I think it’s time to admit I have a giant robot problem.
How else to explain my buying Titanfall, the Next Game Experience from the makers of the creatively bankrupt Call of Duty series? A couple of weeks back I called Hawken Call of Duty with robots, but that isn’t precisely true. Hawken is Call of Duty in robots. It’s Titanfall that’s Call of Duty with robots, and I have to say that the merging of the part of the game where you run around as a weak, fleshy Pilot with the part of the game where you’re stomping around in your Titan crushing all beneath your giant metal feet is absolutely inspired. It provides what nearly every single giant robot game has been missing up until this point: a sense of scale. You cannot understand just how big these things are until you’ve had to fight them as a human travelling on foot, and Titanfall marks the first time I’ve truly bought into my giant robot actually being giant rather than a normal-sized robot wandering around in a curiously undersized world.
This dual-mode gameplay is the first innovation Titanfall brings to the multiplayer shooter arena, although it’s far from the last. At the start of each match, every player deploys from a dropship as a Pilot – the first-person cutscene where your team leaps out of the dropship as a group is one of the many neat touches characterising the game – along with a whole bunch of friendly AI bots who get fired into the battlefield via drop pod. Somewhere not too far away is a group of enemy Pilots and bots doing exactly the same thing, and it takes just 10-15 seconds for the two groups to make contact and the fighting to start. This is the phase of the game that’s most like CoD (Modern Warfare 1 era) and they do share some very obvious strands of the same DNA. The weapons, for starters: you can have your choice of primary weapon consisting of the usual suspects (SMG, shotgun, assault rifle) and a pistol sidearm, and these all kill in just a few rounds. Your loadout also comes with two passive perks, a grenade option and a timed tactical ability like cloaking or see-through-walls-o-vision. The basic setup and gunplay is very similar, then, but Titanfall then takes a massive leap into the chasm of originality with two more of its innovations: those AI bots I mentioned, and the Pilot’s innate parkour abilities.
The parkour in Titanfall is an absolute joy to behold. It’s intuitive, powerful and – this is the important part – incredibly easy to pick up. Pilots get a double jump, and if they leap up to a ledge that’s at head height they can mantle up onto it by holding W. Wallrunning is as simple as jumping into a wall and running forward; Pilots can wallrun a fair distance and once they run out of wallrun they get their double jump recharged, making it very easy to chain multiple wallruns together. Pilots also get infinite sprint. As a result they are ridiculously mobile; all of these abilities working in concert turn infantry combat in Titanfall into an excellent hybrid of Modern Warfare and Unreal Tournament. It’s certainly miles better than the parkour on display in the decidedly lacklustre Brink.
The bots on the other hand add a lot of flavour to what would otherwise be very sparsely populated maps (Titanfall is 6v6 only). There’s about 15-20 of them on either side at any one time, constantly spawning and duking it out with the other side’s bot troopers. When you’re a Pilot the bots are pretty much cannon fodder, going down in a couple of shots each and posing almost no threat whatsoever unless you let yourself get surrounded. When you’re in a Titan they’re a little more dangerous; the bots will hide in buildings and shoot missiles at your rampaging colossus, and while the damage these missiles do is still not great, if you’re already under attack from another Titan it can be enough to tilt an otherwise even matchup in their favour. In real terms, though, the bots are in the game for two reasons. One is to provide camouflage and distraction so that it’s always difficult to identify enemy Pilots in a melee, greatly extending their lifespan in an environment populated by angry metal giants. The other is to let players live out their fantasies of crushing soldiers beneath their mighty feet; going on a bot killing spree in a Titan is just so immensely satisfying and lends them a sense of power that they might not otherwise have. It actually put me in mind of ancient Amiga classic Walker at one point, which is never a bad thing.
But how do you transition from clambering around the map as a squishy, vulnerable Pilot to striding about it in a heavily armoured Titan? Well, at the start of the match a timer will begin counting down from two minutes. Killing enemy bots and pilots knocks a few seconds off of this timer every time you do it, so the better you do the faster the timer will decrement to zero, but even the worst player will have it run out after two minutes. Once it’s there, you can call in a Titan from orbit and, after a brief delay, climb inside of it and start dispensing whatever particular brand of robot mayhem you’ve chosen in the loadout. Titan loadouts are broadly similar to Pilot loadouts – a primary weapon, two perks, an activated ability and some missile-based ordanance that recharges after it’s fired – with the difference that the weapons and abilities are orders of magnitude more destructive since they’re all designed for fighting other Titans. The “weakest” Titan weapon is a giant machine gun capable of killing a Pilot in a single hit. They also have access to a 40mm cannon, quad rocket launchers, plasma guns, and if somehow all of this stuff fails to kill their target they can simply crush infantry underfoot. Titans have shields that recharge and a health bar that doesn’t; once the health bar is reduced to zero the Titan enters Doomed mode, where the health bar will refill and slowly tick down to zero while an on-screen prompt urges you to eject. You can still pilot the Titan while in Doomed mode, but if you’re still in it when the health bar empties your Titan will explode and take you with it – which is something of a concern when enemies can speed the depletion of the Doomed health bar by continuing to shoot at you.
Titans are very powerful, there’s no denying that. Not only will they likely kill you if they see you, but thanks to the Doomed mechanic it’s very difficult to outright kill a player who is piloting a Titan. Most of the time they’ll just eject and rejoin the fight, content in the knowledge that they’ll get another Titan in a maximum of two minutes’ time. However, Titanfall balances their power by giving Pilots a number of ways in which they can take out the Titan, if not the player inside it. All Pilots have a third anti-Titan weapon that they can use to chip away at a Titan’s shields and armour; like the bots, one Pilot is unlikely to take down a full health Titan on their own this way but they can easily finish off a critically damaged one. Then there’s Pilot mobility, which is a great equaliser; Titans are slow to maneuver (although they move surprisingly quickly in a straight line) making it difficult to draw a bead on a fast-moving Pilot target. There’s plenty of places Pilots can get to where Titans can’t go, and when you’re inside a Titan you become rather wary of urban environments since the buildings provide plenty of cover for Pilots to ambush you with their anti-Titan weaponry or – even worse – jump on your back and attempt to sabotage your Titan directly.
This is the Rodeo mechanic, which is a natural progression of the parkour and an excellent addition to the game. Jump up next to a Titan and press E (a risky business, since they can flatten you very easily if they suddenly move in the wrong direction) and your Pilot will attach themselves to the Titan’s back, popping off a armoured panel and levelling their weapon at the critical systems exposed within. By unloading several magazines worth of ammunition into this circuitry you can cause rapid damage to a Titan that ignores Titan shielding; if the Titan pilot does nothing to remove you from their back then you can bring them down in fairly short order. Of course the Titan does have a conspicuous warning indicator telling the pilot that you’re doing this, and they’ll usually respond in one of three ways:
1) They’ll disembark from the Titan to try and shoot you. Normally when a player gets out of their Titan it gets taken over by a self-defence AI that is limited but effective, but Rodeoing a Titan disables this AI so it’s up to the player to kill the Rodeo-ing Pilot. As the Rodeo-er, you learn to get the hell off once you see the Titan enter its disembark animation and (hopefully) get the pilot before he can get you. As a result this is not really an effective method of dealing with any uninvited guests who have hitched a ride.
2) They’ll deploy Electric Smoke. This is one of the Titan abilities that smothers the immediate area surrounding it in electrified smog that will damage and kill anyone caught inside it, and it’s my preferred method of dealing with Rodeoing Pilots since the smoke is also very handy for my last-ditch Titan maneuver, which I’ll get to in a second.
3) They’ll fire their Cluster Missiles at the ground underneath them. Cluster Missiles also do persistent area damage, and while in this case it’ll damage the Titan too you’ll die before the Titan does.
Unless you’re doing it in the middle of an intense firefight when the pilot is likely to be distracted, Rodeoing is unlikely to result in the death of a Titan. What it will do is force the pilot to spend time dealing with you, and unless they have Electric Smoke this is not something that’s done easily – while you’re distracted, an enemy Titan will likely appear and start punting high-explosive 40mm cannon rounds into your armour. Titan on Titan combat is a somewhat slow affair thanks to their innate toughness, and one-on-one fights rarely end in a kill because of the Titans’ ability to retreat and recharge their shields. A Titan with a Pilot supporting them is a much more serious threat thanks to the Pilot’s ability to tip the scales in their teammate’s favour, while you’re unlikely to survive a fight against multiple enemy Titans unless you’re very good or very sneaky. My preferred tactic when faced with an unwinnable fight is to back around a corner, pop my smoke and then activate the Titan self-destruct, which is amped up with a perk that turns it nuclear. Everyone expects a Doomed Titan to go nuclear and will back away accordingly, but nobody thinks you’ll intentionally activate the self-destruct on half-health and so will likely charge into the smoke for those precious, precious points, only to be greeted by the painfully white glow of a Titan reactor going critical on the other side. The best part is that thanks to the excellent eject animation (where you mash the E key frantically and watch your pilot yank the ejection lever under his seat) I get to watch all this from a hundred metres up, and it’s never not hilarious.
Titanfall is full of awesome little touches like that. I was entranced when I came across two groups of bots fighting each other and saw that they had special kill animations; a combat robot lifted a grunt above his head, smashed him down onto a countertop and then slid him along and off onto the floor. The bot chatter is great as well – I especially like the grunt who panics after his entire squad is killed – and it all does a great job of drawing you into the game. The basic Titanfall experience of entering a multiplayer match and killing dudes for fifteen minutes is about as polished as anything really can be, and (unusually for EA these days) I haven’t had a single connection problem since I started playing it on Friday night.
As ever with my reviews, though, it’s time for the other giant armoured boot to drop, and Titanfall’s big problem is that the basic multiplayer experience is all there is. It’s fucking great, to be sure, but it absolutely has to be because without it there wouldn’t be a game here at all; the “campaign” is just a series of gussied up multiplayer matches where talking heads spew soundbites that you’re not listening to because you’re too focused on staying alive, and there’s no game customisation options to spice up the decidedly limited selection of game modes on offer. There’s Attrition (team deathmatch in all but name), Hardpoints (domination), Capture the Flag (where you can grab the flag and then climb into a Titan, making it impossible to bring you down), and then Last Titan Standing and Pilot Hunt (or something) which both cut out a key part of what makes Titanfall Titanfall: the interaction between the Pilots and the Titans. You can’t adjust point totals so Attrition is always to a cap of 250 while Hardpoints goes up to 500, and this never changes. The maps are varied and well designed but when you get down to it I just don’t think there’s enough material here to promote long-term play, no matter how good the core gameplay experience is. Titanfall is great for dropping in and playing two or three matches in the space of half an hour, but I can’t play for longer than that because otherwise it gets too repetitive – and if I think that two days after I started playing it, I really don’t think I’ll still be playing it in two weeks’ time.
This longevity issue makes it hard to recommend Titanfall, even if it is an excellent multiplayer shooter; and that goes double considering it’s more than a little pricey for a PC game. If you’re on the fence about picking it up now, I’d say pick it up now. If on the other hand you were planning on picking it up six months down the line when it got a little cheaper I’d do a little research into the health of the community before you fork over any cash. It could turn out okay – I’ve been wrong about this sort of thing before – but its single-minded reliance on lobby-based matchmaking means it’s more vulnerable than most to a slump in player numbers, and I doubt the PC population will be quite as robust as on Xbox One, where Titanfall is the primary reason a lot of people bought the console. If you’re still interested, though, I think you and Titanfall will probably get along just fine. It’s fun, fast and fluid, and the gameplay has been polished to a fine mirror shine. I just wish there was a little more breadth to the game, is all.