Review: Titanfall

This review is based on the Xbox One version of Titanfall.

One of the challenges with reviewing games in the modern era is the rate in which they can change and/or evolve after launch: developers and publishers are becoming increasingly receptive to quick, iterative updates to their games. In place of a fully defined experience that remains static outside of bug fixes after release, games are increasingly being released as platforms upon which components are added, updated and in some cases even removed as it continually changes based on player feedback and economic models. Respawn Entertainment has embarked on this challenge as the flagship Xbox One game since the console’s launch with a relatively small team and an impeccable pedigree as essentially the former core behind the original incarnation of Infinity Ward, creating a resultant game that feels highly energetic and addictively fun.

Titanfall straddles that line by being a standalone released game that has unprecedented server based functionality for a first person shooter, which it utilizes in some very interesting ways. On top of the server stability, anti-cheating functionality and astonishing low latency (I’ve hit ping times as low as 14ms), the game’s Microsoft Azure/Xbox Live Compute platform offloads a lot of hosting and level status management tasks from a local gamer console and eliminates any host advantage which has traditionally been a major console shooter problem. The cloud hosting also handles processing for the wide array of AI controlled units and defensive emplacements which populate the battlefield, startlingly realistic combatants (aside from their very limited combat ability) as they issue orders, attack strategic points, cry out in pain when struck and otherwise react as if each level is a living, breathing world that they each play a small part in.

What binds this all together are the large combat units known as Titans, available in varying degrees of durability and agility to enable your preferred style. The Atlas provides a balanced platform with a destructive Damage Core ability, the agile Stryder moves with blinding speed that can be amplified with a Dash Core for a brief period of unlimited dashing and the lumbering Ogre can absorb tremendous damage while tanking as a durable stalwart with the help of an amplified Shield Core. The multiple Titan slots allows you to pick the model most suited to your current match, and the composition of your team’s Titan forces play a pivotal role in shaping your tactical options between each map and mode. Respawn has added focused points of vulnerability on each Titan from attack points highlighted in red on Titan HUDS and the ability to rodeo mount each unit as a pilot, rewarding accurate aim and mobility in accelerating the take down of what could have been a nearly insurmountable advantage if the mobile combat units were immune to such counter measures.

This is also one of the situations where the unique Burn Card single-use power up system has been a key selling point of Titanfall, and they can dramatically swing a match with a key ability deployment at the right time: drawing an Amplified Sidewinder or other super powered anti-Titan weapon can chew through an opposing combat suit in seconds. The deep catalog of cards also include game changing options from an instant Titan deployment and unlimited stimulant powered movement to fun twists such as automatically recruiting opposing AI to fight for you and unlimited explosive ordinance. Each card can render your pilot an amplified force on the battlefield until it expires  upon your next death, a risk and reward system that feels very fair: for every burned card where I steamrolled the other team, I experienced the reverse by using and then almost instantly losing a card by being blown away mere seconds after usage. There’s something special about hopping on with your friends, coordinating a group of instant Titan spawns to start a match and then roaring through a shocked opposing force with an unexpected starting advantage: Titanfall is often an ebb and flow of controlled chaos, and it definitely works.

As each Titanfall charges and Burn Card is used or queued up, the “normal” pilot experience is a whirlwind unto its own. Every combatant can double jump with the aid of a back mounted jet pack, and traverse the myriad of landscapes with an amplified form of parkour that allows everyone to chain wall runs and almost Metroid-esque wall bounces to move around at incredible speed. Paired with an automatic ability to grasp and pull your pilot up automatically on nearby ledges when jumping as well as a knife stab into a wall surface to hang around, each pilot can run and jump into almost every crevice and onto almost any surface to find interesting offensive and defensive angles. For any BattleTech fans, this feels like the closest experience to fighting in an Elemental suit…! The Titanfall soldier experience is so consistently fast (the option to automatically sprint adds to this), mobile and constantly changing that going back to other first person shooter games feels really sluggish and limited in comparison: the success of this revamped movement model may be felt in other games within the genre for years to come.

I am deliberately reviewing the game a lot later than other publications to get a more complete experience to consider, which now includes the paid Expedition expansion with 3 additional maps and the free Title Update 4 which has streamlined the menu interface and added Titan Burn Cards into the catalogue of unlockable items. Runoff, Swampland and War Games are extremes in horizontal tunnels, vertical mounted high points and parkour playgrounds respectively that emphasize those movement styles, while the Titan oriented cards add a much needed balance to level out the previous ability of amplified anti-Titan pilots to focus fire down the mobile combat units in mere seconds. The ping times have moved up a bit to about 40ms on average on my end, but the slight reductions in frame rate jumps and rebalanced lobby balancing between matches have improved the overall long term experience.

In the modern era of ongoing evolution and rapid upgrades to video games, reviewing any game with a developer committed to that continual progression model is a difficult proposition. Titanfall alleviates this quandary by launching with an addictive experience that overcomes the challenges of an online only shooter by providing consistently excellent performance, a highly focused experience and continual (as well as mostly free) content pushes to keep players invested in the game. Microsoft needed a showpiece for both the Xbox One console and their adaptive cloud Xbox Live Compute platform as a service: on both fronts, Respawn Entertainment has delivered on the promise shown at its E3 2013 debut as well as the various alpha demonstrations at game shows such as PAX Prime 2013: even after hundreds of matches, I still feel a surge of adrenaline when hopping into a Titan as the hatch closes and the user interface activates in front of me. Titanfall is a furious and blindingly fast combat experience, which firmly takes its place as a new tentpole shooter in an extremely competitive genre.

 

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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