Titanfall review: Multiplayer first-person shooter will get you addicted

Titanfall
Xbox One (reviewed), PC
Respawn Entertainment/EA Games
Rating: Mature

Titanfall
Xbox One (reviewed), PC
Respawn Entertainment/EA Games
Rating: Mature

Rating

4.5 Stars4.5/5

Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:52 PM ET

I call it “the itch.”

It happens when I’m cleaning the house, shopping for groceries, working at the office or busy with some other mundane bit of day-to-day living, and I suddenly feel a mental tap on my shoulder.

“What you’re doing right now is boring,” says my pleasure-seeking Freudian id as it whispers in my mind’s ear. “Let’s get out of here and go play THAT GAME.”

It doesn’t happen all that often anymore. Being a cynical grump whose calloused thumbs have fought countless digital wars, I feel the itch maybe two or three times a year now. I enjoy a lot of games, and I respect the technical artistry behind a lot of games. But not many of them are able to get under my skin.

Titanfall has given me the itch. In fact, it’s taking a conscious act of will not to abandon my keyboard right now to go play just one more match. One more match that will invariably stretch to five or 10 or 25, until it’s 2:30 a.m. and the house is a mess and there’s no food in the fridge and my boss is demanding a doctor’s note if I miss any more work.

Titanfall is a multiplayer first-person shooter that pits two factions of soldiers against one another on far-flung future battlefields. What makes it unique – because, let’s face it, modern warfare’s been done to death – are its namesake Titans, six-metre tall bipedal robots that player-controlled soldiers can climb inside and guide into battle.

There’s also the game’s pedigree: It’s the first title by Respawn Entertainment, a studio stacked with many of the creators of the multibillion-dollar Call of Duty franchise. While Titanfall isn’t the first game to feature rock ’em sock ’em robots, Respawn has somehow found a way to mix jet-packing, wall-running soldiers with lumbering, powerful mechs, and make it work.

Like, really, really work.

Titanfall’s boilerplate sci-fi future imagines a string of frontier worlds where the militaristic Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation wants to strip natural resources from planets defended by the Militia, a coalition of mercenaries, pirates and ex-soldier colonists who will fight to be left in peace.

This provides the connective tissue for six-to-a-side online multiplayer warfare taking place across 15 different and wonderfully varied environments, from a lush tropical fishing village to a gritty spaceship fuelling station to an outpost on a mountainous moon.

At first blush the game feels a lot like Call of Duty, perhaps with a little less of that twitchy ferocity (but only a little) and without any sort of led-by-the-nose single player campaign. But as each match progresses, players are eventually able to summon Titans into battle, which drop from orbit in a roar of flame and thunder, immediately changing the dynamic of the fight. This sweaty, intertwined combat threesome – Pilots versus Pilots, Pilots versus Titans and Titans versus Titans – gives Titanfall a unique energy and fluidity that I’ve never seen in a shooter before.

The game eases players in, introducing the fundamentals of combat and piloting Titans. But as players gain experience and complete one-off challenges, layer upon layer of options open up. This heady mix of weapon modifications, sidearms, anti-Titan heavy weaponry, special abilities and temporary perks granted by so-called Burn Cards creates neatly limitless tactical combinations. Even after dozens of hours of play, I keep discovering new ways to kill and be killed. It’s a game of constant revelation and invention.

(In case you’re wondering – and you’re probably not – my own style favours a Pilot armed with an automatic rifle with an extended clip, a radar pulse ability that lets me briefly see through walls and electrical proximity grenades, while my Titan of choice is the chunky Ogre chassis with a massive cannon that fires three-round bursts, missiles that explode into clusters of smaller charges and a self-destruct sequence that sees my ride detonate in a nuclear blast when I eject. Which I do frequently.)

Titanfall does have some shortcomings. Aside from Respawn’s deliberate decision not to offer any sort of single-player or offline component yet still charge a full $60 price, the most obvious flaw is the lack of depth or innovation in the game’s five modes. There are two deathmatch variants dubbed Attrition and Pilot Hunter, a remix of Call of Duty’s Domination mode called Hardpoint, Capture the Flag (exactly as it sounds, although the mix of Pilots and Titans offers some novel new strategies) and Last Titan Standing, which gives each player one Titan per round in a best-of-four set of matches.

Fun? Yes, definitely. But there’s nothing here we haven’t seen in shooters before, which leads me to suspect Respawn is holding back some of the more interesting multiplayer variants for the upcoming, separately sold downloadable content packs.

Although the game has no story-driven solo campaign, there’s a backstory to the IMC vs. Militia conflict that’s hinted at through snippets of dialogue and pre-mission briefings, along with a nine-chapter campaign mode that’s meant to fill in some blanks.

While a multiplayer campaign is a novel idea – it’s designed to be played through once as the IMC and once as the Militia, in order to see both sides of the conflict – it just doesn’t work. There are short pre-mission cutscenes and the odd in-game scripted event that tries to explain what’s happening, but the minute you’re in the thick of the action, the last thing you want is some cardboard-cutout commander blurting exposition, or a picture-in-picture display showing a development happening elsewhere on the battlefield.

Being an online-only game means Titanfall comes with some potential caveats, too. All three iterations of the game – the Xbox One and Windows PC versions out this week, and the Xbox 360 version landing later this month – will connect to Microsoft’s own servers, and the game will live or die on how well the back-end technology holds up. Given that Microsoft and publisher EA clearly hope this game will be to the Xbox One what Halo was to the original Xbox, there’s a lot riding on Titanfall launching smoothly.

The 25 or so hours I logged with the game prior to its release were split between a two-day controlled review event and a weekend of playing at home, a time when there were at most a few hundred players online at once.

Not everything was perfect: the low number of players online meant difficulty finding matches, the revamped Xbox One party system didn’t work properly and there were occasional mid-game server disconnections. On Tuesday, there will potentially be hundreds of thousands of players logging onto the servers simultaneously, and in the wake of disastrous online game launches like EA’s own SimCity, there’s no telling how smoothly things will run (although the success of Titanfall’s mid-February beta test bodes well.)

Lastly – and while this is no fault of the game itself – I fear once the Call of Duty-type diehards sink their teeth into Titanfall and start analyzing it, they’ll begin exploiting strategies that a mid-level (at best) player like me can’t hope to keep up with. Titanfall’s longevity, and especially its ability to keep attracting new players to the fold, will hinge on how well it can match less-experienced players with those of the equal skill.

And yet Titanfall has me firmly in its giant metal grip. I want to parkour along a billboard in Angel City, dropping down onto an enemy Titan to blast away at its exposed circuits. I want to sneak up behind an adversary holed up in a sniper’s next and snap his neck with a satisfying crack. I want the cheap but rewarding thrill of crushing a group of hapless A.I.-controlled enemy grunts beneath my Ogre’s feet. I want to flee for the evacuation dropship that comes to collect the losing team at the end of each match, and eject from my Titan directly into the ship’s open doorway just before it takes off.

So many itches. And right now, a little voice tells me it’s time to stop typing and go scratch.


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