I finished the single-player campaign of Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2 with a big smile on my face. Nearly every issue I had with their first entry had been addressed: there are characters, they have personality, and the seven-hour tale didn’t overstay its welcome.
Of course, the big reason I’m still smiling while writing this is because the game has a single-player campaign in the first place. For those unfortunate enough to not have played the original, you didn't miss out on much. Titanfall had launched within months of the Xbox One release, and while its multiplayer was compelling, it severely lacked in terms of content. In essence, it waas Respawn’s first attempt in a while at a proof-of-concept rather than an actual game. While it was thrilling to be a pilot that could jump into a Titan after if fell to the ground, such thrills were short-lived.
What’s really impressive about this ambitious sequel is that, amongst all the explosions and whatnots, the story of would-be pilot Jack Cooper and BT-7274 is an interesting one. As Jack gets to know his previously used Titan, BT, I finally felt like I was getting to know the world known as The Frontier, and to a greater effect, the Titanfall series as a whole. Focusing on these two instead of the broad strokes of an entire universe has made all the difference. Being encased in the mech while causing mayhem can be fun, and taking out enemies as a soldier a la Call of Duty works fine. But feeling like you’ve got a friend along for the ride? That’s everything. Some might champion the team play antics of Overwatch and other multiplayer-only titles, but I’ll stick with my BT any day.
Best Pet Robot Ever
Truth be told, the story that spans only nine levels is pretty basic, but that’s okay. You play rifleman Jack Cooper whose dreams of one day piloting a Titan becomes a reality, although at the cost of his superior officer’s life. Once Cooper gets linked with BT, these two must get back to the Militia’s Special Recon Squadron while battling the generically named INC’s troopers on the planet Typhoon. Along the way are evil baddies to take down, a secret to uncover, and a universe to save.
Beat for beat this is a pretty standard sci-fi action romp, but the switching between Cooper on foot and piloting BT is a great way to change things up. Those who’ve played Titanfall will recall that as a pilot, when you're outside of the mech, you can wall run. What’s great is how developer Respawn uses such a simple game staple to explore environments via platforming. This is one of the best first person titles to use wall runs/jumping that I’ve ever played. One such area is an automated factory that makes furniture, appliances, essentially, whole living quarters. Imagine a cold, robot version of Ikea. Brilliant.
Other gameplay features are born from the original game too. BT talks to Cooper via a comlink, and eventually, once you’ve taken down the first Titan boss, you’ll acquire a chip from his helmet radio thus allowing you to eavesdrop on the other mercs that are out to kill you. Visually, it’s akin to Borderlands with a cartoon image at the top right of the screen. It’s not super detailed, but it’s effective.
The Almighty Source Engine
Speaking of visuals, this is a good-looking game that never exhibited any issues on both the Xbox One and PS4 version that I played. The Source engine has once again proved itself to be a champion of performance. Although brightly colored, there’s something about the vibe here that reminds me of Isaac Clarke’s sci-fi escapades.
Approximately half the campaign is also spent inside BT. Each new level grants the Vanguard Titan more loadouts from fallen ones. There are six in all, which represent the bots you’ll need to take down. Ronin, as the name implies, has a lot of fun sword tech while Scorch has the expected flame-centered abilities like Flame Core. A core ability is a special power you’ll use to finish off nearly destroyed foes.
Some of my favorite bits are when Cooper is on foot with BT at his side taking down foes. What really clicks is BT’s personality. He’s very much a straight-laced “I take what you say literally” thinking machine, and it really works. There are even binary conversation options that pop up from time to time where you can choose what to say to him. It doesn’t change the narrative (this isn’t Mass Effect), which is as it should be. This, like a lot of what shines in Titanfall 2, is just one creative way of providing more detail and context to the world.
There are a few tiny quibbles in terms of gameplay. Early on you earn the ability to cloak yourself, but only for a few seconds. That duration never gets longer, though. This is strange for two reasons: first, the action seems to encourage getting up close for stealth kills and second, having no RPG-like options for weapons or abilities feels like a missed opportunity for a world centered around tech. Also while the ghost runner feature effectively shows how to attempt a tricky wall run, the objective beacon that highlights the next waypoint is often pretty useless when it comes to areas that are above or below you. These aren’t at all game breakers but I would be remiss not to mention them.
One last thing: about half way though the campaign is two levels that are 'Best of the Year' levels of awesome. Suddenly, the mystery clicks into place and the gameplay gets a cool new feature that re-examines level design in most action games. I don’t want to spoil, but wow.
A Multiplayer Attraction
There are seven types of matches that can be played on launch day: Amped, Hardpoint, Bounty Hunt, Attrition, Last Titan Standing, Pilots vs. Pilots, Free for All, and Coliseum. The goals can vary but the trick is how well one can maneuver Titans and pilots on each map. While some of these modes are new, the problem I had with mulitplayer in Titanfall 1 is the same problem here: it’s not fun for everyone since the space and arsenal can be unforgiving for new players.
Still, there are some interesting matches that I dug. I like how Bounty Hunt is two factions competing over bounties placed on NPC-units. As you’d guess, these attacks come in waves. The goal is to reach $6000 to win the match. Each team is made up of five players and the way teams work to both take down the bots and race against their online competitors works pretty well. The hook is that once you’ve won the match moola you need to leave the safety of your Titan to deposit the cash in a bank, leaving you exposed. For me, this added value of not having to just mindlessly try and take another online person down but in fact, be the one everyone is trying to take down is really tense in a fun way.
I also liked Pilots vs Pilots, which ditches the Titans but allows for much freer, frenetic movement on the battlefield. Without the fun wall runs to escape getting fragged, this could easily have felt too much like a Call of Duty clone though. Last Man Standing would be better called Last Mech Standing since the goal here is to take down enemy Titans. The hook here is that there are no respawns. If you happen to survive long enough this can be fun, though.
18 months after Respawn Entertainment debuted their big proof-of-concept project, Titanfall 2 delivers on the promise made by such an idea, and amazingly, goes even further. The single-player campaign is a blast while the multiplayer is solid if only slightly underwhelming. Kudos to the developer for creating a work of fun that made me chuckle, smile, and feel good. Who knew an iron giant, accompanied by clever level design, would steal my heart?