Available on Xbox One, PC, PS4 (reviewed on PS4, Xbox One and PC)
I’ll admit it, I went in expecting Titanfall 2 to have tacked-on single player that awkwardly shoehorned the first game's mechanics into a solo setting. I forgot about Respawn’s heritage. This is a campaign created by some of the brains that bought us the definitive CoD instalment – Modern Warfare – not to mention Call of Duty, Call of Duty 2 and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. It sees those minds unleashed on a full campaign for the first time since Modern Warfare 2, and I get the sense that they’ve given it their all.
In fact, the big surprise is how rich and diverse the campaign actually is. You’d think Respawn had enough to get on with using just the building blocks of Titanfall: the super-mobile pilots, the hulking Titans, the war between corporate armies vs revolutionaries. Yet Titanfall 2 pulls in influences from Halo, Half Life 2 and Portal while hurling jungle planets, space dinosaurs, planet-destroying weaponry and time-travel into the mix. The end-result is an exceptional sci-fi shooter, out-classing Halo 5, Killzone 4: Shadow Fall and both Call of Duty: Black Ops III and Advanced Warfare when it comes to the single-player experience.
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It makes the most of what made Titanfall special; it’s much-imitated, never-bettered movement mechanics and the colossal mechs that give the game its name. I’d defy you to name another FPS where jetpack-jumps, mantling, slides and wall-runs are handled so smoothly or with such high-speed grace, and the campaign is smart enough to focus its level design around these very mechanics, making you feel like the galaxy’s biggest badass.
From the first level you’ll find yourself hopping from clifftop to clifftop, racing across a vertical rock-face, using your sheer speed and vertical mobility to even the odds against large groups of enemies. By an hour or two in you’ll be tackling the kind of first-person platforming challenges you’d expect to see in a Mirror’s Edge or Portal, pulling off glorious chains of fluid jumps and runs to get you from one side of a vast manufacturing plant to another. It’s truly exhilarating stuff.
Not that the combat comes second-best. You can still sense Modern Warfare’s DNA in the power and weighty handling of Titanfall 2’s guns, while the AI on Hard mode hits a brilliant balance between being smart enough to give you a challenge, but not so smart that you can’t bring three guys down by wall-running past them and smacking them in the back with auto-shotgun fire in one lovely Matrix-like spin. I love the weapons, too, with assault rifles and beefy automatic shotguns backed up by electrically-charged SMGs, slow but potent sniper rifles, furious LMGs and magnetic grenade launchers and lightning-bolt rocket launchers. Just when I thought the Softball – a sticky-grenade launcher – might be hard to top, along came the two-shot; an elegant double-barrelled sniper rifle. Somehow, Respawn has built a lot of weapons that seem to cover the same spaces, yet imbued each one with its own personality.
As for the Titans, well, Respawn has played a blinder here, making your big Mech not just another weapon but your partner in a sci-fi buddy movie – a Brobot Bromance, if you will. It opens with you as a courageous militia rifleman being given Titan training, under the radar, by a legendary pilot. Don’t get too attached to your mentor, though. Within minutes he’s wasted, but not before passing over the neural link to his own Titan so that you can complete his final mission.
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At first, BT-7274 seems like a chunk of cold metal, all orders and protocols, no heart. Yet as you go on he and his new pilot develop a real bond – we even get semi-interactive conversations where you can opt for one of two responses by tapping up or down on the D-pad. You get separated and try to hook up, he’ll rescue you, you’ll rescue him and he’ll develop a rather charming (if a little scary) way of getting you from A to B. While I might have started the game feeling cynical about BT, I ended up feeling, well, about as touched as you can expect to be about a relationship between a soldier and a piece of futuristic military hardware. Respawn has managed to find a place where Steel Batallion and The Iron Giant meet.
When you’re not in BT-7274’s cockpit he’s usually providing guidance on where to go and what to do, while in some sections he can come to your assistance with the full force of his heavy weapons. And when you’re piloting, you have access to the kinds of weapons and moves you might remember from the original Titanfall, down to the ever-lovable vortex shield (sucks in incoming shells then spits them back out) and the four-way thrust manoeuvres.
And while BT’s chassis can’t be modified, he can be customised on-the-fly with different loadouts, which you’ll collect at key points in the campaign. Once you can switch between Scorch, with its grenade launcher, thermal shield and wall of fire, to Ronin with a huge energy sword, stealth attacks and shotgun, you’ll be laughing. It’s hard to think of another sci-fi FPS beyond Halo that has this sense of scale.
For most shooters this would be enough, but Respawn’s enthusiasm for cramming ideas into Titanfall 2 goes further. A little later on I get a time-travel gadget, enabling you to switch between past and future settings of a level, each having their own dangers. This isn’t just brilliant for confusing and outflanking enemies, but also opens up some ingenious little platform-puzzles, where you’ll be switching periods with split-second timing to survive.
Get through that, and Titanfall 2 introduces the Arc Tool; a device which can activate certain mechanisms to start or stop turbines or change the direction of a platform. You can even use it to create your own robot army. There are some fantastic set-piece battles too, both inside and outside of your Mech, with one that seems to update the fury of CoD2’s Omaha beach landing and another that has you leaping between assault-craft and battlecruisers while thousands of feet up in the air. This is spectacular, pulse-pounding stuff.
I could pick faults. There’s an argument that ideas are introduced to Titanfall 2 then abandoned too quickly, as if Respawn is saying ‘we’re done with that level and those mechanics, on to the next.’ The boss battles, against a bunch of sub-Metal Gear Solid mercenary weirdos, aren’t consistently great or challenging, with some taking ages to deal with, others going down without a struggle on the very first go. The visuals are mostly fantastic, despite being based on the ageing Source engine, with some gorgeous texture work and the kind of lighting you’d normally see in architectural renders. However, the close-ups and facial animation systems are relics from an earlier era. For a game that’s so powerful and cinematic for most of its running time, that’s a minor disappointment.
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On multiplayer, of course, Respawn is on safe ground. Personally, I didn’t think there was much wrong with the original’s modes or gameplay, and Titanfall 2 effectively gives us all the same good stuff, but tighter, more nuanced, more accessible and more refined.
There are, of course, new maps and new modes. The maps do a great job of covering the range of scales and game types, always balancing the needs of Pilots (safe interiors, fast-routes, good wall-running and rooftop-bouncing opportunities) with those of Titans (large spaces, Titan-sized cover, options for blasting sneaky Pilots cowering away inside). While there’s still a lot of slightly generic, future-industrial scenery, there’s also a wider variety of landscapes covered, too, from sci-fi towns under construction to canyons and remote research stations. It’s a whole lot easier to tell them apart.
Mode-wise, the new Bounty Hunt mode is an obvious winner, augmenting the usual team-based action with the need to earn bounties by killing CPU-controlled troops and titans, then bank your earnings at the nearest deposit-point. It has a nice way of keeping the action focused in specific areas, and encouraging players to switch out of team-deathmatch behaviours in order to chase new targets, then back in to pick off easy kills or prevent the enemy deposits.
Amped Hardpoint actually improves on standard Hardpoint by making sticking around and guarding your hardpoints a more sensible, tactical choice. When spending extra time at a captured hardpoint ‘amps’ it for extra credits, you’re less inclined to run off and chase the next one. This in turn encourages conflict and makes for a tighter, tenser match. And while Pilots vs Pilots has its detractors, I actually found it a lot of fun, putting the focus firmly on your movement and run-and-gun skills, like a kind of CoD on steroids.
Titanfall 2 also refines the dynamic between Titans and pilots. As a pilot you can still try to rodeo enemy Titans or take potshots at them with specialist weaponry, but there are new ways to help allied Titans, collecting batteries from the battlefield and ferrying them to your Mech-blessed friends. If the original sometimes left Titan-less pilots feeling they’d pre-ordered a gun for a gunfight but it had yet to be delivered, Titanfall 2 gives them more ways to make a difference.
Perhaps the biggest change, though, is the ditching of Titanfall’s rather generic Titan chassis and loadouts for a more distinctive set of Titan types, clearly steered towards different styles of play. Play the campaign, and you’ll already know that Scorch is a brute at close-quarters, that Ion is a little slow, but deadly, and that Northstar makes a formidable recon/sniper choice. You’ll also know what you’re up against when you see one storming towards you from the other side of the map. This simplifies the game a little, but you’ll still find a huge range of customisation options for your Titan – and an even greater range for your pilot. At times the range of weapons, perks and grenades can be bewildering, with more and more coming online as you level up. With time, you'll come to appreciate the depth of all Titanfall 2's options, and how they support almost any style of play.
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Some players might be disappointed that the old system of Burn Cards – collectible used-once perks you could play on your Pilot or Titan – has disappeared, but many of us found it confusing or simply forgot to use our Burn Cards once in battle. To make up, Titanfall 2 adds a new supercharged 'Boost' for each Titan, giving you what's basically an amped-up special attack provided you can survive long enough/score enough to fill the meter. It's just another example of how Titanfall 2 feels superficially very close to the original, but improves on it in ways that matter.
Titanfall 2’s campaign is one of the best surprises of the autumn 2016 season; smart, superbly-paced and packed with action, it tramples over the likes of Halo 5 and Killzone: Shadow Fall, making this the new sci-fi shooter for CoD: Infinite Warfare to beat. And while it’s the speed and action that sucks you in, you’ll remember it for its invention and unexpected heart. Put that together with the multiplayer, which refines what was already great in Titanfall, and you have an essential, all-action FPS which proves Respawn’s greatest work might not be in the past.