Titanfall crept up on me.
I don’t exactly know how. It’s a game full of deafening explosions, the thudding impact of robots being fired into the ground from space, and nonstop machine gun fire. It’s hardly stealthy.
But it is subtle, despite its conventional appearance. My own initial reaction was somewhere between disappointed and quizzical, as that long-expected rush of excitement and novelty never quite materialized. But as I kept playing and got acclimated to some of Titanfall’s unique characteristics, something odd happened. Titanfall became a game that I never stop playing.
Trying to fall asleep, I find myself reliving rounds and firefights from earlier in the night, thinking about what I could have done differently, or just done better. Cooking a meal, my mind wanders to map layouts, and better ways to take advantage of them. Even now, in the back of my mind, I’m debating tweaking my Titan loadouts so that I can better survive in tight spaces.
The joy of Titanfall is this cycle of play, analysis, experimentation, and improvement. It’s difficult to explain why, exactly, Titanfall succeeds where I find so many other games are discouraging and frustrating. Nevertheless, this shooter has its hooks in me more than any other since Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm and is probably the first mainstream shooter to really grab me since Bad Company 2.
Part of the answer surely lies with its brisk pacing: most rounds are just long enough to let me get warmed up and acclimated to the matchup without dragging out lopsided defeats or breaking the tension of a close game. Titanfall, like Counter-Strike, is the kind of game where one round only makes me more eager for the next one. When I’m terrible, I only have to wait a few minutes before I get another chance, and when I’m king, I’m like a gambler on a hot streak who can’t walk away from the tables.
The other reason that Titanfall exercises such a hold over me is the way Titanfall encourages and rewards experimentation and versatility. Rather than going stale, Titanfall gets richer as I play more of it. It can be a twitch shooter, where I zip along rooftops and walls and before plunging two stories through a skylight, spraying automatic shotgun fire in every direction. Other times, it’s a tense tactical shooter. Still other times, it’s a stealth game, in which you can use x-ray vision or cloaking to stalk your victims like the Predator.
Each style has its place in Titanfall, and I see other players being even more creative in their play. Better yet, each map and game mode seems to have different ways of rewarding (and countering) players’ chosen strategies. The variety I’ve seen is practically endless.
Even something as mundane as unlocks proves to be more interesting in Titanfall. Rather than just gating players’ progress to better weapons and special abilities, Titanfall simply expands players’ options. I had a breakthrough moment the other night when I was studying my stats and realized that, despite the fact that I preferred the feel of the semi-automatic rifle, I was a much better player with the basic carbine. It suited my style much more than the harder-hitting rifle, and let me get back to a more opportunistic, dynamic game than I’d been playing. Nothing in Titanfall is just a stepping-stone to something better, instead, everything is situational and personal, from the primary weapons all the way down to the gunsights and burn cards.
The audio deserves special mention here, because it goes beyond creating vivid, noisy firefights and has actually become a major gameplay element. Titanfall is pretty much an advertisement for a good pair of headphones or a surround speaker setup, because sound effects are so distinctive and so convincingly located in a 3D space that listening is as helpful and important as watching rooftops and windows. More than once, I’ve heard a faint footfall in the background of a firefight and spotted someone sneaking up for a kill, and once I was able to track an enemy through a wall and around a corner thanks to the sound of her feet splashing in a few inches of water.
That level of immersion and focus is sustained by Titanfall’s stability and relative lack of hassle. Matchmaking is very fast and reliable, and I’ve never run into problems with instability. I’ve known a few other players who sometimes struggle to connect to the server, and more aggressive anti-virus software may cause some problems, but in my experience Titanfall has been problem-free.
The only caveat is that matchmaking can be a little uneven, especially if you are playing with a full team of six players. My team of casual gaming friends was routinely running into clans who just buzz-sawed through us, and we either had to leave or wait until their group started to break up and randoms were matched into our lobby.
Not every game mode is a winner. Pilot Hunt is simply Attrition, except that only pilot kills count toward victory. This eliminates what more skilled players might consider “trash” wins, where lower-skilled players can simply farm the AI cannon fodder for points, but it also means that the AI characters really do just become a meaningless distraction, rather than the more interesting role they play in Attrition. It really feels like what Titanfall needs for this mode is slightly smaller maps and no AI characters getting in the way of what could be a really dynamic run-and-gun deathmatch. Likewise, Last Titan Standing feels like a training ground for Titan combat, but not a fully-developed game mode in itself.
I’m also a bit crushed by what a missed opportunity the campaign proves to be. I didn’t have Tim’s issues with imbalance between the sides, but it is just a silly waste of time that you have no choice but to grind your way through.
But what really got to me is that, throughout the campaign, you see all kinds of crazy, amazing things happening in background. On the airbase assault mission, as the Militia bring down its defenses, you can see giant, terrifying dinosaurs start to overrun the perimeter and start ripping up the IMC installation. In another mission, the IMC lose a capital ship in orbit as the Militia hijack ground weapons to shoot it out of the sky. On Boneyard, flying bat creatures are plucking infantry off the ground and turning them into lunch.
Meanwhile, I am playing 6-on-6 deathmatch in a drab gray-brown level where I shoot at bog-standard military dudes with bog-standard weapons.
That’s not a problem in the multiplayer matches. The action is too good to care about the palette and the theme. But the campaign could have helped establish a world and, maybe, some reason to give a damn about why voice actors are trying to talk over your game.
And that’s maybe Titanfall’s biggest, and most forgivable flaw: it looks less interesting and novel than it actually is. It’s such a fresh take on the military shooter, splitting the difference between the more deliberate pace of games like Battlefield and Call of Duty and the kinetic excitement of games like Tribes or even Counter-Strike. It just takes a while to see that, because Titanfall’s presentation is so conservative.