For anyone holding out for a true next-generation first-person shooter, the wait is over: Titanfall has arrived and it makes good on its promise to advance the genre. That's good news, but also bad.
Electronic Arts' sure-to-be blockbuster sci-fi game is an immensely enjoyable and exquisitely crafted shoot-em-up that puts players in the seat of giant warring mech robots. It grafts Call of Duty quality play on a distant future setting, which should be no surprise given that the makers of this game are the original inventors of that mammoth franchise.
Yet Titanfall is also a worrisome product that delivers only a fraction of what competing games – including Call of Duty – do, for the same price tag. That sets a worrying precedent where gamers are set to get less game for the same money. As the next generation of consoles takes root, this is both a commercial and an artistic concern.
Titanfall takes place in a future where humanity has rocketed to the stars, which, through a short intro video, is about all the back story there is. A quick tutorial on how to run, jump and drive Titans and we're launched straight into online multiplayer action. If you haven't heard, there's no single-player campaign here. More on that in a minute.
At its core, Titanfall is essentially three multiplayer games in one. On the first front, it's very much like most FPS titles out there. Players control Pilots, or human soldiers who are upgradeable through the experience points they earn in matches. New weapons, attachments and special abilities are unlocked through level progression, with each carrying its own upsides and downsides. Sniper rifles are great for long-range attacks, for example, but not so much up close, where submachine guns are better.
On top of that, the Pilots are also especially adept at jumping and climbing. They can run along walls for short periods and their jet-packs allow them to leap atop tall buildings. Titanfall's addition of a vertical element to firefights literally introduces a new dimension to the genre. Stopping here might have been enough to create an exciting new type of FPS, but nope, the developers went further.
Every player eventually gets access to the giant Titan robots, which come booming out of the sky as they're dropped from orbit. Once inside, players have a bevy of heavy armaments at their disposal, with the powerful machines handling like something between a tank and a jet fighter. Like the Pilots themselves, the mechs can be upgraded through levelling up. The entire goal of the game is to basically get into these things as much as possible so that you can unleash carnage on your enemies.
Respawn has done an excellent job at balancing these three aspects. While it would seem like the Pilots would be terribly outmatched by the gigantic Titans, their parkour-like abilities give them a fighting chance at scurrying into cover, then they can retaliate with their own heavy weapons. Either that, or they can jump on the mech's head and shoot out its circuitry up close.
The mechs, meanwhile, can be devastating, but also surprisingly vulnerable. They can be easily destroyed when tag-teamed by opponent Titans, or if a Pilot is particularly reckless and doesn't play defence. Unlike the human combatants, the mechs don't regenerate health, which is why it's wise for them to take cover whenever their shields go down.
Thrown into this mix is a healthy dose of artificial intelligence. While most match types limit teams to six human participants each, up to 48 combatants can often take part. These can be dumb cannon-fodder grunts with bad aim, more highly skilled Specter drones or AI Titans themselves. Regardless of what kind of game mode is being played, the battlefields are inevitably heavily populated with opponents to dispatch and allies to provide help.
The resultant wars are expansive and thrilling, with several different levels of action – both figuratively and literally – happening at any given time. Infantry troops can be fighting it out in the tunnels beneath a building while Titans face off around it. Pilots can be on the roof, meanwhile, trying to take everyone out. There's always something going on, and it makes the battles frenetic, fast-paced and exhilarating.
Titanfall's excellent sound design also warrants special mention. From the clank-clank-clank of the mechs stomping about to the pulsing explosiveness of shoulder rockets launching, just about every audio effect contributes weight to the experience. I found myself sticking with certain weapons just because of the way they sounded (I particularly like the metallic whirring of the Titan chain gun). It's a game best played with the volume cranked way up.
The developers have also taken great strides toward creating an FPS that is appealing to hard-core fans of the genre and newcomers alike. The ratio of AI to human players, as well as the generally large maps on which the action takes place, is tuned to give newbies a chance at feeling like they can contribute. They can spend the entire game scoring points by taking out grunts and Specters while more skilled players can concentrate on going after more dangerous prey, like each other. If newbies can manage to stay away from the pros, they may just enjoy this game.
If there's a downside to the combat, it's that it's too heavily skewed toward getting Titans. While fighting on foot is okay, it pales in comparison to driving the fearsome mechs, which is what the game is all about, after all. Pilots can decrease the amount of time until their next Titan becomes available by taking out other players or AI bots, a goal that usually takes over the game. As a result, infantry combat is more of a grind to get through on the way to getting a Titan than it is a fun pursuit on its own.
Titanfall's bigger problem is that, beyond its fundamental gameplay and standard multiplayer modes, such as team death match, domination and Last Titan Standing (Titans only, no respawning), there really isn't much depth to it. As mentioned above, there's no single-player mode and therefore no real fiction or story to the game.
A multiplayer campaign mode takes a stab at adding some narrative in the form of pre-match audio briefings, but the subsequent battles are just repeats of the same multiplayer modes. There really wouldn't be much reason to play these missions if they didn't unlock additional chassis for your Titan.
Respawn's reasons for foregoing a single-player mode are somewhat understandable. The developers wanted to focus their energies on creating a bang-up multiplayer experience, and many FPS players bypass games' campaign modes entirely anyway, but it really is too bad in this case. I would have liked a better explanation of how these giant robots came to be and why they're currently fighting each other. Rumours of a single-player campaign coming along as extra downloadable content are swirling, but that's something that should have been included from the start in a game with such promising fiction behind it.
It's not just a single-player campaign that's missing, it's the ability to play the game alone or offline in any way. If something happens to your internet connection or to EA's servers, Titanfall is simply unplayable, which seems inexcusable for a game with so much functioning AI.
And let's remember, there is a non-zero chance of server failure: Early purchasers of the game should be aware that EA has on several occasions experienced server issues with new titles at launch (SimCity and Battlefield 4 come to mind). I reviewed Titanfall through a downloadable Xbox One code provided by Electronic Arts. Servers for the game were not up and running until late Saturday evening, with intermittent connection problems occurring on Sunday.
The total lack of single-player capability is at odds with most other FPS games. If the likes of Call of Duty or Halo can provide both single- and multiplayer modes for the same price tag, it doesn't seem right that Titanfall can't. While Respawn and EA are cutting down on the price of development by foregoing single-player, those savings aren't being passed on to gamers, which is the concerning part of the game. At the very least, including an offline AI bot mode would seem to be a no-brainer, but it's not here for whatever reason.
So, while Titanfall delivers amazing next-generation action, its next-generation business plan isn't nearly as impressive.