It’s always worth remembering where Titanfall developer Respawn Entertainment came from.
The studio was founded by the creators of Call of Duty and staffed by some of the most skilful stalwarts in the first-person shooter genre; from the best entries in Activision’s behemoth franchise all the way back to 2002’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Respawn’s collective has made great cinematic shooters, and this team knows how to reinvent, rethink and reignite the genre. Titanfall 2 expands the multiplayer concept established by the original sci-fi shooter two years ago, adds an incredible single-player campaign and acts as a bold reminder of how brilliant this band of veteran gunslingers really is.
As with the original game, Titanfall 2’s core ideas exist on two parallel playing fields. Firstly, there’s the Pilot, a superhuman soldier capable of hyper athletic wall-running and double-jumping, with split-second reflexes that make for unrivalled marksmanship. They are the masters of any gun, the ultimate commander of any squad, and they treat the battlefield more like a jungle gym than a place of warfare. Obstacles and debris are not safe cover in the eyes of a Pilot. Instead they are opportunities for movement in order to turn impossible odds into a cakewalk.
The majority of your time is in the shoes of these fetishised powerhouses, and their insane sense of speed and agility gives Titanfall 2 a freneticism that isn’t apparent in any other shooter this side of Doom. But each Pilot has a not-so-secret weapon to add to their odds. They are symbiotically partnered with a Titan – a big robotic death machine armed to the teeth with devastating weaponry and unique abilities: shields, teleportation and chest-mounted super lasers make these giant tank-like bipeds a formidable force in any war zone.
Whether you’re on-foot as a Pilot or in the cockpit of a Titan, Titanfall 2 is immensely satisfying, but it’s the interplay between man and machine that makes it such an impeccably crafted shooter. Despite the David v Goliath odds, Pilots can use their speed and agility to take the battle to other Titans. A team of parkour-savvy Pilots armed with special anti-Titan weapons can bring one to its knees with surprising brevity, while a team of Titans is a formidable (brute) force on any battlefield, capable of an incredible level of destruction that far outweighs the fact that a Titan’s shield no longer regenerates in multiplayer mode.
It’s here in its online modes that Titanfall 2 shows off its most substantial improvements, with fabulously designed and visually varied maps, each rife with countless avenues for invention. Every window is an opportunity for a flanking kill, perfectly placed for a swift double jump straight in; every corridor is a potential face-off; and every open space is a playground of wall-running and cover-hopping while the Titans come rocketing down from the heavens to aid their human companions.
It’s this trio of verticality, the way that Respawn makes feats of wonder so easy to attain, and the seamless transition between Pilot and Titan that make Titanfall 2 feel so exciting. Its breakneck pace means multiplayer games are short, bite-size adrenaline rushes full of excitement and ever-turning tides. In a game of Attrition (basically Team Deathmatch) there’s always the tug between two teams as each vies for a victory, while this simple struggle is made far more nuanced in a game of Bounty Hunt, a new mode that has each team killing for cash, with temporary opportunities to bank all the money you’ve earned. Any time you get killed your unbanked cash total halves, so it’s a game of increasing tension as the clock ticks down to zero.
With eight multiplayer modes and a handful of great maps, Respawn expands upon the relative barebones of the original game. It also adds customisation options to your Pilot and Titan – a bigger list of abilities, new types of grenades, better perks and a larger roster of different weapons, each with their own individual customisable attachments. An entirely new lineup of Titans makes the game far broader, too, and there’s a greater sense of ownership to your metal pet thanks to cosmetic paint jobs. Compounded together, this refined progression system and the brilliant tools therein give Titanfall 2 far longer legs than its predecessor, offering out slews of upgrades and rewards that give you a constant urge to try out new things.
In its single-player mode, Titanfall 2 not only fills in the missing half that the original game lacked, demonstrating Respawn’s deft ability to craft a campaign that’s tuned with pitch-perfect precision and brimming with fun ideas. It starts with a short movie lauding the abilities of the Pilots, showing off their immense skills, before launching you into the shoes of junior warrior Jack Cooper. Jack himself is as dull as they come, but it’s the relationship between him and his newly inherited Titan, BT 7274, that gives Titanfall 2’s campaign its surprising sense of heart.
From there, Titanfall 2’s campaign is a rollercoaster of creative invention – at its best it feels like a conveyer belt of Nintendo-esque level design magnificence, so capable of creating excitement around a fundamental mechanic in one minute, and so brave to throw it away entirely in the next, all for the sole purpose of introducing more ideas immediately afterward. Titanfall 2 quickly establishes a wonderful conflict between vulnerability and empowerment that feels utterly engrossing. And then it’ll throw in a time travel mechanic where you can play with two completely different timelines, or a section where an entire construction facility is shifting around you, as you do your best to navigate your way through it without getting crushed by a moving wall. It’s also a genius move to allow you to change your Titan load-out on the fly in the campaign, letting you experiment with each setup before you head online.
The basics of running and gunning remain a satisfying constant with which to leapfrog on to these interesting concepts, and while it’s a shame that its storytelling efforts never reach the supreme heights of its mechanical underpinning (it assumes a lot of knowledge, features some really hammy antagonists and delves into the lore of a world that’s rife with colour but not much substance), the game’s narrative troubles melt away the moment you concentrate on playing.
That’s perhaps where Titanfall 2 is most successful. While its contemporaries focus on new ways with which to shock and excite on screen, Respawn makes the simple act of playing feel superlative. Its multiplayer is bigger and better, with the necessary depth and momentum to take it beyond these first few months after release, while its short but exciting single-player mode has the craft of some of the best campaigns of the last decade. Titanfall 2 was never going to be the revelatory wonder that its predecessor was, but it never needed to be. It just needed to be Titanfall, only more so, with the same invigorating pace that few shooters offer with such craft.
We thoroughly tested this game on public servers before completing our review.
This article was written by Sam White, for theguardian.com on Monday 31st October 2016 13.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010