When pulled to pieces, it could easily be surmised there isn’t a single new idea in Titanfall. The storyline reads like Firefly fan-fiction, Mechwarrior did the mech thing first (and Hawken is doing it right now) and team-based FPS’s are hardly unique. However, with that said, the whole package comes together to create something altogether unique. What Titanfall does is present an excellent synergy of infantry and vehicle combat with the pace of a competitive FPS like Call of Duty. In fact, developers Respawn Entertainment is made up mostly of designers from the then ground-breaking Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, so it’s not difficult to see how a few of the genes were passed on. However, it would be utterly remiss to suggest Titanfall is a Call of Duty game with mechs. Respawn have worked hard to set Titanfall apart from a crowded FPS market, but is adding a few giant tin cans enough?
Let’s get one thing straight here: you’re not buying Titanfall for the story. One can respect Respawn for deciding to incorporate a story as a multiplayer feature, but you could hardly call it a standout feature. The story does, however, give Titanfall some much needed context. Set many years in the future, humanity has expanded into the galaxy and colonised a planetary system called the Frontier. Free from influence by the Core Systems and the token evil future-company Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC), colonists on the Frontier worlds thrived and prospered until the aforementioned IMC took notice of their wealth of resources, the very same resources the Core Systems were running low on. The IMC claimed rights on all of their previously owned land from their original expeditions; a decision the now generations-old colonists didn’t take lightly and formed the Militia to fight back. To put it bluntly, Titanfall is Firefly with mechs, just without a cast of memorable characters and rapier wit.
The story unfolds via the Campaign mode, consisting of nine maps, and a variety of game modes (well, two counts as variety doesn’t it?) that you play from the perspective of the IMC and Militia. In the grand scheme of the story, the player is of no consequence; just another pair of boots on the ground, fighting the battle while the story rages around them. The context of each map is explained with a briefing in the matchmaking lobby, followed by a short introductory scene as the battle starts. The campaign revolves around a few key figures from each side, some of whom have personal grudges and history with each other if you care to delve into it. As the matches play out the plot progresses through radio chatter, in-screen cut-scenes and set pieces that add a little more incentive to win the round. Winning or losing has no impact on the progression of the story however, nor any impact on what unfolds or how it ends. It just goes to show how low on the scale of priorities Respawn considered this aspect of Titanfall. You know what, though? That’s fine. The campaign offers players a way to quickly immerse themselves in the gameplay with other newbies, by the end of which they’ll have a earned decent amount of levels and unlocks. Respawn knows why you’re playing Titanfall: to run around in hulking giant machines shooting each other with big guns, not for poorly contrived narrative in a restrictive linear structure – looking squarely at you, Battlefield 4.
With so many ex-Infinity Ward staff working at Respawn Entertainment, it’s not hard to see why this new IP became such a hyped game. Well, that and the less than stellar Xbox One catalogue currently available. The ideas presented are exciting: highly mobile, fast-paced FPS action mixed seamlessly with mech combat, and what’s more exciting is that it actually works. Pilots are equipped with a Jump Kit that allow players to run on any wall for a limited time and double jump, making them highly manoeuvrable and able to traverse a map quickly. This acts in contrast to the slower and otherwise earthbound titans which have massive firepower and durability, yet can be outfoxed by nimble pilots. The dynamics of battle are thrilling and allow for many different tactics and unique situations. The deployment of titans in a match is interesting in itself as there are a myriad of different ways they can be used. Titans can operate independently of the pilot (just less effectively) in either a stationary guard mode or can follow the pilot as they traverse the map on foot. Some objectives can’t be reached by titans so occasionally leaving your titan to its own devices (a difficult choice!) to secure a building is the best option.
Action in Titanfall is fast and frantic, but more importantly, it’s incredibly fun. I stress the “fun” aspect of Titanfall as the movement, shooting and titan mechanics of the game such a joy to play. While there’s nothing particularly new about the basic FPS elements of Titanfall, the way it’s all tied together feels fresh and invigorating. The parkour-style movements of the pilot opens up the maps drastically, especially vertically, and allows for plenty of improvised ambushes and flanking tactics. When titans start to enter the mix pilots are no less dangerous as they all have anti-titan weapons, can take the high ground and can “rodeo” titans to either get a lift from allies or rip an enemy’s titan apart. Titan v titan combat involves strategic use of their ordinance abilities, their quick dash, defence abilities and their main weapon, all of which either run on cooldowns or are slow to fire/reload. Ironically, teamwork is essential to keep your titan going, while fragile pilots can run wild as a lone wolf. Different cooldown abilities are available to pilots as well, including a cloak that will fool a titan, but is obvious to pilots on the ground.
From the second Titanfall loads up, it’s pretty obvious the developers had one thing in mind: start playing RIGHT NOW. Menus are simple, and it only takes a few clicks to be transported into a matchmaking lobby and on your way to mech heaven. Once the initial thrill is over, time can then be spent customising pilots and titans with individual loadouts as we’re accustomed to with modern shooters. At the moment, Titanfall’s customisation options are fairly threadbare. The range of weapons and equipment is quite limited and there’s only three titan chassis available (after completing the campaign from both sides to unlock them), and avatar customisation only goes as far as choosing a gender. The biggest crime of all, however, is the lack of ability to paint your titan. There is an overall feeling that Titanfall is lacking in content, which suggests Respawn is holding a lot back for future DLC (a season pass is available, and it has been announced further game modes will be released for free in an upcoming update). Pilot’s weapons aren’t overly exotic, with the exception of the Smart Pistol. Some may argue it’s overpowered, but it still requires skill to be used effectively. Essentially, it auto targets enemies to kill them instantly. Grunts are targeted near instantly while pilots take far longer, meaning stealth and patience is required.
Even though the game hasn’t been out for very long some players have already completely maxed everything out, meaning there is the risk players could start deserting the game for lack of content. Maps are one area Titanfall certainly isn’t lacking for with 15, 9 of which are introduced in the campaign. Open maps suit titan combat the best as pilots have less opportunity to ambush from above or sneak through buildings, while dense city maps tends to have more frantic pilot v pilot action. The game modes available so far are: Attrition, Hardpoint Domination, Pilot Hunt, Last Titan Standing and Capture the Flag. Pilot Hunt is your basic team-based deathmatch mode where only kills against pilots count, while Attrition includes grunts in the tally as an extra layer of strategy. Titans add an interesting dynamic to Capture the Flag as they can also take the flag, or pilots can ride on other titans with the flag (which then passes to the titan if the pilot is killed). Players gain experience as they kill and take objectives, which unlocks further equipment and customisation slots. Experience builds up quickly so there’s little chance of stagnating at one level too long, and there are many challenges to complete for extra XP.
While there are different game modes, a few constants exist for each match. First off are the grunts and robotic spectres on each side who are essentially squishy AI soldiers who fight each other and try to take objectives. Their main role is, morbidly, to be an easy source of scoring points and to shaving precious seconds off your titan’s build-time. As the matches are only 6v6 the grunts give the impression there are more bodies on the field, making the matches feel more dynamic as they otherwise might be. While 6v6 may sound underwhelming by today’s standards, it starts to make sense when taking into account the AI grunts, the size of the map, and that as titans can operate independently there could theoretically be 12 pilots and 12 titans battling it out. Then, of course, there are the titans, which pilots can call in from the sky – i.e. Titanfall – after a few minutes. As mentioned with the grunts, the time before they’re dropped can be reduced by killing grunts, but also from scoring hits on other pilots and taking objectives. So even if you’re having a terrible match, your titan will be available regardless. One-off boosts called burn cards (earned during battle) spice up the action with various upgrades and effects to give you a slight advantage, at least until you die. They can be used for anything from upgraded weapons to increased pilot speed or quicker titan build times, so there’s plenty of strategy to be considered when choosing them before battle. There’s one niggling issue that makes perfect sense in a gameplay perspective, but also seems totally absurd: why do pilots have to wait for their titan to be built after they’ve entered a fight? Hmmnn…
The art design of Titanfall has an industrial, dirty-future feel, not unlike Firefly. The IMC look well equipped and futuristic with cleaner uniforms and glowing blue features (it’s not the future without things that glow blue), while the Militia are a thoroughly ragtag affair of browns and scraps. Most of the maps are made up of rundown or ramshackle settlements, reflecting the remoteness of the Frontier. A few areas show off the hostility of some planets as they feature giant alien creatures as mostly aesthetic props (and unfortunately not at all dangerous to the player). The thing is, the scenery looks good, but it’s hardly going to blow your socks off. Battlefield 3 and 4 fans will snort derisively at the size of the maps and aside from some interesting set pieces (a crashed spacecraft and the aforementioned wildlife) the maps are a tad bland. The prettiest map is without a doubt Lagoon with its sparking blue waters and colourful rainforest, and it’s a pity some of the other maps have a case of the browns.
If I had one complaint about the titans, it’s that I wish they were a bit bigger. I mean they’re pretty big, don’t get me wrong, and they crush pilots and grunts like ants, but it feels like they should be towering higher over buildings than they do. Perhaps that’s just me. The titular mechs are impressive looking beasts – despite the current lack of chassis options and tragic lack of paint customisation – that seem completely feasible in a grimey, futuristic kind of way. Their movements are smooth yet undeniably mechanical, and their animations when pilots climb in are detailed and change depending from which direction the pilot boards. They sound like the metal monsters they are as they stomp along with metallic clangs and booms announcing their imminent arrival. If there was one thing Respawn could not get wrong, it’s the titans, and in my opinion, they absolutely nailed it!
There are a lot of small details in Titanfall that add to the atmosphere of the game, and this is something I really appreciated. Multiplayer FPS games tend to operate in a vacuum, as in a group of people come together to shoot one-another with little recourse to any wider implications. The grunts, for example, are fascinating to observe. They fight their own little battle and can be heard shouting out orders to their squadmates, pointing out pilots, cracking jokes or despairing over having their squad wiped out. When entering some buildings you may see an allied or enemy grunt dragging an injured squadmate inside or fighting a desperate hand-to-hand fight to the death. It makes you feel like a small part in a larger conflict, and gives the story (as limited as it is) of the conflict itself a bit more meat. The characters from the campaign will give updates on the battle as rounds progress, and in turn, try to provide context to why you’re trying to hold points A, B and C in a Hardpoint Domination match.
Sometimes it can take one thing to change up a stagnating idea. Or in this case, one big thing and several little things. Respawn tugged at tugged at the indisputable idea that “mechs are awesome and so is driving one” and then ran with it to incredible effect. The seamless blend of infantry combat, free-running and mech-fighting come together to create an exhilarating multiplayer experience that could invigorate an interest in the genre from even the most jaded soul. The story presented is an exercise in creating lore for the world and give it context than anything else. Yes, the campaign is weak, but the battles themselves are just as fun as a regular multiplayer match (as they are essentially the same). The trade-off here is that Respawn was able to spend more time fine-tuning the mechanics of the game rather than building a whole other element separate to Titanfall’s primary focus: multiplayer. Aside from too much content being held back for future DLC, let’s just say it was time well spent.
Note: This review was based on the PC version of the game, and provided to us by Electronic Arts Australia.