Titanfall Review17 Mar 2014  by
Regular readers will know from my launch impressions piece that this review was meant to be a joint work between the three of us. Then Peter didn’t get a copy, probably because he committed a war crime or something. Then Paul decided he was far too busy – possibly as a character witness for Peter at the Hague; I’m not sure – for such mundane things as “writing a joint review.” Which leaves muggins here holding the bag and sighing loudly.
So, Titanfall, eh? You probably already know what it is, but: it’s a multiplayer-only sci-fi shooter featuring both acrobatic Pilots that can double-jump and wall-run, and giant walking death robots called Titans which can be summoned and piloted by players. It’s also THE GREAT SAVIOUR of the Xbox One, being the first real killer app for that particular system. It’s also also something coming under intense scrutiny because it’s the first game from Respawn Entertainment, the company founded by a number of ex-Infinity Ward types. As such, there have been a lot of naval-gazing articles about whether or not Titanfall will be the next Modern Warfare blah blah blah.
Which is not particularly important, unless you 1) work for Respawn Entertainment or EA; 2) have some sort of disturbing fetish for one console or another; or 3) have some sort of disturbing fetish for playing whatever’s caught the general populace’s attention to the complete exclusion of everything else. I suppose it might also matter to you if you have various other disturbing fetishes that I really don’t want to write about, so let’s stop there before I start trying to prove a meaningless point by Googling for robot-on-soldier porn.
Rather more important are two questions. First: is it any good? Second: has the PC port been given more time and attention than the traditional “it’s fine, nobody’ll give a shit anyway” port certain big publishers give to PC conversions?
The aforementioned launch impressions piece focused almost entirely on the second question, but a few points bear repeating. For starters, this is an online-only game that actually bloody worked in launch week, which I’m pretty sure is mentioned somewhere in the Book of Revelations. And yes, the PC port is really rather good: it runs nippily, it seems decently optimised, it has all the bells and whistles you might expect (like an FOV slider), and you’d honestly have a hard time thinking it had been designed for any other system.
The PC port, in short, is fantastic. I’m wary of using the word “flawless” because I’ve obviously only tested it on my machine, but as far as ports go, I haven’t seen much to suggest it’s really gotten anything wrong.
The game, though, is going to take a bit longer to talk through.
I suppose we should start with the obvious comparisons. Yes, there’s quite a lot of Call of Duty‘s DNA in this, insofar as it’s an incredibly fast-paced shooter with a ridiculous level of lethality. But while these elements are familiar, Titanfall mixes them up like a man with an industrial strength blender and a desire for a smoothie made of… game elements? Okay, I didn’t think that through.
Moving swiftly on, the biggest change oddly isn’t the Titans themselves – it’s the on-foot Pilots, because they’ve got a ludicrous amount of freedom of movement. Pilots don’t just sprint and jump. They can double-jump. They can wall-run. They can combine these two elements with sprinting to rapidly traverse the map, bounding from wall to wall, leaping to high-up locations that aren’t reachable through the simple action of walking.
As such, you’re not sprinting from cover to cover in clearly delineated levels. Each map is a wide-open playground that might be made up of a combination of wide streets, ruined plazas, massive skyscrapers, winding alleys, and (naturally) building interiors. You can’t just walk to the top of a skyscraper, but if you sprint down that alley, and then leap onto the wall, and wall-jump to the other wall, and time it just right so that you sail over the top of the building and hit the wall of the higher building next to it, then leap off that to mantle onto the… and so on.
Which brings me neatly to the first thing I absolutely bloody love about Titanfall: the map design. It is really, really good – and more than that, it’s hugely impressive from a design standpoint. Terrain has to be placed to allow wall-running, and maps have to have a degree of verticality to make parkour-ish feats of acrobatics worthwhile. You’ve got to have your little choke points and your big killing fields, and you’ve got to have little places to duck into on the ground, and you’ve got to have rooftops to sprint along. But that’s not all, of course; you’ve also got to balance the map for the huge Titans that can’t jump and can’t fit into small gaps. The fact that pretty much every map not only nails this but feels completely distinct from every other map is something that still surprises me.
The Titans themselves aren’t exactly window dressing, though. They’re huge, walking artillery pieces; they don’t quite have a BattleMech’s feeling of aggressive weight, but they’re certainly not nippy – and that sense of being a big mobile gun is emphasised by the difference in mobility from when you’re on foot. In most other games they wouldn’t feel all that sluggish, but here? Here, all but the fastest are pretty sloth-like when compared to a stimmed-up Pilot.
The Titans are a really good example of how carefully and cleverly balanced Titanfall is, though. While Titan vs Titan combat is generally a joust as both try to fire off shots, use defences to provide protection, and duck behind buildings when shields need regenerating, it’s the Titan vs Pilot combat that’s really interesting. Titans are obscenely powerful, capable of taking out pilots in a single blast of whatever weapon they have equipped… if they can shoot/stand on/punch the pilot, who – in a Titan’s eyes – are tiny little dots that keep swooping into the air and disappearing into buildings. Titans are also the most obvious thing on the battlefield, so hopping into a one is the equivalent of painting a big target on yourself.
But Pilots aren’t defenceless against Titans. Pilots have three weapon slots – main weapon, sidearm, and anti-Titan weapon – and the latter, quite obviously, is geared for battle against the mechanical behemoths. If a Pilot can get off a string of shots, they can really hurt a Titan. They can also use their mobility as an advantage, leaping on top of an enemy Titan and exposing a weak point that they can then shoot with their sidearm, completely bypassing the need to break through the thing’s shields. Of course, the Pilot inside the Titan gets a warning when you do this, so they can either hop out and shoot you, or use one of the Titan’s many toys that are apt at dealing with this sort of personal space invasion. Checks and balances.
That’s if there’s a Pilot inside, mind you. An unoccupied Titan is controlled by the AI, and can be instructed to either follow its designated Pilot around, or to guard an area. You can leave your Titan outside to guard a building while you hop inside to take over a capture point, or you can use it as a big mobile target when you run across an open expanse, guessing that most people will be more concerned with that than with you.
Going back to Call of Duty comparisons, Titans are the rough equivalent of Killstreaks, but significantly better balanced. You can call one down every few minutes, with the timer reduced for, say, killing other players. This means that everyone will get at least one per match, but the better players will likely get theirs earlier. Naturally, though, picking the moment when you want to call yours down is another rather large tactical choice, as you really don’t want to be on your own against a squad of enemy Titans.