For years, competitive shooters have struggled to introduce context into a genre centered on brief flashes of action repeated ad infinitum. Much has been made of Titanfall’s mysterious campaign multiplayer, where story and competitive action seamlessly intertwine. In practice, the brief campaign of two futuristic armies clashing on distant planets is a limited framework for storytelling. The bigger narrative innovation introduced by Titanfall is the match structure itself. By providing an organic form that includes a beginning, middle, and end to virtually every match, Respawn Entertainment ratchets up the dramatic and competitive potential of the online shooter.
Each mode has its own twist on the experience, but most of Titanfall’s matches present the same escalating tension you’d expect in a good action movie. The conflict starts out small but fast-paced as pilots drop into battle and rush to take position. As the minutes pass, the first titans begin to drop into battle, adding increased danger to the scene. By the end, massive explosions rock the whole battlefield as nuclear detonations and missile barrages burst to life. Finally, the defeated party rushes to escape via dropship – closing out the fight with one last chance for glory on both sides. The shifting dynamic of a battle does wonders for keeping you on your toes, and demands constantly shifting tactics.
The structure works so well because of Titanfall’s other major success – its two competing and immaculately balanced scales of size. The free-running pilot moves with ease through the large maps, leaping along exposed panels, and easily clambering to sniper points on rooftops and towers. Tight corridors and sheltered cliffs provide cover from your massive mechanized foes, but not from other fast-moving pilots wielding shotguns and auto-targeting pistols. Meanwhile, titans provide a sense of undeniable power, as you crush pilots and minions underfoot and crash into other titans in raging gun and fist fights. The contours of a map take on a different shape in your mind when you must navigate with these towering engines of destruction.
Many of the best moments of Titanfall come through the interactions between the small-but-agile pilots and the mechanized tanks they control. You leap off a high rooftop and away from enemy fire to drop into your titan and fire back. As your titan explodes, you’re flung high into the air, and careful aim brings you down on the back of the titan you defeated, and you finish it off with a few frantic blasts from your pistol. As a titan, you single-handedly defend an objective point from half a dozen human attackers with a few blasts of your artillery rifle. By making both pilot and titan play so much fun in different ways, Respawn keeps the action fresh for match after match.
The six-on-six team battles at the heart of Titanfall are more than bombastic enough without a higher player count. Between automated Titans, dozens of NPC robotic spectres and military grunts, and automated defense turrets, the large maps feel action-packed, even if respawns or wrong turns can sometimes separate you from the skirmish. If you are cut off from the action, both titans and pilots can easily close the distance in seconds, getting you back into the thick of the conflict. The maps have more space to breathe than many competing shooters, and a single life can sometimes last a long time with a measured approach to the fight. I appreciate the way the game uses its dimwitted AI soldiers to communicate the sense of a larger battle. Allied soldiers run in the direction of hot points, spouting exclamations that empower players. Enemy NPCs offer easy kills in between the heated twitch throwdowns against another player. The overall effect is one of frantic motion everywhere you look.
Titanfall offers a limited selection of match types to explore, and no way to customize those matches. However, I enjoy each of the five styles of play. The core Attrition mode offers the truest expression of Titanfall’s battles, and comfortably supports various play styles, from stealthy close-quarters assassination to a strategic targeting of enemy minions to bolster team score. The challenging Pilot Hunter mode is for those who want a more classic deathmatch experience, where bringing down enemy pilots is the sole path to victory. The fast-paced Hardpoint Domination sends players dashing to hold small territories scattered around the board, with the added twist of potential enemy titans between you and your objective. Similarly, the iconic capture the flag experience feels quite different when a lightning fast player hops into a titan with your flag. The more I played it, the more I warmed to the one-life fun of Last Titan Standing, in which the game’s dramatic structure is reversed. The battle opens with everyone already mounted up, and ends when one team loses all its titans. I love the jockeying for position in these matches, as small teams of allied titans spread out across the board, trying to outmaneuver the enemy.
The success of these different modes makes some of the choices in campaign multiplayer harder to understand. In a series of nine battles (which are the same for each side of the conflict), we’re served a tale of the plucky militia and increasingly villainous IMC, and upon completion we’re awarded the two additional custom titan chassis. Battles play out on the same maps as normal multiplayer, but with some additional voiceover and intro and outro sequences. Unfortunately, every match is either Attrition or Hardpoint Domination. These matches certainly aren’t any worse than normal competitive matches, but the campaign needs more unique content, objectives, and branching events to feel worthwhile.
Progression is rewarding and briskly paced, whether playing campaign or classic multiplayer. New pilot and titan loadout options open up all the time, and you have good reasons to try out all the fun new kits and weapons – many of which allow for altered approaches to play. While weapon mods are scarce, almost all of the armaments for both pilots and titans add something meaningful to the mix. Even so, the majority of content unlocks in a few dozen hours; devoted players could explore the prestige-like generations system for an ongoing sense of growth, but without additional unlock options some may not see incentive to do so. The one-off burn cards come in almost faster than you can use them, encouraging players to constantly add their bonuses into a combat strategy; it’s an engaging system that helps set Titanfall apart, and choosing new cards gives you something interesting to do as you wait between matches.
The more I explore the impressive collection of 15 maps included, the more I like them. Each environment does a great job of supporting both human and titan movement and battle scenarios, and they’re each beautifully rendered science fiction environments. Thanks to the pilot jump jets, every map is designed with the vertical plane given equal thought to the horizontal, filled with lots of multi-leveled buildings, rooftop hiding points, and underground passages. It takes dozens of matches to truly understand a map’s twists and turns.
As an online-only multiplayer game, game performance is always going to be a shifting target. By and large, Titanfall is performing admirably in its first few days of public use. I’ve witnessed lost connections and a couple of crashes, but most of the time server connection remains solid. On Xbox One and even mid-tier gaming PCs, I saw noticeable frame stutters when onscreen action got especially intense. While I’d love these scenes to run smoother, it should not discourage players from diving in.
Respawn took a chance with Titanfall, embracing what it knew best with a multiplayer-only experience and pushing the envelope with its imaginative twists on classic competitive play. The result feels like a new breed of multiplayer that is inviting to established shooter players, but also compelling for people intrigued by everything from the free-running to the giant robotic titans. Titanfall is enormously entertaining, with long legs that should have players exploring its depth for many months to come.
This review pertains to the Xbox One and PC versions of Titanfall. To read the Xbox 360 edition review, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.