I'm not quite sure when it happened, but recently I came to the realization that I am actually a pretty big fan of shooters. What sprouted in me from middle school Halo parties and watching my older brother play Half Life, eventually blossomed into an appreciation of a wide swath of games stretching from Bioshock to Splatoon. I sometimes question how much of this preference developed due to the popularity and pervasiveness of the genre, but nevertheless I have become a regular enjoyer of a good shooter. To stay current with what shooters have to offer, it often means having to buy-in to the long-running series’ to keep up with the flow of the multiplayer community. I did this for a while with Call of Duty, but I eventually found myself wanting more. To fans of the genre or series, the changes game-to-game are meaningful enough to not brush them away with the oft-echoed claims that ‘they keep selling the same game’, but in spite of my appreciation, a few years into the annualized shooter equation I got bored. Fast-forward to 2014, the excitement of new consoles sparkling in my eyes and the promise of developers who worked on the halcyon days of Call of Duty, brought me to a brand new shooting experience: Titanfall.
Titanfall was a bit of a flash in the pan. It was not a particularly big commercial success, but it had a devoted fanbase that enjoyed it, and on a personal level I always appreciated it’s design. The concept of mixing up the supremely popular first-person shooter with the dying genre of mech combat was not a novel concept at the time. Games have been mashing-up different genres with the shooter to great success in recent past, but the approach taken with Titanfall felt unique: The mech combat was fast-paced but without losing the telltale weightiness of a giant robot, and the maps all functioned perfectly despite having to work on multiple sizing scales. While I really enjoyed my time with it, ultimately it's multiplayer user-base did not stay active for a long enough time to become the next big thing, and that was in no small part due to a multitude of issues with the game. The lack of a proper single player campaign made the full $60 price tag a poor value proposition, and despite the game feeling good, there was not much progression to be had in multiplayer to encourage long-term play. These issues were all on the front of the collective gaming mind when coming into Titanfall 2, and I can say with confidence that what came out of Respawn Entertainment this year improved the Titanfall model on every individual level.
Six different unique titan models are available, bring your whole squad!
What came out of this design process is a campaign that is built around a series of mechanical vignettes that makes each mission feel fresh, without losing its underlying charm. These entail a multitude of differences, from something as simple as fighting side-by-side with your titan on different warfronts, to sweeping mechanical changes that mess with game components like time or the environment. It is not an exceedingly long campaign, but the quality over quantity approach that is taken is greeted with open arms by the modern adult gamers like me. I was able to complete it on the normal difficulty in around six hours, but that didn’t stop me from going back and going through the game again in a higher difficulty, despite this being a practice that I reserve almost exclusively for Dark Souls titles and games from my childhood. While fun, the experience was not perfect, the lack of mechanical focus at times made the campaign feel a little disjointed. The goals and means of the player often changed between missions, and the drastic changes in environment sometimes felt like the devs were more concerned about set pieces than a unified aesthetic. Titanfall 2 similarly did not feel great from a storyline perspective but, considering Titanfall had almost no story, I was not coming into the sequel with high narrative expectations.
The story itself is loosely draped over the cool level design and mechanics, and in that sense it isn’t great. It is a generic sci-fi story of the space frontier rebelling against the oppressive government/industrial complex, and I would say it is fine. Fine is not a dirty word in games when regarding storylines, the medium has proved it is capable of doing more, but we don't need every game to ‘reach for the feels’ like Depression Quest or Firewatch, and that’s okay. What makes the story special to me is the angle. The player still inhabits a generic McSuperSoldier, but the story takes an approach that makes the A.I. inside your Titan the emotional center of our storyline. The developers slyly added simple dialog choices at key interactions that allow you to choose how you interact with your Titan, and while most of them are not particularly disparate, the interactions add some endearing personality to your codified friend. Again, not necessarily new, the dialog choice has been an important part of the RPG for some time, but seeing even the simplest of options in a campaign that could have easily played it safe was a nice touch; more than worthy of acknowledgement.
The single-player is not flawless, but demands respect. It will sell a lot of copies, but what will make the game truly a success and keep it on the front of the minds of players for the long-haul is the multiplayer. My hot and heavy fling with the original Titanfall multiplayer was something I look back on with fondness, but I admit it didn’t have the legs to keep me playing. But, I have good news: the issues with progression and variability in the online multiplayer from Titanfall are all but gone with the new multiplayer in Titanfall 2. More weapons are available in each category, and similarly more options for upgrades and modification, something that the original game was sorely lacking. Respawn also made smart changes to how the character ‘levels up’ by abolishing a traditional experience points system in favor of something new, called merits. Merits are provided by a multitude of actions, and while they function very similarly to XP, keeping the numbers small and the flow of points constant gives the player an approachable view of the system, and easy ways to set personal gameplay goals. The weapons and titans themselves also progress using a merit system, where they had no such progression system in the past. Actions like headshots or saving a teammate’s titan from an enemy pilot grant merits, and I think it is really smart to reward players with progression this way, as it also advocates good teamwork practices.
The visual tech lags a bit behind other titles, but it still manages to be impress
Player choice is paramount in Titanfall 2, and in addition to the traditional arsenal of weapons and pilot abilities, the titans and progressive unlocks themselves become choices for the player. Collecting merits and leveling up will unlock new items, titans, and skins as you go, but this leads to a problem: linearity. New players coming to the game only have access to one model of titan and a handful of weapons, but will be immediately thrown into a mix of folks armed to the teeth with wild new weaponry. While this accomplishes the goal of giving new players something exciting to look forward to, it also can enable players to get ‘stuck in the mud’ and use the less interesting options they have become accustomed to strictly on the basis of comfort. While a total circumvention of the system walks a dangerous line, Titanfall 2 does its part to combat this with a secondary currency system. I realize that the word ‘currency’ is overloaded, and it can carry implications of pay-to-win games and micro-transactions, but I can say with confidence that ‘credits’ cannot currently be purchased with real money for a competitive advantage. A clever player can use strategies to earn it more quickly, but even just with casual play I was able to unlock a couple guns and a titan that I was particularly interested in trying before being able to earn them. As a whole, I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience with Titanfall 2’s multiplayer. With more items to unlock and a smart community management system, I see myself spending a lot more time Titanfall 2 online, and I hope the community stays active into the future so I can always be ‘ready for titanfall’. I’m excited to see what the future holds for the franchise, and while I would prefer that it didn’t move into the doldrums of annualization, I would happily pick up another Titanfall game a few years down the line. Who knows? Maybe I will still be playing this one.
The powerful combination of quality multiplayer and a compelling single-player campaign come together to make a complete package with Titanfall 2. I worry a bit about it, considering its launch position firmly between EA’s Battlefield One and the unstoppable force that is Call of Duty, but I think the quality speaks for itself. I don't think everyone will engage with the campaign on a level that I did, and I am sure those folks that regularly trounce me in multiplayer would have even more to say on the intricacies of the online play, but ultimately I think there is something for almost everyone in Titanfall 2.
Pass on this review!
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Release Date: October 28th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: Xbox One