Respawn Entertainment delivers one of the wildest FPS campaigns of the past 10 years.
It's been a long time since this team has tackled a single player campaign, though many talented members of Respawn Entertainment have a long history with the cinematic FPS. In addition to the original, multiplayer-only Titanfall, this is the team that gave birth to the Call of Duty franchise under the name Infinity Ward, and shook up the industry once again with the first two Modern Warfare titles. Prior to all that, this is some of the same people that released 1999's Medal of Honor, the game that launched a thousand military shooters.
As influential as their work has been, it's natural to be a bit skeptical of Titanfall 2's campaign. After all, it's been 7 years since the team's last single player work on Modern Warfare 2, and as phenomenal as they are they've also inspired some of the worst trends in the modern FPS. Enjoyable as they can be, most modern FPS campaigns are shallow and largely soulless affairs, made up of bombastic on-rails sequences and the most basic shooting galleries imaginable.
Not Titanfall 2. Against all the odds, Respawn's first single player campaign as a company is a work of broad and varied genius that instantly calls to mind the richly imagined oeuvre of Valve heavyweights like Portal and the seminal Half-Life 2.
The basic concept of the game is generic at best: a sci-fi future imagined as a ragtag group of rebels fighting against a horrible and totalitarian corporate entity hell-bent on destroying everything in their path in the name of a profit. This provides the basic framework for the franchise's future ninjas and giant mecha conflict, but it is firmly not what Titanfall 2 is about. Instead, TF2 is that most classic of stories: that of a boy and his dog.
Or rather, a boy and his 40-ton, shockingly sarcastic bipedal robot.
My 40-Ton Chassis
The heart and soul of Titanfall 2 is the relationship between the player character, Jack Cooper, and BT, his freshly linked Titan. After a mission goes horribly awry, Jack is field promoted from average rifleman to pilot, which means he and BT must work together to survive a hostile alien environment and rendezvous with a commanding officer.
BT is one of the core pillars of the game: his animation and AI are impeccable, a constant and appreciated presence in the game the same way that Elizabeth is in Bioshock Infinite. It's the writing and acting that really sell BT, though. He is an instantly charming character, warm, protective, and possessed of a dry ironic wit that is the source of endless laughs throughout the story's length.
Similar to this year's earlier Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, TF2 is a linear ride that nonetheless gives you dialogue choices that alter the flavor of certain scenes. Unlike their sparing use in Naughty Dog's effort, Respawn is bold enough to make them a constant tool in building up the bond between player and Titan. The choice to express concern over BT or laugh things off, to ask for more information about the world or BT himself, can lead to some surprisingly different moments and can even reveal a lot about the player themselves as they grow more attached to their behemoth buddy.
The relationship between Jack and BT leans on a lot of buddy cop movie tropes, but it is pulled off flawlessly, and although certain story beats can feel a little expected or even exploitative the emotions that they produce are as real as it gets. BT is my favorite new character of 2016 so far, easily, and I got hugely emotionally invested in his fate. After finishing the campaign once I can't wait to dive back in and spend more time with him.
Always In Motion
Those possessed of any familiarity with the original Titanfall know just how satisfying its core mechanics can be. There's a reason why every single Call of Duty title since its release has endeavored to emulate its unique blend of fast paced wall-running and double jumping. Respawn has smartly approached the single player's level design by creating environments that allow the player to make full use of the game's unique suite of movement options.
TF2 is one of those rare games where the barrier between a player's thoughts and their avatar's actions is almost non-existent. Acrobatically laying waste to the opposition is a satisfying challenge with a higher learning curve than most games of this type, but mastering the combat's unique flow provides the same sense of satisfaction that action games like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta can.
Outside of the core shooting, Respawn has delivered some ingeniously designed platforming playgrounds, requiring precisely timed combinations of wall running and jumping in some genuinely surprising and complex environments. It also has an extreme amount of fun playing with shifting perspectives and moving parts, at times resembling a first-person Super Mario Galaxy. The level design and traversal puzzles really are top notch: it's no stretch to say that Titanfall 2 is one of the most enjoyable platformers in years, despite not being advertised as such.
Drop A Titan On It
Ever since playing Xenogears in my childhood, I've had a fascination with giant fighting robots. And why not, they're completely awesome! Titanfall 2 scratches the itch to pilot a giant, hulking mech better than nearly any other game I've played, essentially being a more crunchy and accessible take on MechWarrior or Armored Core. Taking control of BT is an empowering experience, but more deliberately paced than the insanely fast movements of pilot gameplay. BT is lumbering yet fluid, every movement selling his extreme weight while still ensuring that the player feels in control of this monolithic machine.
Whereas the on-the-ground gameplay limits the player to carrying two weapons at a time, the Titan gameplay gives players an increasing variety of loadouts to play with as the story unfolds. This empowers you to change them at any time, adding a welcome dose of strategy to titan combat and encouraging experimentation against different enemy types and bosses.
On that topic, modern FPS titles rarely rely on the old design trope of boss battles, but these are some of the more enjoyable in recent years. Each boss is distinct and challenging enough to be interesting, and their mocking presence throughout their specific "level" makes the beatdown you eventually give them all the more gratifying.
The Spice of Life
Titanfall 2's greatest strength is the restlessness inherent in its design, an uncompromising unwillingness to beat any one drum for too long. The game is constantly reinventing itself, both tonally and in terms of unique level designs.
In addition to alternating between pilot combat, titan combat, and unexpectedly intricate platforming, TF2 even has fully fleshed out one-off mechanics, a few of which are interesting enough to power another full game. Here though, they are just one brilliant idea out of the many that Respawn has managed to stuff into this game's lean runtime.
Not All Sunshine
No game is perfect, and Titanfall 2 certainly has its share of problems. First off is the brief length: the campaign is short, about 4-6 hours depending on the skill and thoroughness of the player. It's a very full campaign, and the value of the game is obviously bolstered by its multiplayer component (which we will have more on in a separate review), but one can't help but wonder what else could have been done had certain one-off sections and concepts had even more room to grow and evolve.
The relationship between the player character and BT is remarkable, but the actual plot surrounding it is a flimsy excuse to propel the player from one encounter to the next. The core "mystery" of what's going on on the planet Typhon has the potential to be interesting, but is quickly rushed through in favor of ramping up the action. Outside of BT, characters are thinly drawn caricatures. They can be entertaining and they are well acted, but you don't get to know anyone at all except for your titanic companion.
Even protagonist Jack Cooper is about as vanilla as they come, somewhat awkwardly straddling the line between silent protagonist and a character with real agency and history. He could be interesting, but mostly he's just there to be an avatar for the player to embody as they joke around with BT.
Again, one can't help but wonder if the core plot and the characters surrounding the player and BT might have had time to gain greater depth if the plot had been given a bit more time to breathe with an extended runtime. As it is, we are left with a thrilling ride and an affecting emotional arc, but not much else of substance to chew on.
Even with some minor faults, Titanfall 2 joins the likes of Wolfenstein: The New Order and this year's DOOM reboot as a standard bearer for the best of modern FPS design. It's creative and vivacious, a bold statement from a team that helped define the form. With heart, humor, and endless surprises, Titanfall 2 deserves to be played by as many people as possible and discussed for years to come.