Titanfall is strictly coiled around the player. You couldn't excise even one piece without slackening it like a ruined kidnapper's rope. The serpentine level design, the liberating sense of movement, the flawless controls and yes, the enormous bipedal tanks dropping from the sky, are equally indispensable in this arresting shooter.
Given the studio's splintered status as a former Call of Duty custodian, Respawn Entertainment has made a multiplayer game fit for those who have spent years peering through the eyes of a speedy killing machine – a seasoned six against six in battles for land or a higher kill count. A history with rapid-fire aim and fleet-footed 3D movement is not essential here, but recommended.When you take on the role of a human pilot, movement in Titanfall offers an explosion of speed and possible trajectories, turning nearly every surface into a potential route of attack or retreat. The walls, alleys and windows of Titanfall's decaying urban battlegrounds become portals for jet-pack parkour, and hurling myself through a run-jump-wallrun-turn-jump-jump often tricked me into thinking Titanfall could stop there. Even if your head spins in the dense verticality, being lost lasts no more than a few seconds and maybe a double-jump. There's no stopping you or the game.
But the pilots wouldn't feel quite so small and agile and powerful, in their own ways, if they didn't have some elephants stomping in their midst. The titans, massive war machines that come crackling and white-hot through the atmosphere at your behest, don't tower over the game's design as you might think. Summoning one of these mechanical beasts does not portend victory any more than donning a piece of armor does. It's better to think of a titan as a resource, traded for the time it takes to build one, or for defeating pilots and each map's dim-witted AI drones, each one knocking some precious seconds off construction time.
Titans offer a kind of respite in the noisy flow of battle, shielding you from the lesser dangers outside – at least until the larger ones find you. Respawn has crafted a brilliant variety of animations, its monsters swallowing you whole and creating a vital continuity throughout every match. You don't transform into a titan and lose perspective; you're always the pilot in a crush-or-be-crushed world.
The rising, falling, rising tension between the squirrelly knight and his lumbering suit of armor create some of Titanfall's most exhilarating clashes: Your titan scoops you into its hollow just as your screen starts flashing red with imminent death, bullets sparking off its cupped metal hand. Enemy flag in hand, you hitch a ride from a friendly robot and barge out of the encampment, missiles spiraling ahead. And finally – inevitably – you pound at the controls of a dying titan, triggering a volcanic ejection that leaves you high, alive and still in the game. The titans aren't cheap in Titanfall's time-based economy, but they're expendable and useful in their death throes, even turning into dirty nuclear bombs if you can make it far enough. That is, without an opposing titan ripping you out of the cockpit and tossing you aside; the game's funniest and most brutal first-person scene.
Once you've boarded and killed enough of them, you'll realize titans aren't really that interesting when they fight only one another. The close calls and quick shifts in the game's overall flow from pilot to titan, and back again, are diminished in big-guy standoffs, if not nullified. That isn't to say titans lack strategic options, but Titanfall's magic is in transitions, not the bots banging their heads against one another. Capture the Flag is exciting again, while the nothing-but-robots 'Last Titan Standing' mode is an odd point of encroaching boredom.
I found a lot to like, however, in the Strider, the most nimble of the three available titan models. While the more rounded Atlas mech and the burly Ogre can all extract benefit from the oversized chainguns, reflective energy shields and crippling electric smoke that make up just part of the titan armory, the Strider has extra dash capacity (which can be amped up even further if you're on a roll). This means quick bursts of lateral movement for dodging and counter-attacking, just like the good ol' Cyber Troopers Virtual-On days. If you're feeling braver, dashing is a quick way to get close for a block-rocking punch or the burning rub of a rocket salve. Smart audio cues and jolting audio design let you know when you're outnumbered (bad news), or when another combatant is about to come down on you (worse news).
War in Titanfall is often hinged on the performance of independent players. Unlike many class-based shooters, it's not outwardly concerned with cooperation, save for spontaneous teamwork like shooting pesky pilots off your fellow titans, or hacking AI-controlled turrets and robots to turn them to your side. By the way, if you were wondering where Titanfall fits in the spectrum between macho and nerdy, let me tell you that hacking here is literally stabbing a computer with your cyber-knife until it relents.
The lack of a delineated support role hurts Titanfall, even knowing it's a more measured and aggressive game than something like Battlefield. The classes you can build from the game's locker of shotguns, rifles, auto-targeting pistols and scopes don't feel limited, per se, but most options are a shade of assault. If you're someone who prefers supporting and healing tasks, I think it would be harder for you to find a comfortable place in a Titanfall team.
The game does make up for the lack of a hang-back role in small but clever ways. A frantic escape sequence concludes most matches, with the losers having one more chance at upliftment if they can reach a departing ship on time and alive. Pilots have a host of unique abilities, including a burst of speed, temporary invisibility or even faster feats of parkour. A stack of sacrificial "burn cards" provide helpful tweaks upon death, amping up your weapons, extending your ability to sprint, or cutting down titan construction time. All of these have the potential to destabilize a match, provided you can hold your own long enough to act.
Titanfall's systems of scoring and progression aren't as overbearing as I thought they would be – again, there's that Call of Duty heritage. The game doles out weapon enhancements and titan configurations at an addictive pace, and eventually opens up choices that come with sacrifices. I still haven't made up my mind about the titan machine gun that shoots faster the longer you hold down the trigger. That gives it more potential punch, but every time you let go to reclaim your finger, you're back to a weaker weapon. That's bad news in some of the more heavily segmented maps, where titans tend to bunch up into deadly bottlenecks and single-file death marches. I'm still looking at you, Last Titan Standing.
When it's not all a clash of the you-know-whats, when there's a volatile mix of scampering boots and earth-rattling bipeds on the battlefield, Titanfall truly excels. It subsists on imbalance and the race to bear big arms first. It feeds on the fallout that results when equality means the other guy gets a robot too. Titanfall isn't tuned to perfection for everyone yet, but it starts as a smart, swift and startling movement in well-traveled space.
Overall State of Service: Good
In its first month of availability, Titanfall encountered no debilitating or pervasive problems, and the quality of its online play was consistent. Full report here. What's State of Service?
This review is based on Xbox One version of Titanfall, played at an Electronic Arts review event on live servers. The Xbox One retail version was also tested on live servers. Titanfall is not playable offline. Images: Electronic Arts.
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