Unlike most people I didn’t think the original Titanfall not having a single-player campaign was a particular problem. It tied into the general malaise the game had of not providing anywhere near enough content for players to get their teeth into – the central multiplayer experience, while very finely polished and a lot of fun, was also rather limited — but I don’t feel like Titanfall was crying out for a thrilling narrative-driven tale of conflict between the two generic sides involved in its eternal robot war. What it was crying out for were more game modes, more Titans and more maps, and when these were not forthcoming the game swiftly died out as its playerbase deserted it. I’m fine with games focusing solely on multiplayer as long as they’re up front about it, especially since the requirements of crafting a single-player campaign are often quite at odds with the requirements of a highly-tuned multiplayer game, not to mention being incredibly resource-intensive, and trying to focus on both often means you end up doing neither particularly well1.
“Most people” would disagree with me on that one, though. By far the most common criticism that I saw of Titanfall was, in fact, that it didn’t have a single-player campaign. This is why Titanfall 2’s headline improvement over the original isn’t more Titans or a more comprehensive progression system for multiplayer (although it has those too), but is instead a single-player campaign chronicling the adventures of Jack Pilot2 and his Titan buddy BT as they participate in a botched militia attack on an Evil Corporation research facility on Typhon. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much more of this campaign than a glorified exercise in box-ticking in the hope that its mere existence would widen Titanfall 2’s appeal. I didn’t think it would be bad, as such – developers Respawn presumably consist of some of the more talented bits of CoD progenitors Infinity Ward, after all — but anything CoD-like these days ends up feeling derivative in spite of itself and so I figured Titanfall 2’s campaign had its sights firmly set on being merely average.
To be fair, some parts of it are quite average. It doesn’t really have a plot, for example, merely a selection of 10 not-really-connected levels designed around individual setpieces and gimmicks, with very little narrative or characterisation gluing them together. I also think the general visual style of Titanfall 2 is rather uninspired. I believe my hatred of levels set inside gigantic concrete boxes is well documented and Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign unfortunately has a few too many of these locations. The thing is, though, that the areas Titanfall 2 skimps on are arguably the least-important ones for an FPS; nobody complained that the Doom reboot didn’t have a thrilling story and it still received near-universal critical acclaim. In the areas where it counts — movement, gunplay, and generally throwing new things at the player so that they never get bored — Titanfall 2 excels in some quite unexpected ways.
The Titanfall series has two signature features. The first are the eponymous Titans: large stompy robots which are called in from orbit in multiplayer, but the campaign pairs you up with a dedicated robo-bro pretty early on who acts as the omnipresent voice in your ear telling you to do stuff. Accommodating Titan gameplay in the single-player campaign isn’t that hard since it’s basically just an overgrown vehicle segment and the FPS genre has been doing those for decades. The second feature is a little harder to deal with: when a player pops out of their Titan they become an absurdly mobile wallrunning, jetpack-boosting Pilot, and blending these movement mechanics into the single-player requires some very careful thought in how you structure the level geometry so that players can properly take advantage of their mobility. I’ve seen it done badly in Black Ops 3, where the player’s ability to wallrun was almost ignored in favour of traditional (and traditionally boring) level design where you crouch behind cover and headshot baddies crouching behind their own cover, so it’s very possible to fuck this up.
I am happy to say that Titanfall 2 most certainly does not. Partly this is down to TF2’s version of wallrunning being far more fluid and easy-to-use than CoD’s, but mostly it is because Respawn are absolutely unafraid of giving the player so much power they feel like an unmitigated badass. You could play Titanfall 2 like CoD, sitting behind cover with a sniper rifle and picking enemies off as they run around like headless chickens, and Titanfall 2 would accommodate you, although it would be a substantially diminished experience. If you’re ever aiming down sights in this game you’re doing it wrong, however; in fact every moment you spend touching the floor means you’re not double-jumping off a wall firing an SMG one-handed at the cluster of helplessly-floating baddies you just caught with your gravity star. The enemies are pretty much the standard PMC soldiers we’ve been fighting in a lot of military FPSes for years now — albeit with a few robots and heavy troopers mixed in — but this merely accentuates how utterly ridiculous the Pilots are by comparison; when everything is flowing just right the experience of playing one is not a million miles away from being the guy in the intro video. The only thing that really ensures your adversaries are a challenge is their sheer weight of numbers — and unlike CoD you spend most of the campaign fighting solo with no NPC buddies to draw fire for you.
The Pilot fighting segments are a lot of fun, then, and they’re spiced up with the addition of what amount to very short and sweet platforming bits where you use your mobility to get to a goal or find a MacGuffin or whatever. The level design here does start to smack a little of the whole “Why is there a bottomless pit in the Emperor’s throne room on the Death Star?” thing since there’s a lot of needlessly deep chasms inside this research facility for you to fall into if you put a foot wrong, but I’m fine with Titanfall 2 ditching logical level layouts just so long as the end result poses an interesting challenge. I will also say that despite my complaint about the slightly-bland visual style above, the actual level concepts are downright inspired in a couple of places; there’s a really good one where you’re leaping and fighting over what essentially amounts to a gigantic assembly line that makes full-size towns. Titanfall 2 feels like it takes the CoD approach of basing each level around a gimmick to its logical conclusion, but where CoD would make whatever the gimmick was quite restrictive in how you could use it, Titanfall 2 fully embraces it and explores what would be possible if you could use or interact with the gimmick the whole time you were playing it.
It’s this philosophy that underpins Titanfall 2’s best pair of levels, and I’m slightly annoyed that talking about exactly why they’re so good would amount to a particularly egregious spoiler; I’ll just have to settle for describing my initial reaction, which went something along the lines of “Wait, are they… they’re not… they are, they’re actually letting me do this.” The rest of the campaign is a great evolution of the CoD style of FPS — and perhaps the first genuine progress that’s been made there since the original Modern Warfare — but it’s here that Titanfall 2 momentarily transcends those origins and becomes something entirely new that could have potentially challenged for Best FPS Of The Last Decade had Respawn succeeded in bottling that lightning the whole way through the game. That the rest of it is merely very good rather than outstanding is no failure on their part whatsoever, however; Titanfall 2’s single-player campaign is far better than it has any real right to be, and it feels like the game CoD keeps trying — and failing — to be. It has its weak points, sure, but since it’s just under five hours long and keeps cycling through new ideas anything that you might find underwhelming isn’t going to be around long enough for it to get on your nerves.
Still, Titanfall 2 is an expensive game. While I do think the short length of the campaign is an asset, the reason I have that opinion is because I bought it primarily for the multiplayer and the fact that it unexpectedly had a rather fun single-player campaign attached was very much a bonus. If you’re interested in any kind of long-term investment the multiplayer is where you’ll find it, and fortunately I have good news here too: the Titanfall 2 multiplayer is better than original Titanfall multiplayer, which is quite the accomplishment. Broadly it’s the same deal, with small teams of Pilots duking it out in a variety of matchmade game modes, but there’s a whole host of structural changes that turn it into a much leaner and slicker prospect than the original game. It’s still got the CoD-inspired loadout system for Pilots, complete with unlockable perks and the ability to level up and prestige — sorry, I mean “regenerate” — any piece of equipment, and this has even been made a little more interesting with the addition of selectable Pilot abilities that give them speed boosts, cloak, phase jump etc. The Titan loadout system has been scaled right back, however; instead of three classes of Titan with a broad range of equipment, there are now six classes of Titan with static equipment and abilities. This, oddly, is an improvement, as the static loadouts ensure that each Titan can be tuned for a particular role — I’m particularly fond of the Pilot-sniping Ion, with the missile-spewing Tone coming in a close second.
How you call your Titans in has also undergone a big change — possibly the biggest in the multiplayer. Previously it was a flat two minute countdown to getting your Titan and killing things shaved precious seconds off of this countdown, which I liked; it meant that no matter how well you were doing you’d always get to call in a Titan eventually. Now it’s a bar in the corner of the screen that fills up as you kill stuff and do damage; it does passively fill on its own, but the fill rate at the start of a match is desperately slow and so mowing down players and AI grunts is the only way to call in a Titan in the first half of a match. I don’t think I like this system quite so much as it rewards players who are doing well with the means to do even better, while players who are having a slow match desperately struggle to fill the last 30% of their Titan bar — by the time you’ve made up the difference the enemy team can be fifty points ahead thanks to their Titan advantage. The only thing that stops it being an overwhelming one is that Titans are now incredibly vulnerable to Pilots; the Titan will always win a one-on-one match (at least if the Pilot is dumb enough to actually show their face once the Titan knows they’re there), but a two-on-one match forces the Titan pilot to split their attention while they get their health bar whittled down by grenades, and damaging an enemy Titan is a great way to fill your own Titan bar.
There’s actually a surprising amount dependent on the Titan bar, come to think of it. Burn cards have been replaced by boost powerups (amped weapons, Tick mines, X-ray vision) that can be activated once the Titan bar fills to a certain point. Once you have your Titan the Titan bar becomes the charge-up for your Titan’s Core Ability, which differs depending on which class you’re playing but boils down to “do a shitload of damage” – as Titans are quite fragile now, charging the Core before your Titan gets destroyed is actually fairly tricky. As everyone ran Electric Smoke to counter Rodeo-ing Pilots this has now been turned into an innate Titan ability that becomes available once you get 30% Core charge. Rodeoing itself has been changed so that you can’t one-shot a Titan via a single rodeo; instead leaping onto a Titan as a Pilot now causes you to yank out a battery that you can then scurry away with to insert into a friendly Titan, and doing both parts of this will completely fill your Titan bar. You’ll probably die before you reach a friendly Titan, though, thanks to both the omnipresent Electric Smoke and the fact that stealing a battery lights you up like a christmas tree in the HUD of the Titan you just stole it from.
Concerns about snowballing aside, having static Titan classes with distinct abilities and basing everything else around charging the Titan bar is a much more understandable system. When you see an enemy Titan you’ll know exactly what it can do. You’ll know to circle around and attack a Legion from the side, and you’ll know never to get a Ronin get in close. You know not to let Tone get a lock on you for a missile barrage, you know never to let Ion see you if you’re a Pilot (the laser is a one-shot kill, and you learn to treat ejecting Pilots kind of like skeet shooting when you’re driving an Ion), and you know that it’s safe to rodeo a Titan if they’ve just called it in (and so don’t have enough charge for Electric Smoke) but that it’s probably going to kill you otherwise. Pilots on the other hand have a much wider range of possibility in their loadouts, but the time-to-kill in this game is so short that map awareness, reaction time and the ability to shoot straight counts for way more than what specific gun each player is holding and the Pilot loadout becomes more a case of personal preference than anything else. Getting the drop on somebody is 90% of winning a gunfight, and the wallrunning is so good that you have a practically infinite number of ways of doing this if you just think smart.
I think on reflection that the balance of power has shifted a little too far towards the Titans in spite of their increased vulnerability. I’ve played many games that were incredibly close (including one that we won 500-499 after I spent the last 30 seconds ignoring the Titan v Titan scrum in the middle of the map and instead went around frantically smashing up Reapers to make up the last 30 points) but I’ve played an equal number where the first team to call in a Titan won – not because it was particularly effective at mopping up Pilots, but because the space it created allowed the rest of the team to charge up their Titan bars and call in their Titans. This is absolutely not an advantage that can overcome a coordinated enemy team, though, and hopefully as the playerbase gets better at the game it’ll be less of a problem (indeed, I’m starting to rank up now and while there’s been plenty of one-sided scorelines it’s often a team that comes from behind to win it). My other big complaint about the multiplayer is that they removed the AI mooks from most game modes, and in the two where they’re still present they’re far less polished, moving around in big clumps that don’t shoot at enemy AI and basically just function as big points pinatas that can be used to charge the Titan/Core bar. It feels far more gamey now and not like you’re being dropped into a battle at all; I thought the AI added a hell of a lot to Titanfall’s multiplayer, to the point where I was convinced it’d be one of the first things that other developers would copy, and I’m disappointed that it’s been scaled back the way it has here.
Broadly, though, I feel that the changes that have been made to multiplayer are a net improvement on the already-great multiplayer of the original Titanfall. I’ve played it for twenty hours now, and I think the last game I enjoyed this much in multiplayer was the late lamented Section 8: Prejudice. Partly my sinking this much time into it has been motivated by the fear than in a month’s time the playerbase might not exist any more. Releasing Titanfall 2 at the same time as both the Battlefield and CoD franchises has to be one of the most monumentally idiotic things I’ve ever seen a publisher do3, and not just because it might kill one of the best shooters of recent years stone cold dead — it can’t have been cheap to make, and I’d have thought EA would at least want to get a decent return on their investment. I’m really hoping that they rather shamefacedly give it some decent post-release support that ensures it has a long tail. Mostly, though, I’m playing a lot of Titanfall 2 because it’s just really really good fun.
- It’s so difficult to work on both, in fact, that it’s been common practice for some years now to hand either the single-player or the multiplayer off to a completely different developer to be worked on as its own separate thing, which usually ends just about as well as you’d expect. ↩
- Don’t know what his last name is but his first is definitely Jack. ↩
- And this is coming from somebody who remembers the marketing stunts pulled by the long-defunct Acclaim, including things like “trying to buy advertising space on actual gravestones to promote Shadowman 2”. Even here, though, EA is giving them a run for their money. ↩