By Andy Humphreys
When EA released Titanfall in 2014, it received pretty unanimous praise for its gameplay mechanics. Here was a shooter that felt slick, quick, and stylish for every second you spent with it. This excellence of game design didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone with knowledge of the developers, Respawn. It was a new team formed by lead designers from Infinity Ward, the studio that built the blueprint for the modern first-person online shooter with the Call Of Duty series.
Given the pedigree, then, it was equal parts disappointing and odd to find that many of the features pioneered in Call Of Duty and refined over years of iteration were entirely absent from Titanfall. The game is not so much flawed as it is unfinished. Although the previously mentioned core mechanics are undeniably well-executed, the Titanfall has a bare-bones, lightweight feel. With very few game modes and a lackluster progression system, it seemed almost to be the prototype for a game that failed to materialize.
That is, until now.
TItanfall 2 is out, and critics are billing it as the game the original aspired to be. Respawn appear to have carefully addressed every criticism leveled at Titanfall, so let’s have a look at what’s changed. Have the developer’s tweaks created a more polished, well-rounded game, Or will Titanfall forever be the nearly-franchise, doomed to fade away without ever fulfilling its promise?
There’s data from millions of hours of online gameplay to run through to see what worked and what didn’t when deciding how to refine the Titanfall experience, and from the tweaks that have been made, it seems Respawn spent a good deal of time going over that data. There’s plenty to admire about the original, perhaps a surprising amount that the developers got right first time, but there were undoubtedly elements that needed fine-tuning.
Perhaps the most significant change to combat is that Titans now no longer have the regenerating shields which made controlling them feel almost like ground level gun-play on a larger scale. Damage is now dealt directly to the giant robot’s hull, making it much more severe — and permanent. Along with this comes a significant change to “rodeoing” — the practice of jumping onto the top of an enemy Titan to cause damage — which makes it a much more tactical affair. Now, on mounting the enemy robot, your pilot rips out its power source. While this does a degree of damage, the real kicker is how it can be used to boost a friendly Titan, increasing its resilience for a limited time.
Elsewhere, the unearned and frankly unfair Burn Cards system has been scrapped entirely, replaced with Pilot Boosts, a system more akin to the perks seen in other multiplayer shooters, to make the buffs available to players less random.
The greater fragility of Titans and the increased strategy involved in the rodeo mechanic will not be universally popular, but these tweaks undeniably add a more significant element of strategy to Titan-scale combat, along with a more pronounced leaning towards team-centric play.
The move toward Boosts has allowed better, more even-handed balancing of player loadout, which is preferable to the random bonuses bestowed by Burn Cards. Now, Boosts are earned via a meter in-game and so are more closely tied to performance, leading to a greater feeling of earned achievement rather than the cheap freebie of a Burn Card that can be activated at any point, regardless of how well you are doing.
Progression, unlocks, and customization:
For many who play online shooters, a robust progression system with well paced, quality unlocks is what keeps them coming back for more long into a game’s life.
The first Titanfall is extremely limited in its progression, one of the key aspects that left the game feeling some way off the complete package it promised to be, especially when compared to other more established multiplayer shooters.
With Titanfall 2, it seems the developers have aimed to bring the game more on par with what is expected of a modern online shooter when it comes to long and meaningful progression. Now, playing the game for any amount of time will yield a constant stream of unlocks, including the usual weapons, attachments, and abilities, but also plenty of that other nonsense players seem to lap up — banners, emblems, and camo skins for weapons, pilots, and Titans. This all with the goal of allowing much more customization options, and thus a greater sense of investment in the in-game profile.
Though not groundbreaking, the addition of a proper progression system and more robust customization options certainly gives the impression that Respawn want players to spend time with their game this time around. If you reward players over a longer time for playing your game, they’ll probably play your game for a longer time — it’s not exactly rocket science.
In practice, the actual effect is at times almost overwhelming. The barrage of unlocks is generous bordering on relentless, with very little actual playtime needed to yield rewards. This system does diminish the sense of accomplishment somewhat, but it does always feel like you’re working towards a definite goal, which is something the original could never boast.
A multitude of multiplayer modes:
Another criticized element of the original game was the very basic selection of multiplayer game modes. Players are these days accustomed to a plethora of different options, allowing them to play the game exactly how they want, with almost no compromise.
Titanfall gave you fighting on foot, fighting in Titans, and fighting on foot AND in Titans (the game’s signature ‘Attrition’ mode, which also had you racking up points by taking out AI grunts, was always a standout, though perhaps for its originality rather than its quality). Add to these the usual team deathmatch and Free-for-All variants, and you were pretty much done.
Now, these returning game modes are bolstered by some additions that show a little more inventiveness. Bounty Hunt has players taking down AI enemies and Titans for currency that must be banked at the end of rounds to gain extra points. Amped Hardpoint is a camping-heavy take-and-hold scenario that rewards a fierce and coordinated defense.
The expanded selection of modes is now far more fitting of a modern AAA title and serves to showcase Titanfall 2’s improved gameplay mechanics. That said, while the new modes are certainly distinctive and promote an interesting change up to the standard kill-scoring, they’re not the sort of genre game-changers that have popped up in the past (Horde in Gears Of War springs to mind as an example; Call Of Duty’s Search and Destroy, though not exactly revolutionary, remains a fan favourite). Until Respawn can come up with a way to utilize Titanfall’s distinctive gameplay style in a game mode that is both unique to their franchise and enjoyable enough to choose over the more standard options, players are almost certainly destined to overlook any additions in favor of the standard fare. But hey, it's still nice to have a choice.
New Titan Classes:
The Titans themselves were always one of the undeniable slam-dunks of the original game — great to control, suitably powerful in feel and action, beautifully designed and animated.
But get into selecting and customizing your Titan of choice, and there was limited scope. Specific weapon options were very definitely more efficient than others, leading a majority of players choosing the same loadout for every possible scenario. Likewise, there were balancing issues with the Titans themselves. The light Titan-type was found by many to be particularly ineffectual, its greater speed and maneuverability never quite making up for its inability to take any significant damage without rapidly — and spectacularly — exploding.
Respawn have addressed these points by effectively doubling the players choice of Titan chassis, and also significantly increasing the options for customization for each Titan, not only with the weapon choices and abilities available but also the cosmetic options, too.
Now there are two classes for each type of Titan, with each feeling distinctive and — crucially — useful in some strategic way, there is a much greater sense of tactical flexibility, rather than only using each Titan as a battering ram the minute it spawns.
Appreciate a degree of tactical flexibility in your Titan? Go for swiss-army bot Ion. Like to stay back and provide support at a distance? Northstar’s sniping abilities are your best match. Or prefer to play with fire? Take Scorch, the pyromaniac’s choice, then stand back and watch the world burn.
Finally, a real story:
The number-one criticism many had of the OG Titanfall was the lack of a single player campaign. Yes, there was something that Respawn called a campaign, but it was just a few multiplayer maps played in succession, with only a half-hearted attempt at a story to tie them all together.
But for a game primarily designed as a multiplayer shooter, is it really that damaging that there is no single-player campaign to speak of?
Yes, when you place so much emphasis on the creation of a universe that you expect new players to invest in. There’s just so little background or introduction to the Titan-heavy conflict featured in the first game, and it’s really noticeable that what little writing there is to flesh out the world just seems like meaningless names, phrases, and references to characters fighting for two of the most painfully generic sides ever to face off in a game. Compare this to something like Overwatch, where the comparatively dense lore has utterly grabbed fans, despite that game not having a single player campaign to speak of at all, and you can see where Respawn miss-stepped. You don’t see many Titanfall cosplayers. Just saying.
This time around, Respawn seem to understand the value of the single player campaign’s role in building their world. Titanfall 2’s story has been placed front and center in all of the game’s marketing, and Respawn have certainly been bold with their aspirations. Rather than use broad strokes to flesh out a massive universe-wide conflict and expect gamers to give a damn, they have instead reduced the focus right down to a single soldier-robot double act. As Rifleman Jack Cooper, you’re stranded on an enemy-infested planet and must work with your Titan buddy, BT, to survive enemy attacks and the indigenous hostile environment.
The developers have mixed solid combat with a fun platforming through-line that makes excellent use of the game’s highly refined movement mechanics. Through the course of the story, you’ll jump, wall-run, and parkour your way across the beautiful planet of Typhon, and feel incredibly stylish doing so. Respawn has nailed the feeling of scale necessary to make complicated mid-air maneuvers feel that much more thrilling.
Sure, the building-a-connection-with-an-AI-companion angle's not really original. At all, in fact. But here it’s used particularly well. By the end, you’ll find yourself genuinely caring about the two protagonists’ relationship and their eventual fate. Bringing the conflict down to a human scale was absolutely the right choice, and players should commend the developers for getting this right following the sharp criticism of the original.
In the context of the series, the story aspect has gone from being a tacked on necessity in the first game to a genuine reason to buy the game in the second. That has to go down as a success.
Titanfall 2 improves on the original in most of the ways that count. Respawn’s sophomore release is truly the fully realized, comprehensive package that the original should have been.
There are still some sticking points, in particular, the map selection, which seems limited in scope at the moment. This is likely to be addressed in the form of future DLC, which, although hardly ideal, appears to be the way of things at present.
The thing that is most encouraging, though, is how incredibly refreshing it is to see a developer look so closely at fan feedback when developing their next game. Of course, from a business perspective, it does makes sense to tailor your development to an appropriate audience, the same audience that will then, with any luck, support the game long into its tail.
But this isn’t all about business. From top-to-bottom, Titanfall 2 feels like a game where the developers have put the player first. For the original, it felt like they had created the perfect combat system for a game so slight it barely existed; now, a game has been formed around those inch-perfect mechanics. And a very well-formed one it turned out to be.