(This is an update to our review of Titanfall, which we published a year ago. You can find the original article on Page 2.)
There are times when Titanfall seems like one dead game. Outside of peak gaming hours, Titanfall is down to a handful of die-hards grinding through games of Attrition (team-deathmatch) while almost every other game mode goes ignored by all but a handful of players.
But it’s not as dire as it looks. The players are still there, but Titanfall has become a pick-up game experience. A small core of players gets a game going and then, as if by magic, more and more people show up and it’s back to being the superb parkour shooter that it was at launch. You just have to want it a little more.
Titanfall is either a cautionary tale about the perils of launching a new blockbuster multiplayer shooter, or Exhibit A in the case for letting players have the option of running and searching for dedicated servers. Maybe it’s both.
On a Friday night at around midnight Eastern, I logged into Titanfall and tried to find a game of Hardpoint, the point-control mode of the mech-shooter. Or I tried to. After five minutes of being the only person in the lobby, I gave up and went back to the game mode selection screen. I looked at the stats for each game.
There was exactly one other person, in the world, who was playing Hardpoint. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that person had been me, and Titanfall’s stats simply hadn’t refreshed. Capture the Flag had something like four people playing it. 600, meanwhile, were playing Attrition.
It was crushingly disappointing. Attrition was probably one of the less-interesting game modes in Titanfall. Map objectives made the most of the unique aspects of Titanfall: the movement system, the AI cannon fodder, and the Titans themselves. You could employ all of them to assault, capture, hold, and escape from key map locations. Attrition, by contrast, is too much of a giant scrum to encourage the same approach. In the general chaos, I was too busy watching my back and dodging the Titan slugging matches to bother with daring map traversal.
But Titanfall will reward you if you stick around. I killed time with some Attrition games, then found a small game of Hardpoint without a six people. Next thing I knew, I was a in full game and playing for two straight hours and remembering just how much I loved this game. When I got tired of Hardpoint, I looked around again: Hardpoint was going strong with several different games’ worth of concurrent players. Capture the Flag was suddenly booming.
Titanfall may have taken some blows to its community, and it may be harder to find exactly the experience you were looking for than it was nine months ago, the players are still there. It’s still a blindingly-fast combination of Heavy Gear, Counter-Strike, and Call of Duty. And there’s a lot more of it than there used to be.
Seeking new battlefields
All of Titanfall’s DLC packs are now free for owners of the base game, which means there are suddenly a lot more stages on which to perform. The map packs aren’t just variations on the themes we saw in Titanfall’s original set of maps, either. Swampland, from the Expedition pack, is both visually and geographically distinct from the frontier cities and military bases we saw in the base game. It’s less vertical and more spread-out, and lines of sight are cut into slivers by thick forest and muddy hills. Yet there are also crumbling ruins where Titans can’t go, and which exist almost as tiny deathmatch levels within the larger level, as players frantically trade shots through holes in the floor and chase each other through decaying architecture.
Or there’s Export, from Frontier’s Edge, which is an industrial coastal town nestled against a Broadchurch-like cliff that runs along one side of the map. The entire level has a series of tiers down from the top of the cliff, to the next tier of multi-story buildings, and finally down to sea-level, where things open up considerably for the Titans. It makes navigation a two-stop process, as you first think about where you want to go, and then figure out the best way to get up or down from there. The stairs along the cliff road are an express-lane, but they’re also wildly exposed to fire from the rooftops below. Furthermore (and this is odd) there’s an electrified fence that players can cause to discharge wildly in a huge area, zapping anyone nearby. It’s a neat trick, but it’s really useful as an area-denial tactic, as one team can suddenly slam that road shut for something like a full minute.
I could go on. If there’s one thing revisiting Titanfall left me with, it’s a renewed appreciation for the multiplayer map design in the game. Having the map rotation expanded with so many new maps across the various DLCs simply points out how different Titanfall feels depending on map and game mode. While everyone brings the same sets of tools to each map, the rules for employing them change radically depending on where you’re fighting. Having all the extra maps tossed into Titanfall for free definitely gives the game more variety than it had when it launched last year.
New game modes also promise a lot of additional variety, but here the game Titanfalls (wakka wakka wakka!) a little short.
New ways to play
When you look over the game modes in Titanfall right now, they promise a banquet. But while you can get decent games together in the core game modes of Attrition, CTF, and Hardpoint, a lot of them are literal nonstarters. Deadly Ground, a “the floor is lava!” game variant, is simply dead. Wingman Last Titan Standing appears never to have caught-on either.
There are two notable exceptions to this rule, and they’re both significant additions to Titanfall. The first is Frontier Defense, a four-player co-op mode in which you defend a Macguffin from waves of incoming AI enemies. It’s wildly popular, a testament to gamers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for co-op slaughterfests. Personally, I wasn’t too impressed. It’s an awkward mix of “horde mode” and tower defense, in a game that’s not really built for either. Four players team up, plant turrets, and then proceed to mow down wave after wave of AI grunts and auto-Titans. There are a few twists, like nuke-Titans that basically act as suicide bombers, but not enough to make Titanfall an interesting wave defense game. Especially because, by its very nature, Frontier Defense nails you and your team into one position and takes movement out of the equation. Still, the mode is very popular among the game’s existing community, so perhaps I’m just missing the point.
More interesting by far is Marked for Death, which amps-up Titanfall already CS:GO-like pacing. One player on each team becomes an assassination target, and the first team to lose their marked player loses the round. The first team to six round victories wins the map. There are no respawns within a round.
It’s an incredibly fast-paced game and one that’s dominated by high-skill play. Rounds often end inside of a minute as one team rushes across the map to pick off their prey. But, at other times, early skirmishing depletes both teams and turns the round into a cat-and-mouse between four or five players, two of whom are trying desperately not to get killed.
Because so much of the game is about chasing down a target or, if you are the target, running like hell, Marked for Death rewards players who have learned the levels and mastered all the tricks of Titanfall navigation: wall-hangs, wall-running, double-jumping, zip-lining, etc. Victory goes to players who can put lead on these hard-to-hit targets. It’s beyond my competence, but it was still a tense, addicting experience.
I still love Titanfall and, in many ways, it’s a better game now than it was at launch. The new maps add a lot, and Marked for Death is a great addition that puts all of Titanfall’s unique features to good use.
The problem that Titanfall has, after a year, is not so much a problem with the game as it is a problem with the way multiplayer shooters tend to work nowadays. The auto-matchmaking encourages a community that defaults to the lowest common denominator. The fact that games of CTF and Hardpoint quickly fill up once they get rolling indicates that people are still interested in these game modes. But Titanfall’s somewhat anemic community, coupled with its matchmaking, pushes everyone into Attrition.
That was bad news for other basic game modes, but it seems to have been fatal to a number of Titanfall’s more experimental games. Titanfall's game selection screen becomes a testament to what might have been.
That’s a pity, but take away all that extra stuff and you’re still left with a fantastic multiplayer shooter on some of the best shooter levels around. The heart of Titanfall is still healthy.