These days, it's rare to find a first-person shooter that feels different - from Call of Duty to Battlefield to Halo to Gears of War, there are no shortage of "dude shooters" competing for your time and attention. Often, the single-player campaigns and multiplayer modes feel like gaming's meat and potatoes: toss in some shooting, sprinkle a bit of movement, add a hint of military lingo, mix in some light progression and customizable classes, and substitute maps and settings. It's a recipe that a lot of gamers have an appetite for.
Titanfall 2's best ideas come from other games, and yet, it surprised me how well these standard shooter ingredients meshed together. An improvement on its predecessor in every way, it is a breath of fresh air in a popular genre sorely needing one. The jury is still out on whether the multiplayer community will stick around to play it, but smartly, the developers have done a much better job this time around making the controls fluid, the action balanced, and the game really fun.
Titanfall 2 (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, PC)
Developer: Respawn Entertainment
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Released: October 28, 2016
Played: Completed campaign in 8 hours, Played multiplayer for 5 hours
Titanfall 2 was reviewed using a final retail copy purchased by the reviewer.
As in the original Titanfall, you play as a human pilot that can call down a large, AI-driven robotic mech called a Titan, which you can then control in combat. Man becomes machine as you tear through enemy soldiers and opposing Titans. Should you choose not to get inside your Titan, the AI will take over, creating an effective sentry for would-be foes.
From transitioning from pilot to the Titan, from long-range to short-range, from standing still to wall running, the movement and variety in Titanfall 2 feels fluid and seamless. The double jumping and speed that pilots maneuver in feels like a souped-up version of Mirror's Edge controls. That's better than any other twitch-based, fast-moving Call of Duty that has tried this movement scheme. Alongside it, every gun in Titanfall 2 feels like it has the appropriate amount of weight and stopping power. In most games of this genre, I feel like I gravitate towards certain guns (specifically, assault rifles and revolvers), but the options here all feel viable. Yeah, you won't remember the names of all the futuristic weapons, but they're all satisfying to use. Notably, the options for Titan loadouts also feel right. From the rocket-launching Tonne to the aerial sniper Northstar (my personal favorite), you can't go wrong. The traversal and gunplay aspects are worth the price of admission alone.
Other changes from the first Titanfall may be a little more controversial, though I felt like they were all in service of making gameplay better. In multiplayer, Titans don't have an overshield anymore, making them more vulnerable. The timer that filled the Titan meter also has disappeared, which may keep less-skilled players out of Titans. I'm not some e-sport level skill player, and didn't find an issue getting into a Titan or staying in one once I did. In exchange, it is now possible to heal your Titan or other friendly Titans by finding batteries on the map, or by stealing one from enemy Titans. This also has the effect of making the defensive powers of each Titan much more important, including reflective shields and phase dashing. On top of it, the core abilities of the different Titans generate quickly to compensate, governed by a super meter that builds as you fight in the Titan.
The usual smattering of multiplayer modes is available in Titanfall 2, though there's no co-op focused horde-style versus mode against AI, something which was in the original Titanfall. The multiplayer maps are appropriately-sized and varied, but they feel relatively empty compared to the previous game. Some modes do have AI enemies to hunt for points, but they only spawn at certain times. Should the multiplayer base vanish (and it is easy to see how it might, with this game's release sandwiched between Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare), there is no alternative but the single-player campaign. Smartly, Respawn Entertainment added in-game networks that let you group up with similarly-minded players. In practice, this feels like functionality that's somewhat between a hardcore gaming clan and a casual party. It's easy to group up and the time between matches is short. There's also a rudimentary multiplayer progression system, which does the job of actually making the multiplayer feel like its building towards something, though none of the upgrades feel essential.
The single-player campaign is a brief affair, roughly too short for how good the action is. Each level feels polished and varied, with portions that have you running and shooting against seemingly impossible odds. Weirdly, there are elements and one-off level mechanics that borrow from games like Singularity and Portal, with a final level that feels a bit like any Halo game's last level. The story is forgettable, though it does an admirable job of humanizing the protagonist's Titan, BT-7274. The best parts are when you pilot BT during a few boss fights against enemy Titans; they really challenge your ability to execute the appropriate tactics. This is a game where the main bad guys are called the Apex Predators and the protagonist's name is Jack Cooper, so its tone is no more or no less serious than a decent action movie. It's also very beatable on the Master difficulty, but challenging enough.
Your mileage with Titanfall 2 will vary depending on how long the multiplayer base stays active. For what it's worth, Respawn has done a great job of splitting the difference between the faster-paced style of modern shooters and the more deliberate, bolt-action feel of others. However, the game's publisher EA expects Titanfall 2 sales to be "substantially disappointing." If this bears out, it would be a shame. I've long wanted a game that has the drop-in, drop-out quality of Quake II, the movement of Tribes, and mech combat that's better than Armored Core games. Titanfall 2 isn't a revolutionary first-person shooter in any sense, but what it does offer is an evolutionary take on much-tread ground, and stands out among its rivals.