*Note #1: Although I will be acknowledging later updates and DLC to discuss its growth since launch, I wanted my score to stand on the foundation of what I thought of the vanilla product in which a lot of my play time is based.*
If there’s one thing that’s destined to gain interesting reactions it’s THE intellectual property marked as being one of the first to ramp up the hype machine of a new generation. Even though the expected cross-generational port is present for this new IP, which is the one I’ve played, Titanfall will be remembered as one of THOSE games when looking at the initial response. Considering much of the team being formed of former-Infinity Ward members, the team single-handedly involved in the ascension of the modern military shooter oversaturation, it was a bit tough to remain consistently excited for what seemed to be a hard sell. An online-only, fully-priced multiplayer shooter published by EA is a lot to swallow for a number of gamers for a number of different reasons. My own personal anticipation seemed to vary quite often from the equal amounts of hype and…questionable-in-its-intent counter-hype poured onto it on a daily basis. And while a couple of aspects feel like missed opportunities, the end result has provided me with some of the most genuine fun I’ve had in quite some time.
The basic story structure for this sci-fi conflict isn’t one that’s destined to win any end-of-the-year awards. There’s a robotics conglomerate called the IMC; another faction called the Militia that wants to make war with them; a lot of mechs are blown up and grunts shot along the way. If you’re able to get through the introductory cinematic—with that clichéd newsfeed mash-up—you’ll really just understand a couple of prominent names, their roles, and the factions’ names. It looks funny for such high praise in the introduction is countervailed with this, but the earliest impressions are actually some of the weakest parts of the game.
Aside from the threadbare story intro, the game tries to look even more typical in its tutorial. Despite being in space, the basic weapons layout could still be considered in a near-future military shooter veneer comparative to a couple Call of Duty titles. There’s also the typical plodding of familiarizing players with the controls as well as learning about a pistol that can aim and shoot targets for you. Even with the consideration of the acrobatics you get to learn, it still felt rote. Once this is through, the game takes on a better form through its online campaign that makes an admirable attempt in gluing rollicking gameplay with story presentation.
Whether doing the campaign or just classic multiplayer, there is some consideration taken for contextualizing these six-versus-six matches across most modes. Instead of materializing on the battlefield instantly, the beginning in most modes will start with a six second dropship animation and a short in-game cutscene providing some background information, and sometimes excellent spectacle, as to why there’s going to be a fight on this map in the campaign missions. Upon landing, a bunch of AI bots drop near the location to join in the battle with the other human players on either team. They form up, have typical military jargon, and perform an adequate job of acting as supplemental pieces in making the battle have a grander sense of scale.
Even with those considerations, it does make sense to expect flak for something that only goes so far in contextualizing play without much else while still calling itself a ‘campaign’ (even if not in the traditional sense). It also doesn’t help much when pieces of information or an intended heroic scene are being metered out in a game with such a fast-paced tempo. But darn it all, I’m still going to admit I appreciated what it was doing to some capacity. I guess it’s the opportunistic aspect of it all that makes it easy to like. It came away reminding me of Brink’s attempt in giving some sort of background in more than the solo missions, but without those insane inconsistencies it had. Ah, Brink…what a game you could’ve been. If there is one grand nagging aspect about the campaign it’s the lack of any supplemental lore to collect. With a world filled with so much background scenery, like the wildlife or cityscapes, it’s strange to see no kind of extra history or research to be given via audio logs for players to become more absorbed in these worlds.
If there was one thing Titanfall hinged upon it was actually in its title: the Titans. So much was that the case that even erroneous assessments of it just being a “Call of Duty with mechs” was a typical source of derision due to a couple of factors. Even with some of the popular video previews looking different, it’s tough not to take into account the developer’s past legacy, publisher hype, etc. and wonder if the interlocking game systems would subtly reinforce that condemnation in some way. But rather than slowing down movement speed for twitchy shooting and the first-person shooter equivalent of social Darwinism from COD, Titanfall takes many of its core and ancillary components in a different direction.
One of the means in which such newness is accomplished goes back to the AI bots. Their bits of contextualization and pre-battle positioning do make them look believable to an extent, but when the battle begins it’s a different story. When it comes to human AI bots (soldiers), their low hit count and bad aiming allows them to be an option for score farming. The other batch of AI (robot Spectres) fairs tougher with improved shooting and a greater amount of health; plus, it’s possible to hack a school of Spectres bunched together in a single area. All in all, both can serve slightly different purposes but are both conceptually intended to act as cannon fodder. It’s essentially a MOBA concept. Despite that sounding unheard of in the FPS genre—as far as I’m aware—it fits in so well that it seems preposterous for such an idea to have taken so long to be replicated within shooters.
Beyond just acting as cannon fodder, there are minor strategic advantages to them. Since both sides have to account the importance they make to team and personal scoring, being ignored or farmed by an enemy Pilot is a good way to understand their short-term goals. Depending on their line-of-sight and what they’re shooting at, they’re also able to call out enemy pilots. If there is one criticism to have for the gameplay systems altogether it would be the stupidity of the lesser AI soldiers. While there’s sense behind not making what are essentially MOBA minions on the same level as FEAR’s accredited AI enemies, they can still look ridiculous when trying to play around with them: looking directly at you yet practically every shot misses you. I guess a happy medium between the two would be to make them retreat and blindfire while running shortly after spotting an enemy Pilot near them, considering the reputation they have in the computed chatter.
Aside from the battlefield filled with bots, several human combatants (Pilots) occupy the battlefield as well. The increased level of mobility, the higher amount of damage they can take, and the obvious implications of not being an AI make them a much tougher enemy to take down, which is taken into account when it comes to scoring. It’s here that the adrenaline rushes are a bit more prolonged than typically-anticipated military shooter because a heightened focus on movement speed can make it tough to keep a reticule on a target for a long-enough time. It can feel more like the arena shooters of olde more than the typical FPS of today’s age.
Add into account that every Pilot is equipped with a double jump and the ability to run on walls for a short distance via a jetpack, you get a stimulating confection of old and new sensibilities: an admiring of the old arena shooter days mixed in with an updated, polished version of Brink’s parkour emphasis for the light trooper. Oh, Brink…what a game you could’ve been. I guess a more popular example more people are sure to have played would be The Scout in Team Fortress 2. Shooting between two Pilots can feel like a mad dash of shooting-from-the-hip action at mid-range and attempting to flee pursuers via skilled parkour moves out windows or on walls. Deciding to take aim is counteracted with being stopped almost dead in your tracks, which can prove unrewarding depending on the situation and the skill of player considering how valuable speed is to the game’s systems. Even for the weapon that shoots bullets for you, dubbed “The SMART Pistol,” the auto-targeting has good results at painting multiple NPC targets—almost too good of results—yet takes a couple of seconds in locking onto Pilots; and considering it’s ineffective when in iron sights, there’s a good risk/reward system in place when considering its range and the enemy Pilot’s ability to break the auto lock by making use of the great speed allotted to them.
The means of traversal also reinforce the old school sensibilities in that maps can feel more like playgrounds, yet here it’s also grounded on believable sci-fi factories and such. The parkour system enables for practically any wall to be a means to gain momentum and cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. It’s equivalent to bunny-hopping in Quake, when it’s all said and done. There’s certainly not the SAME kind of a skill ceiling but a skill ceiling is certainly there. Eventually, the logic side of your brain will get used to and register variables like current momentum and timing of double jumps in ensuring you’re constantly moving while the creative side will become giddy in thinking which new way you can venture about the map. That sense of 'game feel euphoria' is one that continually captivated me too since even slight changes to a combat scenario could procure vastly different results.
The last core aspect of the manic action would be the Titans themselves. Surprisingly, these mechs aren’t connected to any sort of killstreak. Instead, they’re locked behind a four minute timer that’s continually winding down. More time is taken off said timer depending on how many and what types of enemies you kill. Once it hits zero, you’re able to call in your Titan which initiates a short animation of the behemoth falling from the sky and squashing anyone that’s under it. Even though the wait may give you some advantages there are also tradeoffs in piloting your Titan. These things aren’t a security blanket: they’re much bigger targets for your enemies, they don’t have anywhere near the dexterity of a Pilot, and each enemy Pilot has some kind of anti-Titan weapon with them at all times. Not only threats from a distance but also close range, Pilots can “rodeo” a Titan via jumping on it and shooting at an exposed weak spot. Pilots can also forego jumping into their Titan and instead place under AI guard or follow mode, which is a very interesting way to play mind games with enemies who may be unsure if you’re close by to pick them off.
The underlying mechanics within Titans is something that makes everything so interesting: despite feeling like a foreign concept in the realm of games, it’s all grounded in old-school sci-fi rules. Mechs are essentially AT-AT walkers with better mobility and arms while each Pilot possesses the agility of a Jedi and the danger of what happens when one gets too close to a weak spot. Even the various amounts of weapons, tactical abilities, and “perks” all create a spreadsheet’s worth of balances and counterbalances for players to understand.
There are three different kinds of Titans to choose from: Orge, Atlas, and Strider. Each of which models the typical strong, all-around, and light setup, respectively. Having only three titans to choose from has become a point of contention but as far I’m concerned it seems to fit into the game quite nicely. It may be very typical but the rock-paper-scissors setup has worked marvelously in the past. One aspect more of a disappointment for me would be the level of customization for Titans. There is the quality of details in the different primary and secondary Titan weapons which is useful visual language when fighting; however, when considering how integral they’re meant to be for Pilots it feels like a missed opportunity to not give a wide variety of colors, doodads, etc. to give it more personality. Considering how the Pilot/Titan relationship is akin to a driver and his favorite car, perhaps a fleshed-out livery editor and sprawling marketplace akin to the Forza series might be a great way to go.
As expected in almost every post-COD4 title, there are the typical trappings of in-your-face challenges, loadouts, perks, and a prestige mode to boot. As far as variety goes: there isn’t as many perks and weapons to go around from other first-person shooters but each one of them feel intentional. None of them feel as though they get lost in the mire of disuse since they have a certain set of balances and counterbalances. Replacing any sort of killstreaks are Burn Cards: cards that enable various power-ups, from xp boosts to stronger weapons. You’ll quickly acquire a whole set that runs the gambit of different abilities and can choose three of them per match. Once you enable that specific Burn Card, it’s now in use until either the match ends or you die. It’s a concept that utilizes the ‘best of both worlds’ saying by dismantling one of the most recent tropes in gaming by only making it a temporary power-up. The only worry I have with them is the opportunity for this being a very viable platform for microtransactions in the future. Fortunately, months have passed since the initial release and there’s no sign of such a move occurring.
What has to be a bit of a wrench in my complete enthusiasm of the game altogether would be the amount of ‘raw content’ being a bit too light at launch. The game modes are mostly the typical deathmatch and objective oriented modes that have been a standard for a while and a Last Titan Standing mode (the only one which doesn’t have the contextualization tidbits like a short dropship animation mentioned earlier) which adds up to five in total when it first came out. The total number of launch maps that can be played in the classic multiplayer modes is fifteen, nine of which also pull double duty for the campaign missions. While such an amount certainly sounds like a rather solid amount of content for the MP mode in the typical first-person shooter of today, I feel harsher considerations should be made for this set of circumstances. Having acknowledged that, it’s also fair for the “quality over quantity” ideal to make its own appeal as well. The number of modes does seem light and mostly typical regardless, but they’re certainly bolstered by a great set of multiplayer maps and the nuanced set of tactics at ones disposal here. Speaking only for myself: the quality of said maps only varied between respectable—Training Ground being my least favorite—to exemplary for me. When the harshest reaction I can have to a multiplayer map is "it's respectable" you're doing something right.
The presentation has a few annoyances specific to the 360 version, but is overall a polished and solid porting job (handled by Bluepoint Games). The most importance aspect to the mayhem comes down to the solid visual and audio design. Even though the aesthetics may rely a bit too much on factories retrofitted to look like warzones, the thoughtful level design is able to balance grounded areas that look inhabited while also encouraging multiple pathways to play around in each location. The variety of different visual and audio queues dedicated to entering a Titan, shooting from either inside or outside them, and more is quite detailed. Details is probably the most adequate word in explaining what's most interesting about it overall. Dozens of different elements combined with the fluidity of it all combine to make a nuanced batch of chaos.
In regards to the 360 version, “fluidity” isn’t exactly always true. While close to fifty frames-per-second is most often the standard here, there can be noticeable drops when just starting a round in Last Titan Standing or other hectic moments. There’s also some bugs and glitches encountered throughout playing during its initial launch that could be a bit annoying at times. It’s also interesting to note at just what lengths Bluepoint Games had to go for this last-gen version to be released. For instance: the 360 version can only be purchased via physical copy and you can’t install said copy to the harddrive. Both the disc and harddrive have to work in tandem in order for it to operate. This also results in random occurrences of re-optimization, for both the base game AND the DLC packs separately, which can be rather frustrating. It’s tough for me to conclusively say which technical anomalies seem to be more expected for the 360 version; however, it’s safe to say that it’s more than just a typical last-gen port with less-sharp graphics.
Sound design is oftentimes masterful in capturing the sense of chaos in every battle. The amount of different aural queues emitted from Titans and the voiceover informing you of shields/health/etc. show a lot of dedication in making them feel as though you’re actually in this twenty-foot tall machine. Many gun sounds are also quite impressive, though I do feel certain pistols and SMG’s don’t carry as much oomph as they should. While certainly not going to win any awards, the cast of voice actors get the job done for the limited amount of dialogue allotted to them. Soundtrack is also a good mixture of various beats that adequately fit the setting and mood of specific maps as well.
Despite the acknowledgments regarding a slimmer-than-expected amount of content, Titanfall is still one of my favorite shooters in a long time. It may seem strange when seeing that with this sort of a score, but I think it’s fair when considering how I wish to weigh in on what a publisher/developer found it to be worth upon its release, which is even rare for me to even play during its release window. Yes, the added maps and updates that have added further titan customization, the black market system for buying/selling burn cards, and recent new modes like Marked For Death and 2v2 Last Titan Standing all show a steady rate of dedication to the product that makes me like it more and more as time goes on; having said that, it still wouldn’t be fair to just focus on what it’s currently like when suits made an obvious move to release it during a specific timeslot (April 2014 for Xbox 360 version).
In the end, what’s kept me engaged is in how it builds upon new and old ideas, from both inside and outside its own genre, to feel like its secured its own name. It’s also in the first-time experiences that are tough to put into words that can make me ecstatic to talk about it. Getting a wee bit of context, dropped onto a multiplayer map, and running on a billboard to secure a means of vertical advantage for the first time was something of a unique adrenaline rush that kept building and building when stringing together dozens of bunny hops to get from the A to C objective markers. It's in those strings of memorable moments I've experienced that make me excited to see where we go from here.
coolbeans’ *Certified FresH* Badge
coolbeans’ 2014 Game of the Year Nominee