Titanfall Review – Xbox One

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Unlike many of the reviews for Titanfall that were based on private press events and pre-launch gaming sessions, our review is based entirely on gameplay that started after midnight on March 11th.  We have played both the Xbox One and PC versions extensively, but this review is solely for the console version, so any mention of the PC will be for comparison purposes only.

Titanfall has been years in the making, surrounded by mystery and rumors that have been floating around the internet ever since the highly publicized parting-of-ways with the core members of Infinity Ward and Activision.    For as much as iD Software created the FPS, Infinity Ward pioneered the online multiplayer FPS with their legendary Call of Duty franchise that has pretty much set the standard and template for all online shooters since.  Now, four years after leaving Activision and forming their own studio, Respawn Entertainment is ready to unleash their first game; a bold new vision of what a next-gen shooter can be.

The campaigns and single-player story modes that were highly criticized and often ignored in past Call of Duty games and other franchises like Battlefield are not even part of the Titanfall design.  For better or worse, aside from a brief tutorial, this is an online only game; something diehard multiplayer fans can rejoice while fans of narrative, linear missions and movie-like set pieces can lament.   In what seems like a last-ditch effort to appease angry story lovers, Respawn has thrown in what they call a “multiplayer campaign” mode that has you playing the same set of nine maps twice; once as the IMC and again as the Militia.  But beneath the thin veil of pre-mission cinematics and frequent PiP communications from superiors, these games play out exactly as they would if you had picked the game mode and map from the dedicated multiplayer menu.  I found the entire “campaign” disposable and slightly annoying at times, especially if you were trying to communicate with your team and some NPC or scripted bit of dialogue interrupted the chat.   They don’t even do a very good job of mixing up the modes, as most of the campaign is comprised of Attrition matches with a few Hardpoint maps scattered throughout.

While the campaign is disposable at best, it does serve a purpose in that by completing each side of the campaign you will unlock a new Titan chassis, and you’ll also be leveling up your character along the way, so by the time you are ready to head into the pure online experience you should be at least level 15-20.  Just think of the campaign as an extended tutorial that can be completed in about 3-4 hours and then ignored, unless you are going after the achievements to play 50 campaign missions and be a member of the winning team on every map.  Thankfully, it is this incentive that keeps veteran players coming back to the campaign otherwise newcomers to the game could find it hard to fill up a team roster.  I’m betting in less than three months nobody playing now will be playing the campaign.

For the first several days matchmaking was terribly imbalanced.  You would see games start with 4-vs-6 and one team would have players that were all level 20 or higher while the other team was all level 3-9 noobs.  Even on launch day I was going up against gamers who had gotten their copies of the game early, so I am wandering around with default gear while they are coming after me with sniper rifles and rail guns that I wouldn’t see for days to come.  Now, a week after launch, things have started to equalize and matches are evening out, despite the few occasional sighting of those gamers with “no life” who have prestiged 3-5 times already.

Much of the appeal of Titanfall are the giant robots that give the game a unique hybrid flavor of Call of Duty meets Mech Warrior.  With the exception of a few specialty game types most matches of Titanfall start with you as a human pilot jumping from a dropship and running around engaging in traditional FPS combat using a variety of weapons and tactical perks that can be swapped out into custom loadouts much like any other shooter.   The slick new addition to this part of the game is the parkour elements that enables your pilot to run along walls, vault up ledges, and even do extended jetpack jumps across rooftops then hang from a wall and snipe an enemy below.  The levels are masterfully designed to make the most of these athletic moves and all too soon you will slowly start to see the world in a new way – a way of navigational possibilities that become purely instinctual as you race across hostile maps.

Everything you do as a pilot will boost you player XP as well as shave precious seconds off the build time for your next Titan.  When ready, you can summon your Titan and it will plummet to your designated LZ ready to be piloted personally or placed in auto-pilot in either Follow or Guard modes.  This is where the real strategy begins.  Personally, in the dozens of hours that I have played Titanfall I have spent only minutes actually inside my Titan.  I find my robot buddy is far more effective as both my personal body guard and a stationary turret.  Once a Titan appears on the map it instantly become a high value target for other Titans and pilots, which also makes it a great decoy to draw enemy fire, revealing their position and even distracting them for a covert neck-snap or boot stomp.   In Hardpoint missions nothing is more effective than having your Titan stand guard over a data terminal while you watch his back, but there are times when you will need to climb aboard and that is when the game takes on an entirely new flavor.

Being inside a Titan gives you a momentary feeling of exhilaration and power until you realize that two enemy Titans are bearing down on you and three pilots have their anti-Titan weapons locking on your chassis with a third pilot on your back trying to rodeo your ride.  In the few instances I did decide to pilot my Titan the ride was never that long or as satisfying as the XP rewards I would reap while my Titan did his own thing on auto-pilot.

So essentially, Titanfall is two games in one with a fast and furious on-foot pilot section that can periodically turn into a powerful burst of robot warfare every two minutes – the unadjusted time it takes to assemble a new Titan.  There are 15 fantastic maps that range from outdoor environmental landscapes to urban locations like futuristic cities, settlements, and one desert planet that even has flying dragons.  The maps create environmental strategy that allow Titans specific paths through the maps based on their size, while pilots can run and jet-jump their way across expertly placed architecture and terrain.

During the dozens of matches I’ve played so far I’ve noticed that players are quick to jump in their Titan’s the moment they hit the dirt, but I’ve always found my Titan works best as a buddy than a tank, allowing me to rack up XP twice as fast, and also create some unique strategies where I can be running across rooftops while my Titan follows and distracts the enemy while I flank them.  But that is the sheer genius of the game design.   While I have chosen to not pilot the Titan (at least not for now) there are just as many people who prefer it and can do quite well, mastering the Vortex shield or perfecting the harmony of primary and secondary guns while unleashing electric smoke or ejecting for a well-timed nuclear blast.

There is a surprising variety of gameplay to be found in all the various game mode and all the maps, and the XP rewards system always keeps you advancing through the levels unlocking new weapons, gear, and tactical abilities for both pilot and Titan.  Figuring out the best combination of that gear and creating special loadouts that you can switch to in mid-match is up to you.  Titanfall puts its own spin on traditional multiplayer modes.  Attrition is basically team deathmatch while Hardpoint is the equivalent of Domination and CTF is…well…capture the flag with a few nice touches inherent to premise of the game.  Last Titan Standing puts all players in a Titan and the first team to lose them all loses the match.  Pilot Hunter is basically a variation of Attrition but you only get XP for killing pilots, and there is even a mode that randomly cycles all of these modes.   Unlike many games, there is no voting system in place, which means you will get to sample all the maps and not just player favorites, but honestly, there are no bad maps in Titanfall.

The balance of power is exceptional and quite remarkable given the fact that a Titan can easily crush a pilot with a single stomp.  Pilots have optional cloaking that make them hard to see from a Titan cockpit as well as numerous and powerful anti-Titan weapons.  The game is designed in such a way that Titans are better off fighting other Titans and avoiding pilot contact, which can make for some exciting Rockem Sockem moments when Titans engage in melee combat or even snatch a pilot from their cockpit and hurl them across the map.  Even the weapons have a great balance to them.  The auto-locking Smart Pistol is great for taking down 3-4 grunts with a single shot, but human pilots aren’t that easy.  Sniper rifles can take out a pilot with a single shot but if you stand still long enough to take that shot you’ll like get your necked snapped, while the shotgun – perhaps the best shotgun in any video game ever – is a great short-ranged weapon if you can get close enough to use it effectively.  And of course you have all the expected attachments, suppressors, sights, etc. to customize your weapons.

Not only can you customize your player and their gear, you can also customize the actual match using Burn Cards.  As you complete various built-in milestones and challenges you will unlock these specialty cards that you can equip (up to three) and then activate during the game.  These are one-use cards with a variety of functions that can temporarily swap out a weapon, shorten your Titan spawn time, or even make your pilot appear as an AI grunt to other players.  You choose when to activate the card and it only lasts until your next death.  You can even steal inactive cards from other players if you kill them fast enough.

Titanfall is certainly not as hardcore as other online shooters; especially Call of Duty which would often see a fast rise of a certain group of players that would make them “incompatible” with others.    Almost everything you do in Titanfall is rewarded with XP, which makes Hardpoint a great mode to grind XP early on.  I was leveling up 2-3 levels per match just finding and guarding a data terminal for the entire match.  Some have criticized that the game is only 6-vs-6 but I find that to be the perfect balance of human interaction, especially when you factor in that auto-piloted Titans could potentially turn those matches into 12-vs-12.  The game makes great use of AI grunts to make the battlefield look a little more populated and dangerous that it really is.  It also makes it a bit more challenging to pick out the human pilots from the bots, which means players can enjoy a little more survival time in the game.   My survival time in Titanfall was much greater than it was in any match of Call of Duty, and with only a 2-3 second respawn rate I was immediately back in the battle after any death.

Perhaps the coolest element to the matches are the post-game epilogues where the losing team must retreat across the map to a dropship and try to evac while the winning team tries to kill them or shoot down the drop ship, or both.  It’s a fun and frantic extra 30 seconds tacked onto the match that can reward players with some bonus XP and ease the sting for losing players who manage to actually escape.

Sadly, I was not that impressed with the overall look of Titanfall.   The game is running just slightly higher than 720p then upscaling to 1080p which creates all sorts of issues with texture detail, jaggies, and contrast, and while the 60fps holds up for the most part, there is constant screen tearing and way too many instances where the framerate does drop.  The audio mix is excellent with great use of the surround channels, powerful effects and great music.  The voice work is as professional as it is forgettable; especially in the campaign where you try to tune it out to hear your party chat.  Chat can also be annoying, especially in the lobby where all you can hear are people shouting at their Xbox to “UNSNAP” or “BROADCAST”.   And yes, the Xbox One now supports streaming, just in time to share your epic Titanfall battles on Twitch.

Titanfall had a lot to live up to, not only with the reputation of the designers creating it, but also the sheer amount of media coverage and hype EA and Microsoft has placed upon this game since it was first announced.  With no Halo launch title this is the Xbox One game that Microsoft is banking will boost their console into a position of dominance, but for those holding back on their purchase of the system until Titanfall, you might want to keep on waiting.   For as fun and original as Titanfall is, I just don’t feel this game is indicative of what we should be expecting from this new generation and it is far from the system-seller we had hoped.   The fact that the game is coming out on Xbox 360 already sends up red flags about how this game is not truly next-gen.  Plus, with less than optimal resolution, erratic framerates, and annoying screen tearing, the best place to play Titanfall for now is on your PC.

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