Game Review: Respawn Changes the Face of the First-Person Shooter With ‘Titanfall’

By March 20, 2014
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Back in 2003, a World War II-based first-person shooter video game was released on PC that would go onto become one of the biggest franchise juggernauts in the entirety of video game history. The game was Call of Duty, developed by a studio called Infinity Ward and published by Activision. Infinity Ward and a couple of other development houses would go on to create a number of sequels to their initial game, but the year 2007 saw the franchise altered by the times. That year saw the release of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game that took the franchise out of the past and firmly placed it into the present. It was such a juggernaut that people were playing it even more than that year’s biggest FPS darling, Halo 3. Infinity Ward would go on to develop a direct sequel in Modern Warfare 2, but shortly after that game’s release, a slew of damaging accusations and legal claims culminated in Infinity Ward co-founders Vince Zampella and Jason West leaving both the game studio they founded, and Activision. Also, consequentially, they were out of Call of Duty, and when West and Zampella left, so did 46 other Infinity Ward employees.

West, Zampella, and the vast majority of those former IW employees went on to found a new studio, which they appropriately called Respawn Entertainment. The efforts of all involved have led us here, to their first released game. While it retains some of the fundamental DNA of the Call of Duty franchise in the way that it’s played, in practically every other way it’s easy to see that this is an entirely different animal. At its core, especially so early in the life cycle of the eighth generation of video game consoles, that is arguably the greatest contribution of the assaulting experience known as Titanfall.

One of the most surprising elements of Titanfall is the rich mythology it has created for itself, especially that you're given a balanced perspective between the two factions: the Militia (left) and the IMC (right).

One of the most surprising elements of Titanfall is the rich mythology it has created for itself, especially that you’re given a balanced perspective between the two factions: the Militia (left) and the IMC (right).

Mythology

Titanfall is an immersive first-person shooter gaming experience, but at the core of its presentation is an impressively dense mythology rooted in an understandable conflict from both sides.

The game takes place in an indeterminate future, though it’s probably pretty safe to say that it’s the far future. The core conflict is between the IMC, or Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation, and a group of rebels known only as “the Militia.” Basically, when humanity started expanding out from its “core” systems near Earth, the IMC began to fund and carry out exploratory missions and settlements into “the Frontier,” using faster-than-light “jump drives” (which operate similarly, though not as efficiently, as the similarly named devices found in Battlestar Galactica). When a new set of conflicts in the core systems diverted the IMC’s attentions away from the “novelty” of settling the Frontier, the company focused on resolving those conflicts, effectively leaving the Frontier settlers to their own devices. When the IMC checked back in on their “investments,” they found the settlers functioning well, perhaps even better than when the IMC last checked in on them. They were growing crops, manufacturing their own goods, and tapping into abundant natural resources.

When the IMC saw this, they attempted to declare eminent domain by citing the fact that their original investments gave rise to the flourishing communities created on the Frontier, and wanted to use those resources to subsist. It was this act by the IMC that gave rise to the Militia, who rose up to defend their homes from being repossessed by the IMC. While war is fought in a relatively conventional sense, the fact that they are also largely fought in giant mechs known as “Titans” fundamentally changes the scales on planets that are wartorn by the conflict between the Militia and the IMC. See the game’s intro cinematic below:

Presentation

Titanfall is the first major exclusive game to be released during the eighth generation of video game consoles. While it also has a release on PC, the Xbox family are the only dedicated game systems that will see the game (with the Xbox One version available now, and a separately developed version for Xbox 360 arriving on April 8th). So, as you might expect, it should look gorgeous, right? Well…kind of. It looks pretty spectacular, don’t get me wrong, but a sometimes fluctuating frame rate, some noticeable screen tearing, and an odd resolution of 792p make me feel that graphically, we’re still yet to see the absolute best looking game for the Xbox One console. That being said, the game as it is on Xbox One doesn’t really feel like something that could be achieved on the previous consoles, and in that respect by itself it looks pretty awesome. Well past satisfactory. Technical and resolution issues aside, though, the game is very uniquely designed, with a distinct flavor of sci-fi that may evoke some past favorites, but stands largely on its own.

You may be surprised to learn that Titanfall has something of a campaign mode, even though one of the big talking points about it is that it’s an online-only experience. There’s no single player campaign to speak of, but there are nine different “campaign” missions in a separate multiplayer mode that do a relatively respectable job in telling a cohesive story. Each mission has a brief lead-in from some of the characters, within the game’s engine, that tries to help set up the stakes for your current mission. The campaign, in order to complete it, has to be fought from both the perspectives of the IMC and the Militia, with different characters facilitating the perspectives of each mission. One observation I made was how surprisingly balanced the game seems to be in presenting both sides: no human beings are particularly more nefarious than others, and it really allows you to make a decision about which are “good” and “bad.”

While perhaps not as graphically advanced as some may hope, Titanfall is still beyond the capabilities of the last console generation, and "has it where it counts."

While perhaps not as graphically advanced as some may hope, Titanfall is still beyond the capabilities of the last console generation, and “has it where it counts.”

That being said, it’s very difficult to focus at all on the story because this is a hardcore multiplayer first-person shooter. Even if you want to pay attention to the events of the quasi-story unfolding in front of you, you can’t afford to divert your attention too far from the game, or you’ll end up with a bad score. Which, naturally, leads us to the most important element of the experience.

Gameplay

As stated in our article detailing the experience with the game’s beta, on its very face, Titanfall is a conceptually typical first-person shooter experience before placing the Titans into the equation. All that means is that this is ground-based, first-person shooter combat on display. That’s where many of the similarities to other entries in the genre differ, though, because of a couple of main features. One of these is the player’s movement: Respawn has melded sci-fi maneuvering thruster technology with parkour into things called “Jump Kits” that every player, or “Pilot,” is equipped with. Jump Kits allow Pilots to run on walls, double jump from the ground to a second story floor with ease, or even chain together wall running with jumps to cover an inhuman amount of distance across one of the game’s 15 massive maps. Probably the single most unique element of Titanfall‘s person-to-person combat is its verticality: running around on the ground is a surefire way to court death from a wiser player who has sought the high ground. Everything about the game on the ground encourages you to get up as high as possible, and pick off any enemies that wander into your line of sight. Of course, getting to the high ground and keeping it from another Pilot are two entirely different things.

One other unique element of Titanfall‘s gameplay is that the human players are limited to twelve per match. Some gamers were disappointed by this news, but the teams are also filled out with NPC characters as well. While scoring a kill on an NPC grunt or robotic Spectre will only give you marginal points when compared to scoring a kill on another human Pilot, the whole experience feels anything but muted, especially when the big boys are called down from the sky.

Titanfall takes its name from the process of a Pilot calling down one of the giant mech robots, known as “Titans,” from orbit. Throughout the early moments of a match, your score dictates how quickly you can call Titans down before boarding them. If you call a Titan down, you don’t always have to jump into it straightaway. In some scenarios where your Titan can’t reach, or can’t fit, you can place it into “A.I. mode” and have it either follow you, engaging other infantry and Titans on its own along the way, or post up at a position of your choosing and stand guard.

Verticality is the name of the game in Titanfall, and with unprecedented mobility for your human Pilot, getting to the high ground has never felt so awesome.

Verticality is the name of the game in Titanfall, and with unprecedented mobility for your human Pilot, getting to the high ground has never felt so awesome.

Titans themselves are equipped with a primary weapon, an ordnance weapon, a “tactical ability,” and a “core enhancement.” Primary weapons can range anywhere between massive chainguns, long-charge plasma weapons, or giant grenade launchers, and can be upgraded as you accrue XP. Greater XP also gives you access to new ground-based weapons and gear. A Titan’s tactical ability is a secondary weapon, either offensive or defensive, that you can employ in addition to your primary weapon. A core enhancement is something that can prolong your Titan’s life, fortify shields, or temporarily boost the power of your weapons. One of my favorite Titan abilities? The “Nuclear Ejection.” Check out my usage of it in the video below.

I can get a lot more detailed about the specific intricacies of the Pilot and Titan loadouts and the various things that you can do with each one, but suffice it to say there are a multitude of options. The true gem of this entire experience is having the Titans and Pilots interact in one of the frenzied match types: Attrition (Team Deathmatch), Hardpoint Domination, Capture the Flag, Last Titan Standing, and Pilot Hunter. The melding of the two very different methods of combat make for a refreshingly unique and endlessly fun gameplay experience, and Titanfall absolutely shines when it comes to a very solid foundation for multiplayer video gaming.

Overall

Titanfall is, by far, the current reigning gem of the Xbox One software library. It’s certainly a rare occurrence when a hype machine actually manages to deliver when it promises something truly new and unique, but the hat has to go off to the team at Respawn Entertainment for delivering something that truly stands as a new addition to a genre of gaming which, even in the best of cases, can be very derivative. Titanfall‘s unique mixture of man and machine, its rich and detailed mythology, its ample game maps, respectable customization options, and wide variety of game modifiers really make it the first stand out video game release of 2014. Is it the “killer app” of the Xbox One? I’m not sure if I’d go that far, but it comes pretty close. The fact that it’s an exclusive to the Xbox brand is a huge “get” for Microsoft, and will likely do exactly what it’s designed to do in that regard: move consoles. That being said, though, Titanfall in virtually every respect feels like one of the first substantive additions to the first-person shooter genre of video games in at least a decade.

A sequel by this point is likely a foregone conclusion, and if/when it happens there are certainly things that can be improved. A single player campaign that can allow the player to focus on the surprisingly dense mythology would be a great addition, since the “campaign” as it stands doesn’t leave you any breathing room to appreciate that kind of creative legwork. Perhaps some more time in the visual department couldn’t hurt as far as upping the resolution to a truly full-HD experience.

These quibbles, though, are minor. For a gameplay experience, Titanfall is deliciously unique, and spending any amount of time in one of the frenzied game modes will likely prove that to anyone. For those that decide to jump in and give it a try, it probably won’t be long until you establish a good groove in playing the game, and when you do, there likely won’t be three more exciting words you hear in a video game than those that could change the balance of the match: “Standby for Titanfall.”

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.