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Titanfall

(Electronic Arts; US: 8 Apr 2014)

Titanfall is a multiplayer-only online shooter, and it’s the least competitive competitive shooter that I’ve ever played. By that, I don’t meant that Titanfall fails to offer any sense of competition. Indeed, it’s all about competition. Instead what I mean is that it’s designed to alleviate all the frustrations that normally come with online gaming. I’ve never cared less about dying than I have when playing Titanfall. It wants to bring the fun back to competitive online shooters.


Let’s start with the basic gameplay loop. You start each match as a pilot, and you’re dropped into an arena with AI bots and other human-controlled pilots. Your titan, a two-story mech, starts each match on a two minute cooldown timer, so you can’t call in these heavy guns right away. Killing a bot or pilot shortens that cooldown timer, so it’s in your best interest to shoot every enemy that you see, human or not. When you finally call in your titan, it drops from the sky and smashes to the ground in an awesome display of power. A titan can obliterate the enemy if played well. However, each human pilot has an anti-titan weapon that can obliterate a titan if used well. When your robot pal is destroyed, the timer resets and the gameplay loop begins again.


The fact that this loop is automatic, that you’ll get your titan after two minutes no matter how poorly you play, removes the frustrations that come with killstreaks. Those bonuses (given to players when they reach a certain number of kills) reward good players but punish poor players. If you can’t get kills, you don’t get any reward, which puts you at an even bigger disadvantage. The timer in Titanfall ensures that all players get their titan reward eventually. No one is left out of the gameplay loop.


Everyone who has ever come to an online shooter late knows that it can be very difficult to actually shoot other players. When you’re just starting a game but everyone else has been playing for a month, it’s tempting to just give up right away because the skill curve is immediately imbalanced. This is where the AI bots come in.


These grunts are fodder; they’re not particularly challenging, and they exist to be killed by pilots. They ensure that no matter how poorly you’re playing, you’re not at the bottom of the food chain. You always have someone to kill to shorten your titanfall timer, and in the main game mode, Attrition, you even get points for killing grunts. I’ve gone whole matches without killing a single pilot, and the game didn’t feel any less exciting for it. You’re able to embrace and enjoy the shooting aspect of this online shooter even if everyone else is a better shot than you. 


Even the act of movement is a thrill. Titanfall gives every player a jetpack, allowing them to wall-run and double-jump across the map. The freedom of movement takes some getting used to: You’ll run down an alley and find it’s a dead end, only to realize you could fly over the building itself if you get a running start. As you get used to your new abilities, stairs become a burden and walls become jump pads. The levels are designed with this maneuverability in mind. Every building has open windows on its second story, and hanging rubble acts as a wall bridge across large gaps.


This maneuverability is also what makes pilots a threat to titans and keeps the game balanced even when you call in your giant killing machines. The robots may rule the open fields, but it’s dangerous to go into any tight quarters where you can be shot at from dozens of nooks and crannies. In this way Titanfall feels like combination of several other shooters. Fighting pilot-to-pilot is all about speed, like Call of Duty. Fighting titan-to-titan with their rechargeable shields, is more about strategy, like Halo. Fighting pilot-to-titan is full on guerilla warfare, like trying to destroy a tank in Battlefield. It’s a versatile game, yet none of it feels forced. Everything feels part of a singular, cohesive vision.


It’s important to note that while Titanfall does a lot to alleviate the frustration and sadness of losing, these design tweaks don’t make you a better player. There still exists a gulf of skill between online players, and if you don’t get better, you will lose. However, that loss activates the best part of Titanfall: The Epilogue.


All of the game modes have a central competitive objective. For example, in Attrition you want to hit a certain number of kills first, in Hardpoint you want to capture and hold a location the longest, and in Capture the Flag, well, that’s self-explanatory. When one side reaches its goal in whatever mode and wins, the match doesn’t end right away. Instead you start playing the Epilogue, a bonus mode in which the losing team races to a drop ship for extraction, and the winning team tries to kill the remaining pilots. This is the most exciting part of Titanfall because both sides only have one life, so the combat suggests higher stakes, and the drop ship funnels all of the action to a single location. When the ship finally arrives, it feels like all hell breaks loose as the mad dash begins. Thankfully, you can’t be hurt once you hop into the ship. The moment that you enter those open bay doors, you become invincible, and you’re guaranteed to survive as long as the ship itself survives (the drop ship can be destroyed, but it’s not easy for the other team to do so). This is a brilliant bit of design since it keeps the fighting focused in front of the ship, and prevents snipers from picking off survivors like fish in a barrel.


You can lose the match, but if you get to the drop ship, it still feels like a victory. This Epilogue is so much fun, for the losing team specifically, that I started to feel a bit robbed when I had a run of several consecutive victories. I wanted to run for the drop ship. I actually wanted to lose.


While Titanfall is a multiplayer-only game, it does try to tell a story through a series of Campaign levels, and its approach is interesting at the very least. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose the battle, the story will still progress either way. That’s because in Titanfall you don’t play the hero or even anyone of particular note. You’re just a grunt, one of the faceless expendables. There are characters in this story, but you’re not one of them; there are special narrative objectives to be completed on each level, but that’s not your job. Your job is to provide a distraction, by fighting, while the main characters do their thing to progress the story.


It’s a clever way to tell a story in a multiplayer mode, and it’s interesting to experience a war story from this “unglamorous” point of view, but “interesting” doesn’t mean “exciting” or “entertaining.” It’s hard to focus on the mid-mission dialogue when you’re shooting at and being shot at by a two-story giant robot. By the third level, the story has become background noise, and you’ll forget why anything of this violence is happening. It’s unfortunate because the world has potential, and it’d be nice to see a sci-fi war between two sides of equal power with no underdog that instantly earns our sympathy. 


This Xbox 360 version of the game naturally lacks the visual pizzazz of its next-gen predecessor, but the game itself is so well designed that it could look like a Playstation 1 game and it’d still be fantastic. If you don’t have an Xbox One, then the Xbox 360 version is a more than acceptable. It’s a fine port; I played for dozens of hours (I reached the max level) and didn’t experience any glitches, bugs, or connection issues. 


Titanfall is an extremely well designed and well balanced game. Take the smart pistol for example, a gun some players are vocal about their hate of because it literally doesn’t require any aiming. It locks onto nearby enemies so all you have to do is pull the trigger. But to dismiss the smart pistol as a poorly designed weapon ignores the smart tradeoff that come with an auto-aiming gun: the timing. You have to wait for the gun to lock on enemies, which makes it fine for killing grunts who don’t react fast enough to stop you, but that also makes it awful for killing pilots who will kill you on sight. The smart pistol is a gun for rookies, but as such, it’s a gun designed to be used against the easy enemies. It’s practically useless against other players. It’s not a gun you’d ever use in serious competition, but it sure is fun as hell.

That sums up the ethos of Titanfall. It’s not concerned with kill/death ratios or weapon proficiencies, you level up so fast that even a casual player can hit the max rank, and it’s inviting for new players but never pushes away hardcore shooter fans. It’s smart in so many unexpectedly simple ways, and while it doesn’t revolutionize the online shooter genre, it is the evolution gamers have been waiting for.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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