March 15, 2014
For starters it's important to know that Titanfall is online only, which means anyone looking to enjoy a story mode is going to have to get used to being against other players quickly. The story, which more serves as a background for the level and character design, is focused on a war between the IMC, a military corporation known as that acts with the authority of Earth's government, and the Militia, who believe that this new frontier of discovered planets should remain as independent. Through the story we learn about the lead players on both sides of the conflict, the technology that drives planetary colonization and even become familiar with some of the wildlife that stretches over these worlds.
All of this takes place in the background of multiplayer games like a radio drama, with additional commentary added depending on how well each side does during the course of the match. Though lacking the cutscenes and quick time events that have largely come to define storytelling in the FPS genre, the Campaign does a good job of helping players get more of a background as to what's going on with both the Militia and IMC. Doing the Campaign to completion also unlocks the Stryder and Ogre class titans for use in multiplayer customization, which is where the real bread and butter of the gameplay is.
In Titanfall players take the role of a pilot for either the IMC or the Militia across a variety of game modes designed to take advantage of the unique differences between the pilot and their summoned titan. Where the titan is heavily armored, bulky and able to deal a spray of high-damage punishment, the pilot is agile, and more precision based with a greater focus on environment interaction. Both play quite differently from one another but rely on support in order to survive. A titan alone can do a tremendous amount of damage but may be brought down by a single pilot with patience and know-how. Two pilots is almost a death sentence if the titan is caught unaware, and all the health and armor advantages are made irrelevant by weapons specifically designed to chew through it.
The real unsung hero behind Titanfall aren't the characters. Instead, it’s the level design, which without its fine details would make the finesse of the pilot crumble under the sheer power behind titans. Hidden alcoves, rooftops, metal grating, scrap, desert rocks, monstrous animal carcasses and rocky mountainsides all provide their own vantage points in Titanfall where for most shooters it would simply be useless background. Ziplines grant pilots easier access from one part of the map to the next, and every wall is a potential location for players to run, vault or cling from in wait of ambush.
In order to accomplish this the controls for both pilots beyond the standard run-and-gun are incredibly simple. Movement against any terrain while sprinting will cause a wall run which accelerates the speed of the pilot, alongside resetting how many jumps the player has available. Pushing jump twice starts a double jump, and though players can only wall run for a limited amount of time, jumping on a new wall effectively resets the timer on that as well. This means as long as there are walls around there's no limit to how long you can maintain this parkour, and it’s further enhanced by the fact that pilots automatically climb onto any ledge (or titan) you approach without any other input needed.
Titanfall's has six game modes that compliment all of this unique gameplay including spins on popular game modes like Search and Destroy and Team Deathmatch. Attrition mode has players earn points per titan, pilot and NPC kill, which opens up the game for players who aren't so adept at earning kills against other players. Naturally earning pilot and titan kills are the way to go, but it's nice that there's an option for players learning the ropes.
Last Titan Standing starts each player with a titan and ends when all titans on the enemy team are wiped out, meaning players almost effectively get two lives; one for their titan and one for after they eject (hopefully) as a pilot. Hardpoint Domination is just a fancy term for a capture objective gametype, Pilot Hunter is a deathmatch that only counts points for pilots killed, and Capture the Flag is self-explanatory with a special note that pilots can not only grab the flag but enter their titans for additional protection and speed in carrying.
Of course the more intricate details you put into a game the more you risk isolating some players, and to that effect Titanfall's greatest downfall is also its most defining feature. In most FPS games learning the design of each level is critical to success to ensure that players cannot just sneak up on you or that the quickest path to your objective is only a short corner away. But in Titanfall there are really no safe zones, no way to keep fully protected from ambush or corners that you can camp from. This is a good thing, but between the freedom and mobility of pilots to how prevalent area effect damage is (generally in the form of explosions) Titanfall can be an incredibly unforgiving game to learn.
Coupled with this is the leveling system which gives players new equipment, weapons and gear for their pilots and titans as they move up in level. Unfortunately like most gradual unlock systems there are some weapons and loadouts which have some pretty vast tactical advantages compared to others. This is somewhat balanced by the fact that weapons almost universally do high damage, with differences in range fire rate becoming the core distinguishing trait.
It means that shotguns are deadly at short range, SMGs are deadly at mid range, and assault rifles are deadly at virtually every range with no real downside. This isn't to say that someone with an SMG or shotgun won't do well, but they sit at an incredible disadvantage in a game that rewards moving and catching others when they're trying to seek cover. The sniper rifles and LMG also (in my opinion) suffer from balance issues, not doing enough damage for the time and effort required to set up a kill. Fortunately the anti-titan weapons don't suffer from this, and each one provides a very different means of dispatching enemy titan that should suit a good variety of play styles.
The same issue doesn’t really extend to the titans themselves whom are broken up into three classes: Ogre, Atlas and Stryder. Simply put the Ogre has higher defensive abilities and more armor, the Atlas is good for offense with medium armor, and the Stryder trades armor for speed and agility. All titans can use the same weapons and titan weapons rely more on precision and individual preference than one being better than another. It should go without saying that titan weapons do significant damage to enemy pilots.
Part of the weapon damage problem is answered in the form of Burn Cards, which add an extra element of customization to matches. Players earn burn cards from completing challenges and earning levels, and can eventually equip up to three cards per match. Burn Cards can be used at the start of each match or after every death and only last for a single life, providing a bonus that can vary from card to card.
Some cards only extend pilot abilities a little longer, like a lasting camo or bonus dash, while others provide permanent buffs that can radically change the way you play the game. Being able to summon a titan at the start of a match, having your character look like an enemy npc, wirelessly taking over all enemy units nearby, permanent x-ray vision and pilot detecting radar are just a few of the buffs that Burn Cards add that make the game a lot more interesting. Other cards like the buffed weapons, specifically in the case of the LMG, feel like either a temporary fix to weapon damage or an even greater boon.
As it’s been said before, the level design in Titanfall is fantastic, but more than that the aesthetics behind the game are nothing short of brilliant. Though it has its share of brown-and-grey city environments, most of the time players will be fighting in a wide range of exotic locations, each with their own quirks and unique details. More than between background elements and a constant flow of NPCs players feel like they’re constantly a part of the conflict within the world, even though the plot is rather thin.
Even without fancy elements like Burn Cards, unique game modes, or even the titans themselves, Titanfall is a remarkably competent shooter. Once you take in the full package however it's easy to see where Respawn Entertainment was able to push their shooter ahead of the competition. It’s fast paced, unique and boasting remarkable depth and it highlights Titanfall as a prime example of where the next generation of FPS games should be going. There is still some room for improvement, but what we have now is one of the most engrossing titles to come out on this or any other console generation.
Titanfall was reviewed on the Xbox One. You can read more about GamingUnion.net's scoring policy here.