When you look at Titanfall, it's easy to see the familiar. Most of the weapons, grenades, and abilities fill well-worn niches. Many of the environments are like the grimy villages and industrial complexes that have hosted countless online battles in dozens of other games. The competitive modes are bog standard. And yet, when you play Titanfall, it's impossible to shake the feeling that you're playing something special.
The key is mobility. Titanfall gives you the ability to leap, climb, and wall-run your way around the map, and these simple actions create an exhilarating array of possibilities. No longer constrained by corridors and stairwells, you and your foes engage in high-flying, freewheeling combat in which the sheer joy of movement makes the familiar feel fresh and vibrant. This novel brand of warfare is enough to heartily recommend the game, but that's not all that this multiplayer-only shooter does well. You also clash with your foes in lumbering battle mechs called titans. These powerful brutes fuel a weightier, more tactical type of combat that intertwines beautifully with the light-footed action, and herein lies Titanfall's triumph: two distinct kinds of combat blending seamlessly together to create chaotic and dynamic battlefields unlike anything you've ever experienced.
(Editor's note: This review was originally posted for the Xbox One version of Titanfall, but it applies to the PC version as well, except where noted. The PC version boasts sharper visual effects and higher resolutions, as you might expect, and both control schemes (mouse/keyboard and Xbox 360 controller) work flawlessly.)
So how does this mobility work? As a jump kit-equipped pilot, the stunts you can perform all stem from two abilities: the double jump and the wall run. The first one is self-explanatory and allows you to surmount shipping containers and leap into second story windows with ease. The second one is dependent on the angle of your approach. If you run straight at a wall and leap into it, you're stuck trying to double jump your way to a window or a roof. If, however, you come at a wall from an acute angle, you automatically start running along that wall horizontally. Once you start wall running, your double jump capability resets, and then the fun begins.
If you spot an enemy down an alley, you can wall run straight at him, bouncing back and forth between parallel walls to make yourself a tougher target. If you're trying to cross a courtyard, then double jump off the rooftop, wall run along a billboard, and double jump again to another rooftop. And how did you get on the roof in the first place? Perhaps by wall jumping upwards, back and forth between two buildings, or perhaps by leaping out of a top floor window and double jumping back on to the roof. Though the moves you can eventually perform are complex, the root of every maneuver is those two simple abilities. A solid tutorial puts you through the initial paces, and though it might take a few matches to get a good sense of how your pilot sticks to walls, it's easy to start chaining together impressive feats very early on.
This makes simply moving around the map both a continual pleasure and a constant challenge, as you gleefully try to exploit every billboard, building, and zipline to your advantage. The 15 maps are all rich with opportunities for creative locomotion. Titanfall takes place on distant colonies in the space-faring future, where the polished steel of well-established settlements contrasts with the rusty metal of frontier outposts. Dense urban areas play host to daring rooftop acrobatics, while a corporate enclave provides curving architectural lines for pilots to exploit. Many buildings have open interior spaces as well, so weaving in and out of windows and changing elevation rapidly is par for the course. It's always empowering to learn the maps in a competitive shooter, but this satisfaction is heightened in Titanfall because your expanded mobility means there is so much more to learn.
The hunt is on.
It also means that your enemies can come at you from almost any direction. Pilots move at a brisk clip, so there's a lot of potential for quick flanking runs and rapid pursuits. They are also fairly fragile, succumbing to a few well-placed shots much like their military-shooter counterparts. This encourages you to be even more aware of your surroundings and to take advantage of one of the more disruptive maneuvers in the game: the wall hang. At almost any time you're running along or jumping onto a wall, you can stop and hang, take aim, and fire. Being able to switch quickly from wall running to guns blazing helps ensure that a mobile pilot is not a vulnerable pilot, and the potential for ambushing players by hanging in unexpected places is nearly endless.
Fortunately, one of the tactical abilities allows you to temporarily see your enemies' skeletons through walls and spot any potential ambushes. The other two--turning nearly invisible and boosting speed and regeneration--round out a trio of powers that have been extensively utilized by other games and aren't initially very exciting. But like so much in Titanfall, these familiar abilities take on new life because the extensive player mobility allows you to employ them in new ways.
A mobile pilot is not a vulnerable pilot, and the potential for ambushing players by hanging in unexpected places is nearly endless.
This applies to the weapons as well. Titanfall gives you a few options for close-quarters, mid-distance, and long-range engagements, and almost all of them are straightforward variants of the weapons commonly featured in military shooters. Making the best of them while leaping this way and that is a fresh challenge for the old standbys, but there's one newcomer that feels purpose-built for acrobatic firefights: the smart pistol. As long as you can keep an enemy pilot in the large bracketed targeting reticle, this pistol locks on with the three shots necessary for a kill, and fires them all with one pull of the trigger. It takes a few long seconds though, so if they get out of range or spot you, the lock-on is no longer a sure thing. It's a neat twist on the humble sidearm, especially when you go hunting for grunts.
Grunts (and their slightly tougher robotic counterparts, spectres) are AI soldiers that deploy into battle in every match. They're not programmed to approximate the skills of human players like bots in other multiplayer shooters. A group of them can kill a wounded or reckless pilot, but they're more effective at making the 12-player battles feel more lively and populated. Sometimes they'll just deploy and stand around stupidly, but often you'll seem them behaving more naturally by clearing buildings of enemy grunts, engaging in pitched firefights, dragging wounded allies to safety, or duking it out in hand-to-hand combat. Killing them can give you points towards victory, progress towards unlocking weapon attachments, and reductions in how long it takes to build your titan.
Smart pistol, dumb grunts.
The faster you kill enemy pilots and grunts, the sooner you can call down your titan, a two-story battle robot with a cockpit that only you can enter. These behemoths appear on the battlefield early on and they are forces to be reckoned with. Primary weapons that include rocket launchers, chainguns, and lightning cannons combine with shoulder-mounted ordnance to pack a huge offensive punch, and titans can also throw huge offensive punches. These weapons are complemented by defensive abilities that enable titans to block incoming fire, release an obscuring cloud of damaging smoke, or catch all incoming projectiles and throw them at an enemy. You haven't lived until you've played catch with a deadly salvo of explosive rockets.
Who catches the rockets and who gets hit depends on who times their abilities properly and maneuvers correctly. Titan battles are much more tactical and drawn out than pilot skirmishes. Managing your regenerating shield and dashing in and out of cover play heavily into the outcome, as does your loadout choice. The three titan chassis are light, medium, and heavy variants, with speed and armor strength inversely related, as they so often are. Each has a special power core that charges up and can be activated to tip the odds in your favor by temporarily boosting shields, damage output, or speed. Titan fights are as tense and exciting as pilot fights, though they move at a slower pace, but don't make the mistake of thinking the two occur independently of each other.
On the contrary, the thing that makes Titanfall's combat so chaotic and thrilling is that pilots and titans are both a threat to each other. All pilots are armed with anti-titan weapons that make them significant threats, and they can easily jump on top of enemy titans, rip open a protective panel, and start blasting the mechanical innards. If the titan isn't properly equipped and doesn't have an ally nearby, this so-called rodeo attack will quickly turn deadly unless the pilot hops out and deals with the attacker on foot. This doesn't leave the titan helpless, however, as it has an on-board AI of its own that kicks in as soon as its pilot jumps out.
Between pilots and titans, there are a lot of different elements that come together in Titanfall matches, and they do so with remarkable fluidity. Each map is designed to let both pilot and titan thrive; some areas are only accessible to pilots, others are the domain of titans, but large swathes accommodate both in the struggle for dominance. You could be pursuing an enemy pilot on foot only to have them leap inside the protective shield of their freshly-summoned titan and turn the tables on you. Perhaps you're lumbering after an enemy titan and they dash around one corner while another titan emerges and a pilot starts to rodeo you; what do you do? Charge after the ailing titan or take on the new threat? Exit the front of your titan to deal with your unwanted passenger or sacrifice your titan by ejecting yourself and your attacker up into the sky for a mid-air duel? These are the kinds of decisions you are regularly confronted with, and they often result in the kinds of stories you can't wait to tell your friends.
These stories can play out in either campaign multiplayer or classic multiplayer, with the former having a story of its own to tell. It's one you've heard before: a struggle between an overbearing government and the frontier people that want the freedom to live their lives. Campaign multiplayer can be played from either side of the conflict, but either way, the nine scenarios are always the same. Each one is a specific multiplayer match type on a specific map, bookended (and sometimes padded mid-mission) by voiceover describing who is trying to accomplish what and what is standing in their way. The narrative elements are very minimal, but there are customization unlocks you can only get by finishing the campaign, so you might as well see it through to the end (it's just a series of multiplayer matches, after all). This isn't to say Titanfall's setting won't pique your interest; the maps are rich with design elements that create a gratifying sense of place, like dirty neon signs and strange alien creatures. It's a shame that the campaign doesn't elaborate on these intriguing bits, but as it stands, the best stories are the ones you create yourself.
If your titan's ready when you respawn, ride it into battle!
Titanfall adds a little extra spice to those stories with burn cards, which you earn by completing challenges. These one-use power-ups bestow a range of benefits, including souped-up weapons, longer-lasting abilities, and bigger bonuses that might convert enemy spectres to your side or show you everyone's position on the minimap. Yet for all the wonderful variability of the actual combat, there are only five game modes to choose from in the more-traditional lobbies of classic multiplayer. Attrition is Titanfall's take on team deathmatch, with victory points tallied for titan, pilot, and grunt kills. Making grunt slaughter a viable way to contribute to the team makes this one of the most strategically flexible modes in the game, as you could conceivably never target a human player and still be an asset to your team. Pilot hunter strips this strategy away, awarding points only for pilot kills, though of course, titan and grunt kills still earn you experience points that go towards unlocking new weapons and customization options.
Hardpoint domination focuses on control of three specific points and capture the flag is, well, capture the flag. Tired as these two modes may sound, it's a lot of fun to wall hang near a point to catch enemies unawares or to flee with the enemy team's flag, leaping and running off of walls until you snag a zipline to speed off towards your base. And if you happen to lose, all is not lost. An epilogue phase challenges the losing team to escape to an evacuation ship to save face and gain a nice XP bonus. Meanwhile, the victors try to add insult to injury by preventing the enemy's escape. This extra contest ends matches with a novel flurry of activity in which everyone has one last chance to make good.
The final mode is last titan standing, in which everyone spawns in a titan. Battle rages until one team's titans are all eliminated, and then it's on to the next round until one team has four victories. This mode shines a spotlight on titan tactics and teamwork. Having a heavily-shielded, projectile-catching bruiser lead the way while others bombard from afar and a speedy titan skirts around for a flanking run can be effective, as can a variety of other maneuvers. Parking your titan in one corner of the map and harrying the enemy as a pilot is also a viable move, and though the action is less freewheeling in this mode, it works well as a more focused kind of fight.
The best stories are the ones you create yourself.
Of course, an online multiplayer-only game like Titanfall is only as good as its servers, and how they fare when the eager hordes descend on them remains to be seen. The About the Author section of this review contains more information on the circumstances in which I played it, which weren't always ideal. I experienced a few laggy matches and occasional frame rate issues, but these in-game hitches were the exception to the rule during the many hours I played. (Editor's note: This paragraph applied to the Xbox One version of Titanfall, pre-release. For information on the PC version, see the note at the beginning of this review.)
The overarching experience of playing Titanfall is one of rejuvenation and reinvigoration. The sprint speed, the arsenal, the game modes, and more are all firmly derived from some of the most successful online shooters of recent years. But by reinventing the way you move, Titanfall reinvents what it feels like to play a competitive shooter. The high-flying action intertwines beautifully with the brutish, tactical titan battles, creating battlefields that crackle with possibility. Titanfall is a leap forward for shooters, a game that combines the vibrant and new with the tried and true to create something special.