Available on Xbox One (tested), PC (Xbox 360 from March 28)
Just a year on from release, it’s slightly depressing that some consider Titanfall another of last year’s next-gen damp squibs. Respawn’s shooter was pointedly ignored in many of last year’s best of lists, and I’ve actually heard fellow journalists who gave it five star or ten out of ten reviews on release describe it as a weak or uninteresting game. But launch Titanfall on your Xbox One or gaming PC and you’ll soon remember why we all got so excited about it in the first place. Even after Destiny, Far Cry 4 and Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Titanfall is arguably the best competitive shooter of the last few years.
Too many people focus on what Respawn got wrong: the dull narrative, the failed attempt to make a multiplayer shooter feel like a single-player campaign, and the lack of destructible scenery. Instead, take a good look at what Respawn got right. Titanfall mixes two scales of combat together, with the fast-moving, nimble but vulnerable pilots on the one hand and the hulking, heavily armed and armoured Titans on the other, and makes each scale work brilliantly, and mesh seamlessly together. Controls and player movement on both scales are nigh-on perfect, and Titanfall’s maps – the vast majority are excellent – do a fantastic job of providing high-speed parkour routes for the pilots and open stomping grounds and choke points for the Titans.
The subtleties and balance of the gameplay have only got better with each new patch or update. The Titans might seem impregnable and overpowering, with their massive cannons, rocket launchers and chainguns, their heavy armour and their crushing feet, but Respawn counters with the pilot’s cloak and stim (speed boost) abilities, their ability to leap onto Titans and attack them from the shell (the Rodeo manoeuvre) and by giving pilots weapons that can do genuine damage to the stomping behemoths.
Getting into a Titan and kicking ass never gets tired, particularly because the game’s score to reduce the drop time mechanics turn it into a reward for working hard on the battlefield. Yet playing as a pilot is so much fun that losing a Titan never spoils the enjoyment. The groups of AI controlled grunts and spectres ensure that there’s action and excitement even when no other players are in range. It’s hard to think of another shooter where the entertainment to dead time ratio is so high.
Advanced Warfare and Destiny come close, but Titanfall still leads the pack in making movement fluid, effective and exciting in and of itself. Fond as we are of Advanced Warfare’s jetpack glides and ground pounds, there’s nothing to match Titanfall’s chains of wall-runs, double-jumps and seamless mantling manoeuvres. Playing Titanfall you’re not just awed by the skilled players’ shooting or sniping skills, but by their ability to navigate the map. Occasionally you watch the killcam replay expecting to see some cheap shot, only to be dazzled by an acrobatic display that saw your killer wall-run over you and past you, spin quickly as they land and blast you from behind – a move straight out of The Matrix playbook.
Titanfall’s biggest shortcoming at launch was a lack of game modes, but Respawn has fixed this through a series of updates. The basic Attrition (team deathmatch) and Hardpoint (control point domination) modes remain the core of the game, along with Campaign, Pilot Hunter, Capture the Flag and Last Titan Standing. These have now been joined by Marked for Death, where one player on each team is (you guessed it) singled out for assassination as a key objective, Pilot Skirmish, an eight vs eight player deathmatch with no AI combatants and no Titans, Wingman Last Titan standing and a fully-fledged, four-player co-op mode. Join one of the Variety Pack playlists and you’ll find no shortage of the spice of life, and it’s surprising how consistently well each game mode plays.
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Respawn has also addressed concerns about performance – never a serious issue on PC, but a problem on Xbox One during multi Titan face-offs. As Microsoft’s system updates have given the development team more CPU and RAM resources to work with, stuttering isn’t so frequent or so game-breaking, and overall the experience has now become quite smooth.
Some might say that Titanfall isn’t the next-gen showcase game we were promised. It uses Valve’s aging Source engine, though with some modifications, and its lighting isn’t as sophisticated or its textures as bursting with detail as those in Destiny, Assassin’s Creed: Unity or Far Cry 4.
Yet going back to Titanfall we’re surprised how good it looks. The unit design and animation is fantastic, and the best-looking stages are ripe with stylish elements and nice details. The worst are victims of the kind of generic, industrial battleground clichés that we’re all familiar with from Call of Duty, Battlefield and just about every FPS since Doom, but even then they function as a canvas for scenes of spectacular sci-fi battle. The sheer scale makes Titanfall feel cinematic in a way that only Battlefield 4 can match.
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To see it at its best it’s well worth getting hold of the DLC map packs, specifically Expedition and Frontier’s Edge, which in the Swampland, Wargames and Haven maps contain the best-looking and most innovative maps in the game. Swampland, with its colossal trees, water-logged ground level, ruins and higher-level parkour routes is nothing short of spectacular, while Haven is a kind of Titanfall package holiday in the sun. You can criticise the DLC packs for not including exclusive game modes, but we prefer Respawn’s policy of making new modes available to all players – not to mention its addition of a Burn Card black market that doesn’t involve real cash.
Titanfall isn’t flawless. Despite Respawn’s best efforts some weapons and loadouts still feel under-powered or occasionally overpowered, and while matchmaking is exemplary in terms of simplicity and speed, falling player numbers mean a wait to play on some playlists. Yet it’s still easy to find an active game in Titanfall, and the community is – by competitive FPS standards – friendly, forgiving and abuse-free. It seems a small point, but having had games of Advanced Warfare and Halo 5: Guardians beta spoilt by excessive trash talk and noob-baiting, Titanfall has felt welcoming by comparison.
The Verdict – 1 year on
Don’t listen to the cynics and the moaners: Titanfall was a great multiplayer shooter last year and it’s even better now. Its innovative movement and Titan mechanics put many more recent shooters in the shade, and it’s as fast-paced and addictive as ever. If you’ve just bought an Xbox One this Christmas, put it on your shopping list right away, and on PC it’s an absolute bargain. Titanfall might not be the deepest, richest or most tactical competitive FPS around, but it’s easily one of the most entertaining.
See also: Xbox One vs Xbox 360
How do you judge a game as hyped as Titanfall? Do you deconstruct it, check all the bullet points are covered, pick it apart and talk about the things it doesn’t do? If so, Titanfall might leave you wanting.
Visually, Respawn’s debut is a great-looking game, but not quite a next-gen benchmark setter. It can’t boast certain must-have features, like destructible scenery, evolving maps or branching objectives.
The much-vaunted fusion of single-player and multiplayer action turns out to be a thin layer of narrative that makes virtually no difference to the gameplay. It’s short on innovative game modes, and there aren’t even that many maps.
Yet the experience of playing Titanfall says something different. If you’re bored of online FPS games, Titanfall might make you think again. If you’re looking for something that’s about more than twitch reflexes and sudden headshots, Titanfall delivers.
Sometimes its innovations aren’t that major or that obvious, yet they come together to make a quietly revolutionary game. The guys who transformed the genre with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare have done it again.
The most important thing in Titanfall turns out not to be the Titans or the single/multiplayer campaign, but the simple joy of moving around the map.
Splash Damage’s under-appreciated Brink did its best to bring parkour to the FPS, but Titanfall nails it, with its jet-pack packing, wall-running, double-jumping pilots exploring the world in a way that brings to mind superhero games like inFamous more than Call of Duty.
You might think playing on foot plays second-fiddle to piloting a Titan, but you couldn’t be more wrong. Sprinting up a wall and jumping through a window to surprise an enemy position never gets old. Chaining wall-runs and jumps to reach higher ground is a thrill in itself.
The speed and fluidity of movement even changes the whole flow of the gameplay. You’re rarely more than thirty seconds from the action, and it’s quite hard for all but the most skilled snipers to get a bead on a moving pilot.
Then there are the Titans. True, we’ve had big lumbering mechs to play with before, but Titanfall makes them more than walking tanks.
The dash ability turns out to be crucial, enabling you to dodge incoming fire or charge in with a melee punch. There’s a real art to using the vortex field, timing things right so that you suck in incoming fire, then spit it back out for maximum damage.
Throw in the additional weapons and secondary abilities you unlock as you progress through the persistent levelling system, and there’s plenty of potential to build your own style of Titan. Switch Vortex Shield out for damage-dealing, Titan-concealing smoke, and you can have a great mech for close-quarters battle.
Make use of the Tier 1 and Tier 2 passive capabilities, and you can have a Titan that blows sky-high even as it goes down, while you eject into the sunset to fight another day.
The mix of pilots and Titans works brilliantly. Slow-moving, isolated pilots are easy-pickings for a mech, but an acrobatic pilot with a cloaking shield engaged is another matter.
Pilots can damage Titans not just with anti-Titan weapons, but by leaping onto them and disabling them from the outside: a difficult feat to pull off, but one that’s worth it for the hugely satisfying payoff.
While the game works at two scales, it never feels like two discrete battles. Whether you’re playing David or Goliath, there’s always something you can do to make a difference.
This generous spirit flows into the game as a whole. In recent years the online FPS has become a horribly frustrating place for all but the most committed. Whether you’re a n00b or just someone who doesn’t have ten hours a week for the latest Battlefield or Call of Duty, it can be hard to take the pace.
Titanfall changes this, not just because the new style of gameplay levels the playing field a fraction, but because it makes participation about more than making headshots. It’s not like Battlefield, in that there aren’t specific recon or support roles, but even less skilled players can get stuck in, focusing on taking control points in the objective-based Hardpoint mode, or just hoovering up easy kills against the AI-controlled Grunts and Spectres in Attrition.
The slightly dumb and predictable bots don’t just help fill out the battlefield, but give novices an easy target to build their skills on. Even the game’s brilliant endgame plays its part, allowing those on the losing team to snatch some comfort by reaching the evacuating dropship, while the winners do their best to heap one final humiliation on top of the loss.
There was much controversy pre-beta about the twelve-player cap, but this is still very much a non-issue. We’ve yet to play a single round that hasn’t felt frantic and exciting, and even with five players per team that doesn’t change.
Like so much of Titanfall, the player count seems perfectly balanced. With all the grunts, spectres, pilots and titans on the field, you’re never left looking for team-mates to support or enemies to shoot.
As far as maps go, Titanfall has its share of slightly generic industrial sci-fi efforts that you’ll struggle to tell apart, but also some genuinely brilliant efforts. Boneyard, set on a desert planet with giant flying lizards soaring around, is a particular highpoint, even if the local fauna takes disappointingly little part in the action.
A crumbling star cruiser is the focus for a complex labyrinth of open spaces, corridors and chambers, while a corporate facility becomes a fiercely-contested battleground, with robotic assembly modules that churn out Spectres in Hardpoint mode.
Even when the aesthetics aren’t brilliant, the map design is flawless, each one supporting different routes and different styles of play, without missing out on the traditional open battlegrounds or choke points.
Visually, Titanfall is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Its Source Engine graphics max out on lovely HDR lighting and crisp detail, not to mention big explosions and particle effects. However, if you look closely, you’ll notice how the vegetation barely moves, and how the ongoing signs of destruction are very limited.
It’s a valid criticism, but – frankly – you’ll be far too busy to spend much time noticing. Ditto for the 792p native resolution, and the very occasional dip from 60fps or roundabouts.
What's a stronger cause for complaint is the feebleness of the narrative-led campaign. Structurally it works pretty well, taking you through nine Attrition and Hardpoint scenarios first from the vantage of the authoritarian IMF, and then through the eyes of the rebellious Militia.
The narrative bit extends as far as pre-match and occasional post-match cut-scenes with the odd bit of chatter in the corner of the screen (and you’ll barely have time to notice that).The outcome of the scenario has no real effect on the direction of the story, and each campaign is effectively little more than a pair of ready-made playlists.
Both campaigns are fun to play through, but neither does much to hook you in emotionally, and it doesn’t help that the IMF campaign is more generic and less sympathetic than the Militia storyline.
Play modes could also be more imaginative. Attrition and Hardpoint are classic Team Deathmatch and Control Point modes, while Last Titan Standing and the new Pilot Hunt and Capture the Flag modes are also variants on well-worn themes.
Maybe Respawn was too busy thinking about the minute-to-minute gameplay to think about this stuff. Maybe it’s something that could be addressed with the inevitable sequel.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. The real hook for Titanfall isn’t narrative, but the fiendishly addictive gameplay and the constant drip-feed of new gear and new challenges as you play and level.
Whether they’re new weapons and attachments for your pilot or your Titan, or the collectible Burn Cards you can play to give you an edge when you respawn, there’s always something new to do or try. Once again, everything seems exquisitely balanced.
We’ve yet to find a weapon, capability or attachment that boosts one thing without taking away somewhere else. Experience doesn’t so much give you an advantage as enable you to take different play styles for a spin.
Finally, a word about stability and servers. We’ve been playing pre-release on European servers, and we’ve had no problems with matchmaking or finding a game. In fact, it’s been so easy as to be practically transparent. Nor have we had any problems staying in a game once started, bar one dropped connection we’d put down to our own ISP.
The worst thing we can say is that it’s nearly impossible to find a game of Pilot Hunt or Capture the Flag, but that’s probably a case of low player numbers and/or interest. We know that PC players have experienced more errors, and we’ll keep playing the game post-launch to see if any problems arise. If they do, we’ll report back ASAP.
Titanfall might not look or always seem that revolutionary, but it is a transformative online FPS in its own special way. We’ve never seen an FPS that combines two scales of action so successfully, nor one with such speed and fluidity of movement.
Everything from the weapons to the abilities to the maps to the Titans themselves is perfectly balanced. It’s tighter than the strings in a concert grand piano, and just as beautiful to play.
We hope that we'll see a better fusion of narrative and action in the sequel, not to mention more imaginative game modes, but as it is Titanfall is an FPS to rival Call of Duty, Left for Dead and Battlefield, and one which sets high standards for a new breed of next-gen games to match – and hopefully surpass.