The following represents our first impressions of Titanfall based on two days’ play at an EA-run event in London last week. Although we were able to play the final version in its entirety, our full review is being withheld until we are able to test the game in real-world circumstances. Please note, then, that the following reflects a view of the game based on play in optimal conditions. How well Xbox Live and Origin will perform on launch is currently unknown, and will have a crucial impact on Titanfall’s viability as a multiplayer-only game.
Titanfall is the first substantial revision that the Call of Duty multiplayer formula has undergone since it became the dominant form of entertainment on the last generation of consoles. In securing it as a console exclusive, Microsoft are gambling on the notion that what the majority of players want is a next-gen iteration of an experience they’ve already had. At the most basic level, that’s what Titanfall offers. You rush across medium-sized urban maps to rack up kills with satisfying-feeling, semi-realistic weapons; you run up killstreaks and claim rewards; you level up and unlock weapons, attachments, and upgrades.
In rethinking the formula, however, Respawn have given it new life. It’s easy to turn your nose up at Titanfall’s populist provenance, but to do so is to do disservice to an intelligent, modern and exciting game.
Each player is a ‘pilot’, a special class of combatant fighting across a battlefield that also includes non-player minions. The weapons you equip will be variously effective at killing other players, clearing out hordes of grunts, keeping you concealed, or winning fights at short and long range – considerations that you’re required to make based on your team’s overall battle plan. Kills of any kind chip seconds off your ‘Titanfall’ timer. When this crucial clock hits zero, you’re able to summon your titan from orbit – a pilotable, customisable mech that arrives straight out of another game entirely.
Titans are powerful, massive, and – due to their size – oddly vulnerable, acting as mobile flashpoints as players scurry to defend or destroy them. Pilots can choose to set their titans to ‘auto’ and use them as an AI-controlled distraction, or hop in themselves, or any mixture of the two: they can also hitch a ride atop friendly titans and destroy enemies by clambering up them and attacking key components. Titans represent a successful revision of the killstreak reward. Rather than an imposition from outside that serves to empower already-powerful players, the midgame deployment of mechs ensures that the rhythm of a match is always changing – no matter how dominant the winning team might be.
Each of the game’s fourteen maps is designed for both titans and on-foot combatants. The latter have exclusive access to an extensive vertical dimension that is reached using jetpacks, freerunning, ziplines and other mobility-enhancing special abilities. There is a substantial difference in agility between new and experienced players, and this comes from skill rather than unlockable extras. After several hours of play, rooftops become platforms from which to launch map-spanning combos built out of wallruns, double-jumps, and several-storey freefalls. The very best capture the flag players learn routes that thread them over, along and through buildings, picking up pace, crossing maps in seconds – all while titan pilots battle in more open spaces, snipers crouch in isolated corners, and defenders lay their traps.
Titanfall’s key achievement is the way each of these individually well-designed systems interact with one another. Two custom titans locked in battle broadcast information about their capabilities not only to each other, but to any other pilot who might be watching. If an enemy titan deploys a particle shield, for example, then you know that it doesn’t have electric smoke – a key defense against ‘rodeo’ assaults from on-foot players. This is an invitation to use your freerunning skills to close the distance, mantle up the titan, rip off a key panel, and start blasting – as long as its pilot doesn’t see you coming, and doesn’t decide to complicate the situation in one of a dozen other possible ways.
Constant, exciting decision making like this is the best of what Titanfall has to offer. It might cap out at twelve players per match, but it excels at making each of them feel essential in a way that puts the latter Battlefield games to shame. It’s proof that what the multiplayer shooter needed wasn’t expansion, but a rethink at the second-by-second level: for all its sturm und drang, this is a remarkably taut, coherent bit of multiplayer game design.
Despite being multiplayer-only, Titanfall makes an attempt at incorporating a narrative-driven campaign. Its possible to play through a fixed set of nine maps as either the corporate IMC or independent Militia factions, experiencing the story through mission briefing audio, mid-mission cutscenes displayed in your heads up display, and subtly implemented scripted sequences. Matches begin with players arriving in dropships that navigate space battles on the way down, or are given orders by NPC commanders, or contend with local fauna before turning their sights on each other. It isn’t the most groundbreaking story ever told – this is, at the end of the day, a game about space robots – but Titanfall has a novel way of telling it, and it’s refreshingly free of the minute-to-minute ultralinearity that plagues Call of Duty and Battlefield in singleplayer.
That said, the story progresses without much heed to how players perform in each battle: none of the promised branching narrative has made it into the final product, and ‘victories’ for one faction in particular can feel empty as a result. Fully-realised, this new way of producing a singleplayer-type experience in multiplayer could have been genre-changing. As it is, Titanfall stops lamentably short of realising its full potential in this regard.
Beyond the campaign the modes available include capture point domination, two variants on team deathmatch, traditional capture the flag, and Last Titan Standing. The latter is the most distinctive, spawning each player inside a titan from the beginning of the match, with the last team in possession of a mech winning the round. There’s no respawning, but if your titan is destroyed you’re free to attempt to take down enemies on foot, create opportunities for other survivors, or hack stationary turrets to fight for your side.
There’s a substantial amount to do across every map and mode, and in the course of ten hours’ play we didn’t find ourselves getting bored or seeing the same circumstances crop up enough to feel repetitive. Likewise, unlocks arrive at a refreshingly fast rate – your options are varied at the beginning, and diversify quickly.
The potential for launch week performance issues is the key issue holding Titanfall back from a recommendation at this stage, as is a triple-A pricepoint that many may find hard to justify for an exclusively multiplayer game. In its own right, though, this is arguably the best multiplayer shooter since the original Modern Warfare – and proof that beyond that well-used formula, a better game was waiting to be made.