A fan of the modern NBA would eventually grow bored if magically warped back to a pro basketball game in the 1940s. You can only watch so many six-foot-four white guys take mid-range set shots before getting the itch to stare at your not-yet-invented smartphone. Structurally, the game would be the same. Two teams of five men attempt to toss a ball into a 10-foot-high basket. But a combination of rule changes, advancements in training and fitness, and innovations from the players themselves—from the slam dunk to the crossover dribble—have dramatically altered the look and rhythm of the game. And God, the speed and verticality of the thing! Compared to their contemporaries, players from 70 years ago appear to be running and jumping in pools of invisible molasses on the court.
Similarly, Titanfall abides by the familiar core tenets of the modern military shooter, but the game’s breathtaking speed and scale sets it apart as an evolutionary leap forward. There’s a logical reason that Titanfall borrows a lot of DNA from its first-person shooter forebears. It’s the first game from Respawn Entertainment, a studio that rose from the ashes of a messy divorce between Activision and some of the higher-ups at the Call Of Duty studio, Infinity Ward. The pedigree is evident from the start. A game of Titanfall begins like any recent Call Of Duty multiplayer battle might—with a deathmatch or an objective-based round between two teams of six players who are armed to the teeth.
But the differences between the two cousins emerge just as quickly. The men and (a few) women of Call Of Duty remain infantry in the most literal sense. Like the NBA players of the post-World War II era, they stubbornly stick to the ground, preferring to crouch in cover behind a wall or lay prone in the street to pick off their targets. The troopers (called “pilots” here) of the futuristic world in Titanfall, meanwhile, act like perpetual motion machines. They run along the sides of walls using nifty parkour moves. They fire up their jetpacks for a double-jump move, darting through the air as they leap from rooftop to mountainside cliff and back. Every routine encounter with the enemy can turn into a thrilling chase scene with pilots scaling towers or ping-ponging through second-story windows. It’s like you’re fighting the galaxy’s deadliest acrobat troupe.
The frantic rhythm of pilot-versus-pilot combat takes a sudden turn a few minutes in when everyone is granted the ability to call in their own giant robot. These bots are the titans of Titanfall. A few seconds after one is summoned, it drops from the sky and smashes into the earth with a satisfying thud. Climb into the cockpit, and you’re driving a 30-foot tall steel beast. It’s an empowering feeling, and not just because you’ve suddenly got missile launchers or chainguns for arms. Something about the way your perspective of the conflict shifts in a titan reminded me of the first time I rode in the passenger side of a semi, sitting throne-like above the rest of the traffic.
The bird’s-eye view in Titanfall, in addition to granting you a smug sense of superiority, can be employed as a way to scan for snipers or for enemy titans in the distance, which you can fight like Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. The titans aren’t invincible, though, and after enough punishment, they’ll explode. Each time you earn a new titan, it feels like a treat. History is littered with attempts to implement giant mechanical robot suits into games, but they tend to operate like clunky tanks—obscenely powerful but barely agile. It’s surprising, then, that these titans, especially the more nimble lightly armored model, are so easy to maneuver.
Once titans have fallen, they threaten to dominate the battlefield, but they’re just the massive boulder in the game’s delicate rock-paper-scissors balance. Pilots without a titan aren’t helpless against them. They can bring the mechs down slowly with a strong dose of heavy weapons or opt for a high-risk/high-reward leap of faith onto the robot’s chassis. Mistime your jump, and you’ll get squashed underneath a heavy metal boot, or open yourself up to be spotted and easily dispatched. Succeed, and you hang on for dear life while firing into a weak spot in the machine’s armor like David taking down an oversized robotic Goliath. If rodeoed by an enemy—as the game calls it—a titan’s pilot must quickly decide whether to jump out of his or her protective casing and blast the hijacker away or take the chance that someone else on their team will intervene. Most other military shooters can be boiled down to the strategy of shoot-first-or-be-shot, but the wider variety of encounters in Titanfall—mech vs. mech, pilot vs. mech, or pilot vs. pilot—demands a bit more strategic thinking on the fly.
The third major faction in Titanfall is the horde of computer-controlled grunts that fight for each side of the conflict. Pairing human and computer together on the same team is a design gambit that could have easily gummed up the works, but the system succeeds in an unexpected way. For the most part, the computer-controlled opponents are fish in a barrel—barely putting up a strong fight against a well-equipped pilot. Still, they serve to even the playing field somewhat between expert and novice players by providing an alternative way for weaker players to contribute to a team’s victory. In a traditional game of Call Of Duty-style multiplayer, virtual warriors endowed with good hand-eye coordination can easily slaughter the inexperienced. In Titanfall, beginners can equip the Auto-Pistol—a weapon that neutralizes small groups of grunts in a single flurry of auto-targeted bullets but is woefully ineffective against human players—and seek out the easier prey to score points.
I’ve intentionally waited this long to talk about Titanfall’s story, and that’s because the lore is inessential to the experience. I think it involves some kind of space corporation that wants to mine a planet’s natural resources. There’s an opposing faction of scruffy mercenaries and ex-soldiers who want to be left alone. It’s difficult to care, especially when the “narrative” is delivered by a commanding officer who shouts at you while you’re either waiting to leap out of a plane or busy running away from a giant mech. Respawn might have had the courage to ditch the so-called campaign mode altogether—it’s really just a series of full-on multiplayer matches with varying rules, dressed up in a thin story. I can live without learning the hidden motivations behind the space men shooting each other and the nuances of intergalactic politics in yet another sci-fi universe.
Where Titanfall lacks meat on its considerable bones is breadth of multiplayer modes and customization options. The multiplayer innovation doesn’t extend to types of matches, which is limited to Attrition (an all-out team deathmatch killfest), Capture The Flag, Hardpoint (capture and hold territories), and Last Titan Standing (which is what it sounds like). The list of weapons you can unlock by building up your character is also a little lacking, and it would have been nice to pimp out my titan with decals or at least an Obama 2012 bumper sticker.
But instead of expending energy on the bells and whistles, Titanfall saves it all for the moment-to-moment thrills, like slamming your titan’s eject button at the last second and shooting down an enemy pilot while you rocket hundreds of feet into the air. By comparison, Call Of Duty already feels stodgy and archaic—your grandfather’s team deathmatch that might as well be presented in a grainy, sepia-toned filter on ESPN Classic with narration from Morgan Freeman.
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360 (March 25), Xbox One
Reviewed on: Xbox One