Titanfall Review / Version tested: Xbox One / Release date: March 11 (US), March 14 (UK), March 13 (Aus)
Titanfall is an anomaly. We're mere months into a new console generation, and right now publishers and format holders alike are doing the same old dance: promising bigger, better, more, more, more. So it's odd that the game of the moment should choose to ignore that mantra.
Respawn isn't giving out the usual "our game is [X] times bigger than [Y]" pitch. Titanfall's six-on-six action is streamlined and stripped back. Dense rather than sprawling. Taut, not bloated.
Amid the hurly-burly of battle you'd hardly say it's a case of 'less is more' - if you go more than a minute without seeing an explosion, you're probably playing it wrong - but this is a distillation, not an expansion. It reduces the multiplayer shooter down to its essentials, carefully building upon a sturdy skeletal structure and refining everything that's subsequently bolted onto it.
It's a game that makes noise in the right places - it's happy to let its booms and bangs speak for themselves, while the mechanics that underpin its explosive action quietly power one of the most entertaining shooters in ages.
Which isn't to say everything it brings to the party is worthwhile. Much as Respawn seems quite defensive about its lore, its campaign narrative is as generic as they come. Call of Duty: Future Warfare with added robots is a reductive assessment, but not an inaccurate one (and incidentally, if you want to see a look that could freeze blood, say the 'r' word to a Respawn employee; they're Titans, dummy).
The story, told mostly through conversations in your pilot's earpiece, is little more than background noise: two factions, the IMC and the Militia, are at war, and that's about all you need to know, and all you'll likely take in.
Across nine maps and two modes - Attrition, which is essentially Team Deathmatch, and Hardpoint Domination, where you earn points for holding three capture points - you'll hear commanders, officers and mercenaries shout objectives and bicker amongst themselves in a variety of accents, from gruff Londoners to a snarky South African.
You'll be too focused on the action to care what any of it means: for the most part it's like playing an online shooter while two other players argue with one another, and it's equally easy to tune out. About all I can tell you is that one character swaps sides - to which I could only respond "sorry, which one was he again?"
As debuts go, this is pretty safe territory, not a Titan-sized stride forward
It only takes three hours to play through both sides of the story, with a similarly anticlimactic ending whoever you're playing as, though it's worth the effort to unlock all three Titans. While that hardly detracts from the game itself, it's a definite missed opportunity, and comes across as little more than a token gesture, a half-hearted inclusion designed to ease player concerns about a £50 game shipping without a story mode. That it's still more fun than most FPS campaigns is simply because the core game is such riotous entertainment.
Titanfall may be little more than a series of minor adjustments to existing and well-worn formulae, but its myriad smart design choices give it a subtly different feel. Take, for example, the addition of AI troops and Spectres (robot soldiers that are hardier than the bog standard grunts). Sure, these might seem like a concession to novices (though why is that necessarily a bad thing?) but they fulfil multiple purposes.
They're basically catalysts for action: through studying their spawn points and behaviours you'll acclimatise to each map that much quicker, while killing them speeds up the arrival of your Titan if you're struggling to shoot human opponents. They're not the smartest bots you'll ever see, but by taking out groups of them or killing a given number in a row, you'll complete one of the game's many objectives, earning you equippable cards that convey temporary perks.
Your pilot's agility is another factor to consider. Places that would be safe havens on most shooters are anything but here: sniping from an upstairs window can be deadly when any opponent is capable of leaping up through it from ground level and snapping your neck in an instant. Apparent bottlenecks are easily bypassed when you can run up and along walls and cloak yourself while doing so.
The controls for these fleet-footed free-runners are immaculately calibrated, too - though at times you'll find yourself bumping awkwardly into scenery as you attempt to kick-jump off one wall and land on an adjacent roof, you'll quickly be pulling off parkour moves as slick and as satisfying as anything in Mirror's Edge, while the delicate mid-air boost from your jetpack is a piece of audiovisual feedback that matches Samus's double-jump in Metroid Prime, now the joint-best leaping action in a first-person game.
That unprecedented level of mobility feeds into the maps themselves, which have to be tailored to support nimble pilots and hulking Titans alike. As such, they combine intricate routes with wider spaces and a level of verticality that feels very different from its peers, even as the game's aesthetic relies upon a familiar near-future sci-fi palette of gunmetal greys, military greens and dusty browns.
There are 15 maps in all, which doesn't seem like a huge number, but is plenty to be getting on with, not least because each of them offers more to learn than your average shooter. Lagoon is an early favourite, and not just because it offers a splash of vivid aquamarine in the waters that surround its marooned IMC carrier. Here, cliffs offer useful vantage points for snipers, while ziplines allow for swift returns in Capture the Flag matches.
Elsewhere, the tightly-packed structures of Nexus are perfect fodder for wannabe wall runners, while the arid Rise is an uncommonly long, narrow map whose intricacies will take some time to master.
Downtime is kept at an absolute minimum. Titanfall's maps may be more compact than most, but that means you'll rarely be more than ten seconds away from a skirmish, and often less than that. Just as importantly, that applies to the metagame, too. Fresh unlockables arrive with startling regularity, whether it's weapons, mods, pilot abilities or kit; indeed, depending on your skill level it'll take roughly between 9 and 14 hours of playtime to unlock all 31 weapons.
If that sounds a little too soon, it's worth mentioning that you'll need to spend more time with each of them to earn every attachment, while a staggering 960 separate objectives will keep you busy for much longer than that. Reach level 50, and you'll get the chance to shift up a generation, Titanfall's equivalent to prestiging - and there are ten generations. In other words, you'll rarely be left lacking extrinsic motivations.
Not that they're required in a game where simply playing is its own reward. The weapons are beautifully calibrated, to the point where I found myself returning to my Titan's original 40mm cannon and its first ability, the Vortex Shield, which allows you to catch projectiles and return them to sender with interest.
The smart pistol, which lets you plug enemies with up to three auto-targeted shots, is a great choice if you can stay hidden while you're aiming. I had a fleeting affair with the Hemlok BF-R, a nifty alternative to the starter assault rifle that trades continuous fire for powerful bursts, useful for those with a steady hand.
The Kraber-AP Sniper that unlocks at Level 44 may have the highest damage and range of all the available weapons, justifying its position as the last on the list, but the need to lead your shots makes it a gun for experts only.
Above all else, Titanfall is a game of moments. It's hacking an enemy turret with a data knife; it's teaming up to destroy a fleeing dropship just as it's about to take off; it's scalling down a Titan while sprinting across rooftops before leaping down and landing in the cockpit. It's hearing the gloriously bassy whoosh and crackle of a charged Arc Cannon shot, or releasing a cloud of electric smoke to zap a pilot riding your Titan with a gun aimed at its innards.
My own personal highlight? Finishing off a battle of Last Titan Standing by punching a hole in my opponent's cockpit to drag the pilot out and casually toss him aside, a brilliant feeling even before my team-mates' cheers erupted in my headset.
You'll quickly be pulling off parkour moves as slick and as satisfying as anything in Mirror's Edge
Such delirious mayhem doesn't always pass off without a hitch. Outside our aforementioned issues with the campaign, the matchmaking is occasionally a little off - one game pitted five IMC against three Militia units rather than evening up the sides. And some will no doubt complain that it doesn't look great for an eighth-generation game - the creaky Source engine leaves you with some decidedly last-gen textures in places, though for our money Respawn has made the right kind of sacrifice, ensuring a consistently smooth frame-rate.
Just as the action rarely lets up, the performance remains solid, though we witnessed some occasional screen tearing on the Xbox One version. Yet Titanfall isn't a game to which static shots do justice. The last thing you'll be concerned about when the pace hots up and 12 Titans are trading missiles and punches is the resolution it's running at.
Lastly, the game's always-online requirements are a little too restrictive: it's daft that you can't even play the tutorial if the servers are down.
Though in truth, there's little reason to. It says much about Titanfall that its training courses are all but irrelevant: you'll pick up the controller and pretty much instinctively know how to play the game. Some will see that as a bad thing, and it's true that Vince Zampella, Jason West and co haven't strayed far from what they know. As debuts go, this is pretty safe territory, and not a Titan-sized stride forward.
Yet by making some smart tweaks to established design standards, Respawn's terrific shooter is a jet-powered hop ahead of its rivals.
Reviewer's note: Titanfall was reviewed at an EA-organised event over two days, using retail servers. All multiplayer modes and maps were tested. Given the well-documented issues with Battlefield 4, should the user experience prove to be markedly different from that of the event - and we'll be testing it over the coming days and weeks to check - we will revisit the review accordingly.
Thrillingly chaotic and expertly tuned,Titanfall is a fairly orthodox FPS elevated to greatness by dozens of intelligent design choices. One-note? Perhaps. But what a note.
- Instantly accessible and exciting
- Immaculately calibrated controls
- Superbly designed maps with plenty of variety
- Campaign is a missed opportunity