shooting against both players and the AI-controlled minions feels as solid as any Call of Duty game, but the real fun comes a few minutes into a match.
After Pilots have accumulated enough points through getting standard kills, they can initiate the titular Titanfall, bringing their personal mechs from the sky to either control personally or command to roam the map using their AI. This instantly shifts the way a match is played, with Pilots quickly ducking for cover to avoid being caught in the path of destruction that each Titan causes. Things get even more interesting when several Titans are in play at once, duking it out while Pilots attempt to whittle away with their own anti-Titan weapons such as the Archer rocker launcher or the quick-firing Sidewinder. Pilots can even drop Titans in the middle of a battle, killing anything that the mech lands on.
While an individual Titan is powerful and can easily take out a few Pilots without any issue, Respawn has balanced Titanfall in a way that never makes the game feel frustrating. Staying alive in a Titan for more than a couple of minutes is quite difficult due to high chance that players will eventually find themselves outmatched by multiple enemy Titans, and Pilots have a few of their own abilities for taking on the machines. In addition to their anti-Titan weapons, Pilots can “rodeo” enemy Titans, jumping on their backs to shoot at their exposed core, and if the controlling Pilots don’t immediately jump out to take care of the threat, their Titan will be destroyed in a snap.
The amount of options given to players to feel free and independent is clearly built on the experience Zampella and his team acquired over the years from their previous IP, the influence of which is clear in elements like the Prestige-like Generations option, but Titanfall has its own take on customization. Instead of a large number of weapons to choose from (there are only 13, not counting the anti-Titan weapons), most of the customization is done on the Pilots themselves. With special tactical abilities that give Pilots the power to temporarily cloak or run farther along walls, Titanfall’s infantry combat is far different than anything I’ve seen in a shooter over the last decade, but customization isn’t just limited to Pilots; Titans can also be heavily modified, with players able to choose their own chassis, weapons, ordnance (these act as special weapons that must recharge after each use), and special abilities such as the Vortex Shield, which allows Titans to throw rockets and bullets back at their enemies.
The Titans’ special abilities in particular create some of the most memorable moments during battles. When two Titans are both using the Vortex Shield, it turns into a game of “chicken” with each player hoping the other person will drop their shield first. The Electric Smoke ability also gives Titans a defense against Pilots jumping on their backs, with a damaging burst of smoke surrounding them once it’s deployed.
With so many refreshing changes to the standard FPS blueprint, it’s easy to overlook just how good Titanfall has handled its more conventional elements. With only one exception, the game’s maps are incredibly fun to traverse, with high rooftops, tunnels, and half-destroyed structures giving plenty of places for Pilots and Titans to fight, and although the game types aren’t especially out of the ordinary, they suit the maps well. Attrition is essentially Team Deathmatch, with players earning points for killing enemy Pilots, minions, and Titans, but the mode still feels like a perfect fit for the new IP. The mode’s emphasis on also killing the enemy’s AI-controlled minions is, surprisingly, not a nuisance, as there’s something very satisfying about killing several helpless grunts at once. Hardpoint is Domination, pure and simple, but the smart map design makes it and the Capture the Flag mode flow very organically in a very inorganic world. The same can’t be said for the modes Last Titan Standing and Pilot Hunter, which seem to miss the main draw of the game by limiting players to killing specific types of combatants. Titanfall is at its best when all of the pieces are working in harmony, and these two modes, while creative, fail to capitalize on this.
Slight narrative and game mode gripes aside, Titanfall is still one of the best multiplayer shooters I have ever played, and testament to how a new IP can inject life into a genre that I feared was becoming complacent. Is it a revolution that will change the way shooters are made forever? No, but it’s one that builds substantially on an existing formula to create something far greater than the sum of its parts. For those who have become cynical or pessimistic about the state of the first-person shooter, look no further than Titanfall to give you some hope again.