Titanfall’s biggest problem is the hardware for which it is supposed to be a killer app. Playing on Xbox One means lower resolution, longer load times, more screen tearing and a choppier framerate than on PC, calling into question Respawn’s decision to have the console version run at 792p. It adds up to Titanfall falling short of being a convincing endorsement of Xbox One’s capabilities.
It does, however, hew closely to Microsoft’s original vision for its console. Titanfall is a glimpse of what might have been the norm: it kicks you to the title screen if you idle at the main menu, its tutorial is unplayable without an Internet connection, and its campaign mode is inaccessible without networked company. Always-online runs to the very core of Titanfall’s design, with Microsoft’s Azure network not only helping to fling about a level of carnage that Respawn claims wouldn’t be possible otherwise, but also powering a stream of AI creeps, a concept on loan from Dota 2. These prove essential in keeping the action flowing, ensuring you’re rarely far from something to shoot, but let’s hope they don’t represent the extent of Azure’s power. These goons are as dumb as they come, facing the action only rarely and, even when they do line up a target, seldom letting off more than a single round.
Here, however, that’s exactly how Respawn wants it. Its AI combatants exist solely to make the battlefield busier and give you easy kills, reducing the countdown timer before your next surge in power. Titanfall moves to the beat of the cooldown – the refilling meters that govern Tactical Ability powers, its arsenal’s reload animations, the killcam intermission before your next spawn – but the most significant of the lot is a timer ticking down in the screen’s bottom-right corner. When you’re on foot as a misleadingly named Pilot, it counts down to your next Titanfall, which causes a hulking mecha to drop from orbit with a satisfying thunk. Hop inside and a new timer ticks down to your Titan’s Core ability, which gives a brief boost in a power that’s tailored to its strengths. Almost everything you do in the game – killing grunts, downing Titans, capturing flags – shaves seconds off your vital Titanfall timer.
What ensues is a game of time management in which you plan your moves around when your various powers will be available. As a Pilot, you’ll lie in wait for your Cloak ability to recharge before making a dash for the objective, or call in a Titan on the approach to an enemy base, knowing it’ll have hit terra firma by the time you emerge with the opposition’s flag.
Titans themselves are, despite their convincing heft, surprisingly flexible, and much of that comes from the loadout system. The three chassis are the most obvious differentiators: Ogre is the tank; Atlas, the all-rounder; Stryder, the flightier, more brittle option. It’s a classic trinity whose individual strengths are emphasised further by Cores, which improve shields, increase damage and give unlimited dashes respectively. Yet the Titans’ physical design only tells you so much, with weaponry, Tactical Abilities and two perk-style Kits empowering a wide range of playstyles. You’d expect Stryder to be best from distance, for instance, but close-range dominance can be yours with canny use of dashes, a sparking cloud of Electric Smoke, the Triple Threat (which fires three powerful grenades) and a Kit that greatly increases the damage of your melee punch.
However you choose to kit out your Titan, simply stomping around in these hulking robots is a delight, and does an awful lot to ensure Titanfall feels like more than Call Of Duty: Future Warfare. Infinity Ward’s legacy is everywhere, though, found in the menu layouts, the loadout system and the levelling structure’s unlockables and challenges. Still, you know you’re playing something different the second you first set foot on the battlefield. The Titans may take centre stage, but foot soldiers are Titanfall’s real stars.
Pilots are surprisingly powerful, not least because they’re wonderfully agile, their wall run and double jump ensuring the trek back from respawn point to frontline becomes a game in itself. No longer do you sprint headlong for the cluster of dots on the radar, either; instead you set off at an angle, looking for a wall from which to springboard into the sky. The impact on map design is obvious, with inviting networks of platforms and walls making being on foot feel more like a firstperson Tony Hawk’s game than a sci-fi shooter.
The Pilot’s arsenal is rather more traditional, a genre-standard blend of assault and sniper rifles, sub- and light machine guns, and a single semi-automatic shotgun. You’ll have just ten primary weapons by the time you hit the level cap of 50, though that’s mitigated by the customisation options, a four-strong suite of anti-Titan weapons, and the ability to rodeo on an enemy mecha’s back, ripping off a panel and blasting away at its weak point. Burn cards, which offer single-use, single-life boosters, further widen the range of tools at your disposal.
All lingering concerns that Respawn is sticking a little too closely to genre conventions evaporate when you lay your hands on the Smart Pistol Mk5, which automatically locks on to targets within its short range, a single squeeze of the trigger dispatching every tagged foe before you. It’s not as overpowered as it sounds, however. It’ll slay a standard grunt with a single round, but you need to acquire three locks to put down an enemy Pilot, which is no mean feat when facing an unpredictable moving target.
It does, however, make for a gentle landing in this unfamiliar gameworld. Your first hours in Titanfall aren’t spent looking down a rifle’s sights, but scanning the periphery, planning out Pilot routes and Titan placement, plotting the complex networks of buildings, tunnels and open spaces that make up these varied playgrounds. Despite the frenetic battle raging, you can learn at a surprisingly languid pace. When you call in a Titan, you needn’t take the controls, but can instruct it to follow your movements or stand guard in a particular spot. You can avoid enemy Pilots, instead focusing on dispatching the AI grunts, which counts towards your team’s score in Attrition deathmatches and whittles down your Titanfall timer. As you become more comfortable with the mechanics and the game’s 14 maps, you gradually start to play a more active role, taking on enemy Pilots, mastering the Titan controls, and working your way up the scoreboard. It’s an elegant flattening of the learning curve for a genre in which new recruits tend to struggle.
Yet as finely designed and smartly tuned as Titanfall’s various systems are, Respawn stumbles along the way. The campaign is nonsense, a standalone entry on the main menu that mixes together the Attrition (team deathmatch) and Hardpoint (point capturing) gametypes. It tells its story through constant radio chatter that you’ll probably miss because you’re too focused on the fight in front of you, too preoccupied with staying alive to absorb exposition. Not that it matters: win or lose, the story moves on regardless. It’s all over quickly enough, at least, but you’ll have to get through it if you want to unlock two of the three Titan chassis, which may pose a problem for those who buy the game later on when the servers are less busy.
For too long, obviously multiplayer-focused shooters have shipped with short, humdrum singleplayer campaigns, but while Titanfall’s shift away from that is commendable, the package as a whole is slight. In a multiplayer-only game, just five modes feels stingy. Attrition and Hardpoint are joined by Capture The Flag, mecha-centric brawl Last Titan Standing, and Pilot Hunter, in which only enemy foot-soldier kills count towards your team’s score. Yet while every mode puts you in a team, there’s very little teamwork on show during public matches on either Xbox One or PC, at least partially because of how individually powerful the rich toolset makes you feel. A well-organised group will almost always win, but omitting clan support and other community-minded features makes getting a team together harder than it should be, even given the arrival of Xbox One’s belated party chat system.
Yet when you’re in the thick of it, none of that matters. Where Halo sought to give players the same 30 seconds of fun again and again, Titanfall dishes out its thrills in five-second bursts that each feel markedly different to the last, all the while smoothing out some of the kinks that have dogged this genre for years. It’s a thoroughly successful evolution of the twitch shooter, broadening its scope both upwards and outwards as well as expanding its toolset. The genre’s focus on fast, responsive movement reaches bold new heights, too, letting you chain wall runs and double jumps into the sky before thundering back down in the cockpit of a giant robot. Titanfall might not be Xbox One’s killer app, or Azure’s proof of concept, then, but it’s a long-overdue adrenaline shot for a genre that seemed in danger of flatlining.