Respawn Entertainment takes the knowledge of gameplay mechanics that made Call of Duty 4 great in 2007 and refines it to create a fantastic shooter in Titanfall, but they do not adequately identify all of the points that have given Call of Duty its staggering popularity over the years, leaving a game that, while excellent and incredibly balanced, is unlikely to be able to topple the titan itself.
Aside from fifteen minutes of training at the beginning of the game, the rest of the game takes place online, and Microsoft’s servers are very stable. This training mode seeks to teach players the basics of the parkour mechanics that are used by pilots in the game through a number of exercises, and also how to pilot titans. It is short enough to not be frustrating, and well presented.
Once the tutorial is finished you can choose between playing Campaign, which is a series of structured missions, or playing Classic – standard multiplayer matchmaking on a variety of maps and using a variety of modes. There is a story to Campaign but it is poorly presented, clichéd, and difficult to grasp besides. The acting is overdone, and players spend so little time with the characters that by the end of the campaign they might not have worked out anybody’s name, let alone why they should care about them. Depending on whether you are playing as the Militia or the IMC, the two opposing factions in the war, you receive different audio dialogues and briefings, but the stories remain the same. This means that losing has no real effect, and as any important mission objectives are achieved off-camera, you do not feel as though you were important in the battle.
Any time that was intended to be heartfelt or emotional is ruined by the lack of emotional bond formed between players and the characters, and because any time the game tries to be emotional is trapped within the missions, so you are busy shooting grunts and treading on pilots. This eschewal of cutscenes beyond the opening game introduction is a double edged sword: it allows players to not get bored by having to sit through a movie they do not want to, but at the same time it makes it difficult for them to find a reason to not concentrate on the game during battle when there is story development. A potential rectifier to this could be the inclusion of videos similar to Halo 4’s Spartan Ops’ optional chapter videos, because then people would have the chance to get invested.
The set pieces brought on through the campaign may have been suitably stunning, but gameplay is so focused on the ground and rooftops that players are never looking where they are supposed to be looking. Graphically, the game is reminiscent of Black Ops II’s bright and slightly stylised colour palette and style. This looks good, and explosions and buildings alike were rendered spectacularly on my laptop with its GTX 780m at near maximum settings and at a consistently high frame rate with only one instance of frame rate dropping during the time I played it. It was more stable than my experience of Call of Duty in this regard. However, the graphics were not staggering, but my understanding is that this was to conserve a stable framerate and in Titanfall and other twitch shooters stability is key.
This sense of rigorous, even mechanical, accuracy is carried over into the gameplay. Every weapon felt balanced, and each also felt unique. Unlike in Call of Duty, there are far fewer weapons to choose from in the familiar load out screen, and there are no class leading weapons that need to be balanced, time and time again, like the DSR-50 or the KAP-45 in Black Ops II. Each weapon has a niche, from the shotgun’s close range punch, to the Smart Pistol’s effectiveness against AI opponents. Each weapon can be upgraded, as in Call of Duty, but the selection of upgrades is tiny. This means that it is hard to become truly in love with a gun or loadout – there is little reason to stick with it. Moreover, this lack of customisation, even in weapon cosmetics, means that Titanfall does not have the addictive qualities of Call of Duty. Long level up times are not broken by a new camouflage to brag about to your friends, so it is easier to get bored. Burn Cards, items that work as a perk for a single life, are earned randomly and from challenges, and disappear permanently after you use them. Their random nature makes it difficult, again, to feel as though they are something to strive to earn.
Playing as a pilot is refreshing after the restriction of other shooters. The ability to wallrun and jetpack anywhere is liberating, but the mess your pace leaves you in makes it hard to look at and learn the maps. However, compared to every other first person shooter, Titanfall is great fun to play. The eponymous titans are called in based on a timer that you decrease by earning kills and completing objectives, and regardless of your skill level, you will play in at least one titan per game. As with pilots, you can customise your titan’s loadout with a variety of weaponry and equipment. They are well balanced and titan battles are thrilling and tactical affairs, with lots of personal movement and constant ducking in and out of cover. They are slow and somewhat limited in their traversable areas, but playing as one cleverly breaks up the gameplay styles featured within the game.
Skirmishes in Titanfall use six players on either team, plus an assortment of AI helpers. This reliance on six players is frustrating when someone drops out because with this few players every man counts. However, despite huge maps, Titanfall never feels lonely in the same way that Battlefield can. Crossing the map is incredibly quick, and there are always AI grunts wandering around, waiting to be shot. Given the graphics and framerate, it is surprising that Respawn were able to also include an AI component to the game at all, however weak it may be. The AI are stupid cannon fodder and that is how they should be. They can kill you if you are not being careful, but otherwise they serve to heighten the feeling that you are fighting a war through their constant redeployment via drop pods and ziplining from transports.
There are fifteen maps, and five game modes. The maps are varied in their colour palettes, and all are large, but none are particularly memorable. The game modes are worse, with very little beyond the bare minimum expected in a multiplayer shooter. Attrition is team deathmatch with AI kills counting, Pilot Hunter is team deathmatch without AI kills counting, Last Titan Standing is team deathmatch with only titans and no respawning, Hardpoint is domination, Capture the Flag is capture the flag. The game lacks objective modes and although Vince Zampella has stated that it will receive more that is not a good excuse for making players fork over money for modes they have come to expect like headquarters and search and destroy, modes that would be interesting to play given Titanfall’s gameplay differences to other shooters. More importantly, without game mode variety the game loses out on replay value.
Audio design is satisfactory for a game like Titanfall. Music is sparse and suitably grandiose, but overall the game concentrated on sound effects. Bullets thwacked, explosions roared, and the game kept sounding strong throughout the weapon’s roster without petering out.
Overall, Titanfall is the beginning of a new franchise, and a new type of first person shooter, but I wonder how much it can continue to innovate on the formula of jetpacking soldiers and mechs before it stagnates like Respawn’s previous work. Gameplay is solid, but like Halo 4, it struggles to harness the addictive nature of Call of Duty’s leveling that makes it so great. The maps are more numerous than other shooters’ but lack personality, and the modes are too similar to keep objective loving players happy. The story is so clichéd and dull that when Titanfall 2 comes out I have no doubt that PS4 players will be able to pick it up and not feel they have missed a beat. This is not the ambassador for the new generation, but if you want something to keep you busy until the next Call of Duty with awesome gameplay and scale, you could have a lot worse.