Titanfall 2 Review
Familiar but refined online action and a banger of a campaign make this a sequel worth fighting for
The original Titanfall, for all its marketing and pre-release hype, really felt like a proof of concept more than a fully fleshed out game. Its campaign consisted of a series of multiplayer matches strung together with cutscenes, and the player customization options felt a bit thin compared to other online shooters. Three years later, and Titanfall 2 feels like a more fully realized product, boasting a surprisingly great campaign, plus tweaks and refinements to the multiplayer that feel like effective iterations of the formula rather than reinvention. The result is a game that is very fun to play both online and offline, even if the novelty value of parkour FPS combat isn’t quite what it was three years ago.
The singleplayer campaign represents the biggest addition to the Titanfall formula, and also the biggest surprise as it is much more interesting than you might expect after the last game’s clunky narrative. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise given Respawn studio heads Zampella and West have some classic shooter campaigns under their belt including the likes of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and some of the better Call of Duty campaigns, but what they have put forth here feels like something that a lot of care went into. The brief but expertly paced story feels more like a blend of Mirror's Edge and Half Life than a cousin to Call of Duty, as platforming and unique gameplay elements remain almost as prevalent as the shootouts throughout the 5-6 hour experience.
The overarching story of the campaign is absolutely forgettable, something about mercenaries, a mining corporation and a super weapon. The story of the protagonist, a rifleman who gets thrust into the shoes of a pilot (the Titanfall-universe equivalent of a Jedi), proves more enjoyable. Following a tutorial and intro sequence, you get acquainted with your Titan after the previous pilot dies, and often engage in dialogue with this sentient robot by choosing between two different responses. There are no major choices here, but choosing simple responses does serve to engage you in the somewhat humorous relationship that evolves throughout the adventure.
What really makes Titanfall 2’s campaign stand out is the excellent pacing, by way of a good mix of Titan and Pilot gameplay, as well as unique gameplay elements that are introduced for a level or two and then dropped before they overstay their welcome. These gameplay elements might be a type of environmental obstacle, or a unique gadget that gives you more parkour options or causes you to think about a level in a completely different way. Not every idea is a home run, but some are rather clever, and the strength of the core gameplay mechanics allows even the more straightforward combat-based levels to remain enjoyable. The encounter design is consistently good, and levels open enough to accommodate the fast paced gameplay that encourages staying on the move over hiding in cover.
Even though some mechanics work differently in the campaign compared to multiplayer, it does serve as a good refresher for the series' movement mechanics and also introduces the idea of Titans as classes when you finally venture online. The original game had three different Titan chassis that could be equipped with any combination of weapons and offensive/defensive abilities. Now, Titans come in the form of classes, with a pre-set loadout of weapons and abilities. The only thing you can customize on these pre-set loadouts are a few perks that let you improve some existing aspect of the Titan’s performance. The upside is that there is greater variety in Titans than before. Ronin, for instance, has a sword which can be used to block incoming ranged damage and deal devastating melee blows up close, while Northstar exists on the opposite end of the spectrum, equipped with a long-range rail gun and only titan-trapping harpoons as a defensive option.
Each of the six Titans available in multiplayer feel distinct, with clear weaknesses and strong points. Keep a Titan alive for long enough, and you will unlock anti-pilot Electric Smoke which was an equippable item in the first Titanfall, and eventually your Core ability which is something devastating that usually involves a lot of missiles. The way your Titan’s health works has also been adjusted. While you still get a recharging shield in singleplayer, you do not in multiplayer. Instead, there is a system that allows pilots to pull batteries out of enemy Titans when performing a rodeo maneuver. If they take the stolen battery to a friendly Titan, it will restore some of its health and provide a shield that does not recharge unless another battery is placed in it.
This is a good system as it encourages teamwork, but it also means that damage you inflict is more meaningful as there are no recharging shields. While some might miss the robust Titan customization of the original game, the new Titan classes are diverse and nuanced, and deep customization is still available for the pilots, though some tweaks have been made on this end as well. Burn cards are gone, replaced with a boost that you choose from as part of your loadout.
The pilot boosts contain some fairly straightforward enhancements like amped weapons, or the somewhat cheesy ‘map hack’ that shows all enemy locations for a short period of time. Others however are more interesting; tick mines are mobiles land mines that will walk around and find enemies to blow up, while anti-pilot or anti-Titan turrets can be deployed at key intersections on the map. These boosts feel like a good equivalent to Kill Streaks in Call of Duty, only better balanced. The controversial Smart Pistol from the first game has been relegated to one of these boosts. While the starting Pilot weapons aren’t particularly exotic, it quickly becomes apparent that each weapon is rather distinct. Energy weapons are mixed in with traditional ones, and even though the sheer amount of weapons won’t knock your socks off, the variety is rather impressive.
The progression system is slightly different from most other modern online shooters, though it does have some of the same trappings. In order to level up your main character, you gain ‘merits.’ A merit might be earned by completing a challenge, doing well in a multiplayer match, winning a match, or leveling up a Titan or weapon. You also earn currency that can be used to unlock something early, though this does not apply to weapon attachments. As you use weapons, you unlock attachments, and also perks such as faster reload or the ability to shoot while sprinting. This is a bit unfortunate as it means that higher level weapons are objectively better than lower level ones, but the speed of the engagements and short time to kill means the discrepancy between level zero weapons and max level weapons isn’t too great. Overall, the progression feels deeper and more substantial than what the first game offered.
Other than these changes, the core gameplay loop that was so much fun several years ago remains highly engaging. Unless you are playing Pilot vs. Pilot or Last Titan Standing, each round begins as a purely infantry match, with damage, kills and objectives adding to a gauge that will let you drop in a Titan after it fills up. From this point, the remainder of each match sees both Titans and Pilots on the map at the same time, making for a really fun combined arms experience as Pilots sprint around the large maps at top speed and Titans slowly stomp back and forth dealing death wherever they go.
Attrition returns as a central mode, with few changes from the original game. Some tougher AI fodder has been introduced, with Reapers being mini-titans that can actually damage you a bit. This remains a fun twist on Team Death Match as you endeavor to outmaneuver the enemy and the action moves around the map with AI spawns. Bounty Hunt is the flagship new mode, which is the only mode apart from Attrition that features AI fodder. Both teams fight to kill AI, but they only spawn in specific areas of the map, so conflict with other players is assured. At the end of each ‘wave’ of AI, banks open and players must go there and deposit their earnings from killing AI to earn their team a bonus. If you die, you lose half your money. If you kill someone, you receive the other half.
This is a good mode as it helps focus the action on maps that feel on average larger than what the first game offered. It even has AI Titans spawn as bounties; whichever team delivers the final blow is claiming the bounty. The only downside is that the banks players must go to are unlabeled, so it is difficult to coordinate with your team if you want to use a single bank so you don’t get killed at the last moment. I also think the player count would benefit from being higher than 5v5 which can feel thin on the large maps.
The rest of the modes are returning ones for the first game, including Amped Hardpoint (domination), Pilot vs. Pilot (team death match without Titans), and Last Titan Standing (everyone starts with a Titan, winning team kills all enemy Titans). It is slightly disappointing to see only one new mode, and that the enjoyable ‘bounty hunt’ mode added to the first Titanfall after launch didn’t make it in, but there is still a solid selection here. On the PC, I had trouble finding games when searching exclusively for less popular modes like Capture the Flag or Last Titan Standing, but these modes can still be accessed via the ‘mix tape’ playlist which seems to be populated.
As with the original Titanfall, the sequel runs on a modified version of the Source engine. The result is a double edged sword, as the game runs beautifully, a must given the speed of the gameplay. However, the source engine is very old, and its age is apparent here with some low quality textures and somewhat flat lighting. It doesn’t look bad by any means, but anyone hoping for cutting edge visuals might not be fully satisfied. The same can’t be said for the excellent sound design that is tuned to make the gameplay as satisfying as possible. Weapons are very fun to use thanks to their meaty sound effects, and a subtle extra sound that plays when you hit an enemy.
Titantall 2 doesn’t reinvent the formula that was so much fun a couple of years ago, but refines and expands it. A lot of small changes do add up to make this a superior game to its predecessor overall, especially when the surprisingly well made campaign is taken into consideration. If the original game’s fast-paced action didn’t appeal to you in 2014, I doubt the sequel will change your mind, but if you like the idea of a mix of parkour-based infantry combat and slower Titan combat contributing to regular moments of profound badassery, it is hard to think of a better alternative to Titanfall 2.