Art by Citrus King
Last year gave us the reveal of Titanfall, a first-person shooter from the folks who brought us Call of Duty that would usher in this next generation of gaming heading our way, particularly as a centerpiece for the Xbox One. “Oh goody, the future of gaming shall be represented with another damn military shooter,” I initially said to this reveal with all of the enthusiasm I typically reserve for military shooters or an announcement of a Michael Bay-produced Dinosaucers remake. So I dismissed it and moved on. But as time moved forward, I found myself being gradually intrigued by Titanfall, bit by bit…
Maybe it was the fact that it would be a Team Fortress 2-style multiplayer shooter, or maybe it was the gameplay built around fancy moves with jetpacks and giant robots, and we all know there isn’t anything that can’t be improved with the addition of jetpacks and giant robots. And I also realized that if I’m ever to truly become any sort of professional video game critic, I will need to step out of my comfort zone from time to time. And since the only other thing close to a military shooter I’ve played was Spec Ops: The Line – which was actually a deconstruction and takedown of the genre which hit me so hard that it gave me PTSD (I still have flashbacks about the burns, the horrible burns) – I decided to let curiosity get the better of me and give Titanfall a shot. So would it be a surprising success, or would it be, as Zero Punctuation would put it, another case of spunkgargleweewee? Let’s find out…
And as a bonus, to test out the Xbox One’s new Twitch streaming service introduced alongside the game, I decided to add in my own full-on Let’s Play of Titanfall! Come watch me experience the game for the first time as I awkwardly try out my first-ever Let’s Play, and regret picking a game where you can’t talk much because at least five other people can hear you and a stream of gunfire is always on. Um, yay?
The Lows of Titanfall
3. Cheating Bastards and Overly Experienced Players
Now to be fair, I can’t necessarily call this the fault of Titanfall myself, more like the fault of more than a few dickhole players. But needless to say, it does sap a little bit of one’s enjoyment to walk in as a fresh-faced new player, unload an entire round’s worth of ammo onto another player to the point where that if a small breeze passed by, their body would able to play an entire rendition of “Whistle While You Work”, only to have that player shrug it off and kill you in one shot like they were simply swatting a fly. Several players I saw on the very first day of release were already up to Level 25 and beyond, thus giving them access to the greater variety of toys and means to turn obstacles into worm food. It seems as though more than a few people have too much time on their hands, and possibly access to an IV drip and a bedpan.
But players with a huge advantage due to a gap in experience earned by playing the game is one thing; straight up cheating is another. Titanfall seem to have been plagued by cheaters so far, using hacks such as aimbots and the like to score easy kills and pump up their experience quicker. Because who needs to develop actual skills to lead them to victory when you can just lift a few hacks off of a shady website? Enjoyment of other players be damned! Respawn is busy working on logging those who cheat in order to ban them, though hopefully not before before finding a way to send someone over to their houses and shove a giant metal fist up their asses.
…Or it could just be possible that I stink at this game. Meh, highly unlikely.
2. The Visuals Can Still Feel a Bit Samey
So it kind of goes without saying that Titanfall has some gorgeous graphics and landscapes…unfortunately, getting more variety into those landscapes was apparently too much to ask for. There are some notable touches, like evacuated business rooms with office supplies still on the tables, abandoned colonies with closed-up Electric Chicken booths in the streets to add a little levity, or even frickin’ dragons that swoop down from the sky and pick off the occasional grunt, depending on the map. But alas, more often than not it still stoops to the levels of the oh-so-popular wrecked buildings decked out in brown/gray/green colors seen in so many modern shooters.
I never found this to be too much of a trouble…at least not as much as trying to tell all the pilots, grunts and robot soldiers apart, and whether or not they’re on your side. I realize a realistic military unit would opt for more practically-colored uniforms, but here’s the thing, Titanfall: You’re a game with fucking giant robots in it. I think this means you’re allowed a little leeway when it comes to realistic uniform design.
At the very least, there’s no friendly fire, so you’re never in danger of accidentally killing your teammates due to any mixups. But in the heat of battle, the only way to tell the difference between friend and foe is to wait for the red or blue user name to pop up above their heads, and the second or so before that happens means the difference between a successful kill and having to do your best impression of Sonny Corleone.
Good luck trying to differentiate between the aforementioned pilots, grunts and robot soldiers as well, especially in Pilot Hunter, where the goal is to specifically kill pilots, surprisingly enough. Everyone just has the same gray outfit, free of any distinguishing features to easily notice. I wish they had taken some inspiration from fellow arena shooter Team Fortress 2’s design choices: you are a red-colored guy. See the blue-colored guys? Kill them. That wasn’t so hard, was it (okay, so spy checking involves attacking your own team, but still)?
1. The Campaign Mode Is a Complete Joke
So the developers of Titanfall made quite a big deal about how they would bring forth a unique marriage between the story-driven Campaign Mode and the player-versus-player shooter, a type of genre not particularly known for strong stories. As it turned out, this marriage was more akin to a green-card wedding, in that the two partners have no real affection to another and are just doing this for convenience and for show, while anyone watching will quickly see it for the shallow, loveless sham it really is.
Where to begin? Well, there’s always the story, I suppose. So in the future, we perfected a warp-like form of space travel, then something something giant robots something something huge corporation something something militia who hate said corporation and then they fight, they bite, they fight and bite and fight etc. To say that the whole scenario is poorly explained is somewhat of an understatement. Whatever glimpses of plot explaining who you’re fighting and why you’re doing this are there either get explained in a thirty-second-or-so voiceover before each mission while you’re trying to prepare your pilot, or during said mission via character conversations that take place while a hail of gunfire and rockets is upon you and you’re just trying to concentrate on surviving. It’s sort of like the classic scenario of being asked to solve a difficult math equation while thirty TVs are blaring in your face at full volume, but the equation here shouldn’t even be that difficult.
But I haven’t even gotten to the structure of the Campaign Mode yet. After ending my first point capture match for the initial mission, I noticed that the story was still continuing, despite our team having lost. I initially figured this might have been setting up some sort of branching plot or sorts, where maybe the ongoing story, next map, or next type match might be different depending on your results. But nope, win or lose, the story continues on, the same as usual. You see, all of the events that move the plot forward? They happen offscreen with NPCs or via communications and video between them and you happening via a tiny screen in your HUD. they move everything forward; you’re just there so your battle gives them support or cover, or so they say.
So looking at that, you might ask yourself: As a nameless pilot, what exactly is one’s role in Titanfall’s story? What do you contribute to it? The answer, to put it politely, is JACK FUCKING SHIT. Not to bring up another blatant Zero Punctuation reference, but in his Ryse: Son of Rome review, Yahtzee joked about how in the future, games will just consist of one button you push that makes the game play itself for six hours. Well Yahtzee, I’m positive you’ll be glad to know that Titanfall is certainly ahead of its time when it comes to the Campaign mode. Sure, you can still participate in the actual multiplayer battles, but anything you actually do is pointless when it comes to the story. Hell, in the most damning proof of this, one player was actually able to beat the campaign without firing a single shot.
So to recap, the plot is a mess and you play no real part in it anyway. It’s all just background noise, tucked away behind actual background noise. And sorry if I’ve ragged on for quite a bit about this (I didn’t even mention how you have to play the campaign twice in a vain attempt to present the whole story), but Christ on a bike, not since Arkham City have I personally seen a triple-A game with such a shoddy handling of its story. But thankfully, the plot is still only secondary to the game’s multiplayer action, despite trying to be front and center. So maybe there we can find some redeeming features…
The Highs of Titanfall
4. The Parkour and Wide Open Areas
So if there’s one area where Titanfall definitely makes up for its dismal story, it’s in delivering a great amount of variety in the combat area. And one good part of that is the game’s jetpack-fueled parkour, which allows for seamless and fun wall running and double jumping. After all, who would deny the joy of being able to run on the side of an office building, then double jump across the street to land on a fellow pilot’s mech in time to help ride shotgun for him and pick off a few grunts from high up? And speaking of said mechs, their involvement thankfully ensures some particularly nice and large maps to have a good old fashioned deathmatch in, with the perfect amount of structures and scenery built in to work with.
So whether you want to jump up to top of a building to secure the best vantage point for sniping, run across the side of a giant sign to reach the vantage point where that jerkwad sniper picking of your teammates is, or dash and jump up to a second-story window in order to seek cover from that jerkwad sniper and distract him while your friend takes care of him, Titanfall’s arenas thankfully allow for a lot of maneuverability, freedom and exploration, creating an enjoyable world to blow stuff away in class.
3. The Mech Combat
So would you believe that being able to commandeer a giant robot and use it to launch a barrage of missiles at that lone pilot who just killed your jerkwad sniper friend turns out to be fun? Giant robot combat turns out to be fun – imagine that! After a specific amount of time in combat (which is shortened with each kill you rack up), you gain the ability to summon a Titan in combat, a giant mech that plummets out of the sky and lands on the ground with a massive impact in a scene that never failed to impress…especially when the Titan you summon just happens just happens to land on another enemy, even another Titan that your baby stomps right into the ground. It kind of goes without saying that the Titans are the game’s iconic feature and main draw, so thankfully their inclusion is pulled off superbly. Just push a button to jump into your Titan and within moments you’re piloting a ton of carnage-inducing steel through the base of an intergalactic prison, capturing bullets Magneto-style and flinging them back at your foes before dashing over to another Titan and and punching it in the face, ready to reenact your favorite kaiju battle.
Maybe you prefer battling on foot, perhaps heading into a building to secure a point while your now-AI-controlled Titan provides cover. Or perhaps your prefer a custom Titan that shoots out electrified smoke instead of being able to capture bullets that also moves faster. What I’m saying is the addition of Titans to the multiplayer combat is fun and allows for a lot of variety…and a gleeful amount of chaos when multiple Titans end up duking it out. And there’s always the Last Titan Standing mode if you want more of that…which you will.
2. The Wide Variety and Balance in Combat
I know it seems hypocritical of me to praise the game being balanced despite the very first complaint I made here, but despite how other players end up behaving in-game, at least everything is designed to offer up a fair combat experience. You might think that the numerous Titans roaming around the battlefield will easily squish you like a bug (which they can literally do, and will), but your pilot thankfully comes equipped with an anti-Titan weapon, allowing for proper defense again the lumbering machines. Hell, you can even double jump onto an enemy Titan’s back like you were initiating some sort of attack on a behemoth/goliath/colossus/etc. and then proceed to blow the rust bucket’s brains out with a carbine rifle, and successfully killing a Titan in this matter as it explodes and send you rocketing away victoriously makes you feel like your testicles suddenly expanded to the size of bowling balls.
As mentioned earlier, variety in combat such as that indeed spices up everything nicely, and the multitude of weapons and skills you unlock to customize your pilot with allows you to try out several different tactics and styles of play until you find something that works especially well for you. And even then, the odds are still evenly stacked against you as well. It all provides a nice, even challenge, moreso when the asses of the aforementioned cheaters have a suitable amount of Titan fist crammed up them.
1. All the Little Things
…Okay, I realize that this might be a bit of a cop out as the the number one high of Titanfall, but I can’t help it. Pointing to Team Fortress 2 again, all of my favorite moments in it come not from anything gigantic, but rather from the little bits that an arena shooter with a lot of variety can offer, like jumping down from a ledge above an unsuspecting Spy and decapitating him in one blow just as he cloaks, earning you an achievement. And Titanfall thankfully provides several opportunities for moments such as those, although in retrospect I may have already mentioned some of my best memories in the previous bits, dang it.
So what other little joys did this clash of the Titans bring me? Well, there was being ejected out of my Titan just as a rival Titan destroyed me, whereupon I then landed back on their ride and proceeded to exact sweet revenge via the previously mentioned gun-based brain surgery. There’s also the moment where you successfully blow up the enemy’s dropship sent to evacuate them when they lose, an act that grants you more experience and allows for a choice rubbing of salt in their wounds. Or maybe it’s just rushing in with an SMG and blowing away a string of five or so enemy grunts, topped off by hacking one of their Spectres that survived so that it fights for you. It’s the sum of the parts that equals the whole, as always, and the whole of Titanfall is thankfully filled in by the types of insane violence that create treasured memories. As it should be.
So with all of that wrapped up, what’s the final verdict for Titanfall? Well, despite the fact that I’ll arguably just repeat whatever final thoughts I have in the video above, the conclusion is that Titanfall reminded me a lot of the original Halo for the original Xbox, appropriately enough. Everybody kept talking on and on about how legendary this game was and that it’s a complete blast to play, and while a lot of us could definitely see what made it fun, we also couldn’t stop thinking “it still just looks like another first-person shooter.” And likewise, while the addition of giant mechs, parkour and more helps elevate Titanfall amongst its peers, it never quite feels like the revolutionary game-changer it’s made out to be.
What Titanfall IS, though, is FUN. It’s still an arena multiplayer shooter that’s a hoot to play, a series of action-packed brawls that allow you to either be a tactical soldier, an ’80s action hero, a transfer student from MechWarrior and so much more. Really, the game’s only massive sin is one of the shittiest excuse for a story mode ever committed to consoles and PCs. If the campaign was either retooled or even omitted in favor of more maps and content, I could easily say that Titanfall is a must-own. As is, it’s just fun, plain and simple. It can’t quite do the pull-up that lets it pass the Presidential Fitness Test of video games that would qualify it as an instant classic, but at least it’s putting up the effort that allows it to rise above the spunkgargleweewee pit, so at the very least, it deserves a damn fine participation badge. Besides, at least it’s not Call of Duty…
Previously by Kyle LeClair:
5 Things That Make South Park: The Stick of Truth Awesome (and 2 That Make It Lame)