Titanfall reviews happened on Tuesday, but we held off to give you a fairer view of how the online shooter handles outside of a press environment. Dave Cook says it's fine, but feels the campaigns are pointless.
As you can see from these Titanfall reviews, the games press really liked Respawn Entertainment's shooter debut. I get the feeling few people were surprised at the numbers after months of hype and positive coverage.
"The skill-set picked up from Call of Duty is applicable in Titanfall in that you need to move fast, shoot quick and be wary of each arena’s layout. That’s pretty much where the raw comparisons end."
For months many of you complained that the press was being suckered into the vortex of excitement and headlines orchestrated by EA's marketing puppeteers and spin doctors, and that the game couldn't possibly be as good as we were all making out. God forbid the critics get universally optimistic about a game for once, but I agree with the critical consensus; Titanfall a superb shooter that offers a new dynamic on the twitch arena format. It is a good game.
We're not a review site, but given Titanfall's online-only nature, we didn't feel right about fully appraising the game based on an enclosed press event. That's why I've been playing the shooter as much as possible at home on my 60MB wired line, with a view to gauging just how well it holds together in the wild. I'm also up to level 25, so I've spent a great deal of time playing around with Respawn's suite of firearms, Titan upgrades and more.
Reach for the Sky
Titanfall's just Call of Duty with robots, except it's not Call of Duty with robots. I see this presumption often, and it's flat-out incorrect. The barebones twitch handling is fast and the button-mapping is the same as Activision's franchise - but so what? That's like saying Modern Warfare 3 is just Quake 3: Arena with more moustaches. It's a bullshit comparison.
I play Call of Duty a lot with my friends, and have done so almost religiously since the first Modern Warfare came out. I'll concede that the skill-set picked up from those games is applicable in Titanfall to a point in that you need to move fast, shoot quick and be wary of each arena's layout. That's pretty much where the raw comparisons end, and that's also why Respawn's game is refreshing.
To begin my play-test I hopped into the Militia campaign, which sees a rag-tag rebel force locking horns with the IMC faction across the Frontier; a cluster of fringe colonies engaged in a violent power struggle. You're given the option of playing through the stories of both sides sequentially, thanks to a pre-made playlist. These lists are still online-only, and see you match-made with other players across a variety of game modes.
Between each map you're treated to some overlaid dialogue in the lobby, which sets up the modus operandi of each faction, and the reason for each skirmish. Matches feature additional radio chatter from various characters as their stories play out away from the battlefield, but I'll admit I had a hard time following what was going on amid all the gunfire and 30-foot robots exploding all over the joint. As a method of narrative delivery it's a total mess.
Lobby downtime is typically spent building your pilot and Titan class load-outs. Chances are you'll be too busy sifting through your Burn Card deck, tweaking your weapon attachments or thinking about how to improve your arsenal to let all the story chatter sink in. Aside from the opening cut-scene which also does a weak job of explaining the world state and the reason for this costly war, there are no story scenes to speak of. Just an assortment of characters you feel nothing for, and lines of heinous dialogue you can't help smirk at.
"Respawn’s interwoven online campaign was something of an error. I would have liked an offline or possibly co-op campaign to establish Titanfall’s universe."
In short; the events of the Titan Wars led former IMC officer James MacAllan to turn on his old corporation, and is now waging war against Vice Admiral Marcus Graves. Some missions see players fighting for control of fuel deposits or auto turrets, but I honestly found the story largely superfluous. I didn't really care about these people or their war, which leads me to believe that Respawn's interwoven online campaign was something of an error. Now that I think about, sitting here, I would have liked an offline or possibly co-op campaign to establish Titanfall's universe.
The maps themselves do reveal slivers of plot, such as the desert wastes of Boneyard, with their giant alien skeletons, which suggest the IMC has ravaged nature with its rampant industrialisation. Such presumptions are left up to the player however, and I guess that's fun as someone who likes to use their imagination in games, but those who want a straight-up tale may be left wanting. The end of the Militia campaign is supposed to be emotional, and there's even a sad tune overlaid across the continuing carnage. The hammy dialogue makes what should have been poignant utterly comedic.
After the climax, I wiped the laugh-tears from my eyes and went into the core online mode.
Away from the plot, Titanfall's core online play is where you'll be spending most of your time levelling up, unlocking new things and keeping your K/D ratio above the waterline. Matches play out across several modes, such as Team Deathmatch equivalent Attrition, and Hardpoint, which is essentially Call of Duty's Domination mode. There's also Pilot Hunter which only doles out points for killing human opponents, Capture the Flag and Last Titan Standing. The latter sees everyone spawning in their mechs and duelling to the death.
It's a stripped back offering you can enjoy in a random variety playlist, but I get the feeling more modes will appear across Titanfall's three confirmed DLC packs. The same is true of Respawn's weapon assortment, with its typical assault rifle, SMG, shotgun, LMG and sniper rifle primaries, which is presumably reduced in the name of balancing. Perhaps you've seen what happens when an online FPS launches with too many weapons and a lack of balance. It's not fun, so kudos to Respawn for keeping things sensible for the time being.
"Perhaps you've seen what happens when an online FPS launches with too many weapons and a lack of balance. It's not fun, so kudos to Respawn for keeping things sensible for the time being."
On the other hand matches are anything but sensible - they're utterly insane. This is the kind of game Twitch streaming and DVR capture were made for, thanks to the aerial prowess of your Pilot. The feedback you get from wall-running along several vertical surfaces before jump-kicking an opponent to death is tantamount to scoring a 50-metre sniper kill in Battlefield 4, or nailing a 25-kill streak in Call of Duty: Ghosts. The difference is you can't pull off this kind of stunt in either game, and that's why Titanfall is more than a copycat with robots. It enables you to do new things.
As a Pilot you'll need to make good use of your height advantage, and if you're used to being grounded by other shooters it may take a few rounds before you realise just how fluidly you can traverse the terrain. Getting up high and raining hell down on other players is a strong tactic, and if you must sprint across exposed land down below, your stealth cloak ability can help reduce the chances of you being killed en route. The lay of the land is important here, and the onus is on you to study every elevated vantage point, alternate path and parkour-chaining route.
You're not just fighting other human Pilots of course, but AI grunts that I'll admit feel pretty weak at this point. Killing one of these troops will shave time off your next Titan drop - as do most scoring conditions - so in a way you're splitting your concentration between fighting other players, meeting your objective and killing AI to be the first to achieve a Titanfall. I like that tension and the fast-paced gameplay it brings, but the AI is weak, often standing around waiting to die without any real reaction to your presence.
I still refuse to acknowledge that the AI grunts were added just to make matches feel more populated however, because you need to play this game to understand that any more Titans or Pilots on any of these maps would break the flow and make everything too messy. Cast your mind back to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare's Shipment map, with its near-instant death and grenade spam. That's what 64-player Titanfall would feel like; a total mess and an outright failure of pacing.
"Some of the rarer Burn Cards could use some balancing work. One card highlights all enemies on the map in short, ten second intervals. My K/D went through the roof."
Titanfall's pace is well-realised, particularly in Hardpoint mode. There's a real tug-of-war mentality at play as you vie for control of each of the three command points, which is only heightened once Titans start falling from orbit. Mech battles are great fun and their presence doesn't really upset the gun-on-gun balance at all. In fact, I've had my Titan reduced to scrap in less than a minute under duress from other mechs and Pilots packing anti-Titan weapons. You are not invincible while in a Titan by any means.
Pilot boosters come in the form of Burn Cards, which are essentially collectible perks that can be used before a round starts, or ahead of a respawn. The system is almost flawless; offering a buff for one life only, before resetting. However, some of the rarer cards could use some balancing work. One card highlights all enemies on the map in short, ten second intervals. My K/D went through the roof thanks to this, and I'm sure I got people screaming at their screens as I broke their neck from behind.
Other cards offer one life of double XP, more-powerful versions of your primary weapon and instant Titan drops. It's a neat mechanic that should banish any fears you have concerning Call of Duty's notorious Ghost perk and other abilities that tend to get players upset. None of that crap exists here, at least not sustained throughout a whole round. The lack of killstreak rewards also helps maintain a balanced playing field, and one skill that lets players see enemies through walls is stunted due to radar delay and not being able to distinguish pilot from AI.
Success in the Wild?
During my most-recent four hour session, which I simultaneously streamed using Microsoft's Xbox One Twitch app, I only encountered one instance of lag, which saw the game stutter and jerk around for all of 20 seconds. The rest of the game ran smoothly and without issue. It's better to be safe than sorry when the success of online-only games like Titanfall hinges on netcode, and as we've seen this week, the PC edition hasn't launched without issue.
Titanfall does match the hype levels as a straight-up online shooter that has the capacity to excite, enthuse and enthral players. The sight of five mechs hurling levitated rockets back and forth in a fierce death-volley while pilots double-jump and zip-line over head is incredible to witness, and there's a degree of 'punch' behind every robotic melee attack and shotgun blast that delivers instant gratification every time. This a game that dispenses empowerment freely, but I still maintain that the campaign delivery falls wide of the target.
I'd like to see the inevitable Titanfall 2 come with a full campaign. If ever there was a case for offline story modes in shooters, this is it.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, EA sent Dave a copy of Titanfall on Xbox One.