Respawn Entertainment’s sci-fi, competitive shooter Titanfall is not Call of Duty with mechs. It’s a phrase I’ve seen often prior to and even after the former’s launch, and while it’s not an unfair comparison to make considering the history behind its developer, Titanfall manages to stand on its own legs. In fact, I find it a much needed breath of fresh air as someone who has become jaded with Activision’s yearly franchise.
Of course, there’s still plenty of shared DNA between the two. You fight other players in 6v6 matches, earning experience points, leveling up and unlocking new weapons, perks and abilities to customize your loadouts with. Gun handling is as tight as you’d expect, and the control scheme is fairly familiar. But Titanfall‘s emphasis on speed and player accessibility make it something else. The result is a shooter that manages to infuse excitement into nearly every moment without causing sputters of rage, at least for me, when things go wrong.
Titanfall is a fast moving game. Every player, referred to as pilots in-universe, is equipped with boosters allowing for double jumps and quick scaling. Once you gain momentum, you can also wall run, bounce between surfaces, or even change your direction on a dime. Those maneuvers are surprisingly easy to do, as well. Rarely did I think I was fighting the controls.
It’s actually difficult to come to a standstill due to how freeing that command over your environment is. Navigating a map starts to feel less about where the it wants you to go but where you wish to be, and its large arenas can be crossed in relative quickness as you learn what you’re capable of. It’s a rewarding sensation that brings to memory the Unreal Tournaments and Quakes of years gone by rather than the more grounded shooters of today. The amusement park high of those mechanics has the added bonus of keeping players on the go. Campers are thankfully rare.
It’s amazing how the simple act of running and jumping can be so enjoyable, but making every action rewarding seems to be Titanfall‘s binding glue. It leans heavily towards accessibility, though that doesn’t mean it’s dumbed down nor lacking in challenge. It’s just easier to have fun with.
A large part of that has to do with the scores of AI combatants on every map and the titans you can climb into. Titans are mechs with large, powerful weaponry that can turn any unaware pilot into a cloud of mist, but they also require a slower, more thoughtful playstyle to succeed. Because their health doesn’t regenerate, only their shields, battles between titans can be a game of backing off, flanking, and dodging between buildings to avoid barrages of fire. It’s not a change of pace everyone will enjoy, but watching one fall from the sky, leaping off a rooftop to be grabbed by its arm and placed in its cabin, then crushing enemies underfoot and outsmarting another titan or two is visually satisfying even if it doesn’t last long after.
If you prefer combat as a pilot, you can set titans to follow or guard mode, leaving them to their own devices or positioning them to defend positions. And the game is balanced so that those on foot aren’t at a severe disadvantage. Every player is equipped with an anti-titan weapon in addition to their primary and secondary. You can even jump on a titan’s back to open and fire upon exposed hardware. There’s no cooler scenario than destroying one as a fragile meatbag, then jumping from its exploding shell to further humiliate its former host by kicking him or her to their death.
It’s hard not to describe the action as busy, which is why it’s also so damn fun to play. You’re never not doing something impressive, and the game’s AI soldiers contribute to this as both a pilot and titan. Aside from populating the battlefield, eliminating concerns that 6v6 would leave them too barren, these cannon fodder troops give you scores of targets to shoot at on the way to wherever you’re going. Titanfall rewards you for doing so, as well. Titans are deployed on a cooldown, starting at several minutes, and every AI grunt or spectre you eliminate shaves off crucial seconds from that clock. They’re equally important in the team deathmatch mode, Attrition, where killing them adds to your team’s score. If you’re not particularly adept at fighting other humans, you can spend your time conquering the AI and not feel like a burden.
Titanfall is an online-only shooter, though, so you’re going to be facing other players in whatever mode you choose. The classic list includes Hardpoint, their take on Domination; the aforementioned Attrition; Last Titan Standing, where everyone starts in a titan and you only have one life per round; Capture the Flag; Pilot Hunter, in which the only way to score points is to kill other pilots; and a mix of all modes in Variety Pack. There is a campaign, but don’t expect a grand story. You’re simply playing Attrition and Hardpoint with a few bits of fluff dialog thrown in as an evil corporation battles a spunky militia on the frontier planets. Winning or losing doesn’t change how its thin plot develops, and you’ll be hard pressed to care about the who, when and where as it doesn’t present you with a clear raison d’être for any of it.
Customization options are somewhat slim, too. There are five loadouts for both the titan and pilot, with the options to choose from weapons and their accessories, two kits (perks), three titan chassis, tactical abilities and so on. There’s not an overly large selection in each category. It doesn’t prevent you from creating several specialized builds, but not everything is especially useful. That created homogeneity in what other players and I tended to use. As just one example, it was rare to see anything other than the R-101C Carbine and the C.A.R. submachine gun from the total selection of ten primaries.
As sound, exhilarating and rewarding Titanfall‘s mechanics are, there is a certain sense of lightness to the package. For the first game from a new studio, not having everything you want shouldn’t be too unexpected, but a few of what else it’s missing is confounding coming from some of the people who launched the Call of Duty franchise. There’s no clan tag option. You can’t rename your custom loadouts. There are no patches nor emblems to unlock and display, save for the badge next to your name denoting your prestige level. Private matches will be added at a later date, but for launch you’re stuck playing with only five of your friends. Most egregious is the lack of team shuffling. None of the above issues overly hurt the game, and hopefully several can be addressed with patches, but I do want a bit more meat on the inevitable sequel.
Visually, I have little to complain about. There are a few grungy textures that are an eyesore, but Titanfall wins in artistic direction. Every map is beautiful with grand backdrops and animations are all around impressive. It does need a few patches to iron out some performance hitches on the PC, however. The worst offender on my end was a jittery mouselook. Adding the command line “+m_rawinput 1” without quotations to the game via Origin managed to solve that problem. Using a gamepad is also an option if your mouse is giving you trouble, and it works surprisingly well.
Titanfall is a shot of adrenaline. It constantly presents you with awesome scenarios thanks to its speed, freedom of movement and accessible content. I can’t count the times I whooped and hollered in delight. Win or lose, I was having fun. That’s not something I can easily say for its competition. But it also feels a little bare bones, missing some content we normally expect from such games. Regardless, if you’re looking for your next competitive shooter, Titanfall deserves your attention.
Titanfall is developed by Respawn Entertainment and published by Electronic Arts. It is available at an MSRP of $59.99. A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.